Nlaka’pamux hold community close through disaster

Amid flood, fire and other traumas — spiritual restoration has been as important as physical
Shackan First Nation Chief Arnie Lampreau. Photo by Alex Cosh

Editor’s note: Previous versions of this story appeared in the Maple here and here, and has been reprinted with edits and permission.

After a year of near-unceasing tragedy, the Nlaka’pamux are rebuilding — which is just as much about coming together in ceremony as it is about reconstructing highways and bridges.

Much of what the community is healing from is still ongoing: fires and floods resulting from an ongoing climate emergency, the continued findings of unmarked graves at residential “schools” and loved ones lost to COVID-19. 

Just this past month, the nearby village of “Lytton” — which was completely destroyed by a wildfire last year amid climate-change driven heat — had to evacuate more than 100 residents after another blaze hit. The fire was stable this weekend, according to BC Wildfire Service, but Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park remained closed.

Before the latest fire, communities in the region had already been in recovery mode for the past year. Back in April, Chief Arnie Lampreau of the Shackan First Nation said bringing people together during this process is crucial.

“We need to pray together; we need to sing together; we need to talk together and hear each other,” he said.

In November 2021, the “Nicola River Valley” faced catastrophic floods — super-charged by the climate emergency and excessive logging — which washed away bridges and homes, uprooted trees, erased parts of the highway and displaced community members.

The flood

spe’?eci’, an nlekpmx Elder and Knowledge Keeper whose English name is Amelia Washington, was one of those affected. She recalls being woken up by a terrifying sound on the night of Nov. 15.

That evening, the power went out at 5 p.m as the river rapidly rose. Washington’s family, including her 82-year-old sister, a stroke survivor, had prepared to evacuate first thing the next morning.

“It must have been 10 o’clock, maybe 9:30. The house cracked, and it felt like it dragged,” said Washington. “It scared the living daylights out of me. I really thought I was going to collapse in the house. I thought I was going to die in there.”

The water had completely eroded approximately 50 feet of land, including some directly beneath her house.

Washington initially didn’t want to leave the property, as she had only recently returned after being evacuated because of the fires.

Eventually, however, it was too dangerous to stay, and everyone escaped.

Washington’s home is situated next to an area where many ancestors are buried. Her home also sits at the foot of a hill, which once served as a puberty training ground for Scw’exmx youth.

“The young girls used to do their isolation huts back in my grandmother’s day,” Washington explained. Her grandmother told her that back then, pits were dug and young women would bleed into the land.

For the boys, the hill was the site of an endurance run, where they had to pack rocks from the river up the mountain, and beat the sunrise each day.

“Wherever the sun stopped, that’s where they’d have to stay, and then come down, bring that rock down and then go back up again,” said Washington.

“This is a very sacred area.”

Recovering from the flood, which had disastrous consequences, has been an ongoing process, Photo by Alex Cosh

The aftermath

The floods were the result of an atmospheric river event that poured a month’s worth of rain in the space of two days. 

It came only a few months after the first “Lytton” fire. 

The fire spread into the valley, resulting in an emergency evacuation of the Scw’exmx, people of the creeks, part of the Nlaka’pamux Nation, for several days. Blackened trees, no longer able to retain much of the rainwater that caused the river to rise last fall, pepper much of the west side of the valley. 

A massive repair operation following the two disasters has been underway through the valley. The scale of which includes everything from reinforcing the river bank with heavy rocks and mending the highway to clearing out and replacing damaged home appliances, including thawed freezers.

In May, dump trucks were hauling rocks from nearby quarries along the sections of Highway 8 that were still passable. Helicopters transporting repair crews cut across the sky and down into the river valley. Along what remains of the riverbanks, teams of workers in fluorescent jackets gathered wire, broken fence posts and other debris.

While the “B.C.” Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure is undertaking many of the repairs, Shackan band members and other Nlaka’pamux relatives have been on the ground doing much of the legwork.

“I don’t think that the staff had any idea of how much work that they had to do to get the people back into Shackan,” said Chief Lampreau at the time.

