An Indigenous woman in the Slocan Valley is taking on the province and the U.S.-based Sinixt leadership over the authority to look after a local historical site.
Two years ago, the B.C. government signed a memorandum of understanding with Marilyn James, authorizing her to be the caretaker of a significant archeological location known as the Vallican site.
The Sinixt people at the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State disputed this agreement, stating that only they, not James, have the authority to contract with the province about the site.
Now the B.C. government has rescinded its agreement with James.
In an email to the Nelson Star, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport said on May 18 the Heritage Branch provided James with notice that the memorandum of understanding would be terminated in 30 days.
“Indigenous engagement on finding a replacement caretaker for the site will be pursued, to address concerns that a broad discussion on candidates had not occurred,” the email said. “Heritage Branch will continue to work to ensure the site is protected and doesn’t fall into disrepair.”
In 1987 the Ministry of Highways began construction of a new road at Vallican in the Slocan Valley. Construction was halted when many Sinixt artifacts, skeletal remains and pit-house depressions were uncovered.
Since then the Sinixt, including James, have repatriated and reburied 64 ancestral remains at the site. James has given tours for school groups and the public, and overseen other cultural activities there including the construction of a traditional pit house.
James declined to be interviewed for this story, but the Autonomous Sinixt, a West Kootenay organization centred around James, in a news release dated June 30, said that James has now occupied the site in response to the province’s cancellation of the agreement.
“As of June 8, 2022, James has moved onto the Vallican site in a (re)-continued occupation,” the news release states, adding that “James says she has no plans to leave the Vallican Camp and will continue to uphold her cultural responsibilities by maintaining her occupation and caretaking role of the ancestors at the Vallican Heritage site.”
No one at the Colville Confederated Tribes was willing to be interviewed for this story, but in a July 6 news release, they supported the province’s revocation of the contract with James and stated that James does not represent the Sinixt.
“At no time have the Sn̓ ʕaýckstx appointed her as a ‘matriarch’ or any other kind of representative for our people, nor have we given her responsibility to care for our ancestors at Vallican,” wrote Andy Joseph Jr., chairman of the Sinixt Confederacy and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “Ms. James represents herself, and an unidentified group of non-Indigenous people, not the Sn̓ ʕaýckstx.”
Joseph referred to James’ occupation of the Vallican site as “a form of cultural appropriation.”