“They have stolen our lands and everything on them”: A Century’s-Old Assertion of Indigenous Land and Resource Rights in the BC Interior

Indian Village below Shuswap, 1911. Source: Library and Archives Canada

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Scholarly generosity is a wonderful thing. Recently a generous senior scholar referred me to a document I hadn’t yet encountered in my research, but which has proved both relevant to my work and engrossing reading. Titled “Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Premier of the Dominion of Canada,” the document was presented by the “Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Couteau Tribes of British Columbia” to the Prime Minister on August 25, 1910 during Laurier’s campaign tour stop in Kamloops. The document is reproduced on the website of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and is prefaced by a contextual essay introducing the reader to Secwépemc (Shuswap), Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), and Syilx (Okanagan) traditional law regarding land and resource use and explaining events in the region leading up to Laurier’s visit.[1] The document is wonderfully informative and I strongly encourage anyone interested in interior B.C. land issues or Indigenous knowledge to spend some time with it. The memorial contains a lot of rich detail, and several things stood out to me – the importance of hospitality on the land, the appearance of James A. Teit, and the ways in which Indigenous peoples’ pleas about dispossession have been consistently repeated over the last century.

Hospitality on the Land

Indian Village below Shuswap, 1911. Source: Library and Archives Canada
Indian Village below Shuswap, 1911. Source: Library and Archives Canada

The central focus of both the memorial and the contextual information around it is natural resource use. In the introductory section reviewing ancient traditional law, the authors situate shared land use within this Indigenous legal system, writing “[o]ne fundamental principle of our traditional law thus laid out by Sk’elép thousands of years ago is that each nation collectively holds its respective homeland and its resources at the exclusion of outsiders. Outsiders ought not trespass our lands without our express permission.” It is clear that this principle does not exclude shared land and resource use, but that “when Sk’elép invited the foreign Wutémtkemc into our home as guests, noting “we should be friends but we should not interfere with each others’ work” he was the first to establish a relationship between us as the owners and hosts of this land, and the outsiders as guests who were invited and should be treated with kindness but were expected to show respect and reciprocity.” It is this expectation of respect and reciprocity that is at the heart of the 1910 Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Referring to the non-Indigenous newcomers to the region during the fur trade era, the memorial stated that “[t]hey did not try to force their conceptions of things on us to our harm. Nor did they stop us from catching fish, hunting, etc. They never tried to steal or appropriate our country, nor take our food and life from us. They acknowledged our ownership of the country, and treated our chiefs as men. They were the first to find us in this country. We never asked them to come here, but nevertheless we treated them kindly and hospitably and helped them all we could. They had made themselves (as it were) our guests.” The roles and responsibilities of host and guest are woven throughout the memorial, creating a framework for understanding relationships with land and resources, as well as people.

Making clear the purpose of the Chiefs’ communication with the Prime Minister, the memorial went on:

With us when a person enters our house he becomes our guest, and we must treat him hospitably as long as he shows no hostile intentions. [A]t the same time we expect him to return to us equal treatment for what he receives. Some of our Chiefs said, ‘These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must, therefore, be the same as brothers to them, and live as one family. We will share equally in everything half and half in land, water and timber, etc. What is ours will be theirs, and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.’ They have taken possession of all the indian country and claim it as their own. Just the same as taking the “house” or “ranch” and, therefore, the life of every indian tribe into their possession. They have never consulted us in any of these matters, nor made any agreement, “nor” signed “any” papers with us. They have stolen our lands and everything on them and continue to use same for their own purposes. They treat us as less than children and allow us no say in anything. They say the indians know nothing, and own nothing, yet their power and wealth has come from our belongings. The queens law which we believe guaranteed us our rights, the B.C. government has trampled underfoot. This is how our guests have treated us – the brothers we received hospitably in our house.

The 1910 memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier is a remarkable document describing Secwépemc (Shuswap), Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), and Syilx (Okanagan) understandings of land use and the roles of people in sharing resources responsibly, juxtaposing them with settler understandings and behaviours. The framework of hospitality is often repeated in documents concerning land use and the creation of reserves in the B.C. interior and it is a conceptual foundation historians would be wise to understand when undertaking research in this region.

James A. Teit

James Teit and his wife, Lucy Artko, 1897.
James Teit and his wife, Lucy Artko, 1897.

