I met a woman who is resurrecting a nation.
She is a matriarch.
And she’s also extinct. At least that is what the Canadian government says.
Marilyn James is a Sinixt woman whose lands were stolen by Canada and the settlers living in the West Kootenays of British Columbia.
She occupies a protest camp in the small settlement of Vallican in the Slocan Valley, and calls it the “longest peaceful occupation of Indigenous lands in Canada.”
Sinixt members are fighting to prove they hold Indigenous land rights in the West Kootenays and adjacent traditional territories.
“What swept through here is what the old gals called 'the great dying,'” explained James on a hot afternoon in late June. She’s sitting on a lawn chair outside a small cabin built on a plot of land near where her ancestors are buried. The “great dying” was the coming of the white man and the violence it brought to the tribal people here.
“Five shipments of smallpox blankets and flu epidemics swept through in the late 1700s and 1800s. Biological warfare,” she explained.
It was epidemics like this and others that contributed to the dwindling down of the Sinixt. James believes it was done purposely, to drive them out.
The Sinixt are a sovereign Salish peoples whose traditional territory extends north of Revelstoke, crosses international boundaries south to Kettle Falls, Wash., to the Monashee Ridge in the west, and in the east all the way from the Rocky Mountain Ridge encompassing the entirety of the headwaters of the "shwan-etk-qwa” (Columbia River).
For thousands of years, her ancestors roamed the vast mountainous area along the waters of this river. They hunted, gathered food and medicines, and traded with bordering tribes. They had intricate matriarchal governing systems. And they thrived.
But then came the colonizers. After that, the Sinixt were pushed further back by the gold rush.
“We were used as live target practice. There are stories about the people who were shot by early miners who came looking for lead for bullets. They asked the Indians, ‘Do you know where this is at?’ (and) showed them the bullets. (Two Sinixt men) took them there (the lead on the mountain) and the miners shot them dead so they couldn’t tell no one else,” said James.
In 1875, the B.C. government passed the Land Act, designed to open land for settlement and increase European immigration. The federal government issued the 1875 Duty of Disallowance, striking down B.C.'s act because of the province’s failure to make treaties legally surrendering Native land. In response, B.C. threatened to withdraw from Canada.
The Indian Act was enacted across Canada in 1876 to assist in the assimilation of Indigenous people. The act forced “Indians” to register themselves into “bands” and to relocate to “reserve land.” The colonial law also forced non-traditional ways of social organization on Indigenous people across the territory. A similar system of apartheid was also used in South Africa by British colonialists.
What came after was more devastation in the form of residential schools, criminalization, enforced poverty and intergenerational effects.
The last legally recognized Sinxt person in Canada was Annie Joseph, who died in the 1950s.
In 1956, the Canadian government officially declared the Sinixt “extinct,” even though many of its members were still alive. The decision left remaining members living in B.C. and in the U.S. without recognition under the Indian Act.
Today, there are just a few hundred Sinixt survivors in Canada and the United States.
The Sinixt are far from extinct.
They’ve been re-occupying a portion of their lands in the small settlement of Vallican in the Slocan Valley for over 30 years.
In 1987, Sinixt artifacts, skeletal remains and pit house depressions were uncovered during provincial construction of a new road in Vallican. According to James, the ancient village and burial grounds were studied, but no attempt was made to contact any Sinixt descendants. The remains were shipped to museums. Later, the provincial government proposed an information and picnic area at the sacred site.
Sinixt elder Eva Orr, who was the last matriarch to be born “free” on the territories in 1910 while her mother was berry picking, organized her relatives to help investigate.
James joined Orr and fellow Sinixt descendants to fight to repatriate 64 of their ancestors' remains that were dug up and hauled off.
Sinixt members and a few supporters set up a blockade in Vallican to protect the burial grounds.
Former Vallican resident Jackie Heywood drove in a caravan to the Royal BC Museum with James to demand the return of the Sinixt remains. She affectionately refers to James as her sister.
Now in her mid-70s, Heywood is a lifelong ally to the Sinixt. She cherishes her relationship to local Indigenous groups, expressing empathy for the destruction her European ancestors brought.“My country (Britain) damaged every continent we stepped foot on,” she confessed during a phone conversation in July. “My experience with Marilyn and the Sinixt has been so powerful. It was almost like an intervention for me — from my own culture, because the way we did things didn’t always work well. What the government is doing, it makes me upset. We need to set the historical record straight. What you’re allowing is, you’re benefiting from genocide.”
By 1989, the Royal BC Museum returned the remains of six of their ancestors. . The fight to get back the remaining 58 took longer.
But James is a fighter. Heywood describes her as “an amazing human being with many faucets to her; fair, and a leader who operates with integrity.”
James grew up a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state, with dual citizenship to Canada. Many Sinixt amalgamated with the Colville tribes when they were pushed out by the settlers, while others joined neighbouring tribes in B.C.
Part of her childhood was spent in Kamloops, B.C., with minimal exposure to her culture, she said, in part due to her mother's unspeakable experiences in residential school.
James has been involved with Indigenous rights since she was a teenager. In the 1970s, she helped with food and medical aid supply chains to Wounded Knee and Alcatraz occupations.
She has short, brown hair peppered with grey, and wears tinted eyeglasses. She is tall, lean and feisty.
“As a person, I claim the place. The Indian Act did a lot of damage to destroy people’s affiliation to their tribal groups. I must be a warrior for this land. I must be a warrior for this water,” she said about her sacred responsibility to be a Sinixt matriarch.
“The first law of Sinixt is the law of the land. Whatever is here — the air, on the ground, in the water — is what defines our responsibility. We uphold that responsibility. The second law literally translates to ‘belongs to the women.’ This is a matriarchal territory.”
