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Back from Extinction

BC's forgotten Sinixt Nation reoccupies its homeland. A tale of tenacity and joyous rebirth.

Rex Weyler 30 Jun

Rex Weyler is the author of Blood of the Land, Greenpeace: The Inside Story and recently, The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message.

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Bob Campbell, Lola Campbell and her daughter Agnice Sophia Campbell, Vallican, October 2005. Permission: Bob Campbell.

Bob Campbell clutches his granddaughter at a public thanksgiving feast near Vallican, B.C., and asks: "Do I look extinct?"

Campbell is a headman of B.C.'s allegedly exterminated Aboriginal nation, the Sinixt, known as the "Mother Tribe," from the upper Columbia River, the region we now call the West Kootenays. The original name of both the land and people, Sinixt, means "place of the bull trout."

"I was born in a concentration camp," Campbell says. "Miners had hunted us down like animals, settlers destroyed our villages, loggers shoved us off our land, and dams decimated the salmon. Our ancestors were sent to an armed fort at Colville, now in the state of Washington. We were trapped south of the border, not allowed to return. In 1956, the government of Canada declared us extinct, but look: I'm not dead yet, and we're back."

Mother nation

Sinixt villages once lined the banks of the Kootenay, Slocan and Columbia rivers. Hunting parties camped along creeks descending from the Monashee and Selkirk mountains. The people enjoyed a bounty of caribou, sturgeon, salmon, and the once-plentiful bull trout. Each summer, Sinixt families travelled 100 kms south along the Columbia River in white pine bark canoes to their fishing camp at Ilthkoyape -- Kettle Falls, Washington -- where they gathered red sockeye in dip net baskets with the Skoyelpi, their southern neighbours. A designated "salmon chief" shared the catch among villages throughout the region.

"The Sinixt were the mother tribe of the Pacific Northwest Salish," says Sharon Montgomery at the Nakusp and District Museum. Their language parallels the Okanagan, Sushwap, Skoyelpi (Colville), and Spokane dialects. "As the mother nation," says Bob Campbell, "we often settled disputes among the bands."

Before his death in 1935*, Sinixt headman James Bernard described their abundant homeland: "We had camas, huckleberries, bitter root.... When I walked out under the stars, the air was filled with the perfume of wild flowers. In those days, the Indians were happy."

Those days took a dramatic turn in the spring of 1811, when surveyor David Thompson, mapping the region for the North West Company fur traders, arrived at the central Sinixt village, kp'itl'els, at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers, north of modern Castlegar. "You white men," Bernard says, "you came here... on a little piece of bark, with a few sticks tied together. You found us that day in plenty; you had nothing. You did not bring your wealth with you." Settlers and prospectors swarmed up the Columbia seeking pelts and minerals.


"The first disruption of our people," says Bob Campbell, "came from disease. The early smallpox epidemics may have been accidental, but then Hudson Bay traders brought diseased blankets and our people died from typhoid and tuberculosis. Pure and simple, it was genocide. The trading companies paid a bounty for indigenous people's scalps and genitals."

After prospectors discovered gold in the Columbia in 1855, some 10,000 miners pushed north into British Columbia and clashed with native communities in the Fraser and Columbia basins. Miners burned villages and hunted "hostile" natives. In a typical case, miner Sam Hill shot and killed Sinixt villager Cultus Jim at Galena in 1894. A local court acquitted Hill on grounds of self-defence.

Ore smelters required wood for fuel and construction, and sawmills flourished along the rivers. The large mill at Edgewood cleared the forests on both sides of Lower Arrow Lake and then moved south to the Sinixt heartland near Castlegar, denuding the forest there. The revered white pines disappeared from the landscape.

At the turn of the century, Sinixt siblings Alex and Marianne Christian fought for a homeland in their village of kp'itl'els, but a royal commission denied their claim, and in 1911 Marianne was found naked and dead in a snow bank. Alex claimed she had been raped and murdered, but a town coroner concluded she had died from "exposure." Alex's grandson, Lawney Reyes, an artist in Seattle, wrote a history of his family, White Grizzly Bear's Legacy: Learning to be Indian.

Most of the surviving Sinixt fled south to Kettle Falls, but were confined to the armed camp at Fort Colville. After a Canada/U.S. boundary survey established the 49th parallel border, the U.S. forced the Sinixt into the artificial "Colville Confederated Tribes" camp. Thereafter, they were trapped in the U.S. and not allowed to return to Canada.

In 1902, B.C. identified 20 surviving Sinixt as status Indians and allotted them a desolate rocky bluff at Oatscott at the north end of Lower Arrow Lake, far from the centre of their homeland. Since the Sinixt seasonally migrated along the river, they rarely visited the inhospitable allotment. In 1956, the last survivor on the government roll passed away. When researchers found no one at the reserve site, the government declared the Sinixt nation "extinct."

In that same year, 1956, Canada began an engineering study to establish sites for hydroelectric dams on the Columbia.

