Taking the #PembertonPledge to heart, and on the road when you travel

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On July 13, the Village of Pemberton shared the #PembertonPledge on Facebook – an invitation for visitors to come into the region with a certain mindset – of respect and consideration.

We’re all torn, these days, I would suggest – between longing for a return to normal, needing the income from our employment or businesses, knowing that visitors bring a lot of value (and spending) to the community, desire to protect the community’s assets and trails, concerns about insufficient infrastructure for the demand, and fear about the lurking hazards of more and more people coming into our shared spaces, potentially jeopardizing our health, our loved ones, or the safety of a bubble that we all worked to create. And a desire to go and experience summer throughout the province, take a vacation, get away, relax… so even as we get frustrated at visitors coming here, we might also be packing up and becoming visitors somewhere else.

Navigating this storm is tiring.

Allowing ourselves to be guided and led by experts seems to have become challenging.

Not knowing how to calibrate and quantify the risk is hard.

On July 16, the provincial health officer Dr Henry shared that  a number of scientists from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and University of British Columbia, with support from LifeLabs and Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, released a study outlining the results of initial serology testing within BC.

The study showed that our province does not have sufficient immunity to prevent a second wave. That is why continuing with the measures we have in place is vital to keeping us all safe.

This response, the #PembertonPledge, feels generous and constructive to me, at threading its way through all these landmines…

I particularly appreciated #1, the first step in the Pledge, and wonder if we can all commit to this as an ongoing practice – pandemic or not.

“I will recognize the Indigenous Communities whose territory I am travelling through by learning more about their deep history, culture and heritage.”

In the last month, I spent some time in the traditional territory of the Sinixt people – an interior Salish people, “one of the first nations that lived primarily in interior British Columbia and the northern United States. Nobody knows how long they’ve been here; long before the Romans built Rome and the Greeks built the Parthenon.”

As recounted in this CBC documentary by Bob Keating, they were pushed out of Canada.

“Over the past two centuries the Sinixt were pushed out of Canada. The surviving members took refuge in Washington state — the southern end of their traditional territory.

Despite their existence south of the Canadian border, in 1956 the federal government officially declared the Sinixt First Nation “extinct.”

When I visited with friends in the region, they told me that there had never been a population of First Nations there because the land wasn’t nice enough. (I looked around and couldn’t see what they meant… but that was the story that did the rounds. No one lived here. They had their pick of the lands and they didn’t pick this. Turns out, that’s not quite the truth…)

As reported by Keating:

“The Sinixt lived in what is primarily a north-south valley stretching from grassy hills at present day Kettle Falls, Wash., to glacier crusted peaks near Revelstoke, B.C.

It’s rugged, mountainous country with the Columbia River running through the heart of it.

The river was both a highway and grocery store, bringing the Sinixt more salmon than they could possibly consume during epic seasonal runs, supplementing their diet the rest of the year.

Diseases the Sinixt had never seen arrived, passed from tribe to tribe, anticipating the arrival of men with beards, which they’d never seen either.

The first smallpox pandemic arrived in Sinixt country around 1770 and is believed to have killed three quarters of them.

When explorer David Thompson paddled down the Columbia River into Sinixt territory 30 years later, they were already a shadow of their former selves.

“By the time Thompson arrived, the population was already dramatically reduced by as much as 80 per cent,” says author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, who’s written extensively about the Sinixt.

After disease decimated their numbers, the usual parade of missionaries, miners and settlers poured into the West Kootenay region of B.C. and pushed them off their territory, and some moved south to the U.S.

The 1902 census records 21 Sinixt in the Canadian end of their territory.

By 1930 there was one Sinixt member left in Canada: Annie Joseph. She died in Vernon, B.C., in 1953.

The federal government wasted little time declaring the Sinixt extinct in 1956. This meant they were no longer a registered people in Canada with the rights of a First Nation.

In the eyes of the Canadian government, they were a people no more.

When the Sinixt were pushed out of Canada, the surviving members took refuge at the southern end of their traditional territory in Washington state.

The U.S. government created a giant reservation in 1872 and eventually moved a dozen different nations onto it.

The Americans then took half the reservation back and offered it up to white settlement, the only true Sinixt territory in the U.S. included.

They were moved again to a small settlement on the banks of the Columbia River, called Inchelium, off their traditional lands. Their numbers shrank down to as low as 257 registered tribal members.

They were encouraged to forget who they were.

“You have a whole generation where it was something that was so hurtful they just didn’t talk about it,” says Sinixt historian Michael Finley.

In Canada, they continued to be considered extinct. But extinction never suited the Sinixt.

They maintain they were pushed out of Canada (which contains 80 per cent of their pre-contact traditional territory) and onto the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation in eastern Washington state.

Then one summer day in 1989, a road building crew unearthed Sinixt graves in the Slocan Valley in B.C.

Canadian authorities didn’t bother to tell the Sinixt because they were considered extinct, but word drifted down to Inchelium.”

It took a six month blockade by elders for the BC government to listen, and return the remains. Even then, recognition from the B.C. government that they were the legitimate First Nation of the region, never came, and the people who are apparently extinct have had to take their fight to the Supreme Court.

To have to camp, blockade, protest, go to jail, go to court, win, go to the Supreme Court, in order to be recognized as a person, as the person you are, is an insanity that First Nations have had to endure for generations.

If this galls you, if this makes you shake your head, if this hurts your heart, then one step you can take, towards repairing this great wound and wrong in our country, and our collective history, is to research whose territory you are on, whose territory you are travelling to, so you can know their name, and you can acknowledge that, when you move through the world.

I used to stumble over this, I used to think it might mean I had to go somewhere and ask permission and maybe be refused, I used to wonder how we could navigate this fractured history. Right now, I feel as though it’s about reorienting ourselves, on a kind of spiritual level. When I found myself by a creek full of waterfalls, in a beautiful forest, feeling completely at ease, on my roadtrip, I sat and meditated and I said a kind of thank you to the ancestors of this place. It felt important, and basic courtesy, to acknowledge them. I didn’t know their names. I just found this out now. But it was a beginning.

The breach between what is fair and the way our world operates is really massive, and even when you care about, being part of the solution, it is too big to lay your own body down to be a bridge, when it feels like you’ll just fall into the abyss. But. We can make effort. Towards repair. And that starts with acknowledgement.

It might sound like nothing. (And let’s face it, it’s just a babystep.) But when I watched this talk of Dr Lorna Williams’, her introduction struck me. This is how people traditionally introduced themselves.

In Ucwalmictws, Wanosts’a7 opened with a greeting and acknowledgement, and then she translated for us into English: “Thank you to the ancestors whose spirits are on this land and the people who continue to care for this land where we are meeting today. We are here as visitors. We come with good thoughts. And good spirits. I am Wanosts’a7 from the Lil’watul. I introduce my family and myself to the land that we are meeting on today.”

Why would we not come to this land and not attempt to follow some basic cultural practices, out of courtesy and respect?

Acknowledge the people who are not extinct… but whose annihilation was attempted, and even declared. Start with acknowledgement. There can be no relationship, until a person’s personhood is first acknowledged.

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