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A Love Letter to the Shuswap

A Q&A and book excerpt from an environmentalist with a passion for a place worth protecting.

Barry Link 14 Dec

Barry Link is the editor of The Tyee.

Jim Cooperman loves the Shuswap so much he wrote a book trying to explain just about everything about it.

In fact, “everything” is in the title of the book, and environmentalist and writer Cooperman isn’t kidding as he takes a big-picture approach -- the bioregionalism -- to investigate a part of the province too often overlooked. The result is 240 pages of current and archival photos, maps, tables, excerpts from historical documents, and past and present columns. It’s colourful and accessible and reveals the Shuswap has much of what Tyee readers adore: clean lakes, green forests, farmers markets and folk music.

But it also has a unique geography, fascinating (also endangered) wildlife, an ancient history of human settlement followed by a sad but engaging saga of cultural contact, and a thriving present as its inhabitants strive to protect a region that still has human scale. It’s probably the kind of book every region of the province should have, and Cooperman hopes it becomes just such a model.

We asked Cooperman about this motivation and methods for writing such a book and what we can all learn from it. You’ll find an excerpt from the book below, after the Q&A.

The Tyee: How do you define bioregionalism and how did it influence this book?

Cooperman: Bioregionalism, or fostering a sense of place, is a way of life that focuses on regional self-sufficiency, sustainability and local decision-making. As a retired, back-to-the-lander who has lived on the same property for 48 years and who spent the “turn-around-decade” working as an activist and environmental journal editor, I considered two projects back in 2005 — either write a book about B.C.’s forests or about the Shuswap. Both were needed, but I chose the latter because I am a bioregionalist who wants to tell the story of where I live to enrich my neighbours and the world. Ideally, the book will improve the knowledge base and thus foster greater appreciation and respect for the Shuswap.

It's an enormous amount of work. What prompted you to take on the task?

It is my deep commitment to help my community that prompts me to take on projects that fill gaps, such as helping protect 25,000 hectares of new parkland in the Shuswap. Much of what I have done and continue to do, beginning with helping to initiate a local history journal in 1988, involves research and writing. I love our region and it continues to irritate me when I hear the Shuswap mislabelled as the North Okanagan, or simply lumped in as part of the Thompson. Most other regions of the province are well known and have books written about them. There had never been a book written about the Shuswap region.

The inspiration to write the book had been with me since 1989, after I read the Stein, The way of the River, by Michael M’Gonigle and Wendy Wickwire. It was the flashing light bulb in 2005 that provided the mechanism to get the job done — I would write a column, Shuswap Passion, in the local newspaper every two weeks to create the material and to develop my “voice.” I just wrote my 315th column. It is about the merits of outdoor learning. By 2009, I realized there was another gap to fill and I helped create the first map of our bioregion, the Shuswap watershed. In addition, we developed a website and educational handbook.

I took on the task because I have a passion for the Shuswap, which I want to share with others. The better people understand where they live, the more likely they will want to protect it.

Video embed: Cutline: Images from the book Everything Shuswap.

Who is the book for? People in the Shuswap or those from outside the area?

As Mark Hume wrote in the blurb on the back of the book, “It should be mandatory reading for anyone who lives in or visits the Shuswap.” It is also enjoyable reading for anyone who loves to learn about new places and perhaps after reading the book, they will decide to visit or move to the Shuswap. Given that Dr. David Suzuki wrote after receiving a copy, “Every part of the country should have something like Everything Shuswap,” the book can also serve as a template for other communities. Everything Shuswap is more than a book — it is also an educational project. Proceeds from book sales will be used to support outdoor learning. The book will be used in the Grade 10 social studies curriculum, and there is a plan to involve students in the research for the next two volumes.

Are you surprised by what you discovered about your own part of B.C.?

When my wife Kathi and I travelled throughout the region gathering stories and photos, our discoveries always impressed us. We found gorgeous waterfalls, giant trees, stunning vistas, old decaying cabins and homesteads, and sadly, disgraceful damage to sensitive soils and flora by motorized “wreckreation.” There were more discoveries in archives and the photo quest, which took endless hours searching and dealing with the acquisition paperwork.

Some of the “aaah” moments go back to first visits to what are now parks, such as the mystical moss-covered boulders adjacent to English Creek above Three Valley Gap, or our first glimpse of Tum Tum Lake, the Shuswap’s own Lake Louise. It is rare to find anywhere to rock climb in the Shuswap, but then we finally hiked into Syphon Creek, near Salmon Arm, where there are climbing routes set in massive pillared cliffs formed from granite-like rock.

