The reburial of ancient aboriginal remains at South Slocan this year has led a prominent local Sinixt woman to resign her position and cut ties with a longtime associate.
Marilyn James is unhappy with how the reburial unfolded and has stepped down as a spokeswoman for local members of the First Nation.
In a written statement this week, James had harsh words for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Colville Confederated Tribes, and a local Sinixt man whom she accused of “collusion” and trying to prevent her and others from participating in the reburial ceremony.
In February, a hiker discovered a woman’s bones at the edge of Slocan Pool, where a Sinixt pithouse village is known to have existed. The bones were reinterred in September at a ceremony attended by about 30 people from Canada and the US.
James was present, although she said she was told it would occur on a different day, which she believes was a deliberate attempt to exclude her.
Her statement said the reburial “caused a definite split between those who choose to diminish the Sinixt’s stand for existence and autonomy and those who will continue the long path from extinction.”
Although she has renounced her position, James said in an interview she would “continue to fight for Sinixt’s people’s rights to existence. I’m the only one fighting for it right now.”
Taken by surprise
James, 62, was born in Nespelem, Wash. but has lived for many years in the Slocan Valley. She said she was appointed a Sinixt spokeswoman in 1990 by a council of elders after human remains were discovered during road construction at Vallican.
Since then, a permanent Sinixt presence has been re-established in the area and 64 sets of remains have been repatriated from various locations and institutions and reburied at Vallican. Robert Watt was named caretaker of the site.
James has also led a movement for official recognition of the Sinixt — also known as the Arrow Lakes Indians — whom the federal government declared extinct in Canada in 1956.
In June she was sentenced to 14 days house arrest for criminal contempt after blocking a logging road into Perry Ridge, on what she considers sacred and archaeologically sensitive ground.
Today most Sinixt live on the Colville reservation in Washington state and belong to the Colville Confederated Tribes. Virgil Seymour, the Arrow Lakes facilitator with the Tribes, said James’ blistering statement caught him off guard.
“It took me totally by surprise,” he said. “But I’m not sure what her position was as far as the bulk of the people. They’re still behind the tribe.”
Seymour said elders who attended the ceremony discussed whether the bones should be buried at Vallican, but opted to return them to as close to their original location as possible, believing they belonged to someone who lived at the Slocan Pool village and likely had relatives nearby.
He said he was puzzled that James criticized Watt, whom he felt had been “very helpful.”
“We’re in a great debt to Robert. He was doing what he felt was right,” Seymour said, noting that Watt also hosted him and others at Vallican.
Seymour denied James’ charge that the Colville Confederated Tribes have no interest in the area other than “resource extraction and money.”
“That’s not what I’m up there for. I’m there to get recognition from the government. We’d like to get some consultation rights so when this happens again, someone will call us.”
The property where the bones were discovered and reburied has been owned since 1998 by Columbia Power Corporation, a joint venture partner with the Columbia Basin Trust, and maintained as a conservation site.
“I was very impressed with how we were treated by Columbia Power and want to thank them publicly,” Seymour said.
The company’s Audrey Repin said upon learning about the bones, they followed steps outlined by the Provincial Archaeology Branch around respectful handling and disposition.
The branch consulted several recognized First Nations, including the Ktunaxa, Shuswap, and member bands of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. At Columbia Power’s request, they also notified the local Sinixt, as an interested party. The company paid to accommodate those at the reburial ceremony who needed it.
Nelson author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, who has written extensively about the Sinixt, said the company did everything right.
“Columbia Power Corporation demonstrated great sensitivity to the indigenous history of the region and proceeded with respect and caution in honouring the wishes of some of the descendants of those exposed remains,” she said.
The night before the reburial, the group gathered to decide on an exact location and bless the site. The following morning, the bones were presented in a box wrapped in a blanket, then wrapped in buckskin surrounded by fir boughs and buried facing east, in accordance with tradition. The grave was disguised to discourage souvenir hunters.
Among those present were Madeline Gregoire and Wendy Hawkes, both direct descendants of Sinixt chiefs, who brought the bones back from Burnaby, where the archaeological branch held them.
While a Ktunaxa representative attended along with members of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Arrow Lakes representatives from the Colville Confederated Tribe took the lead on the reburial.
On Monday the Alliance acknowledged a request for comment on James’ statement but has said nothing further since.