Tsilhqot’in

“The Elders have spoken. What happens to nature, to water and air will soon happen to mankind. Respect the land and take care of it, in turn it will take care of you. Whatever you do to earth, you also do to your children. The power of the earth works in circles, the seasons as well as human understanding.”

—Douglas Myers, Tsilhqot’in Elder

The People

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The Tsilhqot’in First Nation lives in the high Chilcotin Plateau of south-central British Columbia (BC), Canada, a wide wilderness region surrounded by high mountain ranges. The plateau, which is dotted with several glacial lakes and drained by the Fraser River and its tributaries, is dominated by the majestic Mount Tatlow (Ts’iloʔs), a sacred mountain that figures prominently in many Tsilhqot’in oral traditions.

The Tsilhqot’in language belongs to the Athapascan language family. The Nation is comprised of six different communities, each with its own dialect: Yunesit’n, Xeni, Esdilagh, Tl’esqox, Tl’etinqox, and Tsi Del Del.

Traditionally, the Tsilhqot’in led a semi-nomadic way of life based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. Perhaps due in part to the relative remoteness of their territory, they have been able to remain connected to their ancestral lifestyle, and their traditional subsistence activities are still widely practiced. Small-scale horse and cattle ranching is also common. A number of people are still skilled in traditional crafts such as tanning hides, making buckskin garments, beading, and basket weaving.

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Credit: Linda Smith

The Challenges

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Yet, there has been much adverse change. As with many other Indigenous Peoples in Canada and elsewhere, the Tsilhqot’in were subjected to assimilation pressures by the government and the church and to the abuse carried out in residential schools, where Tsilhqo’tin children were barred from using their language and performing their cultural traditions. The Tsilhqot’in strongly resisted those pressures and have been able to continue living in their traditional territory. Even so, they have suffered ever-increasing encroachment, especially from large-scale logging, ranching, and mining, which have left scars in the landscape and disrupted people’s lifeways.

These and other pressures have been placing the Tsilhqot’in language and culture at risk. Today, while many adults are still fluent in the Tsilhqot’in language and culture, and a few are completely monolingual, intergenerational transmission has been largely interrupted. Most fluent speakers are over 50 years old, and many of the most knowledgeable elders are advanced in age. Parents of young children mostly do not use Tsilhqot’in at home. Most of this profound transformation has happened in only a couple of decades, and it correlates with a growing incidence of social problems in the communities, especially among youth. Some community members, such as Tsilhqot’in linguist and language and culture champion Linda Smith, are concerned that if that trend continues the language may be on its way out within a generation.

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Credit: David Rapport

All the while, the Tsilhqot’in have been confronting other formidable challenges — particularly an unwanted large-scale gold and copper mining development that would forever alter a culturally important part of their territory known to them as Nabas, an area studded with pristine fish-bearing lakes. Plans for the mine originally included draining one of the lakes (Fish Lake, or Teztan Biny in Tsilhqot’in) and turning another (Little Fish Lake, or Yanah Biny) into a tailing pond. Nabas is found within the traditional caretaking area shared by the Yunesit’in and Xeni communities, who have had a long-term cultural association with it, as attested by documented burial sites, sacred sites, and historic cabins, as well as by an abundance of related oral history. Fishing, hunting, and gathering are still practiced in the Nabas area.

At the same time, the Tsilhqot’in were also pursuing a lengthy land title and rights case in the Canadian courts for the recognition of their ancestral title to a significant portion of their traditional territory. Centering around self-determination on their traditional territory, the case was relevant to their ability to stop commercial logging on their lands.

The Responses

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Although the Canadian federal government rejected the original mining project in view of its expected environmental and cultural impacts, the mining company, submitted a partially revised plan, which, while “sparing” Fish Lake, would still have radically altered the Nabas landscape. This submission triggered a new environmental review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. In preparation for the second environmental review, the Tsilhqot’in recognized the need for more in-depth documentation of their historic presence in the Nabas area and their material and spiritual ties with it.

