100 Mile House Free Press
June 28, 1995
Shuswap traditionalists are again at odds with a Dog Creek rancher, RCMP and tribal council officials over Sundance ceremonies at Gustafson Lake, 35 km west of 100 Mile House. Although the traditional ceremonies have been held on the site overlooking the lake since 1988, confrontational incidents between the natives connected with the sundance and non-natives camping or fishing nearby have flared up in recent years.
This year, on June 13, ranch hands from the James Cattle Co. discovered the natives had, for the first time, erected a fence across a horse pasture. Rancher Lyle James had originally agreed to let Shuswap medicine man Percy Rosette and the sundancers hold their ceremonies on the land but understood last year's event to be the last. He asked for RCMP assistance in having the natives vacated from the property.
The following day a pair of Ministry of Forests workers happened upon the site and reported that they had been fired upon while driving on a road between Gustafson Lake and the sundance grounds. George Ostoforoff and Diane Lewthwaite reported seeing "a big plume of dirt" in the road in front of the truck then hearing a loud rifle shot." We didn't hang around to look," said Ostoforoff, who was unable to identify a shooting suspect.
The Forest Service has since advised its employees to avoid the area for the time being and to work in pairs with frequent radio contact if they must work nearby, said district manager Doug Konkin. The situation is being monitored by RCMP but the natives remain on the site. James was reported to be meeting with the natives yesterday afternoon regarding possible resolution of some of their disagreements.
The natives claim the fence was to simply keep cattle out of the grounds they consider sacred and that ranch hands stormed their campsite, broke into a small cabin and took a cookstove (which was earlier taken from a ranch cow camp say the ranchers). According to a native spokesman at the Gustafson Lake site, this aggression on the part of the ranchers put the natives "on a defensive footing."
The Cariboo Tribal Council has issued statements that local band councils "neither support nor condone the actions of this group." The grounds, on private land, are on the traditional territory of the Canoe Creek Band. The sundance proponents are not affiliated with any local band. There are no blockades or natives restricting access beyond the Sundance grounds. Preparation and the Sundance are set to take place between July 2-9.
The medicine man sits in front of the rough-hewn council lodge he built for the first Sundance held here about seven years ago. His war chief sits quietly to the side. They are Shuswap traditionalists. But seated between them is their spokesman, an articulate Ontario Mohawk called Splitting-the-Sky, who heard about the Shuswap's trouble at Gustafson Lake and came to offer his assistance.
The celebration of the sacred Shuswap Sundance hasn't often been smooth. The two square miles they identify as sacred grounds lie within privately held ranch lands of the James Cattle Co. The medicine man, the "keeper of the faith," is Percy Rosette who, together with his war chief Ernie Archie, have been promoters of the traditional sacred ceremony. And they have been caught up in incidents that have brought unwelcome attention to their gatherings on the shores of Gustafson Lake, 35 km. west of 100 Mile House.
The traditional Sundance is described as a profoundly spiritual time of cleansing, reflection and renewal for the natives at a place called Tspeten that was revealed to them in dreams. A sacred burial ground to the west of the sundance site was revealed through vision quests, not archeological discovery. The Cariboo Tribal Council has distanced themselves from the Indians some call renegades.
The unaffiliated Secwepemc natives at Gustafson Lake and their Mohawk spokesman have been critical of the RCMP for not protecting their religious freedom and their claim to what they say is unceded land not covered by treaties. According to the Shuswap Declaration, signed in 1982, representatives of the various Shuswap bands, including Canoe Creek and Canim Lake, pledged to protect the culture, "but they don't help us," said Rosette. "And now they're trying to do a treaty."
Rosette and Archie and other Shuswap traditionalists say that the land is theirs and has never been ceded or the subject of a legal sale to Dog Creek rancher Lyle James. "Someone has issued illegal leases," says Rosette. He claims James has never showed him a deed to the land, or who claimed legal authority to sell the land.
They explain that they have erected a fence along an old fence line around the perimeter of their sacred grounds to keep cattle from wandering through and defiling the sacred grounds. Within the enclosure is the Sacred Arbor, where the actual Sundance ceremonies are held, the council lodge campsite and an ancient burial ground. He maintains that a parcel about 28 sq. miles was originally intended to be put into a reserve for the Shuswap people, but that survey markers have been long ago tampered with and destroyed so that now there is no record of it.
Splitting the Sky asks, "What we want to know is where are the documents for this reserve?" There has always been some tension between the Sundancers and the rancher over the ownership claim but Splitting the Sky speaks about native land claims issues on a wider scale than has ever come up here before. Under the banner of "the Shuswap Nation at Gustafson Lake," the group has demanded an investigation by the Governor General into illegal land deals and intervention by the Queen to hear their claims that, under the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which states according to their release that "all unceded territories remain unmolested and undisturbed."
This is part of the basis, they say, for the fencing and for the menacing defensive posture of their masked young warriors. Unlike previous years when the natives at the lake simply asked for access to the land and to be left alone during the spiritual rites, there is now some talk of "interrupting business as usual" to investigate claims that land leases and sales were never approved by traditional Shuwap leaders. The Cariboo Tribal Council and its member bands have come under verbal fire. "The band council system, the electoral system is not our traditional form of governing," said Splitting the Sky.
Seeing the council join with police and the rancher in discouraging the traditionalists has led him to the conclusion that "there seems to be some form of collusion there." If rancher James does have a legal deed to the land, Rosette claims never to have seen it, although Splitting the Sky said that if such a document were produced and was found to be legal through their viewpoint the sundancers would vacate the site and find somewhere else.
Preventing the Sundance itself, they say, would be an infringement of religious freedom and human rights. A period of preparation, purification and fasting is set for July 2-6. "We fast for four days, try to get a vision and communicate with the holy ones,"said Splitting the Sky. The Sundance itself is July 6-9, when we will pray to the Great Spirit and all of our ancestors." The Sundance ceremonies are open to all First Nations people, but not to non-natives.