For more than a century, Revelstoke’s First Nations history was largely ignored. It’s too snowy here and First Nations people didn’t spend time here, it was often said. As has become increasingly evident, that wasn’t the case. Their history is the subject of a new exhibit at the Revelstoke Museum & Archives that opened on June 21 on National Aboriginal Day.
“When I first started working here and talked about First Nations, I was told they weren’t really here,” said Cathy English, the museum’s curator. “That’s not really true. We’re trying to right that wrong and tell the story as it should be told.”
The Sinixt, who were know as the Lakes People by early white explorers, lived up and down the Columbia River, from Kettle Falls in Washington State to Revelstoke, and along Kootenay Lake and Slocan Lake. They had permanent settlements where they would live during the winter, and would spend the summer months hunting and fishing throughout the region, travellin on their distinct sturgeon-nosed canoes.
“The use of the Columbia River and its tributaries and the Arrow Lakes is really what defines them as a nation,” said English.
In Revelstoke, they would camp in the Big Eddy in the summer months, living off the abundance of fish, wild game and more, said English. “There is evidence to suggest there was a permanent winter village in the Big Eddy area,” she said.
There were several thousand Sinixt living in the region before Europeans came, however their numbers were decimated by disease before the first white explorers even arrived. David Thompson, the first European to map the Columbia River, only encountered a few hundred Sinixt when he explored the area.
When European settlers came to the area in the 1880s, the Sinixt population was decimated — first by disease, then by conflict, then by national borders that made it much more difficult for them to cross from their winter home in northern Washington State into Canada. Many moved to the Colville Reservation in the U.S., and they were declared legally extinct by the Canadian government in 1956.
“They were here long before there were any boundaries. Their concern was the river, not any artificial boundaries,” said English.
When Revelstoke was settled in the 1880s, the relationship between Europeans and First Nations was marred by conflict. It’s best exemplified by the story of Cultus Jim, a Sinixt man who was killed by the settler Sam Hill after a land conflict in 1894. Hill was homesteading on land near Galena Bay, while Cultus Jim had animal traps laid out in the area. The dispute escalated into threats and ended when Hill shot and killed Cultus Jim. Hill was found not guilty by reason of self-defence and the local newspaper used the incident as a way to call for a crackdown on First Nations, calling them savages and the white people civilizing.
“The local settlers didn’t recognize their rights at all,” said English. “They didn’t recognize this was their territory and it created quite a bit of conflict.”
The museum exhibit features a history of the Sinixt, as well as images and examples of their language, which is closely related to other Salish languages. It was put together with help from the Colville Tribe and Virgil Seymour, who passed away several weeks ago.
The exhibit is tied into other efforts aimed at further recognizing the First Nations history of the Revelstoke area. A group recently started the Aboriginal Friendship Society of Revelstoke, which aims to put together events and workshops that celebrate the history and culture of local First Nations.