Keeping The Lakes Way

From the headwaters of the Columbia River north of Nakusp, to Kaslo in the West, Revelstoke in the East, and down into what is now known as Washington State, the Sinixt people lived in harmony with this land. They had extensive trade routes known as grease trails, traveled by foot and with sturgeon- nosed canoes, lived in pit houses, hunted caribou, fished and gathered wild plants and medicines.
The Sinixt speak an interior Salish language. They speak many words common to the Okanagan, the Shushwap and the Spokane peoples. Although they sometimes had battle with the Kootenai Indians to the east and other tribes, the Sinixt are not a warrior people. They were considered the Mother Tribe of this region, and acted as a kind of court that was called upon to settle disputes between tribes. Photo ©2002 Roland Derksen of SILVERKING STUDIOS

Today we can enjoy this beautiful region in spite of our highways, dumps, clear cuts and dams that clutter the landscape. The Sinixt, on the other hand, have left little evidence of their passing.


Sinixt descendants believe that their ancestors were victim to deliberate smallpox infestations. Such epidemics were common throughout the Americas in the first few centuries of European migration, a time described as the Great Dying. As they were the Mother Tribe, it is speculated that the government and economic powers of the time targeted the Sinixt in order to diminish resistance from other tribal groups.

Whatever the reason, the Sinixt found themselves dying in great numbers, scared and exhausted. Many of the survivors fled to the southern portion of their territory. They sought the solace of the Coville Indian Reservation in Washington State, were they didn't have to worry about bullets and miners. These people were unwillingly assimilated by the U.S. Government into the Colville Confederated Tribe.


British Columbia entered the Confederation of Canada in 1871, but was the only province that was ever allowed to do so without any formal treaties. The Indian Act was established at this time, and it forced many undesirable laws and conditions upon native groups across Canada.

Photo ©2002 Roland Derksen of SILVERKING STUDIOS The Department of Indian Affairs recognized only a handful of Sinixt descendants. In 1956 the Department wrote its last cheque to an individual who was legally recognized as Sinixt. When she died, the government declared the Sinixt extinct and closed the book on a Nation that had endured for many thousands of years.


In 1987 the Ministry of Highways began construction of a new road at Vallican in the Slocan Valley. Construction was halted when many artifacts, skeletal remains and pit-house depressions were uncovered. The ancient village and burial grounds were studied, but no attempt was made to contact any Sinixt descendants.

We have a cultural law that says you must, when you are done with this body, go back to the earth. When people go and dig up our ancestors and put them on shelves, in boxes, in macrame wall-hangings, or use them for other types of decoration, it makes my ancestors break their cultural law. They can't go back. And it is our responibility, because we are the descendants of those people. They are our ancestors. It is our responsibility to bring our ancestors home and rebury them and protect their resting places."

Marilyn James
Appointed Sinixt Spokesperson

The remains were sent to museums and the government proposed establishing an information and picnic area at the site. When Sinixt elder Eva Orr learned of these events, she sent some of her people to investigate.


Many residents of this area first learned of the presence of Sinixt descendants in 1989 when a blockade was established to halt further development of the Vallican road. Despite a series of set-backs, the Sinixt have managed to repatriate and rebury 58 complete and fractured skeletal remains of their ancestors at the Vallican Site.

Robert Watt was selected by the elders as caretaker of the ancient village and burial grounds. "Take care of your ancestors, and your ancestors will take care of you," he says. The Sinixt presence in Vallican is now the longest peaceful occupation of Crown Land in Canadian History. For the Sinixt, the repatriation of the ancestral remains continues to be a priority.


Photo ©2002 Roland Derksen of SILVERKING STUDIOS A visitor to the Columbia Basin will be unlikely to see any indication that there was ever a native culture that thrived for so long in this region. Most of the Sinixt traditional villages and burial grounds were flooded with the damming of the Arrow Lakes. We know of only one monument to the Sinixt. In the town of Edgewood, there is a totem pole that was erected in the late 1960's. It was commissioned by B.C. Hydro as a commemorative to an extinct race.

Totem poles were made by Haida natives and never the Sinixt. But beyond this fact is the reality that the Sinixt are not extinct.


Excerpts from Keeping the Lakes' Way: the past, present and future of the Sinixt Peoples, a one hour radio documentary.   download or listen now.

Images on this page contributed by Roland Derksen of Silverking Studios, Nelson.
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