James A. Teit first appears in the introductory material for the memorial as the “ethnologist” who recorded the laws and customs mentioned above. He is thereafter described as the “secretary” for the Secwépemc (Shuswap), Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), and Syilx (Okanagan), and “a Scottish-born ethnologist and long-time ally…who had put their words onto paper.” Included in the document is a photograph of Teit in a cowboy hat and what appears to be a fringed shirt. It is a cropped image of a portrait of Teit along with his wife, Lucy Artko, a Nlaka’pamux woman. The memorial to Laurier itself is signed “Yours very sincerely, The Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Couteau or Thompson tribes Per their secretary, J.A. Teit.” It was Teit, then, who wrote the memorial on behalf of the Chiefs. It was not unusual for Indigenous peoples to work with an Anglophone ally who translated and transcribed such documents, but seeing Teit throughout this particular document was a bit of a surprise for me.

I first encountered James A. Teit through his 1927-28 report to the Bureau of American Ethnology, co-edited by anthropologist Franz Boas and published after Teit’s death. The report, “The Salishan Tribes of the Western Plateaus,” is a document to which I referred in my dissertation. Teit and his benefactor, Homer E. Sargent, have been a source of fascination for me since encountering the 1927-28 report. Sargent was heir to a railroad fortune and met Teit when the former hired the latter as his hunting guide while on vacation in British Columbia. Teit discussed with Sargent his ethnographic work and Sargent then funded Teit’s research among Indigenous peoples in the Columbia River Plateau, stipulating that some of the research funds be used to purchase Indigenous-made baskets, which were then donated to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Some of Sargent’s collection was donated upon his death to the Autry National Center of the American West, where I learned of Teit’s and Sargent’s relationship.

Does Teit’s involvement in the creation of the 1910 “Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Premier of the Dominion of Canada” alter the document’s importance or meaning? Not necessarily. More than a century later, the Chiefs’ successors describe James A. Teit as an ally and I currently see no reason to challenge that assertion. Teit married into Lucy Artko’s Nlaka’pamux family and his roles as hunting guide; mentee of Boas, father of salvage anthropology; basket-buyer for wealthy Americans; and secretary for the Secwépemc (Shuswap), Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), and Syilx (Okanagan) people demonstrate the complicated nature of the past and the difficulties of understanding its study while teasing apart the tangled histories of individual people involved in its creation.

Consistency in Message

Shuswap Lake. Source: Library and Archives Canada
Shuswap Lake. Source: Library and Archives Canada

A final element of the memorial that resonates with me is how often I have read similar pleas from different Indigenous peoples in the Columbia River Plateau. Echoed over more than a century, Plateau Indigenous peoples have been explaining their concepts of land use and occupancy, detailing the ways in which they were deceived and dispossessed of resources necessary for survival by non-Indigenous settlers, and asking non-Indigenous people to live up to their promises. After more than a century of repeating this process, I hope the pleas are finally heeded. The Chiefs stated in their 1910 memorial to Wilfrid Laurier:

Conditions of living have been thrust on us which we did not expect, and which we consider in great measure unnecessary and injurious…We condemn the whole policy of the B.C. government towards the indian tribes of this country as utterly unjust, shameful and blundering in every way. We denounce same as being the main cause of the unsatisfactory condition of indian affairs in this country and of animosity and friction with the whites. So long as what we consider justice is withheld from us, so long will dissatisfaction and unrest exist among us, and we will continue to struggle to better ourselves. For the accomplishment of this end we and other indian tribes of this country are now uniting and we ask the help of yourself and government in this fight for our rights.

In the closing remarks following the reproduced memorial, Splats’in (Spallumcheen Band of the Secwepemc/Shuswap) Tribal Chairman Wayne Christian reminds “the people of British Columbia and Canada” that calls for “justice and fairness for all” have been made for more than one hundred years, imploring us to “tak[e] action that will bring the words in the Memorial to life.”

The “Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Premier of the Dominion of Canada” from the Secwépemc (Shuswap), Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), and Syilx (Okanagan) people is a rich document, full of cultural and environmental details that enrich historical knowledge of interior British Columbia. It provides us with valuable Indigenous knowledge about land use and the ways in which settler populations upheld and violated frameworks of hospitality. It also demonstrates the complicated constructions of the past, as evidenced by the life and work of James A. Teit. Most importantly, however, the memorial functions as it was intended, as a call to understand the relationships Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have with land, resources, and each other and to uphold the promises our ancestors made to each other.

[1] Another version of the document is posted on the Williams Lake Band website, http://williamslakeband.ca/?page_id=371.

Many thanks to Dr. Keith Carlson for sharing this document with me and to Dr. Sean Kheraj for unearthing new-to-me information about James Teit while skillfully editing this post.

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Stacy Nation-Knapper is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. Her research focuses on the history and memory of the fur trade in the Columbia River Plateau.

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