To her, this responsibility is a life mission. As a matriarch, she lives by the laws of her ancestors and all the responsibilities and privileges of the landscape.
“Everything belongs to the women; it is because we’re the life givers. If it weren’t for women, there wouldn’t be no human beings. What also belongs to the women? Hunger, orphans, death, grief, elders; that also belongs to the women, so when things aren’t so great, you still own it. It’s still the women’s responsibility to take care of everything.
"But people are raping the land now, and, in the process, raping us again and again. They’re in denial because they can say, well, we’re just extinct and don’t really exist. And you know, how can you rape something that has no acknowledgment?”
Since time immemorial, the Sinixt utilized the Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. The Sinxit call the Columbia "shwan-etk-qwa” (the big river).
There's a traditional story about famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who were tasked with discovering the lands west of the Mississippi River in the 1800s. It was before the borders of the 49th parallel were made and when Sinixt travelled freely along their traditional fishing grounds of the Columbia.
“We personally were known as the salmon chiefs,” said James proudly as she began retelling the story of the “pitiful” explorers.
“Lewis and Clark showed up to the (Sinxit) Indians down on the river and, of course, they fixed them a big feast of salmon and roots. But Lewis and Clark’s troops went out and killed a dog because they didn’t think salmon was fit for human consumption,” chuckled James.
“The elders also talked about Lewis and Clark wintering with them down on the river and how there was severe hunger. Lewis and Clark said, ‘These Indians are so lazy. You could walk across the salmons’ backs on the river, but they won’t get up and feed themselves.’
“What they didn’t realize at the time is no one got to fish the Columbia river system until the fish returned here because this is the headwaters of the spawn and our people wanted them to get all the way up. Then their (Lewis and Clark's) observation was, ‘Oh, and then they just got so busy and they were fishing like crazy people.’ But Lewis and Clark didn’t realize (our people) finally got the OK to go ahead and fish. They knew their own systems. And people upheld their responsibility. We were responsible for the sustainability of that run, and we also knew that everybody below us was hungry.”
The Sinixt traditional language is called "sn-səlxcin" and is referenced by linguists as a Salishan language known as the Colville-Okanagan language.
Shane Giofu, a cultural anthropologist with linguistic training, is researching the Sinixt language to help bring it back to life, and to set it apart as distinct from nearby tribes that share similar dialects.
There are just three fluent Sinixt language speakers that they know of, and two of them are elders. Saving and reviving the language is crucial to the survival of the nation, said Giofu.
“If all of this (research) comes to fruition, with the Sinixt having a language and dialect, it’s extremely important,” he said in a phone interview in mid-August. He’s living on Sinixt traditional territories and mapping out the past using archeological evidence and examining documents related to the so-called extinct tribe.
“In regard to extinction — they’re (Sinixt) clearly here. It was a matter of convenience for the government to do this. So, if the Sinixt have a place of their own again to flourish, the language has a much better chance to stay distinct.”
‘We want autonomous recognition. I want the whole damn territory to know that they’re on unceded land,” declared James, overlooking the Columbia River streaming by on a bank where her ancestors once ate shellfish.
The shelled remnants are still there embedded in the shorelines along many ancient village sites once inhabited by the Sinixt.
“For us to be recognized as who we are, not as an underling of any other tribal group. We were autonomous when we were declared extinct and want to be when we come back — that’s what our desire is.”
The Coville tribes and surrounding nations are trying to “co-op” the Sinixt here, she said. She’s grown weary of lateral violence and wants them to stand with her in her fight for Sinixt rights.
“If you’re not (standing with us), you’re crapping on your ancestors and their experiences with the pain and suffering they did to be here on this land. So, stop it, now. But when you have descendants who only know their identity in one way, through the colonial government, the tribal groups are still identifying with the colonizer, still fighting over the land.”
Indigenous Services Canada says it’s renewing the relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition and implementation of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.
Advancing reconciliation means changing colonial and paternalistic laws, policies and practices, and addressing their impacts on the lives on Indigenous peoples, the department wrote in an email to the National Observer.
“While there has been no formal process requested at this time by any Sinixt people living in Canada to discuss matters related to rights and nationhood with Canada, Indigenous Services Canada stands ready to review this request should the primary interest of the Sinixt people be the recognition of the group as a band under the Indian Act. In order to do so, the group must submit an application that meets the requirements of the department’s new band/band Amalgamation policy.”
Over the years, James has initiated several lawsuits against the Canadian government in hopes of reinstating the Sinixt and retracting the extinction declaration. But high legal costs and other barriers have prevented her and other Sinixt from making any headway.
She wants retribution one day, although she doubts the Sinixt will get anything in comparison to what has already been lost. The Columbia and traditional territories are experiencing increasing pollution from development, she said.
But she’ll stand till her last breath to protect the little haven she has left in Vallican. Her daughter Tressa and her two children visit the territory regularly with James. She wants to instil Sinixt traditions, culture, language and resilience to this generation — and the next.
“I want people to see their responsibility to the places they live. I want them to not only see it, but conduct themselves in a responsible way on the landscape.”
She crouches down to the clear, rushing river clutching an offering of tobacco. After praying in Sinixt for several minutes, James releases the tobacco to the water.
“The Sinxit have nothing, but ultimately, I want people to love this place as much as I love it. Be grateful because this is magnificent and it’s something worth saving, it’s something worth being a warrior for. As a matriarch, this xula?xw belongs to the women, and whoever is here is also part of my responsibility. We don’t just pull everything in for us. Everything is prayer. I’m just the embodiment of the ancestors. It comes to me because I’m Sinixt.”