Photo Essay: Coming Home

Despite colonial displacement, the Sinixt are making their return – and they’re bringing the salmon with them.

Mike Graeme

Sinixt Elder and cultural leader Shelly Boyd in regalia, standing on a beach facing the water

Sinixt cultural leader Shelly Boyd | Photo by Mike Graeme

Sinixt – spelled sn̓ʕaýckstx in their language – means People of the Place of the Bull Trout. The Sinixt people coexisted with salmon in the Place of the Bull Trout (Arrow Lakes, BC) and throughout the Upper Columbia River system since time immemorial. Despite settler colonial forces displacing both salmon and Sinixt from their homelands in “Canada,” they are making their return.

Photos and captions by Mike Graeme

Sinixt people paddling canoes on a lake in their territory, with mountains behind

Cradled by the Monashee Mountains to the west and the Purcells to the east, the homelands of the sn̓ʕaýckstx (Sinixt) encompass the Upper Columbia and Kootenay rivers from sx̌ʷnítkʷ (Kettle Falls, Washington) to the Big Bend north of skxikn̓ (Revelstoke, BC).

Sinixt people gathering at sx̌ʷnítkʷ (Kettle Falls)

The Sinixt, Skoyelpi, and a number of other Nations have gathered at sx̌ʷnítkʷ (Kettle Falls) since time immemorial to care for and enjoy the abundance of one of the largest salmon runs on the planet. But today, they gather instead to pray for the return of ocean salmon to the collapsed fishery.

Sinixt child and adults sharpening tools on a stone at sx̌ʷnítkʷ (Kettle Falls)

Sinixt sharpen their knives on an ancient stone used by their ancestors at sx̌ʷnítkʷ (Kettle Falls). In 1940, thousands gathered for a Ceremony of Tears to commemorate the salmon runs and way of life that would soon be engulfed by the U.S. Grand Coulee Dam. Salmon runs that once fed thousands of Sinixt and Skoyelpi – the caretakers of the falls – and other visiting Nations faded to collective memory.

Upstream, the Columbia River Treaty dams (the Duncan Dam near Howser, the Mica Dam near Revelstoke, and the Keenleyside Dam near Castlegar) choked out over 1,750 km of salmon and steelhead habitat on the Columbia River. To this day, the Sinixt are not consulted for dam operations or treaty negotiations.

Sinixt archaeologist Remey LaCombe paddles a Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe through the Hugh Keenleyside Dam navigation lock north of Castlegar, BC

Sinixt archaeologist Remey LaCombe paddles a Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe, constructed by Dr. Shawn Brigman, through the Hugh Keenleyside Dam navigation lock north of kp’ítl’els place of the bitterroot (Castlegar, BC) in June 2022. The same month, descendants of salmon released by the Colville Confederated Tribes in 2019 were seen both upstream and downstream of the Hugh Keenleyside dam for the first time in 80 years. “There hasn’t been [chinook] fish up there since 1941,” said Cody Desautel, Executive Director of the Tribes. “It was really exciting.”

In May 2023, the Sinixt and other Colville Tribes released another 53,000 juvenile chinook into the Columbia River above the Chief Joseph Dam to further study their movements and the viability of spawning habitat despite the dams.

Sinixt woman on a pebble beach with a canoe, mountains and a rainbow behind

Many Sinixt people have never seen the northern part of their homelands in “Canada” due to colonial policies that displaced them into the US and onto the Colville Reservation.

Sinixt people paddling a canoe together on a lake with mountains behind

In June 2023, members of the Sinixt and Secwépemc paddled together from sn̓ʕaýckst place of the bull trout (Arrow Lakes) to ki’yamələp place of dead trees (Nelson). When the canoe journey passed by ʔ aʔ kłkəkniʔ place of redfish (Kokanee Creek Park), a group of settlers on the shore called out to them, “Welcome home!”

Sinixt Elder Shelly Boyd in regalia on the shores of a lake

“I want our kids to come up and I want them to be fishing for salmon, and I want people to be happy to see them, and I want them to be happy to be here,” said Sinixt cultural leader Shelly Boyd.

Boy in a boat being handed a fishing lure

Remey LaCombe hands his son Louie a fishing lure on sn̓ʕaýckst (Arrow Lakes).

“We the Sinixt are coming home, and it’s about time the salmon did too,” said late Virgil Seymour (1958-2016), former Arrow Lakes Facilitator with the Colville Confederated Tribes who dedicated much of his life to helping the Sinixt and salmon return.

