7. Frustrations All Around

In 1923, Paul Terbasket went to jail for contempt of court for using siwiɬk, his ancestor, to irrigate the fruit trees at his inheritance, the story called Blind Creek.

siwiɬk, a spirit and ancestor

(Thompson River)

The trees were his inheritance from Richter’s first orchard, planted in 1867. His grandfather, and then his father Michael, had worked on that orchard from time to time. In itself, syilx people (as they were) were familiar with farming. By 1867, it had close to fifty years of tradition, within syilx culture, on the Hudson’s Bay Company gardens across the Columbia from Fort Okanogan.

Fort Okanogan and Gardens

The original fort (1809) was located at the mouth of the Okanogan, represented by the red dot above. Here, horse trains from the North were loaded onto York boats for the trip downriver, and freight from downriver was loaded on horses. The horses typically came from the Nimíipúu. The gardens were across the river, within the yellow boundary.

The View from the original Fort Site Today, looking East.

Water levels have been raised by the Wells Dam.

Note the county line going down the middle of the impounded river and the ghosted old shoreline just visible through the water.

The line is a rough indication of the original course of the river. I’m not sure if it marks the centre of the stream, or the north (right) and west (top) banks. Either way, today’s Highway 97 crosses the river at that point to follow the old Okanogan Trail on the eastern shore passing on eventually to the Smelqmix villages at The Forks (the Originally a grease and obsidian trail from the Chilcotin, the path has been used for trade for at least 7,000 years.)

Here’s the obsidian source.

The trail up the Dean River is the same trail that goes past Fort Okanogan. Distance: 1000 kilometres.

In short, the Hudson’s Bay Company fit itself into Syilx culture when it arrived here, just as the Syilx (and Smelqmix) adapted to the opportunities it provided. Both cultures wove the new information into their traditional ways of life. Residues of these positive adaptations remained at Blind Creek. Before Paul’s orchard was starved of water, his fruit was often used as a trade article instead of as a cash crop. That makes sense. If a person is the land, then selling the fruit of the land is close to selling yourself, that is to say accepting a gift from the land, leaving land relationships, entering a colonial world of monetary relationships, and completing that colonial act by selling the gift. Respect would suggest that trade is a more respectful response, as the journey back to the gift relationship is not so fraught.

The Forks in 2012

Here the x enters the Y south of the gold mining camp of Oroville (named after its California counterpart). The coral stands on one of the three original village sites. The other two are on islands on either side of the x. When the Okanogan Trail became a cattle trail from 1859 through the 1860s, the villages were used as night-time corrals for cattle, protected by armed patrols. The villages didn’t survive all that. From here, trails branched off north and west.

Curiously, Richter and his 42 head of cattle took the northern route, turning west only after crossing the border. A sneaky move, by the looks of it. More on that later.

Typically, Hudson’s Bay Company Gardens like that (present as well at Fort Colville [Kettle Falls] and Fort Vancouver [across from the American settlement at Portland]) grew fruit and potatoes — crops that fit into traditional harvesting patterns and which could be left for long periods while people followed their annual food-gathering migrations, for medicine, roots, berries, bulbs, seeds and salmon. In other words, these gardens, although Euroamerican, were positive augmentations of traditional culture. Before long, Indigenous families were growing potatoes at many locations on the plateau, protected by promises made by the US Government that any land farmed by Indigenous people would become their property. Once the British claim to the land was eliminated in 1845, however, American settlers began to squat on or preempt such previously protected gardens, and even set their pigs on them to root up the spuds. Under that pressure, the US Government, practical in its weakness, changed its law to accommodate the theft rather than challenge it. Settlers could keep illegally-occupied lan. Indigenous people had to move to reservations far from home. Eventually, the gardens were no longer protected and Indigenous farming was lost. Ironically, on their reservations, plateau peoples were now funded to grow wheat, ie to farm, on land often only given to them because it was unsuited to wheat farming. The money was as wasted as the billions spent on the effort to Americanize milk production during the American occupation of Iraq in this century.

Coyote Rock at Lone Pine

Bit of a rough ride for a combine. Even so, this original section of the Colville Indian Reservation was carved off and sold as private property in the 1920s, as it was deemed excessive to Indigenous needs. White people could try farming there. Success failed them, too. What an ironic switcheroo!

In Paul Terbasket’s case at Blind Creek, the British Columbian court didn’t mention siwiɬk. Instead, it claimed that Paul had used water, which violated the British Columbia Water Act of ̣1909.

“Water”, Big Bar Wetlands

Perhaps you can see why there was confusion and how useful to a colonial administration the confusion might be.

The water act didn’t address siwiɬk. What’s more, for their part, Paul, his father and his grandfather had earlier received assurances that they could use Blind Creek. That the agreement had been annulled with the publication of the new water act was a bit of a problem. Another difficulty was that no Indigenous person could apply for water under the new act, as they weren’t citizens of British Columbia but property of the Government of Canada as was, presumably, the water but not the siwiɬk. A bit messy, that.

