Reclaiming Heritage of the Tsilhqot’in Traditional Territory
The Tsilhqot’in People and their language: Overcoming the oddsThe Tsilhqot’in People, or People of the Red-Ochre River, belong to the Athapascan language family. They live in their traditional territory in the high Chilcotin Plateau of south-central British Columbia. The plateau, which is drained by the Fraser River and its tributaries, is a wide wilderness region surrounded by high mountain ranges and dotted with several glacial lakes. The landscape is dominated by the majestic Mount Tatlow (Ts’ilʔs) , a sacred mountain that is the object of many Tsilhqot’in oral traditions.
The Tsilhqot’in Nation is subdivided into six different communities, each with its own dialect: the Yunesit’n Gwet’in, Xeni Gwet’in, Esdilagh Gwet’in, Tl’esqox Gwet’in, Tl’etinqox Gwet’in, and Tsi Del Del Gwet’in. Their communities are located about 100-200 km west of the city of Williams Lake. As in other parts of Canada and elsewhere, the Tsilhqot’in were subjected to the assimilative actions of the government, the church, and the educational system, which prohibited the use of their language and the performance of many of their cultural traditions. Perhaps due to the relative remoteness of their region, the Tsilhqot’in were able in part to maintain closer links to their ancestral way of life. A number of them still practice, to varying degrees, their traditional subsistence lifestyle based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. Small-scale horse and cattle ranching is also common. Various traditional crafts, such as tanning hides, making buckskin garments, beading, and basket weaving, are still practiced.
Yet, there has been much change, too. Large-scale logging, ranching, and mining have already scarred the landscape of the Chilcotin Plateau. “In the Aboriginal understanding of nature, in the myths and legends, the understanding starts with roots, four-legged, wings, fins, insects, stars, and ends with the two-legged. Why destroy the most interesting nature we are born with?”, says Douglas Myers, a Tsilhqot’in Elder.
Now, a culturally important part of the Chilcotin region is threatened by a proposed copper and gold mining development. This proposed mine would forever transform a lake-studded area known to the Tsilhqot’in as Nabas. Nabas is found within the traditional caretaking area shared by the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in communities, who have had a long-term cultural association with it, as attested by numerous archeological sites and historic cabins. The initial plan for the mine involved draining one of the fish-bearing lakes located in the Nabas area (Fish Lake) to use the basin for storage of mining waste, and turning another one (Little Fish Lake) into a tailings pond. The mining company proposed to “mitigate the damage” to the Tsilhqot’in by creating an artificial lake (ironically to be called “Prosperity Lake”) and stocking it with fish. The Canadian federal government rejected the proposed project in view of its expected environmental and cultural impact. However, the company has submitted a revised plan that, while sparing Fish Lake, would still destroy Little Fish Lake and the surrounding area. The Tsilhqot’in People continue their decades-long land title and rights case related to this mining proposal. The Federal Environmental Assessment Process provided an opportunity to further document their historic presence in the Nabas area and their material and spiritual connections with it is a crucial aspect of their effort to affirm their right in this case.
These and other development pressures are placing the Tsilhqot’in language and culture at risk. The incidence of social problems is growing in the communities, especially among youth. Today, while many adults are still fluent in the Tsilhqot’in language and culture, and a few are completely monolingual, intergenerational transmission has been largely interrupted. A Language Needs Assessment carried out in Yunesit’in in 2005 revealed that over the preceding decade the percentage of Tsilhqot’in speakers in the community had decreased by 50%. The average age of fluent speakers is 50 years, and many of the most knowledgeable elders are advanced in age. What’s more, parents of young children mostly do not use Tsilhqot’in in the home. “Should this trend continue the language will be dead within one generation”, concludes Linda Smith, a Tsilhqot’in Elder and linguist who has devoted her life to documenting her language and cultural traditions.
There are some Tsilhqot’in language and culture programs and activities in the schools as well as occasional cultural camps, singing and drumming circles, and other related activities for adults in the communities. As yet, however, there has not been a concerted effort to support systematic language documentation and recording of oral literature, aside from some academic research and the dedicated efforts of individual community members such as Linda Smith. Further, while some oral histories relevant to land boundaries and land use have been gathered in connection with the mining court case, there is a gap in eliciting the spiritual significance of important places in the landscape. Much more needs to be done to overcome the odds.
The Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in communities, in particular, have expressed a special interest in documenting and revitalizing their language and oral traditions for future generations. They wish for the materials to be gathered and archived so that all Tsilhqot’in can have access to them for the purpose of learning their ancestral knowledge, as well as for developing educational curriculum. Documenting traditional knowledge and uses of the land also serves to support land preservation and land title and rights cases. A long-term goal is to create a Cultural and Healing Center to offer ongoing teachings and training in traditional values, knowledge, and skills. The partnership that Terralingua is establishing with the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in communities will allow for this vital process to get off the ground.