You have probably noticed that I live in what is usually called “Canada”, a country claiming the northern half of North America. You’ve probably guessed that I travel on a Canadian passport. You might not have picked up that I am a proud citizen. There is a limitation to that, however. My tmʷwulaxʷ, what Canada calls “land”, comes first. Canada is laid over that for reasons both admirable and troubling, all at the same time. In this region, Canada used to stretch some 500 miles South o its current border with the United States, if not all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. All that history was lost. It’s a foundational principle of this history that it is not lost, or at least that the story of its dispossession is part of the story of the administrative state called Canada today. Take my valley, what is called the Similkameen.
The Similkameen Valley at Nighthawk.
Not Canada. Not the United States, either. That’s the thing. This is the unceded Smelqmix tmʷwulaxʷ. In the Chinook Wawa, we would call it an illahie, a place passed down through families by story.
Strangely, in a valley neither American nor Canadian, which both Canadians and Americans claim, a wider view that begins with the land and its people might at first seem strange. But, really, it’s just the way things are. The valley’s river, the nmɘlqaytkʷ, rises in the Cascade Mountains of the American camp, draws cedar trees east past Copper Mountain and the mouth of the Tulameen into the brush steppe of the Canadian camp, slows, curls, flows brightly past the mouth of another cross-boundary river, the Ashnola, curls leisurely around the sacred mountain, c̓up̓áq̓, to empty into the q̓awsitkʷ , a river that rises in Penticton, where Canadian settlers know it as the Okanagan River, before it flows into what the United States calls Washington, where American settlers call it the Okanogan River. Complicated stuff? Not really.
The q̓awsitkʷ near present day Tonasket.
If that’s confusing, consider the nmɘlqaytkʷ. In settler culture, it’s known as the Similkameen. David McCloskey, the founder of the concept of Cascadia, a bioregional identity uniting all the mountains, valleys and seabeds from Yellowstone to the St. Elias Mountains in Yukon and Alaska says:
If the Similkameen is longer than Okanagan, and provides two-thirds of its long-term annual average flow, then why isn’t the whole river named Similkameen?David McCloskey
Good question. I think it’s because of simple historical precedence. Europeans came to the Okanogan in 1817. They didn’t come to the Similkameen’s gravel bars and blue washes riffled by wind until 1858, on either side of the US-British treaty line.
So I asked a friend, Kelly Terbasket. “Kelly,” I asked. (We were sitting at her kitchen table and talking about how to bring knowledge of the tmxʷwulaxʷ into school classrooms in town. We had both been through that school. It’s not our favourite place, but it does have a near-monopoly on education, so it’s what we have to work with.) “If the Similkameen provides two-thirds of the Okanagan’s annual flow, shouldn’t we call the whole river the Similkameen?”
“I like that,” said Kelly.
So do I. In a weird colonial glitch, the nmɘlqaytkʷ is mapped as “The Similkameen River,” after Dixon and Kelly’s people, the Smilqmex. The gold rush prospectors of 1858, who passed through quickly, firing guns in every direction, couldn’t say “Smilqmex,” though. They pushed through from Coyote Rock…
…to Chuckawaya, survived a few ambushes, killed who knows how many people, and arrived at the “Tulameen” at Vermillion Forks (Today’s Princeton, British Columbia), which they could say. However, if we’re going to ask the land, we might get a different story, maybe even like this:
Tulameen: Sort of. They called me the Vermillion. Do I look like I have green water to you?
Well, deep water. I think it’s a complement.
Tulameen: Oh. (Proudly.) I have no non-English nysyilxcen sounds. That’s why they can say my name.
I’m sure that’s it.
Tulameen: I’m a Tsilhqot’in-Carrier word from the traders who followed me down from Anahim Peak and stayed. I have platinum gravel, you know.
Tulameen: Yeah. Just try saying Smilqmex. It’ll get stuck in your throat. Like a pike minnow bone.
Tulameen: Spoil sport!
Note: I talk like this to help break the idea that history is a set form and not a group of stories laid down by its characters or those who remember them. That includes our ancestors on the tmʷwulaxʷ, however we can still imagine them. Settlers call this space, this tmʷwulaxʷ, “land”. I don’t, partly because I want to help you see that by doing so we limit the histories to what is called “serious history,” which is a European narrative. In this region, modern human consciousness developed differently. This is one way of honouring the local cultural history of seeing things from both sides at once. Besides, I’m playful. I like to laugh. Too much seriousness and I stop trusting my instincts.
However you figure it, that’s how the Smilqmex and their river became the “Similkameen.” It rhymed with Tulameen, which rhymed with Vermillion. The nmɘlqaytkʷ, the river’s real name, only rhymed, sort of, with “Nighthawk,” which is what the miners of 1858 named their gold camp under the ancestor c̓up̓áq̓,, now the mountain Chopaka, south of the new US-British border. It would only be confusing if that name were applied to the river, too, and that was that.
` Three years ago, Kelly’s cousin, Dixon, and I talked about making a map, that would put all the Smilqmex names back.
“What I’d like,” I said, “is for all kids to learn the real names for this place.”
“I’d like that, too,” said Dixon.
“Some day,” I said, “some kids are going to run across one of the old colonial names, and it’ll mean nothing. They’ll scratch their heads.”
“Like, ‘Cawston Creek,’” said Dixon with a laugh. “‘Where’s that?’ they’ll ask.”
“Then we’ll be getting somewhere,” I said.
Dixon laughed again.
“What if we made the map a mile long,” I said. “Kids could walk through it. We could put trees along the river, and good fishing holes.”
“We could put it up on the wall in the gym at the Band Office,” said Dixon. “It would be out of the wind.”
“Good idea,” I said. There is a lot of wind in the valley.
“Each kid could do a piece of it, and bring it, and put it where it belonged on the wall,” said Dixon.
Dixon is working on reclaiming those names right now. That’s how we might get our valley back from the disregard of 1858, from people who were passing through and did not bother to even know where they were: in a story of people, not all of whom are human. And what about Canada? It has a proud place here. As I wrote in my book about poetry, trees and tmxʷwulaxʷ, The Tree Whisperer…
It’s a flag down at the post office, with its tattered maple leaf between two seas of red blood. You can also find it shredding in front of Similkameen Secondary School, if you can get yourself back to 1974, which Dixon and I can, easily enough. It was a November of early cold, in which every kid in the school was taken outside in the snow at 6 Below, with wind gusts up to 60 km/h (the boys — Dixon and me included — in thin cotton shirts, the girls — Dixon’s cousin Pauline included — in dresses but with ski jackets and hats) and asked to salute it to become men.Harold Rhenisch, The Tree Whisperer: writing poetry by living in the world.
Enough about the Similkameen for now. What we’re doing here is making a future in a land without borders. We’re doing it by knowing our past and present. To understand the loss and potential in this future, it’s time to set Canada’s play for control aside to go South, where all this history began. When we return to the Canadian encampment in our story , I think we’ll see our collective struggles clearly enough to find positive paths forward. There will be surprises along the way. As my mother knew, we are closer to one another than histories tell us. We are really close.
The War for the Okanagan started here. Make no mistake. It’s not over.