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#574 Secwépemc Shuswap reflections

July 07th, 2019

Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws: Yerí7 Stses-kucw
by Marianne Ignace and Ronald Ignace, with a foreword by Bonnie Leonard

Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2017
$39.95 / 9780773551305

Reviewed by Cole Harris


Reviewed last year by Sarah Nickel in the Ormsby Review (#259, March 5, 2018), Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws, by Marianne Ignace and Ronald Ignace, was shortlisted for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize, longlisted for the George Ryga Award, and was an Honourable Mention for the Canadian Aboriginal History Best Book Prize award of the Canadian Historical Association, all for books published in 2017.

It won the  Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Book on British Columbia.

Here, historical geographer Cole Harris provides a précis of the Secwépemc world as described by Marianne Ignace and Ronald Ignace, points to the challenges in preserving the Secwépemc language (Secwépemctsín), and reflects on the larger patterns and significance of Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws.

“Canada is changing,” concludes Harris, “the country is reimagining itself and in the process becoming far more aware of its Indigenous roots.” — Ed.


A remarkable recent book (Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), by Marianne and Ronald Ignace, she a linguist and he a chief, historian, and story teller, describes the changing circumstances of the Secwépemc (Shuswap), whose stories as well as the archaeological record show to have lived in the southern interior of British Columbia for thousands of years. Their book, a fusion of tradition Secwépemc knowledge and contemporary academic research, is a worthy successor, more than a hundred years later, to James Teit’s magnificent ethnographies of Interior Salish peoples. Here I summarize the Ignaces’ picture of traditional Secwépemc ways, comment on their discussion of the settler colonial years, then muse about what the future may hold for the way of life they have described so well.

The Secwépemc spoke an Interior Salish language (with dialect differences), and inhabited a large, ecologically diverse territory: dry grasslands at low elevations along the rivers, lightly and then more densely forested terraces and uplands, and at higher elevations sub-alpine and alpine environments. They moved freely within their territory; others did not. Like many other peoples in the Northern Cordilleran Interior, they overwintered in clusters of semi-subterranean pit houses, and relied heavily while there on salmon and venison cured during the previous fall. In late March they began to move out, first to take trout in nearby lakes, hunt male deer, and gather the first edible spring plants; later into their full seasonal round of hunting, fishing and gathering. It took them well afield — a characteristic radius, the Ignaces suggest, of a good hundred kilometres from their winter habitation site — and through landscapes teeming with associations reaching back to their foundational stories about Old One, Coyote, and other transformers who made the world as it is. People were moving purposefully at particular times to known sites of resource procurement, across a minutely named land, and within a language (Secwépemctsín) with a rich and evocative vocabulary for the landforms encountered. Throughout, they depended on an intricate knowledge, accumulated over countless generations, of different ecologies and of the habits of many different plants and animals. For the most part, men hunted and fished and women gathered and processed, but there was much overlap. The depth of local environmental knowledge was profound: women gathered and processed over a hundred different species for food, at least another hundred for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.

Secwépemc territory. Wikipedia commons

To a considerable extent, the Secwépemc managed the resources and environments they used. Band chiefs or elders appointed caretakers of fish, game, berry patches, and trails. Fishing weirs, designed both to entrap and release salmon, were often double row constructions of sticks and wattles, the first row with openings to let fish in, but not back out, the second with trapdoors open by day and closed at night. Women harvested roots with digging sticks, in so doing weeding and even seeding favoured grounds — and blurring the line between gathering and agriculture. Fire, however, was the main tool of environmental management. The Secwépemc burned grass and bush in regular ten to twenty year cycles, depending on the location, but always in the early spring and under the eye of a caretaker who was responsible for when and where to burn. The product of such burning was open parkland with, commonly, large, widely-spaced conifers. Later, when settlers and regulation stopped most Secwépemc burning, landscapes they had created often filled in with thickets of young conifers.