He explained that to initially access the homes in the valley, Shackan members had to make several two-and-a-half-hour long hikes each way via the mountains, since the highway was closed.

Cleaning out spoiling food from the freezers was difficult for the Shackan crews, who knew how much work had gone into gathering winter stores of fish and game that were rendered inedible as a result of power outages.

A particularly traumatic aspect of the recovery process has been locating and protecting the ancestral remains that were unearthed by the high waters. At a rock quarry, one ancestral finding included parts of a human skull with seven arrowheads around it.

Scw’exmx archaeological monitors are working in the field to identify the remains along with animal bones. Among those workers is Shackan member Shona Bara.

“We’re just trying to make sure that we can find them and bring them back home safe and sound,” she explained.

Once the bones are found, Bara said, the archaeological monitors provide a tobacco offering to let the ancestors and animals know that the monitors are here to help. “We just say a prayer over them,” she said.

Chief Lampreau and Elder Washington both explained that the ancestors are allowing themselves to be found as a wake up call.

“What I keep hearing from Elders is that our children have spoken, the residential school children have spoken, they have shown themselves and allowed themselves to be discovered,” Washington said. “Now, with the water, our ancestors are allowing themselves to be discovered to wake us up and pay attention to the sacred land and the water.”

Chief Lampreau sees another significant outcome of the ancestral findings. Their discovery, he explained, necessitates discussions among local bands about where in the valley the ancestral remains should be laid to rest.

He believes it’s no coincidence that ancestors are being found at the same time his community is looking to reclaim more of its land. “I think our ancestors are actually helping us to get this process done quicker,” he said.

“Some of the discussions with leadership have been about how these ancestors are actually going to be the ones that are going to be bringing us together, and I think that’s very valuable.”

The next seven generations

Currently, Shackan is divided into three separate reserves. The main reserve encompasses a portion of Highway 8 and is largely situated on the west side of Scw’ex (the Nicola River). The other two reserves, Papsilqua and Soldatquo, are located to the north-east of the river.

“What I’m looking at is the next seven generations down the road not having to worry about being flooded out or put into a position where there’s fires, so they have a better chance of thriving and surviving.”

Chief Lampreau said he’s looking at lands closer to “Merritt.”, “And the reason for that is to provide economic diversity, because we don’t currently have that down here where we’re at.”

The land, people and local wildlife are at risk, Chief Lampreau continued, as erratic weather events become more common. As well, extreme weather further drives ecological destruction in no small part because of the excessive harvesting of the lands, which means that much less rainwater falling into the valley is being retained by what were once healthy forests.

“Without our water, we’re nothing. Without the land, we’re nothing,” Chief Lampreau noted.

“You can even look at Google Earth, and you see how much is missing, and all the square patches of forest that are gone.”

Reflecting on the dramatic changes the Scw’exmx have faced to their land and culture over the years, Chief Lampreau said: “What it boils down to is the government: How are they going to make the money, and how are they going to spend it? But is it really beneficial to our people? I don’t know, that’s something we have to talk about.”

At the root of many of the challenges faced by the Scw’exmx and other Indigenous Peoples, said Chief Lampreau, is the “doctrine of discovery,” the colonial legal concept used to justify stealing land.

“The doctrines have never been renounced. It remains the basis of Canadian law and influences the way our people are treated. We were a government, we were a people, we had a custom, we had our own laws, we had everything prior to contact,” said Chief Lampreau.

“It needs to go to a level where we can renounce these doctrines that they use to beat us down to literally nothing.”

Chief Arnie Lampreau, Lenora Starr and Jerri Apsassin help move a stove from spe’?eci’ (Amelia Washington)’s house. Photo by Alex Cosh

Climate emergency

​​Researchers confirm what Indigenous Peoples and their neighbours have already observed: The climate emergency and excessive logging are putting residents in the “Nicola Valley” at increased risk of dangerous floods.

Kim Green, a geoscientist at Selkirk College, said that while her research has not looked at the valley specifically, there is clear evidence that logging in snow-melt regions impacts water run-off in stream systems and rivers.

“If you take the forest away, you end up with more snow on the ground, and so that snow is then available to melt, more so than if the forest had been there,” Green said. The snow also melts much faster.