Perhaps the best part about the Shuswap is that there are many more discoveries yet to be made. The region is vast, and while there is a network of logging roads nearly everywhere, there are many areas where no one has ventured. One challenge now is to control the increasing incursion into the sensitive alpine and wetlands by off-road vehicles.

One of the best discoveries was the fascinating people from the past, both the Secwepemc and the pioneers, many of whom are profiled in the book. As well, I was surprised and appreciative of all the help I received from the many reviewers, and especially from Kathi who proofread every word many times.

Another surprise was the support from local governments, organizations, businesses and individuals who contributed over $43,000 to cover the publication costs. I have gifted the proceeds to the North Okanagan-Shuswap School District 83 and some of the funds will be used to publish the following volumes.

Notwithstanding that you just created a book about a specific area, but are we too isolated in our own individual regions of B.C. compared to the rest of the province?

Currently, I think too many people concentrate on their devices more than on where they live or even with each other. Isolation is not the problem unless it is isolation from each other and our surroundings. Books like Everything Shuswap can help connect people together and connect people to nature as they learn more about where they live.

We all face a looming environmental crisis as the temperature escalates. While we need to continue pressing for mitigation, we also need to work on adaptation, which includes understanding more about where one lives and whom one lives with. Communities with citizens who understand where they live and co-operate well will be better able to cope with fires, storms, droughts and floods, all of which are looming on the horizon.

When all three volumes are complete, Everything Shuswap will form a base case, so that decades from now people will better understand and see the changes that have occurred. One of the key messages included in my draft teacher’s guide to Everything Shuswap is that the book can inspire students to discover more about where they live and use their experiences and what they have learned to write, do a presentation, film or create art.

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Summer camp illustration by David Seymour. Image courtesy of the Secwepemc Museum and Archives, Kamloops.

Excerpt from Chapter 4: The Secwepemc People

The Shuswap region owes its identity to the Secwepemc Indigenous people, who have resided here since time immemorial.

They are part of the Interior Plateau Cultural Group and their interior Salish language, Secwepemctsn, is one of over 32 First Nation dialects in the province. Secwepemc traditional territory stretches from west of the Fraser River to the Rockies and from the Okanagan to north of Williams Lake.

History is too often viewed through the eyes of the conquerors. Schools have emphasized the lives of politicians, explorers, and generals with little mention of the original inhabitants of North America. Certainly, ignorance of First Nations stems from the prejudice that many Europeans have held towards Indigenous people for hundreds of years.

The concept of the “noble savage” held little sway in British Columbia by either the fur traders, the miners, or the early settlers. Thus, the European settlement of British Columbia was predicated on the near dissolution of rich Indigenous cultures that had evolved over the millennia.

To understand the history of the Secwepemc people, one has to imagine what the Shuswap environment was like before the fur traders arrived. Imagine extensive stands of old growth forests, lakes teeming with trout and salmon, and hillsides filled with game. Communities of families settled alongside the shorelines of lakes, creeks, and rivers during the winters, where there was good protection from storms. It was a rich world for a proud people with an ancient relationship to the land.

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Plan and Elevation of Underground House, in The Thompson Indians of British Columbia, by James Teit, 1900. The lifestyles of the Secwepemc and the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) were very similar, as both are Salish people.

Famous First Nation petition

A pivotal event in the history of the Shuswap, Thompson, and Okanagan First Nations occurred in 1910 when three chiefs presented a petition to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. Known as the Laurier Memorial, this document described their 100 years of contact with the Europeans, a sad history of exploitation and abuse. It made a solid case for solutions to the land issue and the question of Aboriginal title and rights.

The Memorial mentioned another petition presented in 1908 that listed the many disabilities faced by the Interior tribes, including the loss of pasture and water supplies to white settlers, the inadequacy of their reservation lands, the restrictions placed on their hunting and fishing, and the depletion of salmon by over-fishing. In some cases, Indigenous people were fined and imprisoned for breaking game and fish laws. Essentially, these original inhabitants became “regarded as trespassers over a large portion” of the land that was once their own.

Despite the chiefs’ condemnation of the B.C. government as “utterly unjust, shameful and blundering in every way,” they continued to harbour “no grudge against the white race as a whole nor against the settlers.” Instead the chiefs called for getting an equal chance at making a living and looked to the federal government to settle the land question fairly. Many of the concerns presented in the 1910 Memorial continue to apply today, as First Nations struggle to protect their rights and title to their original land base. Throughout the past 100 years, countless commissions have studied the Indian land claims, which to this day remain an unsolved problem.