Except at the western edges of their territory, where hierarchical social structures introduced from the coast had a brief life, Secwépemc society was egalitarian and decentred. There was very little hierarchy of power, no central point of command. The authority of chiefs of local communities (bands) depended on their ability to listen, draw on elders’ advice, and maintain consensus. Usually they appointed the caretakers. The chiefs, in turn, were often appointed by a council of elders. When several local communities converged for a time at particularly productive resource procurement sites, as they did regularly, year after year, their chiefs would meet, and some of them, by force of personality, particular wisdom, or power of rhetoric, would acquire an influence that extended well beyond their own community. Such leadership became important in times of particular stress, as when outsiders invaded a corner of Secwépemc territory and neighbouring communities combined to repel them. In the decentred Secwépemc world, which lacked the institutional structure to support decision making at the tribal (national) scale, such combinations were as far as collective action could go.

Secwépemc territory and communities

Yet the Secwépemc were a tribe or nation. They inhabited a bounded territory, its boundaries subject to adjustment, usually following wars, but at any given time well known to those within and without. They spoke a common language that was not intelligible to speakers of neighbouring Interior Salish languages. They could move anywhere within the tribal territory, whereas outsiders who tried to do so risked being killed. People from one community looked after the surrounding land, but other Secwépemc, often drawn by ties of kinship, could also use it, and apparently frequently did. The land was never owned, neither by the local community nor by individuals. While the extended, bilateral family was at the heart of Secwépemec society, webs of kin relationships extended across much of Secwépemec territory. People situated themselves within these intricate, spatially-extensive genealogical networks. Near the borders of tribal territory, marriages between people of different nations created cross-border rights. Beyond all of this were the creation stories that were told and retold, that everyone knew, and that provided much of the moral teaching and the laws on which society rested. Most of them dealt with Coyote, an enormously powerful transformer who did much to fashion the Secwépemec world, could transform himself into almost anything, and got into no end of mischief. He was robust, wily, and randy; and the stories about him provided not so much a moral code as guidance about what works, and does not work, in human relations and in people’s dealings with the enveloping world around them.

Pillar Rock near Falkland, the boundary marker between Syilx (Okanagan) and Secwépemc territories

This was a world in which common binaries of the European mind — between mind and matter, the animate and the inanimate, the living and the dead — did not apply. Rather, everything had agency and feeling, everything was infused with spirit power. The very land itself, as well as its plants and animals, as well as the weather and the sun and the moon, were active participants in an interrelated world in which the boundaries between humans and their surroundings dissolved. The land was sentient, people and land were in continuous reciprocal relationship, and people communicated respectfully with the land in song, story, and prayer. Old One, the chief of the ancient world, had sent Coyote to arrange the world, and Old One reminded people to respect all living things and the land itself. Moreover, as Old One had taught, they were accountable to the land, its beings, and their powers. Animals and plants, having given themselves to fishers or hunters, were to be thanked.[1]

In 1808, Simon Fraser, fur trader and explorer passed through a western corner of Secwépemc territory before meeting the Nlha7kapmx and carrying onto the coast. Three years later, fur traders overwintered at the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers, in the heart of Secwépemc territory, and in the summer of 1812 built a fort there. The Secwépemc were now within the orbit of the fur trade, and would remain there until 1858 when a gold rush broke into their territory. Information about these years is sparse. There may have been smallpox, perhaps as early as the 1780s. Certainly the traders, tucked away in their posts and linked once or twice a year to the outside world by horse brigades, were dependent on the Secwépemc, the Nlha7kapmx, and others for furs and food. In a Memorial to Sir Wilfred Laurier years later, the chiefs said that the traders had been “good people” whom they had trusted. “They did not interfere with us nor attempt to break up our tribal organizations, laws, customs. They did not try to force their conception of things on us to our harm.”[2] Although this statement disguises the many ecological and social disruptions that must have accompanied the fur trade,[3] the chiefs were probably right. The fur trade required furs, foodstuffs, and a measure of social stability, not more. It neither required land nor sought to refashion Indigenous peoples into something else.

