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  • Ruth Lloyd

(Re)learning the Land:

Helping to preserve Secwépemc knowledge for future generations

ABOVE: Petroglyphs found along the Fraser River indicate a traditional site, but their original significance may have been lost. This is just one example of lost knowledge and culture.

Photo Solos Productions

If there is one thing COVID-19 has taught us, it is that learning from the past is not just important, it is vital for our very survival.

Past pandemics in human civilizations, including the 1918 Flu Pandemic (often referred to as the Spanish Flu) not so long ago, have taught society hard lessons we have left behind through the simple act of forgetting. The reality is, it is human nature to forget, and we can simply lose important information if we don’t listen and learn from those who went before us.

So much of the knowledge, traditions, and culture of First Nations people around the world has also been lost through the impacts of colonization. While elders who still knew the language and traditions firsthand were living, some First Nations were working hard to try and preserve what they could of this knowledge. This has led to some incredible archives of cultural materials, and oral histories. One such example is The Plateau Peoples Web Portal, which hosts cultural materials and some teaching resources for cultural practices and traditions of the Interior Salish people of Washington State.

In the Cariboo, a major loss of language and culture took place when T’exelcemc children were sent to residential school. Children were punished for speaking their language and made to feel ashamed of their parents’ culture and traditions. Despite this attempt to suppress culture, there were those who were working to try and preserve that knowledge and protect the local Secwépemc traditions for future generations.

Thanks to the foresight of those project leaders, the words and voices of Secwépemc elders are still being heard, and some of that knowledge has been preserved, across time.

ABOVE: An example of an interview done to help preserve language and culture, viewable on the WLFN Language and Culture YouTube Channel.

Led by the Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) Title and Rights Department and WLFN Treaty Department in partnership with Inlailawatash LLP, team members from Sugar Cane Archaeology are assisting with an ongoing Traditional Use project. The project continues work to save traditional knowledge of the culture, traditions and territorial boundaries of the T'exelcemc (WLFN people).

The very first interviews which sewed the seeds for the current project were started by Jean William, who began interviews of family elders in the 1970s. This initial work led to further interviews in the 1980s, and then into interviews with elders who have continued to practice traditional lifeways were completed in the late 1990s. Some larger studies were also undertaken in the 2000s which relate to specific projects, like the Mt. Polley Mine .

Some of the work was done using a method laid out in Terry Tobias’ book: “Living Proof: The essential Data-Collection Guide for Indigenous Use-And-Occupancy Map Surveys”, to help create verifiable information and map data. The interviews done in the 1990s used this method, with map-based interviews recorded on audio tape and interviewees marking maps to give specific locations. In later interviews, video and direct-to-digital methods were also used.

ABOVE: Areas used by generations of First Nations can contain indicators such as culturally modified trees. While the above example contains axe chops, a more modern marking, the original tree scar above it was done using a stone tool, indicating bark and cambium stripping.

Photo Solos Productions

Elders and those engaging in traditional practices identified places on the landscape where they carried out these cultural practices, or recounted stories of family members. Many of those interviews identify the locations of traditional practices more easily continued under colonialism, such as hunting and fishing and berry-picking, but other traditional knowledge was also occasionally brought to light.

Stories, traditional Secwépemc names, and sacred places were also recounted by the interviewees. While the work of transcribing hours and hours of interviews can be tedious and challenging, precious gems like these make a long day of listening, rewinding, and typing feel very rewarding, knowing those stories are being saved for future generations.

The understanding of how the essential traditional practices of hunting, fishing and gathering were carried out on the landscape of our region is also important. This information, repeated by many people over many interviews, helps establish a fuller understanding of the T'exelcemc territory and how the people of countless generations lived on this landscape and interacted with other First Nations. This is a critical piece of preserving not only heritage, but also protecting aboriginal rights and title for generations to come.

ABOVE: An aerial view of the Fraser River near Farwell Canyon. Along this river, First Nations would gather each summer and catch and dry enough salmon to last the winter.

Photo Solos Productions

Hearing stories of the plentiful salmon migrating up the Fraser River, with families camped to catch and dry enough fish for their family for the winter, makes the listener yearn for a time when water was clean and salmon runs were healthy. The practice of fishing for keknécw (Kokanee) with nets in Lac La Hache, brought the people of many area First Nations together in the fall. These stories recall a wild and natural lake shore,far different from the rows of manicured lawns and large houses of today. In the past, the shore would have been dominated by willows and large trees, providing valuable habitat, with nighttime fires guiding the fishermen back to the warmth of camp once their nets were full.

Those stories from the local Secwépemc are being transcribed, and the knowledge based on the land of the Cariboo-Chilcotin is being interpreted into traditional use maps.

The information is being confirmed, compiled and organized to make it much more accessible for use in a variety of applications.

Mappers are helping to create spatial data on digital maps, transcription of previous recordings are making citations on map data easier and all of the digitized information is being organized to make it a better tool for the WLFN.

The information can then be used in many ways: natural resource planning and management; negotiations and specific claims; helping archaeologists relocate historic dwelling sites; establishing traditional territory; and preserving or reviving traditional practices and place names.

ABOVE: Villages sites are a valuable archaeological resource which help researchers understand how populations lived on the land.

Photo Solos Productions

Unfortunately, traditional knowledge of the territory still has many gaps caused by the loss of language and the passing of elders before the value of that traditional knowledge was recognized. The loss of knowledge now makes the job of cultural revitalization much harder; trying to fully understand trade, stewardship, cultural beliefs and practices and how they were practiced throughout time. However, through the recordings of elders voices and the map work being done, some of this knowledge can still be recovered and passed on.

So far, the information has already helped Sugar Cane Archaeology in our work to protect archaeological resources. It has been used to focus archaeological research and surveys. And has led to the relocation of four village sites on Quesnel Lake, all of which were known to elders, but which were not yet in the archaeological record .

ABOVE: Sugar Cane Archaeologist Whitney Spearing stands in a large cultural depression within a village site relocated during a research expedition to confirm Traditional Use data.

Photo Solos Productions

Due to some of the sensitive nature of the information, such as the sacred sites, possible burial locations and vulnerable habitat, the information is not suitable for sharing with the public. However, the WLFN Database and Archives will be able to preserve the information for the community, researchers and legal purposes.

Future generations will be able to learn from the words of those who went before and that knowledge can help us all learn and grow. So much of the experience of elders and their lifetime of knowledge can continue to be passed down.

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