As a part of this process, linguist Linda Smith was keen to work with elders to record historic narratives about Nabas and people’s presence in and use of it. That included documenting traditional knowledge of foods and medicines, traditional survival skills, sacred sites and ceremonies, and the spiritual significance of the place — all of which, she felt, are bound together in traditional ways of thinking. The material would contribute to building the case against the new mining proposal, and would also support the land title and rights case.

Beyond those urgent goals, that kind of documentation was meant to assist Tsilhqot’in language and culture revitalization efforts. There are some Tsilhqot’in language and culture programs and activities in the local schools, as well as cultural camps for youth, communal gatherings on the land, singing and drumming circles, and other shared cultural activities. Concerned community members, however, felt that more systematic efforts were needed to carry out language and culture documentation and revitalization, particularly with a focus on traditional knowledge, oral traditions, and ancestral laws and worldview.

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Credit: Luisa Maffi

Nabas Oral Literature Documentation Project

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That’s when our partnership with the Tsilhqot’in began. In 2011, with support from Terralingua, Linda Smith started recording elders’ oral narratives about Nabas. She interviewed 25 elders from five of the six Tsilhqot’in communities, eliciting from them a large amount of previously undocumented knowledge — both practical and spiritual, with special reference to subsistence, ceremonies, rituals, and other traditional activities practiced on the land at Nabas. Elders expressed a keen connection to the area and a deep longing to return to a “full and contented” traditional way of life on the land.

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Credit: Linda Smith

The nearly 100 hours of recordings done by Linda were a significant source of information for the arguments the Tsilhqot’in presented at the second environmental review of the mining project. Linda’s final report on the Nabas Oral Literature Documentation Project Report is a powerful document. It not only covers project work, but also offers an illuminating and moving account of the history and philosophy of the Tsilhqot’in people and of the likely impacts of the mining project on people and the land if the proposal ever came to pass.

The environmental review again came down against the mining project, and the project was rejected a second time at the federal level in 2014. That outcome did not deter the mining company from continuing to pursue its goals through a variety of avenues. That means that the Tsilhqot’in have continued to be forced to engage in lengthy and costly legal proceedings—taking time, energy, and financial resources away from much needed cultural revival and self-determination efforts.

Tsilhqot’in Land Title and Rights Victory and Declaration of Tribal Park

On the positive side, also in 2014 the Tsilhqot’in garnered a historic victory when they won their land title and rights case in a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision, which recognized their Aboriginal title claim over a 1,750 sq km (680 sq mi) portion of their traditional territory — the first such case in Canada. Soon thereafter, the Tsilhqot’in announced their intention to create Dasiqox Tribal Park in a separate area of their traditional territory, 3,000 sq km (nearly 1,200 sq mi) of wilderness and wildlife habitat surrounding Fish Lake. The Tribal Park is meant to be a tribally managed land, water, and wildlife protection area and as an “expression of Tsilhqot’in self-determination and a means of governing a land base.”

A solemn ceremony was held in October 2014 for the declaration of Dasiqox Tribal Park. We were invited to participate — and, prior to the ceremony, we were also invited to join a pack-horse trip up one of the trails that earlier generations of Tsilhqot’in had followed in their semi-nomadic life. This trip was part of an ongoing Tsilhqot’in effort to retrace and document these ancient trails and to reconnect with the land. Both were extraordinary events. We’ll post a photo gallery soon, so keep an eye on this space!

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Credit: David Rapport

“Telling Our Own Story” Youth Video Training Project

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Bridging the intergenerational gap in transmission of language and culture remains a key goal among the Tsilhqot’in. In 2016, we responded to the interest expressed by both the Tsilhqot’in and the W̱SÁNEĆ (the other BC First Nation with whom we have worked — see W̱SÁNEĆ page) in having video training for youth. The idea was to create opportunities for young people to reconnect with their linguistic and cultural heritage through contemporary media, by equipping them with video recording skills they could use for language and culture documentation, such as interviewing elders, recording stories and cultural events or activities, and so forth. We decided to organize a joint workshop for both Tsilhqot’in and W̱SÁNEĆ youth, with the intent to also provide for a peer-to-peer cultural exchange between the two communities.