In 1858, a gold rush and the creation of the crown colony of British Columbia changed these relationships abruptly. The task, as E.B. Lytton, the Colonial Secretary of the day, put it to James Douglas, Governor of the new colony, had suddenly become “the peopling and opening up of a new country with the intention of consolidating it as an integral and important part of the British empire.” This entailed settlers and, to support them, rights of private property backed by the authority and power of the imperial state. To support settlers, land was taken and the Secwépemc allocated reserves, a process that worked itself out variously over the years, and left the Secwépemc with about one percent of their former lands. Fences and the rights of private property came to interrupt their seasonal movements. They became trespassers in their own territory.

Secwépemc pictographs at Mabel Lake. Jackie Clark photo

They also lost people. There were killing epidemics of measles and influenza in 1848-49,[4] and smallpox in the early 1860s, introduced with the miners. In parts of western Secwépemc territory, almost everyone died, elsewhere some communities were unaffected; overall, the Ignaces estimate a mortality rate of at least thirty percent. The young and the old (the story tellers) were particularly vulnerable.

There were Oblate missionaries, the first to stay arriving in 1867. A Roman Catholic order of recent French origin, the Oblates bitterly opposed the urban secular materialism of the mid-19th century, and embraced a deeply retrospective vision of priests ministering to faithful peasantries living within the call of a church’s bells.[5] With them, therefore, came both a theology, and a particular vision of the Christian life that, in sum, constituted a massive assault on traditional Secwépemc ways. The small log houses close by the church on many reserves reflected a sexual politics focused on the patriarchal nuclear family sanctioned by Christian marriage.

Beginning in the 1930s almost all Secwépemc children were sent to residential schools. Children entered these schools when five years old; many stayed for a decade. Rules, regular classroom rows, and prescribed curricula replaced the learning associated with the annual round of resource procurement. Moreover, as the Ignaces put it, children in the residential schools had their language beaten out of them.[6] Before the residential schools, most Secwépemc spoke Secwépemctsín; after them, most did not. Marianne Ignace shows that when the language was robust and Catholic liturgy, hymns, and theology were translated into it, the result was a syncretic religion derived as much from traditional Secwépemc beliefs as from Oblate teaching. When the language was gone, so was the buffer that had sheltered Secwépemc spirituality.[7]

Coyote’s Sweathouse, near Alexis Creek, boundary marker between Secwépemc and Tsilhqot’in territories, 2013

Such, briefly, is what I take to be the heart of the Ignaces’ long and important book. To read it is to be impressed by the deeply intertwined importance for the Secwépemc of land, stories, and language, and also the challenge they now face when almost all of their former land is not in their hands, a great many of their stories are lost, and barely more than a hundred mostly elderly people speak their language.

I am also led to reflect on the problem for the Secwépemc, and so many other peoples, of the survival of local ways in the face of the modern world. In Britain a dense mosaic of local customs gradually gave way, though not without long and bitter struggle, to the increasing penetration and standardizing effects of market economies and the rights of private property. The Secwépemc and others around the world deal with these same pressures. Moreover, when overland travel was cumbersome and expensive, and long-distance communication slow and difficult, local custom was shielded by distance. This shield has been largely removed. Economies of scale in factory production have undermined local crafts. Intellectually, the common thrust of scientific enquiry has replaced local knowledge with understandings that apply anywhere. In the science-inflected mind, the particular yields increasingly to the general. All of this adds up to a massive assault on local ways of life. When Simon Fraser broke into the Secwépemc world, it would follow ineluctably.

In settler colonies such as British Columbia, these increasing pervasive assaults on local custom were enormously compounded by the spread of introduced diseases, particularly smallpox; by the large imbalance of power between settlers and Indigenous people;[8] by the dispossession of the latter of most of their land; and by a pervasive assumption, grounded in Europe, about the location of civilization and savagery. In Britain, for example, the assault on local custom occurred within a common society that, for all its differences of class, recognized itself as such. Most people spoke the same language (with however great dialect differences), were Christians of some stripe, and acknowledged the same state. In settler colonies this was not the case. There, the difference between ways of life was often framed racially, and almost always as a clash between civilization and savagery. There were out and out biological racists among the colonizers, people who assumed that the Secwépemc and other Indigenous peoples were intrinsically inferior, but many others who subscribed to the view, embedded in the Enlightenment, of the inherent sameness — the inherent worth and dignity — of all peoples. For most of them, the problem of Indigenous people, as they saw it, was cultural rather than racial. Indigenous people lived in darkness but, as fully human as any others, they could be brought to the light of Christian truth and European civilization. Moreover, the duty of those possessed of the light was to share it. Hence residential schools, and the ensuing tragedy measured in the sorry, long-enduring effects of honourable and misguided intentions.

