Swelkwek’welt: The ongoing cultural significance of the Sun Peaks area to the Secwépemc peoples

A view across part of Skwelkwek’welt. Photo SPIN.

Long before the rapid development of Sun Peaks Resort and surrounding community, Indigenous peoples from all the Secwépemc nation communities would gather at the Skwelkwek’welt campfire to take part in traditional teachings, ceremonies and practices.

The Skwelkwek’welt, or high alpine area, provided Secwépemc peoples with many important components of their lives, such as a variety of plant foods, hunting and fishing, and other necessities to sustain their traditional semi nomadic way of life. It was also a place to learn about and gather powerful medicines and to practise spiritual traditions and ceremonies.

“It’s what makes the Secwépemc peoples who they are,” said Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) Indian Band (KIB) councillor Jeanette Jules, who oversees titles and rights, legal files, community services, traditional language and cultural education for the KIB. 

“Without the area there would be no healing from medicines, no spiritual training to help people forge a path in life and no food to help the [Secwépemc peoples] live their way of life or thrive.”

Skwelkwek’welt is the traditional name of the area that emcompasses the settler-named Mt. Tod, Mt. Cahility, Mt. Morissey and Mt. Lolo areas, as well as Morrisey, McGillivary, Cahility and Eileen Lakes and all associated watershed systems.

The area is the shared responsibility of the lake district communities including Sexqeltqín (Adams Lake), Sk’atsin (Neskonlith) and Qw7ewt (Little Shuswap) bands. Originally these First Nations bands were one, but have since been divided. Many other Secwépemc peoples also have deep roots in the area.

According to Kúkpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson of the Sk’atsin (Neskonlith) Indian Band, an ongoing traditional use study between Sk’atsin (Neskonlith) and Sexqeltqín (Adams Lake) Indian Bands have documented and mapped traditional use sites for fishing, harvesting, hunting and significant and sacred cultural areas in the Skwelkwek’welt area.

“When I looked at the map there was a big bullseye right over the whole Sun Peaks area, meaning it was a heavily used area,” she explained. “That’s an important historical area to us, and well within our claims area.”

Swelkwek’welt was an important seasonal gathering area and different families had different gathering areas within Skwelkwek’welt. 

Jules said her mother’s family gathered where the golf course currently sits and her grandmother’s family on her father’s side would gather between the village and Morrissey Lake.

Kúkpi7 (Chief) Wilson recalled a time when her family would travel up the mountain to forage different spiritual medicines, berries and basket weaving materials.

Her family and other Secwépemc peoples would travel on well known ancestral trails to move from Neskonlith to McGillavry Lake, and connect to other trail networks leading to the Simpcw (North Thompson) First Nation, Little Fort area, even as far as Williams Lake to visit other northern Secwépemc communities.

“We did research on the trail and it’s quite heavily indented from years of use. It was a bit overgrown but we were able to map it out,” Chief Wilson said.

The area of Sun Peaks is located in a larger historical region known as the Neskonlith Douglas Reserve set out by the first governor of B.C. James Douglas in 1862, encompassing over a million acres. This land claim was rejected by the federal government in the late 1990s. Like 95 per cent of the province, Sun Peaks sits on unceded land. 

“We still have a claim of our entire initial reserve set out by James Douglas,” explained Kúkpi7 (Chief) Wilson. 

Traditional land use

File photo by SPIN.

People from all Secwépemc communities would gather in Skwelkwek’welt for many personal or seasonally significant reasons such as healing ceremonies, to celebrate and gather the first berries or fish of the season, learn about medicines or take part in spiritual journeys.

Secwépemc sweat lodge prayers, meditation and fasting, or E’tsxe, have been a long standing tradition of the Secwépemc peoples in the area between Mt. Tod, Mt. Cahilty, Mt. Morrisey and Mt. Lolo. Part of their E’tsxe was to set out for several days to find their Sné7e (guardian spirit).

In fact, a Secwépemc spiritual gathering was recently held on Mt. Lolo.

“[Sné7e] would come and talk to you and help you in your path in life,” explained Jules. “A Sné7e can take the form of a grizzly bear, deer, owl, eagle or other spiritual animal form.”

Young Secwépemc peoples, who were deemed to have a gift for healing by elders, would come to the area to learn about the medicines from Shamans (medicine doctors) in the area, to learn how to mix and how or when to apply medicines.

“Balsam pitch, bark and inner bark that grows in the springtime were used [to strengthen your vascular system],” Jules explained. “Different columbines, which they called star medicines, were also gathered for medicinal purposes.”

Further information on the traditional uses of medicine was not disclosed by Jules to help protect her heritage.

“In order to learn all of the other pieces, you would have to go through your training, your E’tsxe,” said Jules.

Healing ceremonies were also important in the Skwelkwek’welt area, according to Kúkpi7 (Chief) Wilson.

“One elder in our community asked to be taken to the mountain when he was sick and asked to be left alone and picked up several days later. The elder foraged for medicine, called out to his spirit and sang his healing songs,” Kúkpi7 (Chief) Wilson said.

