Tribe in B.C. acts to save culture without losing it

The Sto:lo people in British Columbia believe there is a spirit life in each of them.

It leads them each day in caring for the earth and one another.

There is a word for that spirit: shxweli. But by the early 1990s, few Sto:lo Nation members had ever heard of it.

Sto:lo elders helped to bring the word to light again. Nation leaders knew then that they must do something to protect their culture before more was lost.

“We acquire spirit powers, and those powers we need to keep to ourselves,” Sto:lo cultural worker Sonny McHalsie said. “If we tell more people about it, there’s that sense of losing it.”

But in order to keep that piece of Sto:lo culture sacred, McHalsie knew that some of it must be written down and secured legally.

In 2001, after years of interviewing their elders, the Sto:lo Nation published “A Sto:lo-Coast Salish Historical Atlas.”

There are maps based on the elder’s descriptions of the region’s geography that show traditional uses of certain places and the natural resources that once grew there.

Trails used by indigenous groups to transport ooligan fish oil and other goods are marked. A glossary lists geographic names in Halkomelem, the Sto:lo language, which often describe activities once carried out there.

The atlas represents only a small piece of the traditional knowledge gathered by the Sto:lo Nation. The maps avoid pinpointing exact places, so that any natural resources left there won’t be exploited.

While the Tulalip Tribes are working to defend their 152-year-old treaty, the Sto:lo Nation is negotiating with the governments of Canada and British Columbia to draft their first treaty.

The atlas has become a major tool in defining traditional Sto:lo areas.

“We’re trying to incorporate this whole principle of shxweli into various chapters of the treaty,” McHalsie said. “It’s getting (Canadian government) to understand that there is a Sto:lo way – our way.”

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