Xatśūll First Nation is an Indigenous community located on the edge of the Fraser River just north of Williams Lake, British Columbia. Xatśūll First Nation consists of over 400 members who are a part of a larger group of British Columbia’s Interior Salish people known as the Secwepemc. The Interior Salish occupy the south central region of the Province and are comprised of four separate nations known as the St’at’imc (Lillooet), Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), Siylx (Okanagan) and Secwepemc (Shuswap). The Secwepemc Nation is the largest and northernmost Interior Salish group. They have occupied the region for thousands of years prior to European settlement. The vast traditional territory of the Secwepemc people extended from the Rocky Mountains in the East through the Columbia River valley to the west of the Fraser River area and the Southern Arrow Lakes region to the Northern McBride area. The Secwepemc Nation was traditionally a self-governing people who were united by Secwepemctsin language, culture and belief system; however the bands were operated separate and independent from each other. Yet the nation worked together as a political alliance that regulated use of the land and resources, and protected their territories. The Xatśūll First Nation is the most northerly Secwepemc community in this vast region and has occupied this village site for at least 5,000 years. For thousands of years the Northern Secwepemc have occupied and utilized large areas of the northern territory extending East of Mt. Alex Graham going North East to Bowen Lake areas including areas around Quesnel Lake and Horsefly.
The local economy was based on hunting fishing and trade with other nations. The northern Secwepemc people maintained relationships with neighbouring nations such as the southern Dakelh (Carrier) and Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) people. Trade and inter-marriages between nations was a large part of their relationship-building and culture. The Secwepemc people were known to trade, celebrate and also war with the Tsilhqot’in nation. The northern Secwepemc bands served as middlemen between the southern Secwepemc bands and the Tsilhqot’in through a method of purchasing products from each group and selling them at a profit. The people of Xatśūll had a good relationship with the Southern Dakelh people and traded items directly with them. The Secwepemc people exchanged their goods like dried salmon, salmon oil, baskets, paint, deer skins, shells, and raw hide with the other nations. Through the intricate trade networks that were developed across the territory the Secwepemc people were able to obtain items like dentalium shells, woven goat’s hair blankets and belts, snowshoes, wampum beads, roots, bark, and baskets. European items such as copper, brass, iron and glass beads were also being circulated in the Interior by the end of the 17th century.
At the time of initial contact with European explorers the Secwepemc people were completely self-sufficient, utilizing their traditional skills and knowledge of the land and resources. The Secwepemc used local material to produce everything they required; food, shelter, weapons, clothing, tools and everyday items were all made from the local environment. Items that were not available locally were acquired through trade. The knowledge and level of skill to develop the items needed to survive was handed down from generation to generation. Complex techniques and processes were employed when crafting tools, materials, and weapons. All Secwepemc clothing and footwear was originally made from hide and fur materials. Large game such as moose, deer, elk, and caribou were especially valuable and every part of the animal was used. The hides would be cured through the traditional process known as tanning hides. The process involved several different steps from skinning, cleaning, framing, stretching, curing, rinsing and finally smoking the hide. This knowledge was passed down from grandmother to mother to granddaughter.
Secwepemc women were well-known for their skill in sewing beading and crafts, but they were especially renowned for their superior basketry and weaving skills. Baskets were most often made from birch bark, balsam, spruce or cherry bark, cedar root and pine needles. There were many types of baskets made for a multitude of everyday domestic purposes from berry picking and root gathering to cradling infants. Secwepemc basketry was intricate and culturally artistic as well as essential for its versatile uses. The baskets could be decorated with dyed or undyed split goose and swan quills. The expertise of Secwepemc women’s artistry was displayed in the patterns and emblems woven into the baskets which told a story through the unique family patterns or emblems showcasing their family, tribe, or territory.
Secwepemc men were skilled craftsmen of weapons and tools. Weapons were crafted from rocks, bone and wood. The bow and arrow were relied on as the main weapon for war and defence, as well as hunting for larger game. Juniper wood was used to make the bow. Traps and snares were also utilized for hunting. Sharp objects needed for survival like arrow heads, spear points, knife blades, and tomahawk heads were most often made from rocks such as basalt, obsidian, agate, jasper and quartz. Jade and serpentine were best used for clubs, axe heads, chisels, adzes, skin scrapers, and blades for knives and daggers. Antler, bone and teeth from large game such a moose, caribou, elk and deer were also used to make tools like needles, awls, scrapers and arrowheads. Fishing equipment such as dip nets, fish traps and fishing spears were also made from bone, wood, sinew and pitch. Secwepemc people lived a sustainable lifestyle as they utilized every item and did not waste anything. The skills used to make these items were vital to the livelihood of the entire nation and were handed down from generation to generation.
