18. Water, Slavery, War and Peace in the Similkameen

No matter what you’re using it for or who you are, British Columbian law states that any water licensed by the government must be put to “beneficial use.” What does that mean? Ah, look.

It benefits the economy and property owners.

Similkameen: WTF!

Harold: Easy.

Similkameen: I want to flow, man.

Harold: I guess you can still flow freely over the roots of those cedars at Bromley Rock and feed those schools of mountain whitefish down at the bottom of the old Hudson’s Bay Company Horse Ranch, where Rattlesnake Ridge comes down from the heights of K-Mountain, but no wandering, I guess. This is cattle-management technology.

Similkameen: Do I look like a cow to you?

Cow, diked.

Harold: Um no. Try being more positive. What if you just went with the flow?

Similkameen: Would you be if you were a slave?

The Barbed Wire of Slavery: The Enloe Dam Binding the Similkameen to Human Will

Harold: Good point.

Similkameen: Even my dikes are slavery.

You gotta trust your friends, so I looked it up. Here’s what I found:

From the Government’s point of view, a river is a flood hazard. It is, too, but only to a regime that is based on creating taxable property by removing them from the property holdings of rivers.

So, that was sobering. I looked further:

The damage only occurs to the colonial-based properties. If they were elsewhere, or migratory, there would be no damage. This is like a slave-owner blaming a slave for the cost of feeding him and longing instead for a bulldozer that he can rent out to his neighbours.

At this juncture, I was interrupted.

Similkameen: I know! Let’s go and eat a dike! Make a new channel. We’ll show them!

Harold: Will we?

And that’s the thing. The whole bed of the Similkameen Valley is cut by old river channels, in a region less a flatland with a river off to the side than a kind of dry lake, a sort of inland, mid-river estuary in which the surface of the lake is gravel and silt topped with grass.

The Similkameen Fjord, with its gravel sea. The river is an intertidal stream.

If you build a dike to keep the river in place, it will just run faster, carrying an avalanche of gravel with it about five kilometres a year, in a roar. You can see some of that gravel in the centre left of the image above. That’s the thing. No matter how you shake it, the river is going to mix with the land, because together they are not a place but an energy. As my friend Dixon told me down on Lower Similkameen Indian Band Lands when I stared out over the river valley with him and asked where the river used to flow when he was a kid (over 60 years ago), he said:

“All that land down there belongs to the river.”

Dixon Terbasket

In such a situation, putting ownership on land and water as separate items is going to be expensive in the long run. Pretty soon, you are going to see a disaster, when all that happened is that you were in the river’s way.

 The Fraser River at Chilliwack Source

It is the same with wild fires and subdivisions in the shrub steppe. The fires are only natural disasters because the subdivisions are there. The fire are natural. It is a fire landscape. The subdivisions are simply in their way. This pairing of fire and water, naturally antagonistic, are just some of the difficulties created by the history of settlement here on the Pacific Slope, a settlement that settled physical spaces not energy. Ah, someone else wants to say something. Yes, dear?

Similkameen: How could they miss me? Didn’t they hear me roar?

Harold: Maybe not. Try it again. Let’s see how well you can do.

Similkameen: Roar.

Harold: Yeah, they probably missed that. Care to try again? Right from your gut this time.

Similkameen: ROAR!

Harold: Now you’ve got it.

Similkameen: (Sparkling with light.) Yeah? You like that?

Harold: I sure do.

Here’s the Similkameen after it entered one of its flood channels a year ago.

The land “owner”‘s response was to scoop up that mud and make a dike, bolster it with some tree trunks like a beaver dam, and line its river face with boulders. The old Great Northern rail line from Washington (now the highway) is part of the problem, as it forces the river out of its natural channel, against the mountain.

It is one of the principles of this history that the land and water get to speak for themselves: playfully above, and quite seriously in the posts to follow next week, where these observations are integrated into Indigenous land and settler management on the Columbia, the Yakima and the Walla Walla in 1847. That’s where we’re headed, into a place in which history began with Indigenous energy, in which human and river energy were unified. The enslavement of rivers took some time. Next, though, more water stories, this time from Smalqmex tradition. Let’s do this one step at a time. As for the legacy of railroads, well:

Photo: The Keremeos Review

The Similkameen got the other covered bridges like this in 1973. It’s just a matter of time.

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