3. How to Steal Water

At first, there was the ancestor called siwɬkʷ, who nourishes animals, plants and people.


This is a spiritual force, like field mice, red osier dogwoods, golden eagles, or the peach leaf willows that flash their fins and tails on the sandbars. Gold finches come in the summer. In the afternoon, when the wind rises and picks up the sand, the flashing leaves catch the bright yellow of their feathers and the birds are gone. They literally hide in the wind. 

American Gold Finches Stepping Out from the Willows at the Conconully Reservoir

Pike minnows, bullheads, beavers and rainbow trout live in siwɬkʷ. People come to it, dip their hands into the mountains that reflect off its surface, lift it to their mouths, and drink. It is as clear as air. It speaks.

Garter Snakes Even Go Fishing in It! (Conconully)

After that, though, there was water, a “resource” held by all people, that can nonetheless be bought, sold and owned, usually by the first person to claim it.

Deep Wells Watering Green Peas above the old Paxcu Ford North of Wallula

Any nourishment must pass through economic channels, which include capital investment and taxation to support state projects. And peas.

Practically speaking, the transformation of spirit into property proved easy to bring about. Given, however, how difficult it is to speak of these things in English, a language to which it is pretty clear that water and siwɬkʷ are the same, merely denoting a substance chemically described as dihydrogen oxide, or H2O, I am hoping that spending a bit of time flowing through siwɬkʷ’s stories will enable us to view the social history of slavery in the grasslands in its living context. Yes, slavery, that’s where we are going. Here’s one of those slaves:

Frances Xavier Richter

1n 1858, Frank left his family farm on today’s Czech-Polish border for Galveston, Texas. He was 16 years old. Just over two years later, working as a scout for either the Confederate Army or its Union counterpart, he was captured by an Apaché group and, by the looks of things, prepared for sale as a slave. Note his cut mouth. His face bears other scars. It would be typical if they came from that ordeal. He escaped, at any rate, and became a cattle baron in Smalqmex Territory, somewhat misnamed by California-based gold miners as The Similkameen Valley in 1858.

Enslaving siwɬkʷ’ as “water” does not express how it is the eye at the centre of a current, where a flow curls back on itself and comes to stillness. Anything carried on it is brought there, and held, and it is there that trout look up, see a grasshopper outlined against the sky, and rise. In the same way, translating the English language’s other word of power in the West, “land”, into the nysyilxcən term “tmxʷulaxʷ”, or vice versa, is a way of enslaving another life force. It is a sleight-of-hand so powerful and familiar that even the Syilx today pursue “land” claims. Some ask to get “their land back”. The tmxʷulaxʷ, they already have and cannot own. It is a complex negotiation, tangled with a lot of history, some of it really quite bad. Personally, I think it is time for all of us here to get our tmxʷulaxʷ back.

A bit of tmxʷulaxʷ being enslaved as land above Canim Bay.

Note the ritual cutting. It will be a vineyard soon, where the rich can sip chardonnay.

tmxʷulaxʷ is not a place, though. Not exactly. It is more like a stony moment in which the entire weave of the Earth (another ancestor) and her people are a story together within the weave of all life forms. 

Showy Aster in the Shelter of cq̓ʷasq̓istn

cq̓ʷasq̓istn shares siwɬkʷ she has brought from deep underground and creates early season seed beds by concentrating the weak winter sun to melt snow. In return, showy aster brings bees, which bring birds, which distribute cq̓ʷasq̓istn seeds in surrounding snows. They weave themselves together.