After the ceremony, the elder regained their health and lived to be quite old.

“That’s just an example of one ceremony and how our people can be healed, and the power of the medicines and the power of the connection we have with Mother Earth, the water and the animals of creation.”

Basic necessities gathered in the Skwelkwek’welt area by Secwépemc peoples include soapberry, blueberry, Saskatoon and huckleberry, Jules said.

Much of the teachings and knowledge shared by Jules and Kúkpi7 (Chief) Wilson has been passed down through generations orally.

Limited acknowledgement and archaeology

Looking over one of the many lakes within the Skwelkwek’welt area. Photo SPIN.

SPMRM Mayor Al Raine opened a virtual council meeting with a territorial acknowledgment for the first time on Aug. 17, following suit with the Thompson Nicola Regional District (TNRD).

“Obviously we have to be showing respect, so when the TNRD did a study and said ‘hey, it’s time to be doing the acknowledgements at a regional level,’ then we should support that by having acknowledgements at a municipal level. And I apologize, I should have done them sooner,” Raine said.

Kúkpi7 Chief Wilson said traditional land acknowledgments are the least Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality (SPMRM) could currently do, and is something they have no choice on.

“Under UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), municipalities are obligated [to acknowledge land]. It’s part of our rights and they must be one of the last communities to do it,” Kúkpi7 (Chief) Wilson said.

Abby Wilson, (no relation to Kúkpi7 Wilson), a former Sun Peaks resident, has been an archaeologist for two years, and has been working with local First Nations in cultural resource management.

Part of her job is to go into areas being developed and see if there’s archaeological potential, test sites and evaluate findings.

“[Skwelkwek’welt] was a huge [cultural] area and right up until the resort was exponentially expanded it was regularly used [by the Secwépemc]. I think it is really important for people of Sun Peaks to understand and appreciate the rich history, and that there is in fact important history, and that white people didn’t create anything; we ruined it for them if anything.”

Abby said during her time in Sun Peaks, she was like many other residents and visitors, “ignorantly blissful,” unaware and uneducated on the cultural significance of the Skwelkwek’welt area and the impacts of rapid development by the resort on the local Indigenous peoples. 

The Sun Peaks development took off in the early 2000s well before the Heritage Conservation Amendment Act by the order of B.C. ‘s minister of forests, lands and natural resources in 2019.

The amendment enabled the government to take more decisive action to conserve heritage and archeological sites and objects, said Doug Donaldson, then minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development.

Abby pointed to two existing archaeological inspection orders, one from 2000 regarding ski run expansion on Mt. Morrisey and one from 2013 for expansion into Gil’s ski area.

Sun Peaks Resort LLP did not comment on, or provide, archaeological reports in time for publication, however an archaeological assessment is planned for future village development. 

“For the employee housing property that we’re looking at, that’s one of the reasons why we haven’t proceeded any quicker, is we haven’t yet got the approvals from the archaeological branch to conduct studies for those sites,” Raine said.

“The fact that there was reserve land here 150 years ago really means that they should be doing more archaeology,” Abby said.

Kúkpi7 (Chief) Wison echoed the sentiment.

“We had ministers tell us right out there was no consultation, no environmental studies. They have to correct the past. They have to be able to engage us in a respectful way, especially our people who are proper title holders.”

A return to Sun Peaks

File photo by SPIN.

Today in Sun Peaks, visitors will see limited physical signs of the ongoing cultural significance of the area, however recent events point to potential better representation in the future and improved relations with specific First Nations bands in the region. 

Eventually, cultural acknowledgments, including petroglyphs and historical photos of Secwépemc peoples, and historical representations are planned to be included on the floors and walls in the Sun Peaks Grand Hall in the newly built Sun Peaks Centre, according to Raine. 

Recently, the Little Shuswap Chief, accompanied by band councillors, blessed the Grand Hall and those working on the building. 

Raine, SPMRM CAO Shane Bourke, and SPR general manager Darcy Alexander, also met with newly elected Adams Lake Indian Band Chief and band councillors.

“It’s extremely important that we continue to nurture a relationship with the bands,” said Raine. “It was a very positive start for building a relationship with Adams Lake [Indian Band]. We had an open, frank and honest discussion. It was a very important step in building that relationship.” 

For Jules, it’s important that residents and visitors understand Sun Peaks has thousands of years of history of Indigenous peoples, knowledge and teachings, not just chairlifts, hotels and recreation.

“My mom could not [believe] it when we brought her up to where she used to gather,” said Jules. “As we drove she’s looking around and everything’s changed. We went to the area where her family used to gather [and] where they would camp. Now there’s nothing but a golf course. 

“Her great grandchildren really like skiing and snowboarding so she said ‘Okay, it’s another use for this, [I] don’t agree with that, but I understand it.’” 

She said even though her mother could see the bright side, she said “It’s like a big piece of you has been ripped away.”

Click here to read our publisher’s accompanying note regarding this article.

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