The Northern Secwepemc people subsisted on hunting, fishing and gathering of plant food. The people had structured patterns of land use and resource extraction that was organized and controlled depending on the season. The region was full of wild fowl and game. The lakes, streams and rivers provided an abundance of trout and salmon. There was a variety of fruit and plants to harvest that supplemented their diet. Spring time was celebrated after the long winter months as the snow began to melt and new growth began to develop across the region. The people would start to gather fresh staples and materials. The mountain potato was a main staple that was gathered during this period. Birch bark and other roots were also gathered. When the trout began to spawn the people of Xatśūll would make their way to local the local lakes. During the summer months it was a busy time for the Secwepemc as they would harvest the magnificent bounty of the land. The supply of saskatoon and soopalallie berries flourished. They were gathered and dried to store away for the long winter months. The river came alive with the highly anticipated return of the salmon run and all the communities would gather at the river to harvest the salmon by the thousands. The Chinook salmon arrived first followed by the Sockeye salmon run. The Secwepemc people would celebrate and feast. Salmon that came up the rivers were a major source of food and would be preserved through drying or smoking processes, then stored for the long winter months. The drying racks would be stocked full right through the season. Fishing was a large part of Secwepemc culture and necessary for survival.
During the fall time families in the community would travel throughout the northern region to gather food and hunt wild game; such as moose, caribou, deer, mountain goat, and smaller game like rabbit, grouse, duck and geese. Blueberries were harvested and preserved during this time as well. The use of the land and resources were regulated in a respectful manner ensuring a foundation for future survival. The Secwepemc would rotate hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering areas. If one area was harvested one year they would harvest another area the next in order to allow the land to regenerate. During the winter months the Xatśūllemc would utilize their time to prepare for the coming seasons. They would engage in time consuming tasks such as making clothing, foot wear, weaving baskets and other products, as well as tools, weapons and equipment. Storytelling was a popular event during winter months. Oral transmission of stories, histories, and other knowledge was a method of preserving and reproducing traditional knowledge from generation to generation. The culture of Xatśūll is strengthened by the connection to the land and community to this day.
The Secwepemc people’s initial contact with European people began in the late 18th century. The European fur traders began exploring deeper into western Canada as the demand for beaver pelts continued to rise. Equally important was the search for a river route to the pacific which ultimately pushed the exploration further into present-day British Columbia. By 1793 Alexander Mackenzie met Secwepemc people along the Fraser River; he initiated good relations by providing gifts of tobacco and glass beads. The success of Alexander Mackenzie’s exploration depended on maintaining a respectful relationship with the Indigenous people in each region. For this reason he carried gifts for each group he encountered. Indigenous guides were vital to European exploration and heavily relied on to ensure safe passage from one nation’s territory to the next. By 1808 Simon Fraser also journeyed through Xatśūll territory. Xatśūll Chief Xlo’sem agreed to guide him through Secwepemc Territory down to the territory of the St’at’imc (Lillooet). Simon Fraser relied heavily on Indigenous knowledge to traverse the mighty river canyons. It was a dangerous voyage. The Indigenous people provided not only their knowledge and skill, but also food and clothing. Without the help of Indigenous people of Xatśūll and other Indigenous nations the Mackenzie and Fraser expeditions would have surely perished.
The advancement of European Fur traders steadily continued onto Secwepemc territory into the 19th century. By 1821 fur-trading companies had established posts in Kamloops and Alexandria. The culture of Secwepemc people began to change as they implemented European goods into their culture. Guns, ammunition, axes, traps, pots, pans, kettles, tobacco, cloth, blankets, glass beads and some food staples were items valued by the Secwepemc. The location of Xatśūll allowed their culture to be directly affected by European influence right into the 20th century. In the1860s gold was found in the Cariboo which was followed my massive influx of thousands of miners into Xatśūll territory. A town site known as lower Soda Creek located just a couple miles from Xatśūll became a boom town. Lower Soda Creek was the last checkpoint on the gold trail before people journeyed north on the river by sternwheeler. Local Indigenous people would help navigate the massive sternwheelers up the dangerous and unpredictable river route.
Indigenous relations with European settlers would steadily decline as the gold rush died down, and the European settlers began claiming lands that belonged to the Xatśūll and other nations. Backed by the colonial government the settlers encroached further onto Xatśūll lands. By 1865 the people of Xatśūll were forced onto a small reserve established by Governor Douglas. Indigenous people’s rights and interests were never respected or honoured during this process. The reserve was originally 22 miles long and 8 miles wide, but as European settlers wanted certain lots of land the area was reduced dramatically. In the end the Xatśūll were left with a meagre one mile square lot of land with no compensation or payment from the government. The protests of the Xatśūll leaders fell on deaf ears. It was not until later when local settlers and missionaries pressured the government about the inadequate situation that a second reserve was granted to the Xatśūll in 1895.
The people of Xatśūll have a long history of European intrusion onto their vast territory. The once industrious and prosperous nation declined severely as a result of colonization. European disease such as smallpox and influenza dramatically reduced the population of the Secwepemc people to a fraction of what it once was. The impact of colonization, loss of land and culture had many negative consequences for the community. The assimilation policy forced onto Indigenous people by the British and Canadian Governments further deteriorated the Indigenous-European relations. As with other nations across Canada lands and resources were taken from the people of Xatśūll with very little if any compensation. However, despite the dark history the people of Xatśūll have maintained a strong connection to their land and culture and continues to push forward toward a promising future.