To turn these spirits into English words is to break a weave so tight that all actions, beings, language and social life are one force. There is even a word for it, timikʷ.. When you break that to create “water” and “land”, you are suddenly in the territory of other imported colonial products, such as measles, blankets soaked in smallpox and malaria, to name a few, all of which were devastating in these grasslands over the last two hundred years. I am not exaggerating. Even only twenty-five years back a group of sun dancers gathered on the creek that delivered siwɬkʷ to Stswecem’c Xgat’tem, the Secwepemc village at Dog Creek, high up on the plateau, open to blue sky and scudding white clouds torn by reforming on the lee side of the Coast Mountains to the west. Up there, a group of celebrants intent on making a kind of in-place land claim set up teepees and got down to celebrating the sun. But, this was no longer strictly siwɬkʷ. It was water, and the California water law that set its teeth down in this country in 1858 states that the first person to claim water gets to use it and has the right to transport it across another man’s “land.” After that, sale of “land” includes sale of any siwɬkʷ that might have been tied to it by the British Columbia Water Act of 1908. Under these rules, claiming siwɬkʷ because it is your ancestor is not good enough. Siwɬkʷ is not water. The sun dancers learned that, up there in the sky. Of course, Dog Creek was owed some water and the land that bore it: the shore of the creek but no further. Beyond the shore, British Columbian law assigned ownership of the land to a Scandinavian settler, Nils Gustafson, and eventually to a Montana rancher: Lyle James.

Land: (n) a title given by a political body, assigned to a stretch of Earth, which that political body then protects against all other histories.

This confusion of jurisdictions in the absence of any historical treaties is simple enough. The tricky thing, though, is that the creek had been dammed, and had spread far past its banks, forming a beautiful blue water body rippling among water lilies and rimmed by aspen trees. Tree swallows, glistening, green and black, darted in and out of nests in their trunks. Leaves danced. Now it was a lake, not a creek, with shores that passed onto James’ land. Those shores were not the ones that British Columbian law assigned to the Secwepemc. They still had their “creek”, just lower down. That’s the story as an Indigenous friend told it to me years later. For his part, James claimed that the sundance site was 10 metres inside his fence.

Lawyer George Wool’s question whether “Back in the early days in the 1800s, surveying was not the exact science it is today?” appears to have been well worth asking.

Predictably enough, one thing led to another and within a few days shots were fired, the RCMP came to nearby 100 Mile House in unmarked grey vans, television reporters in tow, and, if news reports are to be believed, cleared the Secwepemc out with the threat of anti-personnel grenades. I figured it was simpler than that. In my book about finding some common ground between Canada and Cariboo life, Tom Thomson’s Shack, I wrote that those sun-dancers were out there beside standing water in a Cariboo summer. With a blockade by the RCMP preventing their families from bringing in essential supplies, such as Deep Woods Off, they were being eaten alive by mosquitoes. They had to leave.

            “They had a 50-calibre rifle,” a smelqmix great grandson of Frank Richter told me one day as we were discussing how best to tell the story of siwɬkʷ in our valley. .

            “50 calibre!” I said. “I hadn’t heard that.” That’s the kind of weapon that the marines mounted on river boats in Vietnam and IS on the backs of Toyota pickups in Syria and Iraq: far too much firepower to use against a bunch of sun worshippers.

            “That’s what they had,” my friend said. “You know how big those bullets are?”

            “Huge,” I said. 

            My friend spread out his big hand on the table and traced out the shape of a pike minnow across the palm. “Blow your head off from a mile away,” he said.

 In Canadian and British Columbian law, this is called “law and order.” It is very popular. It “keeps the peace” between conflicting claims to land.  It has little to do with tmxʷulaxʷ or siwɬkʷ. There need not even be any evil intentions behind all of this. Simple English translations, that see them as “land” and “water”, make them invisible. Language matters. Just ask someone who made this place.

Spillyay, aka Sen’klip reclaiming the plutonium fields across from White Bluff, where the United States Government created the plutonium for the Trinity Test and the Nagasaki bomb.

That̓s how you steal siwɬkʷ. You simply call it something else. In the next chapter, I will detail how Frank Richter achieved this transformation through marriage, or, rather, two marriages: first with a Syilx woman, then with a White one with a bit of history of her own.

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