BEFORE THE WHITE MAN CAME
“The Indians of Similkameen are every day becoming more civilized and the time is not far distant (if they survive the civilizing process) when there will be little or no distinction between a Similkameen Indian and his white Brethren.” With these words the late Mrs. S.L. Allison closed her paper on “The Similkameen Indians,” which appeared in the Similkameen Star for 20 March, 1912, and succeeding issues. During the years that have elapsed since this prophecy, some progress has been made towards its fulfillment, but the native peoples show no sign of losing their identity as a distinct race. They have adopted much of the white men’s civilization (including some of its evils). They proved their survival value before the white man came. Since then, adaptability has gradually moulded the younger generations into modern ways. The word has become so ingrained in our speech that it is difficult to avoid the use of the term “Indian.” The fact remains that they are not Indians, but native peoples of this land which the white man, too, now inhabits.
Sources of information relative to native history in this valley are few. For the most part we must rely on legends that have been handed down. Present-day Indians have ceased to be interested in the history of their forefathers. Stories of old, handed down from generation to generation are beginning to fail. The torch is no longer being passed on.
WHENCE THEY CAME?
In his report on the Ethnology of the Okanagans, Charles Hill Tout maintained that they came originally by way of the Pacific, and that their language “has closer linguistic affinities with the Oceanic peoples than with any other of the characteristic American stocks east of the Rockies” (Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 41, 1911). But Diamond Jenness in his “Indians of Canada” views with suspicion the theory that our Indians came originally from across the Pacific.
The Indians of our province are divided according to linguistic families: Athapaskan, Haida, Tlingitt, Kootenayan, Wakashan and Salishan. The Salishan is divided into coast and interior groups. The Okanagan and Similkameen Indians belong to the Interior Salish family. The Similkameens reflect various intrusions from the Thompsons, and the Athapaskans.
We are accustomed to think of the red man as a warrior, but peace hath her victories no less than war. Long before the white man came there were arts of peace as well as war.
The homes of the Interior Salish were of two types. The summer dwelling was cone-shaped. During the winter months all resorted to the semi-underground dwellings known as keekwillies. The summer dwellings resembled those of the prairie Indians. Tepee-like, they were conical in shape, and were made of poles, branches, skins and grass. Winter quarters included the log hut as well as the keekwillie, both of which were partly underground. Keekwillie is a Chinook word meaning “low, below, under, beneath, down, inward,” all of which are applicable to underground dwellings. “The keekwillie was dug in circular form, from 15 to 20 feet across and about six feet deep, or even less. A centre pole from the floor rose a few feet above the ground. Poles were laid from the ground to a support at the top of the pole; until a dome-like roof was formed of poles, brush and soil. A small, round hole was left in the roof, close to the centre pole, for entrance and egress, not only for the occupants but also for the smoke. It was the only ventilator.” (Denys Nelson).
Keekwillies were common enough when the white man first came to these parts. In May, 1928, David Whitley of One Mile better known as “Red Paddy” (died 1 January, 1931) showed me where the keekwillies had formerly been on the property of Percy Rowlands and Billy Green. The depressions were nearly forty feet across so they must have been unusually large.
Mrs. S. Perkins, formerly Miss Alice Allison and now Mrs. Ed Wright of Trout Creek, Summerland, said (May, 1928) there used to be two keekwillie holes just behind where the curling rink is now, but the railway cut right through them. Well-preserved are remains on the east bank of Wolfe Lake.
Sweat houses are frequently found near keekwillies. The sweat house was a regular Indian institution, and was regarded as the chief panacea for all ills.
The Indians of Similkameen were not behind others in their ability to fashion implements out of stone and other materials, and a number of local residents have collections of Indian artifacts: hammers, pestles, arrow-heads, etc. They were proficient in such arts as basketry, beadwork, tanning; and making pipes which, like red ochre and eagles’ feathers, were items of export, and highly valued by neighbouring tribes. J. Corrie of Princeton says that “Chopaka” means soapstone, which was used in making pipes. He tells also that an Indian in Saskatchewan referred to his pipe as “My Chopaka.”
FOOD FOR THE BODY
The native people lived of fish and game and the products of the soil. In the interior the emphasis was on hunting rather than fishing. There is nothing here to correspond with the great shell mounds and kitchen middens at the coast. When we pick huckleberries in Tulameen Valley or elsewhere, we are following an ancient custom. Sunflower seeds were pounded into flour from which cakes were made. Speetlum roots were dug in spring and eaten either dried, or boiled with serviceberry bark which gave it an almond flavour. When dried, it was a substitute for bread. The wild potato (stitome) was gathered in season, and edible fungi were highly prized as an article of diet. The cactus, or prickly pear, was roasted and eaten with salt. Kinnickinic berries, dried and pounded, were used for sweetening. This is an evergreen, creeping plant with a bright, red berry. Even after the white man came, the leaves were dried and used as tobacco when money was scarce. One of the picnicking sites on the west bank of Okanagan Lake is named Kinnickinic.