Marianne and Ron Ignace. Photo by Ellizabeth Nygren

This is the barrage that has hit the world the Ignaces have described so well, much of it common to the modernizing world, some of it particular to settler colonial societies. Through it all, the Secwépemc have survived in vastly altered circumstances. The Ignaces’ book is a reminder of where, as a people, they have been, and of the centrality of land, stories, and language to what they are and will become.

Yet I do wonder. It will be an enormous challenge to preserve Secwépemc identity in these terms. If the Secwépemc are determined to preserve their language, Canada owes them every support it can give. The whole country will be more interesting if their language survives, and more sustainable if their traditional environmental knowledge survives. But the struggle will be enormous and the outcome uncertain. I have no doubt that there will long be people who proudly identify themselves as Secwépemc, but the shape of their future seems very unclear. Canada is changing; the country is reimagining itself and in the process becoming far more aware of its Indigenous roots. Indigenous peoples, their numbers rapidly growing, are also changing. Thanks to the Ignaces, and before them James Teit, we have admirable pictures of traditional Secwépemc life. The extent to which they are guides to the Secwépemc future is a question that bears deeply on the future of this country, and is for the future to work out.


Cole Harris at New Denver. Photo by Richard Mackie

Cole Harris spent his career teaching historical geography at the universities of Toronto and British Columbia. Among many honours, he won the Canadian Historical Association’s Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for the best scholarly book in Canadian history in 1987 for editing the first volume of The Historical Atlas of Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1987), and again in 2003 for Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia (UBC Press, 2002). In 2003 he won the Massey Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the Order of Canada. His latest book is Ranch in the Slocan: A Biography of a Kootenay Farm, 1896-2017 (Harbour Publishing, 2018).


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


Scribe James Teit, 1897. Photo courtesy of Nicola Valley Museum and Archives

[1] The foregoing account of traditional Secwépemc ways is derived entirely from Ronald and Marianne Ignace, Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017). It is my précis of their understanding of the Secwépemc world before Simon Fraser and his aftermath arrived.

[2] This letter was written by James Teit, a Shetland Islander who lived among the Interior Salish, spoke some of their languages, and wrote several magnificent Interior Salish ethnographies. He worked with the chiefs and, the Ignaces point out, reported their thoughts in an Indigenous voice. In the chief’s view, he was their scribe. Years earlier, Teit told Franz Boas that in recording stories he employed “free translations” that “preserve the true sense and meaning of the stories … as if written in Indian,” Quoted in Wendy Wickwire, At the Bridges: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2019), p. 104.

The foreword was written by Bonnie Leonard, lawyer, former Kamloops Indian Band chief, and now Tribal Director of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council

[3] In this regard, see Wickwire, At the Bridges, pp. 104-6.

[4] Robert Galois, “Measles, 1847-50: The First Modern Epidemic in British Columbia,” BC Studies 109 (1996), pp. 31-43.

[5] I begin to touch here on matters that are not in the Ignace’s account. See Brett Christophers, Positioning the Missionary, John Booth Good and the Confluence of Cultures in Nineteenth-Century British Columbia (Vancouver, UBC Press, 1998); and Lynn A. Blake, “Let the Cross Take Possession of the Earth: Missionary Geographies of Power in Nineteenth Century British Columbia,” PhD diss., Geography, UBC, 1997.

[6] Ignaces, Secwépemc People, p. 143.

[7] Ibid, chap. 11.

[8] I consider the modalities of power in settler colonial societies in “How Did Colonialism Dispossess? Comments from an Edge of Empire,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 94 (1), 2004, pp. 165-182.

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