1709 Extinct no more

The Geography of Memory: Reclaiming the Cultural, Natural and Spiritual History of the Snayackstx (Sinixt) First People
by Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2022 (first published by Kutenai House Press, 2002)
$30.00 / 9781771605212

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh


Extinct No More: The Sinixt People of the Kootenays have much to teach us

I should know more about the Sinixt First Nation. After all, the West Kootenay is my home area and that’s where these Lakes People lived for millennia. But I had no memory of their existence, didn’t learn about them in school, and I had no Sinixt friends. Why not? The answer is simple and tragic. The Canadian government declared the Sinixt officially extinct in 1956.

This book has now corrected a high school education devoid of such knowledge by revealing the Sinixt story through careful observation of the landscape – the geography – of the upper Columbia River where they lived. I had much to learn as I followed the writer’s wanderings through the history of this remarkable and very much alive people. They have much to teach us.

Traditional Sinixt territory

As I read, I realized that I had some earlier contact with Sinixt history while living on a small island at the confluence of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers in the 1970s. Zuckerberg Island was once home to Sinixt fishers, hunters and gatherers long before the rivers were heavily dammed. The proof: as I crossed over to the island I walked straight past a large dip in the ground. It was a Sinixt pit dwelling.

The Geography of Memory explains how the people survived the worst of the settler invasion of their ancestral land. Eileen Delehanty Pearkes takes us back to the Sinixt of thousands of years before explorer David Thompson made the first official contact in 1811, and before that the European transfer of deadly diseases that decimated Sinixt communities and caused “a weakening of their entire culture.”

For Pearkes, the “landscape has a narrative of its own” and “speaks with a wordless certainty of its past.” She shares her research findings about what the land and the waters of the district meant and continue to mean to this local Indigenous people, how they perceived and lived in harmony with nature.

Nelson writer Eileen Pearkes

Pearkes unfolds the Sinixt story by tapping into the sagas passed down by the Sinixt themselves, much of it about the coveted salmon fisheries. Salmon were an essential part of the Sinixt diet until the dams came, destroying a “sacred connection to the natural world.” Readers learn about how the Sinixt respected and worshipped nature as the provider of their needs.

Many examples are given of Sinixt food preservation and storage methods as “important aspects of their culture.” Sinixt elder Bob Campbell explains the importance of hunting the snowshoe hare, a chore women often did in winter. Others describe the harvesting of bitterroot, balsam root sunflower, and camas that women dug from the moist river lands.

The story of camas illustrates settler ignorance of Sinixt farming and gardening methods. The colonial authorities contended that land must be used in some profitable way, must be ‘improved’. But camas, “a true river flower,” did not qualify and was therefore plowed under to make room for marketable crops.

First edition (Kutenai House Press, 2002)

“The placement and tending of plant foods supported many interior Salish tribes,” Pearkes explains, and they took on “a matrilocal shape, with a tendency of the new husband to reside with the wife’s family.” Knowledge of natural medicines accompanied the knowledge of plant foods, as one anthropologist explained.

We learn of the tragic story of Sophie Green Blanket Feet, a young woman “caught between two worlds … trying to reconcile the long-tested values of her tribal people with a newly arrived society.” We hear the story of the murder of a Sinixt man named Cultus Jim in 1894 over a dispute with a settler over property rights. And the romance of Justine Su-steel demonstrates how “the destabilizing colonial forces … continued to erode a sense of sovereignty and safety.”

Pearkes, a transplanted American, explored the Sinixt ways and the beauty of the Kootenays with passion and embraced them by “listening as far back as the mind and heart would take me, listening for stories that could be felt even if they could not be heard or read.”

A Sinixt man in a Kootenay or sturgeon-nosed canoe, ca. 1910

This is a spiritual voyage for Pearkes and we are invited to join her in an imagined sturgeon-nosed canoe like the unique river craft invented by the Sinixt that won the praise of David Thompson. Maps are supplied with place names of the Sinixt villages, salmon fisheries, pictograph sites and burial grounds. Sinixt words are translated to further document a culture. Historic photographs and contemporary images, some by the author, further guide us.

Pearkes encourages readers to “feel” what the Sinixt felt as we journey through their nearly lost culture and history. We feel the trees, the water and the land, according to the author’s perceptions. “I learned to smell snow on the wind,” she writes, and “the mountains knew something I had not yet learned.”

Scholars are called upon to describe the intricacies of Sinixt ways. From Sinixt themselves, readers can learn how to make the canoes, how to build a pit house or make a funnel basket fish trap. Pearkes quotes archaeologists and other specialists who have uncovered the artifacts of their ancient habitat.

Eileen Pearkes

Pearkes’s overarching theme is the “separation of the Sinixt from their homelands, a story holding timeless, even biblical resonance.” She argues that it is “one chapter in a deeply unethical narrative of land acquisition that underpins the entire settlement of the west.” She sees “deep injustice in that.”

The demise of the Sinixt in 1956 “has nearly caused the extinction of an important chapter of natural and cultural history in Canada’s western mountain region.” Pearkes wants to “strip away the tyranny of a restless and wounded colonial spirit” and she portrays the Sinixt as “a great gift” to the upper Columbia River landscape.”

I hope her book helps accomplish that goal. By giving us a better understanding, it is a push in the right direction. For those historians who follow in her footsteps, she advises that studying landscape is “an acquired skill, one that involves sifting through a mixture of fact myth, intuition and fragmented dream.” She adds that “knowing and honouring the Indigenous presence of the Columbia Mountains requires an extra amount of digging.”

Pearkes has done the initial cut into that history. No doubt the Sinixt people themselves, many of them acknowledging the value of this book, will carry on the digging. Undoubtedly, we have much to learn from a people once officially declared extinct.


Ron Verzuh in Nelson

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His forthcoming book Printer’s Devils (Caitlin Press, 2023) tells the 30-year social history of the Trail Creek News, a feisty pioneer newspaper in Trail. His recent book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), was reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer; an earlier book, Codenamed Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), was reviewed by Mike SasgesEditor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Andrea Geiger, Jean BarmanSarah BermanWayne NortonMark Hume, and Michael Gates for The British Columbia Review, and he has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy. Ron lives in Victoria.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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