Kokanee salmon swim home to spawn at ʔ aʔ kłkəkniʔ place of redfish (Kokanee Creek Park)

Kokanee salmon swim home to spawn at ʔ aʔ kłkəkniʔ (Kokanee Creek Park), September 2023. The Kokanee – an anglicization of the Sinixt word kekeńí – collapsed in the 1970s when the Libby Dam in Montana altered flows in the Kootenay River.

Dams on the Kootenay River continue to create difficulty for fish management. The run collapsed again in the late 1990s, and then again in the early 2010s due to imbalances in the predator-prey relationship and the destruction of habitats. Since time immemorial, the kekeńí, a fresh-water sockeye salmon, provided an important late-season run for the Sinixt on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake, east of ki’yamələp (Nelson, BC).

Sinixt hunter Rick Desautel smiling outside with trees in background

After decades of colonial policies, the federal government of Canada declared the Sinixt extinct in 1956, further disrupting their ability to fish on their homelands. In 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Sinixt hunter Rick Desautel, forcing Canada to recognize Sinixt fishing and hunting rights after 65 years of “extinction.” Since the decision, many Sinixt have come to their northern territory for the first time and describe the experience as a homecoming.

Pigeons flying in front of water with Teck smelter in the background

Beyond the impact of dams, settler industries continue to pose threats to the salmon on Sinixt homelands. For 20 years, the Sinixt and other Nations of the Colville Confederated Tribes have been involved in a litigation case against Teck Minerals, Canada’s largest diversified mining company, which runs a heavy-metal processing plant on the shores of the Columbia River in Trail, BC.

“The Teck Cominco smelter dumped their discharge into our waters for over 100 years,” said Sinixt hunter Cindy Marchand, who sits on the Colville Business Council.

Dead suckerfish in the water at the edge of a lake

Sinixt representatives, including their resident fish biologist, investigated the death of thousands of suckerfish and other species on their northern homelands in September 2023. Combined with severe drought conditions, many fish were lethally stranded during the 2023 BC Hydro dam discharges.

Sinixt artist Ric Gendron laughing in front of his mural featuring coyote and salmon

Renowned Sinixt artist Ric Gendron stands by his mural in ki’yamələp (Nelson, BC) featuring coyote and salmon. “It’s always the salmon with the Columbia River people, you know, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. Gendron passed July 9, 2023.

Sinixt people carrying a carved salmon pole into their new fish and wildlife office

On Oct. 25, 2023, the Sinixt Confederacy will host the grand opening of its first fish and wildlife office north of the border in ki’yamələp (Nelson). On June 18, retired wildlife technician Gary Munro gifted them with a salmon pole, which Sinixt people carried into the new office building.

“Salmon are such a metaphor for so many things in our life,” said Munro. “They’re coming back to their home waters, and so are the Sinixt. The Sinixt were the first stewards of this land and the fish need them back, the water needs them back.”

Gary Munro, and Sinixt Elders Ulxnica and Shelly Boyd in front of salmon spawning channels

Elder Ulxnica, Shelly Boyd, and Gary Munro stand at the spawning channels at ʔ aʔ kłkəkniʔ (Kokanee Creek Park) where they participate in a salmon fry count.

Sinixt archaeologist Remey LaCombe fishing on Arrow Lakes

Sinixt archaeologist Remey LaCombe fishes on sn̓ʕaýckst (Arrow Lakes).

Two Sinixt people standing in front of waterfall with raised arms

On Sept 21, 2023, the U.S. federal government pledged to give $200 million over 20 years to help the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation reintroduce salmon into the Upper Columbia River.

“Together as partners, we will bring salmon back where they belong – to the waters of the Upper Columbia,” said Jarred-Michael Erickson, Chairman of the Sinixt Confederacy and Colville Tribes. “[We] look forward to our children celebrating a Ceremony of Joy when salmon are permanently restored to their ancestral waters.”

Sinixt people carrying canoes onto shore after a journey

Mike Graeme author photoMike Graeme (he/him) is a cis white settler photojournalist whose work has been published across Turtle Island. Aware his privilege stems from a system built on colonialism, racism, sexism, and other related forms of oppression, Mike seeks to use his discipline in the work to illuminate and dismantle these structures, uplifting the stories of those at the centre of injustice.

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