First Nations Studies, Linguistics, Research

New book on Secwépemc people garners critical praise

February 16, 2018

New Book a Window into the Secwépemc World

By Jim Cooperman in The Tyee...

A better understanding of Indigenous peoples is now possible, thanks to the recent publication of Secwépemc People, Land and Laws by Marianne Ignace and Chief Ron Ignace, with contributions from archeologist Mike Rousseau, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner and geographer Ken Favrholdt.

Ancient stories, archeological evidence, archival records, ethnographic studies, linguistic research and firsthand knowledge have been masterfully woven together to create this comprehensive examination of the Secwépemc peoples’ ancient connection to the land of the central interior of B.C. and the injustices they have endured for over 200 years.

Marianne Ignace is a professor of linguistics and First Nation Studies at Simon Fraser University and has authored and co-authored papers in various journals and books on the Secwépemc (Shuswap) people of the plateau. Her interests are Aboriginal land use and occupancy, ethnobotany, traditional ecological knowledge, ethnohistory and the linguistic and anthropological analysis of Aboriginal language discourse.

In addition to being the chief of the Skeetchestn at Deadman’s Creek, Ron Ignace is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and he was fortunate to have been raised by his great-grandparents, whose parents in turn were born in underground homes and were adults before European settlers arrived. Consequently, he became fluent in Secwépemctsin at an early age and grew up with a deep respect for his heritage.

The couple’s book begins with a look at the geological history as framed by the ancient stories of the transformers, who “tamed the land and made it inhabitable for future generations.” In doing so, the Ignaces have connected the emergence of their nation to the environmental history of the region.

In the chapter on archeology, we learn about the evidence from excavations that indicates human occupation in the region of the interior plateau began over 10,000 years ago. From the earliest days when there was likely a low population density of small family groups until the Europeans arrived, the history is divided into horizons and phases as determined by the type of stone bifaces (spear points and knives) found.

Key eras include the Lehman Phase, when Coast Salish moved up to the Interior about 4,700 years ago; the Shuswap Horizon about 3,000 years ago, when salmon became an important part of the diet; and the Plateau Horizon about 1,600 years ago, when bow and arrow technology was introduced from the northern plains.

Certainly, one of the most fascinating aspects of Indigenous culture is that there are many distinct languages that help define the numerous, diverse nations to live here. The Ignaces estimate that the roots of the Secwépemc language, Secwépemctsin, began some 4,500 years ago before two dialects eventually emerged, Eastern and Western. There is an intricate structure to the language that connects it to the land and ancient experiences.

Unlike the unsustainable misuse of resources that is so common today, the Secwépemc people were true stewards of the land, the plants and animals. Careful and respectful management of resources was both part of their spiritual belief and culture. Far more than simple hunter-gatherers, the Secwépemc utilized horticultural methods and habitat management practices that were an early form of agriculture. In addition, their egalitarian lifestyle meant that harvests and hunts were always shared and no one went hungry.