Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way
What does it look like to return from Extinction?
In this book, Sinixt storytellers and knowledge-keepers Marilyn James and Taress Alexis address the reality of their living culture in the face of Canada’s bureaucratic genocide of their people, the Sinixt, in 1956.
Through lively story and discussions by the authors, each chapter illuminates the Sinixt relationship with the upper Columbia River watershed and their quest to reclaim their rights and responsibilities in their x̌aʔx̌aʔ təmxʷúlaʔxʷ, their sacred homeland. Gorgeous illustrations and reflections by regional settler and Indigenous artists and writers give readers further opportunities to engage with the stories. Their perspectives represent the interest of increasing numbers of people in developing respectful and decolonizing relationships among Indigenous and settler peoples and to inspire the work of reversing the Sinixt extinction. Join them all to meet the trickster Snk̓lip and the other Animal Beings who people the stories of the captikʷɬ, the Sinixt oral history.
Full-page colour and black and white illustrations by 17 different regional artists help illuminate the Sinixt ancestral and contemporary relationship with the land and waters of the Upper Columbia River watershed.
Each chapter is rounded out by a reflection on the story and/or discussion by one of 10 settler authors. The illustrations and reflections by these contributors give readers further opportunities to engage with the stories.
Free Audio Download of the 21 Sinixt stories that go with Not Extinct – password is on the copyright page of the book (you do not need the user name). These stories are also available for purchase as a 2-CD set. Contact us if you want to order one.
Book Reviews of Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way
A review by Paula Pryce, Ormsby Review, Dec 2018 (First published October 24, 2018)
Editor’s note: Anthropologist Paula Pryce, author of the pathbreaking Keeping the Lakes’ Way (1999), revisits the Sinixt people, previously known as the Lakes people, whose traditional territory comprised much of B.C.’s West Kootenay region and adjacent parts of the U.S.
The Sinixt were declared extinct by the Canadian government in 1956, but reports of their extinction were greatly exaggerated. For the Ormsby Review, Paula Pryce now considers Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way, by Marilyn James and Taress Alexis of the Sinixt Nation. –Ed.
Snow drifts, split-rail fences, and patches of open meadow peppered an otherwise heavily treed landscape. There, on a December afternoon years ago, I pondered a collection of tipis on the frosty riverside. The Slocan Valley had always held for me a kind of soothing awe, a place of dense forest, ominous peaks, and swirling, sparkling water, a place where people came to set aside worldly machinations to seek other ways of living. I knew from childhood experience that this quiet, rugged corner of British Columbia attracted artists, Quakers, Doukhobors, and back-to-the-landers. But in those last few days of 1989 when I had returned home from university over the winter break, that land presented something I did not expect. Those tipis belonged to First Nations people who were protesting the exhumation of ancestral remains during road building on the Slocan River at Vallican, a place where Indigenous people and history had until then been invisible to the local settler community.
These were Sinixt Interior Salish (or Lakes) people. They had been largely displaced from the West Kootenay region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to intensive silver mining and disease. I spent the next decade learning from Sinixt people about their continuing engagement with the land and their love for the ancestors buried therein. I also studied archaeological, ethnographic, and archival records to piece together the history of the Sinixt diaspora. Certainly Sinixt people, whose ancestral territory spans the Canada-US boundary, have been poorly understood. Oral histories and scattered documents tell the story of their lifeways and history in the Columbia, Slocan, and Kootenay Lake valleys, yet no cohesive account had been published. In its ignorance, the Canadian government declared this people extinct in 1956.
Even so, the Sinixt are with us. Because of colonial pressures and a lack of reserve land sanctuaries in Canada, many had moved to the southern reaches of their territory on the Washington State Reservation of the Colville Confederated Tribes, or onto surrounding Canadian reserves. Yet Sinixt people have continually returned to their ancestral territory, eighty percent of which lies in what is now Canada, to hunt, gather, visit family and friends, and attend to sacred sites. My book, ‘Keeping the Lakes’ Way’: Reburial and the Re-creation of a Moral World among an Invisible People (Pryce 1999), was an effort to solve the riddle of this people’s invisibility to settler communities, and to explore the forces that prompted them to keep returning even when Canadian immigration laws attempted to dissuade them.
Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way throws off the invisibility cloak. A Sinixt mother-and-daughter team, Marilyn James and Taress Alexis have followed in the footsteps of the late Elders Eva Orr and Alvina Lum to work as matrilineal representatives attempting to restore knowledge of their people’s presence in their ancestral territory, to repatriate and rebury exhumed ancestral remains, and to act as environmental stewards of the land. Combining classic Interior Salish oratory and a playful multimedia approach, the book offers stories to teach others about Sinixt laws, culture, language, history, and responsibility to the land.
