Nemaiah Valley, British Columbia
About the Xeni Gwet’in people:
The Nemiah Aboriginal Wilderness Preserve is our spiritual and economic homeland: from the lakes of Chilko, Taseko and Tatlayoko, where we fish for salmon and trout; to the mountains where we gather wild potatoes and berries; to the pristine forests where we hunt, gather medicinal plants and practice our sacred and spiritual ways.
This is a special land, where spawning salmon make their incredible 300-km journey up the Fraser and Chilcotin Rivers to Chilko Lake. Bighorn Sheep, grizzly and black bears, deer and wild horses are just some of our neighbors you just might encounter on your visit here.
This biggest surprise is that Nemiah is inaccessible rather than remote. Physically, it lies less than 200 kilometers northwest of Vancouver, but with the Coast Mountains looming in between, the only road access from BC’s largest city is through the Pemberton Valley or up the Fraser Canyon to Williams Lake and then west into the mountains. Figure eight or 10 hours by car, but preferably truck. This is not a nice road. For most of the last 100 kilometers, it is not even up to the standard demanded by the Ministry of Forests for logging roads. You bounce and slide and pray (pointlessly, it turns out) that you don’t get a flat tire. But the most important thing about the road is that until 1973, it didn’t exist at all. While that made life difficult then, today the road brings new problems as well as opportunities which the Xeni Gwet’in hope to maximize.
Henry Solomon was the Xeni Gwet’in chief in 1973 and he remembers the wrenching effort required to get the road finished. The project was started by an entrepreneur trying to improve transportation to a nearby fishing lodge. He ran out of money, however, leaving the Xeni Gwet’in scrambling for resources to finish the job. Solomon and band members lobbied the federal government for aid and support until, finally, the Army Corps of Engineers stepped into the breach. Life changed overnight, Solomon says in his native Tsilhqot’in, his daughter translating. “Before, no one wanted to help the Indian. We never got welfare or anything and we had to make our own money,” he said.
Earning a living in this isolated valley was no easy feat. The Nemiah ran cattle and trapped through the winter, gardening and fishing in the finer months. Once a year, they hitched up their horses, loaded the wagons and journeyed into Williams Lake, driving cattle for sale and buying seeds and dry goods for the coming year. The trip took a week, one way. It was a life little changed from 100 years earlier, when the survivors of the short-lived Chilcotin War withdrew into the valley to live in safety apart from the white man.
Before the road came in, the Xeni Gwet’in communicated in Tsilhqot’in. Today, almost everyone over the age of 25 is still a fluent speaker. If outsiders came into the valley back then, Solomon said locals would default into Chinook, a lingua franca derived from aboriginal languages, English and French and shared by natives and non-natives from the BC coast into the Interior. There was some knowledge of English but not much affection for a language drummed in at the Oblate Mission school in 150 Mile House, east of Williams Lake. “They were pretty mean,” Henry Solomon says of the missionaries. “We couldn’t speak to each other, couldn’t speak Tsilhquot’in.” Smiling, he adds, “But they couldn’t hold the kids; the kids would run away,” as he did before he reached his teens. And life just seemed to get tougher.
What got me interested in Nemaiah Valley and the Xeni Gwet’in people was this lovely documentary:
Wild Horses, Unconquered People explores the intriguing relationship between the Xeni Gwet’in, a tiny band of Tsilhqot’in Indians, and hundreds of wild horses that mysteriously roam B.C.’s rugged Nemiah Valley – described as Canada’s Nepal. For what is arguably North America’s last true horse culture, the untamed spirits are an economic and spiritual resource – a powerful icon in a century-old fight with the government for control of this unconquered land.