Property? Isn’t that slavery? To even say that?

And yet that’s the Indian Act.

What’s more, even the Government of Canada couldn’t apply for water on Paul’s behalf, because it had no legal jurisdiction over Indian reserves until they were ratified by the British Columbia Legislature. By the time of Paul’s incarceration, B.C. had been dragging its heels on that rubber stamping for 42 years. Presumably in the hope of straightening out the mess, and on the basis of previous legal proclamations and his inherent right to siwiɬk, Paul had applied for water. His application was rejected on a point of law. Here’s some background on that strategy:

“He would never have made the application for water rights on his own. You can’t apply for rights to water that is already yours. Usually, there was a s’ama, trying to help, who fronted the application, convincing one of our people that the application would be successful if done right. They never were. All they did was increase disillusionment.”

Dixon Terbasket

It’s sure not hard to be disillusioned. There were even contemporary concerns about irregularities in Paul’s trial. The main one was a question, generated by a report in The Penticton Herald, whether the Indian Agent, F.J.C. Ball, was responsible for Terbasket’s transgression. Vancouver lawyer J.N. Ellis was hired to look into the charges of legal irregularities. In his report to Frank Scott, assistant commissioner of Indian Affairs, he noted:

Mr. Ball had no knowledge of the act of the Indian until after the contempt had been committed, nor did he know of the application for committal [Paul’s trial] coming on in Vancouver until the day after it was actually heard. 

Asking a man to say whether he is guilty or innocent is not really conclusive evidence of anything. Nonetheless, no deeper investigation was made into Ball’s role in Paul’s application for water rights. More revealingly, Ellis does record an equally strange omission. He reports that water had been given to the purchasers of [Richter’s former] farm, “based on an alleged old record which has been lost,” while “The Indian’s claim was based solely on an Indian Reserve Commission report.” That’s a razor-thin line between word of mouth and, well, word of mouth. To speakers of clear English, it hardly constitutes a secure legal footing either. To his credit, Ellis also noted that:

“The Judge was very loath to send the Indian to jail notwithstanding the fact that he was clearly guilty of contempt, because he felt that there was some colour of right on the part of the Indian and that it was difficult for the Indian to appreciate the fine distinction between an old I.R.C. [Indian Reserve Commission] allotment and one under the Provincial Water Act. Furthermore, the Indian has been in possession of the property, through which the water runs, for years, and up to the present time has had free use of the water.” 

Such fine distinctions, so fine as to appear to be approximately the thickness of a piece of paper, didn’t end when Paul was jailed. This is very tricky legal stuff. There is a blurry distinction between the contempt of jailing Paul for disregarding an order to save his fruit trees and the contempt of asserting a right for other men to sell his ancestral land and siwiɬk. Four year later, the development company was bankrupt. The Blind Creek land and its water became the property of the Province of British Columbia, for future agricultural development. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, British Columbia sold Paul’s land on favourable mortgages to repatriated Canadian WWII soldiers.

No Syilx men got any of that land. The Indian Act made that pretty tough:

The Governor in Council may, subject to the provisions of this Act, direct how, and in what manner, and by whom, the moneys arising from sales of Indian lands . . . or from any other sources, for the benefit of Indians, . . . shall be invested, time to time, and how the payments or assistance to which the Indians are entitled shall be made or given,––and may provide for the general management of such moneys, and direct what percentage or proportion thereof shall be set apart.

Sharon Helen Venne, ed., Indian Acts and Amendments, 1868 – 1975: An Indexed Collection (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre, 1981), 137.

Any benefits due to them from Canada on one hand could just as quickly be removed from them by the other. It is what happened to siwiɬk,when it was turned into water, as if that changed its nature at all.

Turtle Point, Canim Bay

Once a spirit, always a spirit.

The Veteran’s Land Act made it tough to get land, too, on purpose. Its role was to bring trained men to rural communities, where they could work as skilled farmers, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, welders and so on, as part of a project to keep a market open for Canadian manufactured goods. It was, in other words, an urban subsidy, along the model of British Colonialism, that saw all manner of stuff manufactured in Manchester and sold in Nairobi, Hong Kong and the Similkameen (to name just 3). To ensure that men and their families stayed in these communities, the act made sure you had a mortgage and were unable to sell your land again until 10 years had passed. Farming, or even the settlement of veterans, native or otherwise, wasn’t really the goal. A spreading of urban infrastructure and markets was — the construction, in other words, of non-Indigenous communities.

If you read through this material, you will quickly discover that you had to have money to get assistance from the Canadian Government.

At a labourer’s wage of around $5.60 a day, a charge of $360 was probably completely out of reach for any smelqmix man, if he and his wife could both get approval from a local White committees. Ironically, the abillity of any smelqmix man to gain the fruit-growing skills to even apply was denied them when Paul Terbasket went to jail and let his trees die. With them, went the legacy of cultural accommodation practiced at Fort Okanogan…or did it?


Next, a little visit to Blind Creek in preparation for seeing what happened to this enslaved land.

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