It was noon on a perfect early-autumn day. Baptiste felt the sun warm on his back. He drew on his pipe with satisfaction as he gazed out over the Columbia River. His band usually spent the late summer and autumn here, at skxik’ (now Big Eddy). Here, in his people’s northern home. Here, among the abundance of berries, game and fish. Here, by the great river, their world and travelway since time immemorial.
Baptiste, his wife and two other families set up camp a month ago, glad to be back amongst the great cedars and snow-capped mountains. He and the other men trapped and hunted, sometimes helped by their dogs. They fished from gravelly banks, using spears and nets weighted by stones. The women and children gathered berries and firewood. They dried fish and meat for winter. A few years ago, a forest fire ripped through the valley just to the west, leaving perfect conditions for huckleberries.
His people knew to take from the land only what they needed: food for the present, some to save for winter, and some to trade. With four canoes between them and the need to be mobile, what good was taking more? They thanked the Creator for all this abundance.
That day, the women tended fires, perhaps in their lodges, perhaps for drying food, and the smoke wafted into the clear, blue sky. Suddenly two gunshots broke the silence from the east. One of the men grabbed his rifle and fired into the air. They heard three sharp responses.
White men, Baptiste thought—who else would announce their presence in this way? He gazed toward the Illecillewaet, waiting. The others also watched.
“He reappeared, and started without comment on the trail. We submissively followed.”
White men had been travelling on this river as long as Baptiste could remember, but he knew they had not always been here, that they were newcomers. He knew, too, that they were not all the same.
First they came to trade—something Baptiste’s people knew well. They traded useful things like guns, flour and matches in exchange for furs, meat and fish or a day of guiding or borrowing a canoe. Some white men formed families with Sinixt women. Many stayed and settled down; others abandoned their families and returned east.
Then came the priests who talked about their Creator, Dieu, but it was not the Sinixt Creator. One of these priests baptized him and gave him his Christian name, Baptiste. After that, the white men only called him Baptiste, which sounded strange to him and felt, somehow, like a loss, even though his people continued to use his real Sinixt name..
Less than 20 years earlier, for a year or two, thousands of white men paddled up the river—a day’s journey by canoe past skxik’—looking for gold. The Sinixt saw that the strangers were plentiful and forceful, and that they were no longer respectful.
Baptiste’s thoughts were interrupted when men emerged from the forest onto the banks of the Illecillewaet, which drains into the Columbia. Two men from Baptiste’s band canoed across the Columbia to meet them.
A HARD SLOG
Sanford Fleming was disappointed. He had been trekking for five days, down the Illecillewaet River from its source near Roger’s Pass. It had been a hard slog through dense, wet bush and spiky devil’s club. Fleming, the former chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, assigned to survey the route through the Selkirk mountains, had hoped to see Hudson’s Bay Company men waiting for them at Big Eddy with desperately needed provisions.
Fleming recognized the men crossing the river towards them in sturgeon-nosed canoes as “Colville Indians” from the United States. The Sinixt told Fleming that the Kamloops men had not arrived. Dismayed at the news, Fleming, his son Bob, Reverend George Grant, Albert Rogers, and their cook, Dave, all crossed the river in the Sinixt canoes.
Camped in the Big Eddy, Fleming and his friends discussed what to do. Albert Rogers had hiked through Eagle Pass to Roger’s Pass with his uncle, Major A.B. Rogers, in 1881 and told them of the difficulty of the route. They decided to chance it anyway.
Early the next morning five Kamloops men arrived from the west: four Secwepemc (Shuswap) men and one HBC employee, Mr. McLean. Fleming’s joy at seeing them was dampened when he learned that they carried “barely enough food to supply their own wants”. They have cached the rest five days’ journey west. The route, with “fallen trees of gigantic size,” lakes, swamps and “masses of rock” had delayed them by several days.
Fleming learned that the Sinixt “knew the route well as far as Three Valley Lake.” He asked “Old Baptiste,” to guide them “by the least difficult route… We felt safer under his pilotage, and assigned him the advanced post of our party.” Baptiste agreed.
Baptiste led the men to his camp and disappeared inside his lodge where his wife repaired his moccasins, leaving Fleming and his party to wait impatiently outside. For 45 minutes she “deliberately plied her awl and leather thong,” Fleming wrote, while Baptiste sat “motionless, smoking his pipe and looking into the embers of the fire. We could only imitate his patience and await the results. At length, in the same silent way, he reappeared, and started without comment on the trail. We submissively followed. The thought crossed my mind that in this case knowledge was power.”
Baptiste led the men “by a circuitous route round the shore of the ‘big eddy.’ Avoiding the “large marsh, full of water holes, skunk cabbage and deep black muck,” that slowed the Kamloops men, he led them on an indigenous path used “for carrying caribou and game over the mountains.”
Fleming grazed on the abundant huckleberries and pondered the future. “Is not this presence of a luxurious growth of wild growing fruit an indication that garden fruits might find their home in these sheltered valleys?” Similarly, “a vast grove of fine timber, mostly hemlock” was well-suited to railway construction. He marvelled at “cedars, four feet in diameter, (that) rise up around us like the columns of a lofty temple.”
The trek was strenuous, with “troublesome marshes” and “a seemingly endless number of prostrate trunks of trees and rocks to surmount.” Still, Fleming praised Baptiste: “We thoroughly recognize all we owe to our guide. He has saved us labour, time and much painful experience, and we are proportionately satisfied with our own forethought that his services could be utilized.”
The men crossed Three Valley Lake with a raft and Baptiste followed in a canoe he had cached. Their camping spot at the north-west end of the lake was “brilliant with rich mosses… you walk on them as on a Turkish carpet,” Fleming wrote. Baptiste told them that “much game abounds, and that from the lake large fish are taken.”
The following morning Fleming paid Baptiste, who “had a cool way of his own in reckoning the value of his services, whatever he might know of arithmetic. As a ‘lucky penny’ we supplied him with enough matches to last him a month, a mine of wealth to him; and he paddled away to the east to find his way back to the Grand Eddy.”
COMING DOWN THE TRACK
When Baptiste and Sanford Fleming met, two worlds collided. The relationship was one of cooperation, with Baptiste expertly leading Fleming and his companions through the land that he and his ancestors knew well. But Fleming knew of a railway that would soon be built through the mountains, changing the lives of Baptiste and his people forever.
When Fleming and his companions continued to Eagle Landing (Sicamous) they passed a road-building camp led by Gustavus Blin Wright. The wagon road was a day’s walk east of Eagle Landing; by the next summer, it would reach the Big Eddy. In less than two years, Wright’s men had constructed a bridge across the Columbia River and the town of Farwell (later, Revelstoke) had been built, burned down and rebuilt.
Imagine Baptiste, standing in that warm autumn sun. Soon he, and his people, those who have known the land intimately for generations, would be a minority in their own homeland—unwelcome foreigners in the eyes of those who usurped them.
LAURA STOVEL (above) is an author of three books and has a strong interest in environmental and social justice issues. She grew up in Revelstoke. LESLIE DAVIDSON (just down theree) recently moved to Revelstoke and is the author of In The Red Canoe, available at Grizzly Books.