Not Extinct is a project that conveys generosity and trust. Invisibility and diaspora were a way of survival for Sinixt people during the violence of earlier colonial times. Today, believing that the well-being of their people and their land now depends on being seen and heard, Marilyn James and Taress Alexis have worked with a group of settlers called the Blood of Life Collective to re-introduce their people to non-Sinixt through story.
The book’s structure shows the collaborative effort: editor K.L. Kivi describes how the collective project was first inspired by fireside conversations and storytelling with Marilyn James. The book retains this oratorial, conversational tone by alternating Sinixt and non-Sinixt voices. Sinixt voices are primary, including online audio recordings and written explanations of classic tales and family histories. Non-Sinixt people contribute responses through visual artwork and written reflections about what they have heard and understood from those stories, their varied perspectives giving a feeling for the diversity of settler cultures. These aural, written, and visual media conversations between Sinixt and non-Sinixt participants comprise the book’s core. It is augmented by introductory remarks, biographical sketches of the collaborators, and glossaries of Sinixt words and phrases and important English terms.
Stories are the heart of the book. Everywhere around the world, oral myths and stories point to life’s deeper meanings. However, the significance of stories relies on an audience’s understanding of specific cultural contexts. They do not always translate easily. Marilyn James and Taress Alexis use symbolic aspects of oratory to explore their culture’s riches, supporting their listeners by explicating Sinixt history and social norms that might not be clear to other peoples. The online audio versions are augmented with book chapters that fill out associated meanings and ideas. So while “How the Sturgeon-Nosed Canoe Came to Be” is itself an engaging story about Sturgeon seducing the bumbling Mrs. Goose and Mrs. Duck to assist in his abduction of Mrs. Fox, the written chapter elaborates implicit aspects, such as the nature of Sinixt waterscapes, river animals, and watercraft technologies, as well as Sinixt views on jealousy, deceit, matrilineal responsibility, and the importance of community.
Similarly, “Coyote and Chickadee,” a complex tale of how Trickster Coyote tried to steal Chickadee’s powerful bow, becomes a springboard to discuss covetousness and the importance of feeling at ease with the variety of personal power (sumíx) one bears, whether it seems impressive or humble to others: “You truly have power when you master your own sumíx, and you’re comfortable in your own skin,” says Marilyn James.
It is worth noting that these tellings show how age and experience can affect oratory. An up-and-coming storyteller, Taress Alexis offers lively readings from the published tales of early-twentieth-century Sinixt author, Mourning Dove (1990), but the compelling oral style of Marilyn James makes clear that she has spent decades at the craft, including at the Kootenay Storytelling Festival. Classic elements of Indigenous oratory that include attention to cadence, tone, alliteration, repetition, and of course humour, tell the audience that they are listening to an experienced storyteller. The written aspects of the book manage to retain that oratory style. Drawing from Lee Maracle’s influential Memory Serves: Oratories (2015), the Blood of Life Collective found ways to bridge the uneasy differences between oral and literary media; by transcribing discussions, the colloquial here-beside-you conversational tone comes through surprisingly well.
Along with old mythic stories, Not Extinct also shares some important personal histories of Sinixt members. In the chapter called “In the Shadow of Extinction,” for example, Marilyn James recounts the youthful experience of Ambrose Adolph who, before the Second World War, drove his Elders in a Model T Ford to their ancestral territory near Revelstoke. In those days as now, many Sinixt people were confined to the Colville Reservation, and despite their efforts at gardening and farming, the land’s resources were so limited that many people were desperately poor. (The Sinixt portion of that reservation had been expropriated by the US government in 1891, and thus their hunting grounds, root fields, and other resources were not protected or easily accessible.)
The story goes that Ambrose and his Elders intended to pan for gold in their ancestral land to help make ends meet. While in that territory, young Ambrose found his way to a stand of old-growth cottonwood trees to hunt for grouse. When he looked up he saw that those towering trees were filled high with racks of caribou antlers. The Elders told him that this was a hunting blind, showing the site to be an ancient Sinixt hunting ground. Ambrose Adolph went away to fight in the Second World War and wanted nothing more than to again visit that powerful place. He survived the war and returned only to find that the trees had disappeared. Marilyn James’s voice in the audio recording abruptly concludes, “All that was left were fences and fields.” This sobering story then leads on to a detailed written discussion on how population growth, the loss of old-growth trees, and the obstruction of migratory corridors by roads and land clearing have contributed to the critically endangered status of the Selkirk Mountain Caribou, which had once been plenteous in the region.
These stories and others illustrate the major themes of the book: relationships, commitments, responsibility, and service, especially regarding land and ancestors. The reflections, both Sinixt and non-Sinixt, convey a deep longing to make things right and to follow a path of reconciliation that seeks justice and the creation of community. The book is an outcome of that communal desire. Indeed, the thoughtful collaborative process that Marilyn James, Taress Alexis, and non-Sinixt participants devised to create the book could be taken as a model by other Canadians who seek ways towards reconciliation between First Nations and settler communities. Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way models both hope and action.