Logging at high elevations in plateau regions like the “Nicola Valley,” said Green, “is the absolute worst case scenario for altering the magnitude and the frequency of floods.”

The added factor of burnt trees also contributes to the way water behaves on the landscape, she explained: “What you get is quite literally a grease layer. It feels like grease.”

This is caused by burnt organic material on the soil surface, and is called “hydrophobic soil.”

“It actually physically turns your slope into a paved parking lot,” said Green. “Anything running off of that runs off very quickly into mainstream channels.” The hydrophobic layer can last for several years.

All of this is worsened by the the increasingly frequent occurrence of rain-on-snow events in the late fall and early winter, Green explained. When areas like the forest openings in the higher elevations of the “Nicola River” already have a lot of snow, and they get rained on, all tat snow melts at a rapid pace.

“There’s a cumulative impact now, so not just the fact that you’re changing the snow processes, but now you’ve got climate change compounding the impacts of that,” she said.

On top of that, atmospheric rivers of the kind that triggered the November floods are likely to become more common as a result of climate change.

A 2018 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that atmospheric rivers reaching the coast are likely to be about 25 per cent wider, 25 per cent longer and, overall, 50 per cent more intense than averages in previous years. This is because the warmer the air is, the more water vapour it can carry.

The past year has also had communities grappling with the re-traumatizing findings of unmarked graves on the former grounds of Canada’s genocidal residential “schools,” including at Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc (Kamloops), as well as deaths caused by COVID-19.

On April 8, Shackan First Nation hosted a gathering for healing and teaching, which included a bear-dancer ceremony, an ancient practice through which Nlaka’pamux peoples celebrate one of their most important teachers.

The bear, said Chief Lampreau, is an essential part of the region’s ecology and his nation’s culture.

“Bear was the number one teacher in our own societies of the day, because bear taught you how to take care of yourself,” Chief Lampreau explained.

“If you got hurt, it showed you what berries to eat, what foods to eat, how to take care of yourself in the wintertime.”

The ceremony, which featured stl’atl’imx dancers, allowed members of the community to touch the bears and release any sorrow and hurt that they were carrying — both physical and emotional.

During the ceremony, participants also had the opportunity to be smudged and brushed off by cedar.

“That ability to have that traditional medicine, that traditional teaching, the culture, is very important,” Chief Lampreau explained. “At the end of this ceremony, when we walked away, we felt a whole lot lighter, not feeling that heaviness.”

“It was just a beautiful day, and it doesn’t get much better than that.”

The coming together of Nlaka’pamux Peoples and their relatives throughout the region also means bringing down artificial borders imposed by settler-colonial governments.

Lee Seymour, a Shackan member, said the boundaries that separate his community from his cousins on reserves in “Lillooet,” “Boston Bar,” “Kelowna” and elsewhere leave him with a “funny feeling.”

“You’re just putting a border there, and I don’t know why but I kind of feel like I should be part of them,” he explained. 

That feeling was magnified by the floods, which displaced and scattered his community. Seymour described having to leave the Shackan reserve to stay in a hotel felt like being in a jail.

“When you come back home [after the floods], you still don’t have that feeling of home yet, because the community is still spread out like they’re not a community or they’re still maybe in shock or something; that communication, that feeling is not there,” he said.

It’s not only the aftermath of the floods that has created an imbalance and unsettling change, Seymour continued. The rapidly changing climate has seen crisp, snowy winters give way to wind and rain. Summers were always warm, he said, but now the hot spells are more intense and erratic.

“People can’t adapt to that,” said Seymour. These existential challenges make gatherings like the bear-dancer ceremony so important, he noted.

“We have to start somewhere,” Seymour explained. “I think that’s a very strong part of the thing that’s going to pull us together, because we’re all fighting for the same thing.”

“It gives us a little bit more power inside, feeling that we’re working together as a community.”

Unity between nations

Steve Basil, a member of the Bonaparte First Nation who was also at the bear-dancer ceremony, said that unity among Indigenous Peoples in the region can be traced back to a meeting in 1911 between southern interior chiefs at “Spences Bridge.”

