an essay by Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
In the 1930s, archeologist Harlan Smith traveled through the West Kootenay region and observed that the area from the mouth of the Slocan River to Kootenay Lake contained some of the richest archeological grounds in Western Canada. Smith’s comments echo what the landscape already knows: that the region once hosted a thriving indigenous culture.
Multiple pit house villages lined the Columbia River, Arrow Lakes and Slocan River valleys. Seasonal gathering places existed all along the West Arm and upper Kootenay Lake, and a thriving village spread at the base of Kootenay Lake. For the First People of this region, the rivers and lakes, the associated wetlands and surrounding mature forests offered edible roots, shoots, berries, fish, waterfowl and ungulates such as caribou and mountain goat.
As the deep winter snows began to melt away from the floors of the valley, the first shoots of Balsam Root Sunflower, False Solomon’s Seal and Chocolate Tips showed themselves above the soil. The Sinixt (Arrow Lakes Indians) and Yaqan nu-kiy (Lower Kootenay Indian Band) relished these first fresh foods after a winter of dried salmon, berries, hazelnuts, and meat that had been moistened into soups or with the addition of bear grease.
For the traditional first cultures of the landscape, the work of gathering plant foods during the growing season was of central importance: these plant foods provided well over half the nourishment required for survival.
From spring until fall, a woman’s digging stick was always in reach, as she loosened the soil for the “roots” of Glacier Lilies, Tiger Lilies, Camas and other flowering plants. In July, when berries began to ripen, women travelled to favourite patches, some of them managed by controlled burns. Huckleberry, Soopollalie, Thimbleberry, Raspberry, Strawberry and Gooseberry all felt the pull of a woman’s strong fingers as she harvested the fruit and dropped it gently into a small birch bark basket tied around her waist. Gathering and preparing wild plant food was precious work – work that required a steady, warm heart, and a respectful, positive attitude.
Showing gratitude to the plants was essential to insure future supply. Central to the food of the people was the annual abundance of salmon from the ocean that entered the Columbia River at present-day Astoria, Oregon and swam upstream 2,000 kms to spawn as far inland as Columbia Lake. The largest fishery in the region was at Kettle Falls, Washington, the southernmost boundary of Sinixt traditional territory.
Another significant fishery was at the mouth of the Slocan River and included three species of salmon: Chinook, Sockeye and Coho. From June until the end of September, men worked carefully at the edge of roaring falls, or constructed intricate weirs in the cold mountain rivers, to drive the fish toward harvesting harpoons.
Hunting and fishing was the work of the men in the tribe. From a young age, boys lived primarily with their fathers to learn all the skills needed to make tools, fashion weapons, and stalk their prey. Men hunted Caribou in an annual autumn drive of animals into the Arrow Lakes. They stalked Mountain Goats on the high cliffs and snared groundhogs on low ground. In the water beyond reach of the ocean salmon, they fished for Sturgeon, Bull trout and Kokanee, the fresh-water Sockeye Salmon whose local namederives from the Sinixt dialect word for the fish, Kekeni.
There is so much more to tell: of Coyote the Trickster, of the wisdom of Owl, and the beauty of the sturgeon-nosed canoe, shaped from a whole sheet of White Pine bark that had been peeled carefully from a mature tree. Of the pit house villages along the Columbia, Arrow and Slocan Lakes, where the Sinixt families wintered beneath roofs of Lodgepole Pine bark and mats woven from the Cattail grasses. Of the woven basket traps that caught Brook Trout in small streams, of the healing power of Devil’s Club and of the coils of hemp twine, traded for huckleberries or bear grease during the annual harvest of salmon at the falls. Of the roaring snowmelt water that surges and flows and floods as it chooses. The scent of woodsmoke from winter fires wafting along the valley…
…A people’s life and landscape and culture, woven through the seasons.
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