Maracle, Lee. 2015. Memory Serves: Oratories. Edmonton: NeWest Press
Mourning Dove. 1990. Coyote Stories. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Pryce, Paula. 1999. “Keeping the Lakes’ Way”: Reburial and the Re-creation of a Moral World Among an Invisible People. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Paula Pryce is a lecturer and research associate in the Anthropology Department at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of “Keeping the Lakes’ Way:” Reburial and the Re-creation of a Moral World Among an Invisible People (University of Toronto Press, 1999), and The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018).
A review by Nathaniel G. Moore, Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review (originally published in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 149-150.)
Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way is a beautiful hybrid of story and art (its rectangular shape will for some harken back to those illustrated primary school books). Marilyn James and Taress Alexis and the Blood of Life Collective have collected First Nations stories which are enhanced with illuminating artwork. In “Swara̓k’xn, Frog Mountain,” Alexis tells the story learned from Eva Orr about an elder in the village who prayed for the drought to end and a little frog, Swara̓k’xn, who appeared and promised that if the people dug caves they would survive. And so they did. After the snow melted, the drought ended and one of the tiny frogs grew into the Swara̓k’xn mountain, a symbol of love the frogs showed for the Sinixt people.
Not Extinct acts as a reminder of the need to respect not only fellow humans, but the environment we share, grow, and often, unfortunately, destroy. In stories such as “Coyote Juggles His Eyes,” Alexis tells of animals and humans working together to create a just society. In just a few short sentences, the world is revealed in new light. Countless animals and species we may take for granted in daily life are given wonderful backstories, such as the mosquito who bites in order to remember the dead.
Press about Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way
Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way presents Sinixt stories told by Marilyn James and Taress Alexis, by Bill Metcalfe, Nelson Star, Mar 2, 2018
A multi-pronged project that includes a book, online audio files, a public art project, a petition and a teacher guide will be launched at the Vallican Whole on Sunday at 4:00 p.m.
Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way is a book of traditional Sinixt stories told by Marilyn James and Taress Alexis, but the book contains only a summary of the stories. To experience the stories themselves, readers must actually hear them, in audio files on the site of the book’s publisher, Maa Press.
“The leaving of the stories in their oral format is an honouring of the way they were told,” says the book’s editor K.L. Kivi. “They were never written down. They were always passed from family to family, mouth to mouth, heard not read. Hearing and reading are two different experiences. Marilyn and Taress are amazing story tellers — there are sound effects and voice effects and pauses that are very difficult to reproduce in written format.”
The book is a project of the Blood of Life Collective, a group whose goal, according to Kivi, is “to heal the settler-indigenous divide through creative art projects, to use creativity to attempt to work toward decolonization and reconciliation with the Sinixt because this is where we live.”
The book has a chapter based on each story. Each chapter includes the story summary, a reference to the audio of James and Alexis telling the story, and then a transcription of a discussion about the story between the storytellers and members of the collective.
In the discussions, James and Alexis are asked about the meaning of the stories.
“The discussions cover a huge range of issues,” says Kivi. “We talk about Sinixt mourning practices, food that was gathered, hunting practices, games and competition, ethics and human behaviour, the caribou, winter village life. There is a whole range of discussion of cultural practices that show how the Sinixt lived and also what some contemporary interpretation of those lifestyles are.”
The chapters begin with full-page illustrations by 17 local artists.
As for the stories themselves — the ones readers must go to online to hear — Kivi says they are “original material — you will not find it anywhere in print or in any other form. We want to make available all the richness of culture that arose from this land where we make our homes.”
Some of the stories are contemporary. For example, Kivi says the chapter called “In the Shadow of Extinction” is about a contemporary Sinixt man, Ambrose Adolf.
“He used to go north of Revelstoke and had an experience of the huge caribou herds that were there and his story goes to when he came back from World War Two he came back to that spot. He got himself though the war saying if I live I will go back to that spot. Well, he was faced with fields and farmers fences, and the discussion is what has happened to the caribou over the last 150 years. So that is an example of a contemporary story that talks about caribou recovery, a thread that goes from the past into the present.”
Other stories are traditional.
“Those familiar with traditional stories from First Nations in Canada know that there are often interesting animal characters involved. Coyote is one. Other animal beings too. They get up to all kinds of things that are not necessarily understandable through our Western lens.”
Related to the book is a series of Kootenay Co-op Radio radio broadcasts entitled Sinixt Stories, and a public art project which Kivi says is still in development. Also in development is a teacher’s guide to the book for presentation to elementary, secondary and college-level students.
The Sunday event will include the telling of some of the stories in the book. The collective will introduce a petition at the launch asking federal government to reverse the Sinixt extinction.
There will also be events in Nelson at Touchstones on April 5 at 6:30 p.m. and in Kaslo at the Langham on April 12 at 7 p.m.