The Xeni Gwet’in, one of the six First Nation groups that make up the Tilhqot’in National Government, wants to share their alternate history with visitors to the recently built Nemiah Valley Lodge. Following a historic Supreme Court judgement in 2014 that granted the Tsilhqot’in First Nation rights and title to dordle their traditional area, the Tsilhqot’in are launching the first Indigenous-led tourist enterprise on Tsilhqot’in title grounds, an ecolodge. The Tsilhqot’in Decision maintained the Tsilhqot’in people’s constitutionally protected freedom to use their 1,900 square kilometer land claim for subsistence activities including hunting, fishing, foraging, and the training of wild horses.
The victory in court capped a fight that had lasted for 25 years and a lengthier campaign by the Tsilhqot’in Nation to defend their territory and culture that dated back to the Chilcotin War in 1864. In 2019, the Xeni Gwet’in bought the old Elkin Creek Guest Ranch and spent the previous many years transforming it into the Nemiah Valley Lodge. They planned for the seven-cabin lodge to serve as a hub for cultural exchange between Tsilhqot’in and visiting guests via activities like guided nature hikes, kayaking expeditions, and artisan workshops (like beading and weaving).
We are seated in the main lodge for a meal of tse’man (maple fish), the traditional staple cuisine of the area, to the rhythm of a drum that has been beating there for decades. One of the five Xeni Gwet’in cultural ambassadors at the lodge, former chief Roger William is singing a traditional river song to welcome our company. William explains that Tsilhqot’in translates to “river people.” The Nemiah Valley is shaped by two of British Columbia’s most important salmon rivers, the Chilko and the Taseko. William chimes in, “We live off the river, and it’s our duty to safeguard it.” After reclaiming the top spot, we want to exert our authority once more.
The First Nation has been successful in preventing mining and logging in the area thanks to the Nemiah Declaration of 1989 and the Tsilhqot’in Decision, both of which proclaimed the Xeni Gwet’in to be sovereign over their traditional land. Tsilhqot’in law holds that all living things, including rivers, trees, animals, and humans, embody a spirit energy called tsin, and that such industrial development would have destroyed this very essence, threatening not only their traditional ways of life by compromising the integrity of rivers and lakes, the lifeblood of their community. The following day, Xeni Gwet’in government administrator and cultural ambassador Dalton Baptiste said, “We conceive of ourselves as part of all creation.” As the saying goes, “the land owns us” rather than “we own the land.”
Later that day, we go on a stroll through a pine forest atop Cardiff Mountain that is so fragrant you can almost taste the sun. Some of the best basalt columns in Canada can be seen on this mountain; these ochre cylinders wrap around the mountain’s northwest face like a modernist sculpture. Due to the presence of these columns and other endangered flora, this region has been designated as an Ecological Reserve. The Xeni Gwet’in, however, place additional significance to the peak. One of the nicest views of Tsilos Mountain and Konni Lake can be had from the summit, where we pause for a picnic lunch in the noon heat.
A chief and his offspring, according to Tsilhqot’in folklore, have transformed into a mountain far above the lake and now stand guard over their homeland. Baptiste explains that they have been successful in defending the land because to the “energy the mountains throw off.” We look to them for inspiration and support. A show of contempt, pointing towards the mountain is said to bring unlucky travels.
On our last day, we take our canoes out into Chilko Lake in Tsilo Provincial Park, which is jointly managed by the provincial government and the Tsilhqot’in Nation. As I paddle my kayak across the emerald sea, I hear the splash of each blade. The only sounds are the rhythmic waves and the lonely cry of a loon. The 80-kilometer-long, glacier-fed lake is Canada’s largest and highest-elevation freshwater lake. I was told that it is a sacred spot for the Tsilhqot’in people and that the salmon rivers that originate there are considered to have healing properties.
As I survey its vastness, I am grateful that the Xeni Gwet’in have welcomed tourists from outside their culture and community. That’s a really nice first step toward communication and peace. The First Nation believes that maintaining their cultural practices is essential to their health and the health of the land they guard. After a little pause, William said, “Here, we’re beginning anew.”