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The Sad, Strange Saga of the Sinixt People

A story about problems the Sinixt People of Canada are having with Canadian authorities.
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Rick Desautel got cited last year for doing what his tribe has been doing for more than 3,500 years: He harvested elk and deer to feed his elders.

Canadian authorities had two problems with his hunting: One, Desautel lives in Washington state but was hunting in southeastern British Columbia; two, the Canadian government declared this tribe extinct more than 30 years ago and had long since repossessed its reserve land.

Desautel is a member of the Arrow Lakes Band, one of 12 tribes that make up the Colville Confederated Tribes. Southeastern British Columbia is the traditional territory of the Arrow Lakes, or Sinixt, people, and when an imaginary line was drawn across the continent to separate Canada from the United States, it sliced through their territory. The trouble was further compounded in 1872, when the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation was established in Washington state. Many Arrow Lakes people moved south, became residents of the U.S. and formed the Arrow Lakes band of the Colville reservation.

This gives rise to a ticklish legal question: Did the Arrow Lakes peoples who relocated below the border give up their rights to their aboriginal hunting-and-gathering territory? The resolution of the legal case against Desautel might have helped clear up confusion regarding this question and removed obstacles to hunting in aboriginal territory Arrow Lakes Band members.

Last year, the Colville Tribal Council approved a hunting season in the area on behalf of the Arrow Lakes people. Desautel and other hunters made several trips into Canada to bring meat back to elders on the Colville reservation. During those trips Desautel harvested two elk and two white-tailed deer. It was on his final hunting trip, in the fall of 2010, that he was stopped by a wildlife officer from British Columbia and given a citation and a notice to appear in court. He had a cow elk at the time, which he was allowed to keep.

Desautel’s original court date was in February 2011, but that was postponed, and then the case was dropped. “This is good news for the Arrow Lakes people,” Colville tribal chairman Michael Finley said in a statement at the time. “We view this as a victory for the Sinixt people who are asserting their rights to hunt, fish and gather.”

Other Native leaders hailed the dismissal of charges against Desautel as well. “In our view, it demonstrated an unstated acknowledgement by British Columbia that Lakes people possess rights as aboriginal people of Canada,” said Jim Boyd, Arrow Lakes Aboriginal Society Facilitator on the Colville reservation, in the statement.

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The British Columbia Ministry of Attorney General essentially said that the charges against Desautel were not worth pursuing. “The branch concluded that it was not in the public interest to pursue a prosecution in provincial court in this case at a time when some of the aboriginal rights issues that would be central to that prosecution are currently being litigated in Federal Court by the government of Canada,” the attorney general’s office said in a release. “In particular, the federal court will be reviewing the issue of the existence and status of the Sinixt in Canada.”

The attorney general emphasized, however, that the decision to drop its case against Desautel did not set a precedent or express an official position.
“If further investigative reports are forwarded to the prosecution service in relation to allegations of illegal hunting by parties asserting membership in the Sinixt, they will be subject to the usual charge approval considerations by the criminal justice branch, and prosecutions could result.”

Still open, at least in the minds of British Columbia authorities, is the question of whether or not the Arrow Lakes tribe is extinct. The Sinixt people have occupied this area in Canada reaching north to the Revelstoke area for at least 3,500 years, likely longer. They were never numerous, and their number was substantially reduced after contact and the introduction of smallpox.

After the Colville reservation was established in Washington, most Sinixt moved south. The U.S. census in 1882 listed 325 Arrow Lakes Indians on the Colville reservation in Washington. In 1902 a small reserve was set up at Oatscott, British Columbia, but a 1924 census showed only eight registered Arrow Lakes Indians in British Columbia. Annie Joseph, the last registered Arrow Lakes member, died on the Okanagan Reserve in Canada in 1953, and the government declared the tribe extinct. In 1956 the reserve was transferred back to the provincial government. A court report regarding logging on these lands states, “The Arrow Lakes Band appears to be the only Indian band in British Columbia history to have been declared extinct by Canada and have its lands revert back to the province.” It goes on to mention that Sinixt individuals are living as members of several bands on Okanagan Nation Alliance reserves in Canada and with the Colville Confederacy in Washington state.

“We have more than 2,000 Arrow Lakes people on our reservation,” says Boyd. “The Sinixt weren’t extinct in [British Columbia] at the time they were declared extinct. There were others in Canada and down below. I’m not sure how officials came to that conclusion. We don’t think it was the right decision, and that’s why we’re telling them we’re still here. We never went away.”

According to the Arrow Lakes Aboriginal Society, this “extinct” tribe is indeed alive and well, and it does not plan to stop its subsistence hunting any time soon. “Our people have continued to utilize our original territory in many ways like residing, hunting, fishing, berry picking, gathering, sporting events, etc.,” its website says. “We continue to consider this original territory as a very important part of the Lakes history, culture, traditions, and will continue to utilize this original territory in the future.”

The Colville Tribes have made several attempts over the past 30 years to get the Canadian government to change its “extinct” designation, and in the early 1990s the Colville Business Council filed a British Columbia land claim. As recently as last December the Colville Confederacy asserted claim to be the representative of the large Arrow Lakes community in the U.S. and Canada. This ongoing effort has had little success to date, but cases such as Desautel’s offer hope for the near future.

The tribe has continued to go about its business, sending several small groups of hunters into British Columbia since the end of August. The hot, dry weather made for poor hunting conditions but there were no problems at the border from either Canadian or U.S. border patrol agents, or from wildlife officials in the field.