The Memorial is written in the style of a letter that expresses from the First Nations’ point of view their hope that Laurier will see that their “wrongs may at last be righted.” Laurier responded to the presentation, read by Father Le Jeune in a hall in Kamloops on August 25, 1910, with a promise to help them. However, he lost the election the following year and these First Nations were forced to carry on presenting their grievances to successive federal governments without any resolution to their concerns.

Preparation of the Memorial was made possible thanks to ethnographer James Teit, who wrote the text based on what the chiefs had told him over many years. Teit became an advocate for Indigenous rights and helped them write a series of petitions, memorial statements and letters between 1908 and 1922.

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James Teit and his first wife, Lucy Antko, circa 1897. Image # 11686, American Museum of Natural History Library.

Southern interior chiefs addressed Laurier as a “real white,” the description they gave to the fur traders, most of whom were French. They stated that they trusted and respected the French because of the respect these French traders showed towards them. In those first 50 years of contact, the French did not try to take their lands, nor did they prevent them from hunting and fishing.

From the interior chiefs’ point of view, the European settlers and the government in Victoria took advantage of the Indigenous friendliness and perceived weaknesses to force their unjust laws and rules upon them. As the Memorial explains, “They enforce their own laws one way for the rich white man, one way for the poor white, and yet another for the Indian.”

Furthermore, from their perspective, the Europeans stole their lands and resources and treated them “as less than children and allow us ‘no say’ in anything.”

The Memorial places most of the blame on the B.C. government, while it looks to the federal government for support because the chiefs believed the Queen’s law guaranteed their rights. Yet, the Indian agents appeared to neglect them. However, when help in the form of agricultural tools, schools, and medicines were offered, the chiefs turned these down for fear they would be charged for the help and would thus lose even more of their land.

Skeetchestn Indian Band Chief and SFU professor Dr. Ron Ignace believes the Memorial rings more truth today than it did in 1910. “The Secwepemc Chiefs, like their ancestors, call on the support of the ordinary citizens by stating that our fight is not with those who took up land in good faith; our fight is with the government, and citizens have a duty to see that their government does the right thing,” noted Ignace.

A culture based on tradition and respect

Between eight and ten thousand years of Secwepemc peoples’ life here is a very long time, especially when compared to the more recent origins of European civilizations. Although the early Secwepemc left no totem poles, long houses, or written records, they left physical remains and oral histories that show they maintained, for thousands of years, a rich and sophisticated culture.

Not only did Shuswap’s Indigenous people treat the environment sustainably, but they treated each other with more respect than often seen today, given the number of homeless people living in many North American cities. They had an effective system to teach the rules for living and the rules were enforced without police and jails.

All of the ethnographic reports agree on one important facet of Secwepemc culture that compared to other nations: the Secwepemc people were primarily egalitarian and peaceful. There were a few exceptions in some western division bands that engaged in conflict with one another, often over resources. Unlike modern society, in which might is often right and greed too often rules, the primary focus for the Secwepemc peoples was sharing and making sure that no one went without adequate food and shelter. Hunters would always share their meat and fishermen their catches.

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Secwepemc youth being hauled away to the residential school on a cattle truck. Joan Arnouse Collection. Image courtesy of the Secwepemc Museum & Archives, Kamloops.

Their belief system included the notion that stinginess resulted in bad luck. It also operated according to the rule that no individual owned land, as the land and the resources were shared equally. Until the arrival of the Europeans, the Secwepemc had managed their land base sustainably. In some areas, they engaged in burning to encourage the growth of berries and feed for deer, elk, and caribou, including the Larch Hills and the China Valley. Fishermen were careful to avoid overfishing and to ensure there were enough salmon and trout in the rivers and streams to sustain the populations. Berry bushes were often pruned to encourage future growth and leaves and roots were harvested selectively to leave enough to ensure these plants continued to flourish.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Secwepemc social structure was their system of extended families that allowed the young people to learn from their elders and to ensure that their heritage and culture passed on from generation to generation. A key value to the Secwepemc way of life was Kweseltnews, meaning “we are all family.” As famed Neskonlith elder Dr. Mary Thomas explained in one of her university lectures, “It was a must to have a strong family unit.”

Nearly 200 years of European exploitation and mistreatment led to the near destruction of this province’s First Nation cultures. However, since the 1970s Secwepemc people have been regaining their heritage by focusing on those values that allowed their civilization to flourish for so many millennia. We can all benefit by learning more about the Secwepemc peoples and by gaining more respect for their way of life.  [Tyee]

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