Monument to prosperity

As the mining communities and smelters on both sides of the border depleted local timber, they required a new power source: electricity. "James Dawson surveyed the Sinixt homeland in 1884 for the government of Canada," says Marilyn James, a Sinixt Aboriginal advisor at Selkirk College. "Not for treaty purposes, but because they saw something valuable, the Columbia River, a hydrological resource they wanted to possess."

Likewise, the U.S. surveyed the lower Columbia, and in 1936, the Bonneville Dam east of Portland inundated 35 Aboriginal fishing sites. The dam installed a fish ladder that was "successful enough," according to Oral Bullard in Crisis on the Columbia, "to lull the public into a sense of security."

Further up the river, the massive Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1941, made no such concession to appearances. The dam flooded 250 kms of the Columbia, destroyed the Kettle Falls fishing site, inundated 20,000 hectares of forest and Aboriginal homeland, permanently blocked salmon migration, and eliminated 2,000 kms of spawning grounds. Thereafter, salmon disappeared in the upper Columbia basin.

The massive dam powered aluminum smelters and a plutonium production reactor at Hanford, Washington, critical to the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, in 1947, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called the Grand Coulee Dam "a monument to prosperity" created from "a barren wasteland."

In B.C., 15 dams were built in the Sinixt homeland. In 1954, Kaiser Aluminum proposed a dam on Arrow Lake. The Keenlayside dam flooded 140 Sinixt archaeological sites. The Cominco smelter at Trail built a dam on the Kootenay River near the ancient Sinixt village of kp'itl'els. The zinc and lead smelter has since dumped over 13 million tonnes of toxic slag, including mercury, into the Columbia River.

In 1968, B.C. Hydro commissioned a totem pole in Edgewood, beside the flooded Arrow Lake, to commemorate the "extinct race," the Sinixt. "Two problems with that," explains headman Bob Campbell. "One, the Sinixt never made totem poles, and two, we're not extinct."

Baby Agnice

In 1987, highway construction at Vallican in the Slocan Valley uncovered artifacts, graves and Sinixt pit houses. The government made no attempt to contact Sinixt descendants, but sent the skeletal remains to museums.

In 1989, elder Eva Adolph Orr -- one of the last surviving Sinixt born in freedom but trapped in the U.S. -- asked her son Bob Campbell and others to return and protect their sacred burial sites. Eva Orr slipped back into Canada and supervised the repatriation and reburial of 61 skeletal remains near Vallican on the Slocan River. The Sinixt employ a unique burial ritual, with the deceased sitting upright, facing the rising sun, that distinguishes their gravesites and confirms their claim on the land.

"It is our responsibility," says Marilyn James, "because we are the descendants of those people. It is our responsibility to bring our ancestors home, rebury them, and protect their resting places. The Sinixt are the only nation in B.C. declared extinct, even though in 1995, Minister of Indian Affairs Ron Irwin admitted this was only a designation 'for the purpose of the Indian Act. It does not mean that the Sinixt ceased to exist.' Well, if we did not cease to exist, we're not extinct."

Orr and the grandmothers selected Robert Watt as caretaker of the ancient Vallican village, but Canada deemed Watt a "foreign national" and deported him. In 1991, he launched a legal claim for the right to enter and remain in Canada, based on his Aboriginal right to live in his territory as described in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. His lawyer David Aaron explains that Watt, Campbell and other Sinixt "are not considered Status Indians under the Canadian Indian Act, since they are not descendents of the 20 people recorded by the government on the [1902 Oatscott] reserve. But even so, they possess Aboriginal rights, including cross-border rights."

A British Columbia court upheld the immigration decision, but a federal appeal court reversed the decision. However, the court claimed it did not have enough information to make a decision regarding his rights, and remitted the case back to Canada Immigration, who rescinded the previous order and then relaunched the process by deporting Watts again. Watts has appealed his second deportation and charged the Crown with bad faith conduct for putting him through the circular loop. Aaron believes Watt can win his case and "this will open the door for the Sinixt to reclaim their Aboriginal land rights."

Meanwhile, the Sinixt are making an Aboriginal title claim to occupy their homeland and be consulted prior any environmental disturbance. In 2000, white protestors and other bands joined the Sinixt as they blocked a Slocan Forest Products road and clear-cutting operation along Trozzo Creek.

Birth and renewal

Every autumn now for 20 years, the Sinixt have hosted a public feast on their territory. During the 2005 thanksgiving banquet, Bob Campbell's daughter Lola gave birth to Agnice Sophia Campbell -- Eva Orr's great-granddaughter -- on Sinixt land.

"This is the first Sinixt baby to be born in our territory in almost 100 years," Campbell explains. "This is big. Agnice has a Canadian birth certificate. After all the destruction, the land still survives. The Sinixt people still survive. Even the devastated bull trout survives in its last stronghold on the Slocan River."

"Indian status," says Campbell, "is a statutory scheme of the Indian Act, which has been repeatedly found unconstitutional. These discriminatory laws are not what determine Aboriginal rights. We -- our lives, our history, our people, our children -- we determine our Aboriginal rights. I wasn't an Elder when the decision was made to bring our people out of co-called 'extinction,' but now I am the Elder. When I'm gone my daughters will continue on and when they are gone their children will continue on. The Sinixt are back."

*Date changed on July 8, 2008.

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