Split Like A Crutch: The Lillooet River Valley

British Columbia, Canada
2008–2009

The reserves of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation are scattered along both sides of British Columbia’s Lillooet River in an expanse of traditional territory stretching 100km north and south between the towns of Pemberton and Harrison Lake. Like many of Canada’s indigenous communities, the settlements of the In-SHUCK-ch exist in isolation; poverty is rampant and infrastructure dearly lacking, and with limited access to health and education resources, the communities of the Lillooet River Valley can be seen to represent a continuation of what has too often been referred to as the “Indian Problem”.

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In an arrangement resented by both the government and its Indian ‘wards’, the In-SHUCK-ch and its fellow nations survive largely on subsidies, their ability to contribute to the Canadian economy historically crippled. Conditions at home have lead 80% of the Nation’s 1000 members to seek livelihoods in distant urban centres, mostly in transient and impoverished circumstances, with many returning home only to be buried in community cemeteries the Nation can claim no ownership of as mere tenants of the land.

Canada’s Residential School system has also taken its toll on the In-SHUCK-ch. The policy, abandoned in the 1990’s, aimed to westernize Native children by separating them from their parents, and this practice of ‘ethnocide through education’ now means that few Elders are able to pass on the knowledge of their heritage to younger generations. The compounded result is a cultural drain that threatens hundreds of years of Lillooet traditions, most importantly the language of Ucwalmícwts, now spoken by only a handful of Elders and their aging children.

Stories are told in Ucwalmícwts at an Elders gathering on the Skookumchuck Indian Reserve, guttural stops punctuating the language like rounded river stones parting the waters of the Lillooet. The meeting is being held to update the community’s oldest members on the Nation’s ongoing treaty negotiations with the provincial government – negotiations that have been underway since 2002. Now the Nation and the government are nearing an agreement, and the resulting treaty promises to improve infrastructure and accessibility on reserves while offering internal employment and title to the land the In-SHUCK-ch have occupied for centuries. Perhaps more importantly, it will remove the In-SHUCK-ch from under the jurisdiction of the Indian Act (the treaty currently governing Canada’s aboriginal peoples). Its members will no longer be exempt from taxation, and most members welcome this change as it means a shift in the national misperception of aboriginals as non-participating citizens.

Not everyone embraces the treaty, however. While improved living standards and economic accountability are a convincing argument for aboriginal self-government, there are concerns over how traditional ways of life are to be recognized and accommodated under a modern system. Many are worried that this treaty will be the final nail in the cultural coffin that began with residential schooling in the 1800’s.