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Credit: “Telling Our Own Story” Youth Video Training Project

For this project, Terralingua teamed up with sister organization The Cultural Conservancy (TCC), which made available an expert video training team. Five Tsilhqot’in and five W̱SÁNEĆ youth, with elders from each community, came together on the W̱SÁNEĆ school campus in Brentwood Bay, BC for a four-day intensive training workshop on cultural storytelling through video, including methods and techniques relevant to language and culture revitalization and hands-on experience in field settings. TCC facilitators ensured that each participant would get first-hand practice and fostered rapport between the two groups of youth. The workshop was complemented by a visit to Tsilhqot’in and W̱SÁNEĆ artifacts at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, and concluded with a traditional feast.

We’re putting together another photo gallery, with images from the video training project. Coming soon!

Tsilhqot’in Philosophy Dialogues

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Shortly after the video training workshop, some of the Tsilhqot’in trainees went on to filming a Language Immersion Camp in one of the communities. Others participated in filming the Tsilhqot’in Philosophy Dialogues, an event organized by Linda Smith as part of an elders’ gathering on the land. The goal of the Dialogues was to explore the ancestral Tsilhqot’in philosophy for caring for the land: a traditional worldview in which spiritual and ethical teachings, “right living,” connection to the land and to water are all holistically interrelated and bear on people’s responsibility toward culture and land.

For younger community members who may be keen to revitalize Tsilhqot’in cultural traditions, but who may have an imperfect understanding of the nature and scope of the ancestral philosophy, the challenge lies in even finding out how to begin approaching such complex and interwoven concepts — including which questions to ask in order to elicit the traditional knowledge and wisdom they are seeking to reconnect to. The Dialogues provided deep and revealing insights — including about why things had changed away from the traditional ways and why people had become accustomed to the “new normal,” as well as about how to make the ancient ways relevant again to people’s (and especially youth’s) lives today.

Linda Smith commented: “People became aware of a new way to look at what is going on around them — logging and mining issues and the preservation of territory and water for future generations. This is just the beginning of our enlightenment. Though it is slow in coming, it has definitely changed people’s perspectives on who we are, where we came from, and what our responsibilities are in relation to our land.”

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Credit: Linda Smith

Filming of “Long Jim” Video

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The Philosophy Dialogues also brought to the fore the importance of further video training, so that people could learn to film and produce their own stories about Tsilhqot’in traditional values and ways to care for the land. The idea of starting a “Tsilhqot’in Natural Law” film series emerged. With support from Terralingua, filmmaker Jeremy Williams of River Voices Productions, who for years has produced videos with Tsilhqot’in communities in support of their causes, conducted an advanced video training workshop in early 2017. The intended outcome was the production of a short film entirely planned and executed by workshop participants.

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Credit: Jeremy Williams

For this film, the group took an innovative approach: they combining interviews of contemporary community members with the re-enactment of aspects of the life of a historical figure, Long Jim, a highly knowledgeable and respected Tsilhqot’in man, born around the 1870s, who was widely considered exemplary of Tsilhqot’in values and virtues. The group braved snow and temperatures often reaching –30º C to get the footage, and then produced a film with footage of the interviews and of the re-enactment. The reslting 8-minute documentary film, Long Jim and Other Chilcotin Stories, was screened in spring 2017 at the 1st Chilcotin-Cariboo Film Festival in Williams Lake, BC, where it was greeted with acclaim.

The making of “Long Jim” and future films in the “Natural Law” series supports cultural revitalization and intergenerational reconnection by providing thoughtful documentation and visualization of traditional ways and offering meaningful prompts and “centerpieces” for community discussion. In particular, filmmaking and film viewing create a congenial space for elders and youth to come together and engage in constructive exchanges. As Linda Smith puts it: “It seems like we’re taking small steps in going forward in revitalizing our traditions, but these are actually giant leaps for us.”

We’ll soon post a photo gallery on the making of “Long Jim.” Meanwhile, you can view this video below, where you’ll also find other relevant resources.

Resources

Long Jim and Other Chilcotin Stories (2017)
8:09 minutes