Wild onions, in the same manner as lichens, were slowly cooked by hot stones in covered pits. Edible roots included the tiger lily, snapdragon and a kind of celery. “Lebrew” was made from the soapberry, which was beaten with the hand in water till it formed a sluggish froth, like soapsuds. According to Mrs. Allison, this was “really very nice”. There was also a tea, for which many virtues were claimed. Indians produced fire by inserting a piece of hardwood into a punk stump, and twirling it around between the hands till friction induced combustion.
Fishing in lakes and rivers supplied much of the Indian diet. Basket traps were used, also horse-hair lines to which thorns, or cactus hooks were attached. Native women made the baskets, and home-made twine.
Before they were able to obtain rifles for hunting the natives used bows and arrows, lariats and snares. Even deer were snared. At other times a whole tribe, with the help of their dogs, would herd deer into a natural corral, where they were quickly killed with bows and arrows.
Hunting was an important part of the lives of the men. The number of legends that centre around the hunt is evidence of this. Nor must we forget that far more skill and courage were necessary then than now. Armed with primitive weapons, it was no light matter to face a bear, or wolf, or cougar. Courage was a virtue that had to be developed if the race were to survive. The race was to the swift. The battle was to the strong.
In the making of homes, the manufacture of implements of peace and war, and in the making of canoes, hunting and fishing weapons, the Indians showed much ingenuity to achieve what they did before the white man came. Canoe construction did not reach so high a level as at the coast.
THE DAILY ROUND
The Similkameens had little or no political organization as we know it. The largest unit was the tribe, though tribes would not hesitate to unite against a common enemy. The law that governed inter-tribal relations was like the old Mosaic law: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Like the Romans of old, they could boast that none treated their enemies so ill, or their friends so well. Every tribe had its chief, and the shadow of his authority is still maintained. Well-defined customs grew up around the great events of life: birth, childhood, manhood, womanhood, marriage, sickness, death and burial. Church and state were represented by the medicine man and the chief.
The Similkameen Valley is rich in Indian rock paintings. Some are crude, some are elaborate, all are interesting. Students call them pictographs because they are painted on rocks, whereas petroglyphs are carved in rock. There are few petroglyphs in the southern interior of our province, but pictographs are common especially in Similkameen. They are a source of interest to tourists who wonder how old they are, who made them and what they mean. The Similkameen paintings are found chiefly along the old road which follows closely the original trail. Boulders, bluffs, rock faces and canyons were all “canvases” for the early painters who left messages intended for the many who would follow.
It is not possible to assign dates to these pictures. The oldest Indians believe they were made by their grandparents when they were young. Ashnola Mary (Narcisse), who died on 24 May, 1944, aged 110 years, said they had been there as long as she could remember. The red ochre used for paint has a time-defying quality which makes dating difficult.
There are large deposits of this red ochre in the Tulameen Valley and, before the white man invaded Similkameen, Indians came long distances to trade for the red paint. Tulameen means “red earth”, and Allison Flat was formerly known as “Yak-Tulameen,” or the place where the red earth was sold. It was the first market place in the valley. Some of the paintings have to do with tribal rites and initiation ceremonies, some are guides for hunters and travelers, others are historical records.
Between Princeton and Hedley (along the old road) are twenty “sets” of paintings. Most of them are made up of conventional signs, but some are records of local history or legend. The Ashnola paintings (on the south side of the river) have unusual designs. These were reported by K.G.L. Mackenzie in 1947. East of Hedley the new road follows the north bank of the river. Passing the native village of Chuchuawa, with its little church set on a hill, one comes to the most interesting pictures of all, about four miles past Hedley. Five minutes walk from the road brings the visitor to the base of an overhanging cliff. Here the early artists excelled themselves. In addition to the usual conventional figures, one picture suggests four captives being brought in. They are preceded by two men on horseback, and dogs seem to be at their heels. This is the most realistic study of all.
The new highway bypasses a third group, near the junction of the Green Mountain and Yellow Lake roads. Here is the famous “Spirit of the Mountains,” who continues from a safe distance to keep a weather-eye on east-west travel.
LEGENDS – THE SEVEN STONES
The natives used to people the surrounding hills and lakes with imaginary beings. They had their Sasquatch as the Okanagans had their Ogopogo. The seven stones of Similkameen (Okanagan Historical Report No. 12 – 1948) include the rainstone, the witchstone, the ghoststone, the firestone, the lovestone, the leapstone, and the hol(e)ystone. The rainstone when prayed to caused rain to fall. The firestone caused smoke by day and fire by night. The others were objects of local legend – except the hol(e)ystone, which is a relic of rock-drilling contests. It is still to be seen in front of the Frost-n-burger stand across from the Mine Rescue station next to the Court House on Vermilion Avenue.
Religious belief in a multitude of spirits, good and evil, explains many of the native customs. The medicine man was a real power for good or evil, or both.
WAR TO THE KNIFE
The following story was told by Mrs. Joseph Armstrong when she resided at Copper Mountain. Formerly she had lived at Susap Creek, near Keremeos. She had the story from Charlie Yakumtikum. When Charlie died (in 1930, according to Mrs. Armstrong’s recollection), he was about a hundred years old.