Just months after the introduction of the Ashnola Declaration, members of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band are pursuing conversations and partnerships to protect their traditional homelands.
The Ashnola Declaration, enacted April 28, is a document created by the Lower Similkameen people designating the Ashnola Watershed as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area. Recently, Lower Similkameen descendants gathered with community members at the Methow Valley Interpretive Center in Twisp to discuss the role the declaration will play as they look to traditional laws and story systems to guide restoration efforts for water, forests and cultural resources on their unceded homelands.
“It really declares our intention to begin to more fully undertake our responsibility to the land and water,” said Lauren Terbasket, Lower Similkameen parks negotiator and a speaker at the Interpretive Center event.
The Ashnola Watershed is located in the Canadian province of British Columbia on the traditional territory of the Lower Similkameen people, a member of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. The watershed serves as a historic trade and migration route, and its southern portion dips into the United States on traditional territories of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
The Interpretive Center event featured presentations by Lower Similkameen descendants, and remarks from the Indigenous Roots and Reparation Foundation and Aboriginal Outfitters, two indigenous-led nonprofits. Interpretive Center Executive Director David LaFever said he saw the event as an opportunity to collaborate and increase awareness of the Lower Similkameen people’s efforts to care for the land.
“You’ve got to have all the voices present if you want to hear even the one, and I think that this Ashnola Declaration is really saying that in some beautiful and profound ways,” LaFever said.
Protecting unceded lands
Terbasket said a major impetus for the Ashnola Declaration was the evidence of climate change the watershed has seen over the last several years. In 2014, the Lower Similkameen people witnessed a massive fish die-off; in 2018, the community was ravaged by wildfires; last winter, it experienced extreme flooding from an atmospheric river event.
The surrounding area has also been subject to increased traffic, clear-cut checkerboard logging practices, and mining operations, whose tailings leave contaminants like lead, mercury and arsenic that leach into surface water and groundwater.
Of the five creek systems surrounding Lower Similkameen territory that remain relatively uncontaminated, the Ashnola River is the largest tributary to the Similkameen River System. Terbasket said the river provides a cooling factor for the Okanogan and Columbia River systems and plays an important role in sustaining the plants, animals and people in the watershed. The Ashnola Corridor also serves as a migration area for animals like elk, moose and deer.
Unlike many provinces in Canada, the land in British Columbia is untreatied, Terbasket said. The Ashnola Corridor runs through the unceded lands of the Lower Similkameen people, and the underlying title to the land still belongs to indigenous people.
Rob Edward, a traditional knowledge holder and elder who also spoke at the event, said the lack of an official treaty process creates challenges because indigenous interests are not always clearly defined or documented. After failed attempts to work with the provincial government to create a plan for land management and restoration, the Lower Similkameen people decided to independently declare to the government their intention to protect the watershed.
“We have to start somewhere,” Terbasket said. “It is the first step in moving forward with our intent to more fully undertake our obligations in the management and protection of this particular watershed.”
Terbasket said through the Ashnola Declaration, the Lower Similkameen people hope to slowly phase out and take over logging tenures, place a moratorium on mining and take over broader management of the watershed.
“As indigenous people, we’ve lived here for 100,000 years, and we lived in a way that was sustainable,” Terbasket said. “One of our laws is a law of sustainability — and so what does that look like? Well, it sure doesn’t look like cutting out half of a watershed.”
Terbasket said the Ashnola Corridor is a historic trade and migration route that connects the Lower Similkameen and Methow people. Following an epidemic that wiped out much of the Lower Similkameen adult population, the Methow people migrated north and found and adopted surviving Similkameen elders and children.
“That’s such an important time in our history where our families, our whole communities, possibly would have died out if they had not been adopted by the Methow people in Washington state,” Terbasket said. “That significance for us, in terms of culture and connection, is invaluable.”
The Ashnola Watershed is also important to cultural ceremonies surrounding hunting and gathering, fishing, and traditional burns, Edward said. Currently, legislation and permitting requirements limit the Lower Similkameen people’s ability to hunt and gather once-abundant food sources.
Over the last 50 years, Edward said he’s seen a depletion in traditional medicines and foods like salmon, deer and Saskatoon berries. That decline has coincided with an increase in health conditions like diabetes and heart disease among the Lower Similkameen community. Edward hopes those issues can be addressed by restoring the land and water.
“Our food sovereignty is in jeopardy,” Edward said. “Our health is the health of the land.”
How do we share?
As the Lower Similkameen people step more fully into their commitment to protect the Ashnola Watershed, they will follow the principles of their traditional doctrine and story systems, including oral traditional agreements.
“What our stories tell us is that all beings on the earth are important,” Terbasket said. “What right do we have to desecrate the systems where all these beings live?”
One aspect of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band’s work so far has been coordinating with others to set priorities for the future of the watershed.
So far, The Lower Similkameen Indian Band has worked with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and Conservation Northwest to collect data that will be used to develop quality standards surrounding water management and development. They have also worked with the Confederated Tribes and Trout Unlimited on fisheries assessments.
Another step in protecting the Ashnola Watershed is undertaking discussions with the federal and provincial government, as well as tenured members of the community. Although they initially had difficulty gaining traction with the provincial government, Terbasket said after creating the Ashnola Declaration the Lower Similkameen people were approached by dozens of individuals and environmental groups asking to have conversations about stewardship and restoration. The Lower Similkameen Chief and Council recently met with the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.
“We’re standing up our sovereign law, and now we have all these people coming to our table to say, ‘what do you do want? What do you hope for this declaration to accomplish?’” Edward said. “Well, it’s the reclamation of our land, and the reconciliation of all the water.”
Edward clarified that while the Lower Similkameen Indian Band hopes to take over broader management of the Ashnola Watershed, that doesn’t mean others aren’t welcome on the land. One of the principles guiding the Lower Similkameen people’s doctrine and story systems is coyote’s law of sharing.
Terbasket said part of the Lower Similkameen people’s focus on sharing has been rooted in working with families that have historically been tenured on the land to create a more localized approach to land management. Local people, she said — whether they’re indigenous people who have lived on the land for thousands of years or ranchers and farmers who have been living in the area intergenerationally — understand the land best, and have a vested interest in protecting it because they’re there to stay.
“We’re not leaving,” Edward said. “So how do we work together?”