At that meeting, where Basil’s grandfather was present, the chiefs signed the Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe, demanding recognition of their land, which was never sold to the “B.C.” government.

“Each nation that came together had a responsibility within their own territories, and the concerns that they had and the direction that they wanted to go was universal in terms of each nation wanting the same thing, wanting communities of people to stand up and take responsibility for the land, the environment, the animals, and everything that they depended on,” said Basil.

He noted that the meeting would have taken a lot of time to arrange given the various territorial disputes between some of the chiefs, but they ultimately came together in peace to work with each other and share territory. 

The 1911 meeting also resulted in several marriages, and today Basil has relatives in “Lower Nicola,” “Spences Bridge,” Shackan, “Lytton” and all the way to the “Fraser Valley” and the “Okanagan.”

He explained that the boundaries imposed by colonial governments are at odds with the traditional roles of Indigenous chiefs, whose duties extend far beyond the limits of reserves.

“The roles and responsibilities of our people don’t stop at that reserve boundary; it’s a little box that we’ve been put into,” said Basil. His people, he explained, were once nomadic, and didn’t reside permanently in one location.

“I have no boundaries, and I practice that by my food gathering, my medicine gathering,” said Basil. “I tried to share with people and other communities that they’re not controlled; you can go beyond, there’s not a fence or line there that you have to stop at.”

In the past, Basil explained, his people would gather wild potatoes, onions, celery and medicines to distribute among the community.

“We had our spiritual, cultural and traditional people that took on the responsibility of the well being of the community,” he added.

These practices, Basil explained, also enabled his people to better manage the risks of fires and floods.

For example, controlled burns reduced the amount of fuel available for wildfires. But this practice eventually became prohibited by the colonial authorities. “As a result, we have a lot of undergrowth and pine needles piling up, and once that lights up into fire, there’s no control,” said Basil.

Traditional practices were also seriously harmed by the intergenerational trauma inflicted by Canada’s genocidal residential school system, he said.

“The residential ‘school’ system has taken a lot of our traditional governance system away from us in relation to the teachings, and brainwashed our leadership,” said Basil.

“We have to go back into that traditional way of doing things, that traditional governance.”

The community came together for a bear-dancer ceremony on April 8. Photo by Alex Cosh

‘Spiritual surgery’

Ko’waintco Michel, who represents the Nla’kapamux Nation at the Interior Region Nation Executive Table, said cultural ceremonies and being together has been crucial to healing from the past year’s events, particularly after the news about the 215 unmarked graves in May 2021.

Michel’s mother and two older sisters both attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“I really cried hard that day,” said Michel. “I was so impacted.”

Before residential “school” survivors and their families had the chance to address the trauma brought up by the findings at Tk’emlúps (Kamloops), the wildfire that burned Tl’kemtsin (Lytton) to the ground displaced people in the region from their homes.

“We were to have a ceremony [in Kamloops], then the fire happened,” said Michel. After that, the floods forced community members to evacuate yet again. These disasters followed a series of deaths caused by the pandemic, during which funeral services could not be held due to public health restrictions.

“Now we’re just having to do some really major healing to deal with all those impacts,” Michel explained. “Having a ceremony with the brushing: That was to acknowledge all those things that happened to us. We need to take care of our spiritual part of ourselves and heal and move forward.”

That bear-dancer ceremony in April, she continued, allowed those who were carrying heavy emotions and trauma to have some of those feelings literally brushed away.

“Sometimes when some of us do the brushing, we pull stuff out that people hold on to,” said Michel. “Maybe they’re holding on to being angry or hurt about something. We pull that out, and when we clean it out of their vessel, it leaves room for them to get connected with themselves.”

“When they get connected with themselves, they can think more clearly, feel lighter, look at the world for what it is instead of being in a state of shock or trauma. I call it spiritual surgery.”

Standing next to Washington’s damaged home, Lenora Starr agreed a beautiful thing that has come from the recent catastrophes is that communities in the area have come together to support one another.

“It’s very empowering for us to recognize that we can do this work on our own, in our way that’s going to best support us.”

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