First Peoples

4. A Woman Loses Her Dowry at a Poker Game

In 1958, I was born into the tmʷwulaxʷ, a hundred years after it was enslaved as land and water. I lived first on an orchard above the Great Northern Railroad’s Similkameen Station and then at Blind Creek. Both houses were set on “land”, as was the Canadian custom, protected by deeds surveyed onto a long outwash fan of sagebrush and bunch grass. The fan had been stolen from the Terbasket’s, a Smelqmix family, in 1864. At that time, the Crown Colony of British Columbia was 6 years old. It even had a royal crest.

The British Columbia Royal Crest

Canada was 3 years from becoming a country and 7 years from purchasing the colony to free it from its debts. Under British rule, colonial officials had promised the Smelqmix adequate land for their needs. They promised that those needs would be met before any land was granted to settlers. Unfortunately, Colony Governor James Douglas was thrown out by people without his history as Chief Factor of the Columbia District of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Sir James Douglas

American settlers in Oregon mocked him and his wife Julia for putting on the airs of aristocracy, likely because he was Creole (from the Caribbean) and Julia was Nimiípúu. Fears of a slave revolt, and revolt of non-Whites against colonial rule, was the talk of the day after the Black revolution in Haiti.

Once Douglas was removed as governor, the rules changed. This time, government clerks colluded with settlers (such as Frances Xavier Richter) to grant them land in advance of the cut-off date. When the cut-off date came, they were “innocently” unable to fulfill the terms of the promise because there was no “land” left. Every acre of my farming community was on land originally set aside for the Terbaskets. The players in this game of cards are:

The debtor: Charles Pandosy, a starving Catholic priest kept as a prestige item by Chief Owhi at his winter camp in the Kittitas Valley. Alexander Ross reported that there were wolves and bears in the crowds that gathered at the Kittitas Valley summer camp in 1809. Pandosy was Owhi’s bear in 1848.

The wronged family first appears in colonial records under the name Tah-la-bask-et, which became Terbasket over time. The name’s responsibility to the tmʷwulaxʷ remains. As Kelly Terbasket told me one day in her kitchen it describes “those who gather in and weave the threads together.”

The teller of this tale is a s’ama, a new kind of human in this place, with white skin, green eyes and his head put on upside down, with hair growing on the bottom of his head more than on the top. He looks like a ghost. He would be good to keep as a prestige item, like a bear on a chain.

The thief was Frances Xavier Richter. His family names means “Judge.” He came from a family of farmers. Judge or farmer, it makes no difference: Richter wanted land to raise cattle. However, it was 1862. In the Similkameen, there was no land on either side of the US-British Columbian border not already being grazed down to dust by cattle. 

The cattle were sometimes owned by syilx women, though, who bought them from British border guards who took them as duty payments from Americans pushing north to the gold fields of South-Central British Columbia. It was the only economy going, other than selling gold licenses. However, no-one other than the syilx women had the actual cash that could make things work. Today, you might call these women bankers.

Now, watch closely. Richter played this game with skill he had learned in his fourteen years of wandering through gold-mining camps, up from his landing in Galveston in 1858, when he was 16. We’re dealing with a pro, here. He started this game by marrying a syilx woman with her roots at Head of the Lake and ties to Loomis, in the Lower Similkameen: Lucy Simla. 

Lucy Simla, Photo from the Kelowna Museum

Together, Frances and Lucy had five sons. Their Hans was one of the great competitive cowboys of western history. 

Hans’s ropes were Indian Hemp, woven in the syilx style.

Hans’s grandson Dixon works as a cultural officer for the Syilx Nation Alliance, a cross-border government for the nsyilxcən-speaking communities of Washington and British Columbia. Here’s how Dixon puts the marriage: “Lucy came with 10,000 acres of land she inherited from her father. Zaver [Xavier] signed it over into his own name.” Dixon likes to say things directly. There’s more to the story, too. For one thing, in the old flow of the nmɘlqaytkw, its route down through Conconully, Buck Canyon and the Smelqmix homeland in the Methow, when it drained the great inland seas of post-glacial southern British Columbia is one of the most beautiful lakes in the West, sitting against a tongue of purple stone that in a hot summer afternoon at 50 degrees Celsius seems to thrust right out of the mouth of the sun.

The Sacred Split Rock on the Shore of Palmer Lake

The north end of the lake used to be the main winter village for the Smelqmix. A rare kind of spear point has been found on its shore, a Windust point 12,000 years old, brought up from the mountains on the California-Nevada border. 12,000 years would put its arrival on the tail of the melting glaciers of the last ice age. In other words, the smelqmix and the caribou they tracked along the edge of the ice were the first people here. They came before the trees. For another thing, 12,000 years later much of that wealth was in Richter’s hands. Here’s how he pulled it off:

in Indigenous traditions, newcomers are brought into families by marriage, which ties them to ancient family structures that assign responsibility to land;

by taking Lucy as a common law wife, Richter gained access to her responsibility to the tmxʷulaxʷ́

which he then converted into legal title in British Columbian property law, which did not allow either native people or women to own land. They could claim tmxʷulaxʷ, but since it had no standing in British Columbian law, the point was moot.

There’s no need, however, to assign contemporary motives to either Frances or Lucy. They were independent people trying to manage a dynamic situation, as are we all. The conversion could have meant that Frances was a cynical bastard, as a contemporary narrative might put it, but it could also have meant that he was transferring an ancient land-human relationship into new terms, in order to protect it.

For awhile, anyway.


In Chapter 5, we will continue with the mystery of another woman and her dowry.

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