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Indigenous Experiences in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast

Xatśūll First Nation - Soda Creek, BC | Michael Bednar

People define our region with a rich ancestral history and resilient ways.

Indigenous people were the first locals in our region, and their influence lives on today in a very powerful, meaningful way.

For thousands of years, the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast has been the home of Indigenous peoples. First Nations of the region include the Tsilhqot’in (steelh-coht-een), whose traditional territory is the high-altitude plateau of the Chilcotin (chil-ko-tin), the St’át’imc (stat-lee-um), from southwest of the Fraser; Nlaka’pamux (ing-khla-kap-muh) of the southern Fraser Canyon; the Carrier, who occupied the sub-boreal northern area of the Cariboo Chilcotin and the Secwepemc (shi-huep-muh-k), whose historical lands lie east of the Fraser River. On the Pacific coast, the major Indigenous nations are the Nuxalk (nu-halk) of the Bella Coola Valley, the Tsimshian (sim-she-an) and the Gitga’at (git-gat) of the outer coast, the Wuikinuxv (whee-kin-au) of Rivers Inlet and the Heiltsuk (hel-sic) of the coastal area near Bella Bella.

The region’s Indigenous people played an essential role in the province’s development, providing canoes, food, guides, translators and information to explorers and European settlers in the 1700s and 1800s. Explorer Alexander Mackenzie could not have completed his historic 1793 trek if Indigenous peoples had not directed him along the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail, from the northern Cariboo to the shores of the Pacific near Bella Coola. The route was used for centuries by coastal people to trade valuable eulachon oil with interior populations. Distilled from the small, herring-like eulachon fish, the oil was transported in cedar boxes. The trail earned its name from the oil that dripped from the boxes en route.

Indigenous people were also involved in the early days of the region’s key industries, particularly ranching in the Chilcotin and southern Cariboo, where horsemanship and wilderness survival skills were highly prized. Many Indigenous families in the region continue to work in ranching and remain key participants on the local rodeo circuit, particularly at the Anahim Lake Stampede and Bella Coola and Redstone rodeos.

Xatśūll Heritage Village Indigenous Experiences

Xatśūll Heritage Village | Johnny Bierman

There are many opportunities for immersive experiences with the Indigenous culture throughout the region. The award-winning Xatśūll (hat-sull) Heritage Village is located just north of Williams Lake on a grassy bench above the Fraser River. Here, members of the Secwepemc, sometimes known as Shuswap, First Nation, offer storytelling by village elders, educational wilderness walks and salmon lunches. (Contact Xatśūll in advance for reservations.)

Also near Williams Lake, jet boat tours journey over rapids and past hoodoos to explore ancient village sites, 8,000 to 10,000-year-old pictographs and petroglyphs, traditional fishing spots and abandoned mining sites. Indigenous guides share traditional knowledge involving medicinal plants, flora, fauna and local lore. And in the Chilcotin the Xeni Gwet’in (honey-ko-teen) host an annual summer gathering where elders and youth come together to pass on traditional games, stories and hunting and gathering skills.

At the Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre in Bella Bella, delve into the research and preservation of the language and culture of the Heiltsuk. Along with other coastal people such as the Kitasoo (kit-ah-soo) and Xá:xais (hay-hace), the Heiltsuk grew wealthy and powerful on the bounty of the sea. In the Thorsen Creek Valley near Bella Coola, ancient petroglyphs honouring the power and mystery of nature are still visible on rock faces near waterfalls and caves, with guided tours offered by Copper Sun Journeys. As well, Bella Coola’s Acwsalcta (ex-sals-ta) grade school is a showcase for a magnificent totem pole carved by students and teachers. Erected in 2002, it is the first Nuxalk totem pole to be raised here in 38 years. Stop in at Mamayu Gift Shop, located near the school, which has regular gift shop items and also features local artist pieces, framed photographs of the Bella Coola valley and intricate silver jewellery.

If Indigenous art interests you, Copper Sun Gallery in Bella Coola is an excellent place to view and purchase authentic handcrafted Nuxalk art, which is known for its vibrant blues. The gallery was founded to provide a venue for local Indigenous artists to sell their works. It hosts a constantly changing array of carvings, including masks and paddles, paintings, jewellery, weaving and handmade crafts.

Next door to the Cumbrian Inn in Bella Coola there is the Bella Coola Wild Craft Gallery, which has beautiful hand-carved wood furniture and smaller keepsakes, as well as mixed medium paintings by local artists. It’s within walking distance of Freddy’s Restaurant and the Bella Coola Valley Inn restaurant and perfect for stopping in while waiting for take-out. In the summer months, you can interact with artists on site and arrange for interpretive tours for a more in depth look into the region’s Indigenous art and culture.

Xatśūll Heritage Village Indigenous Experiences

Xatśūll Heritage Village | Destination BC/Blake Jorgenson

Spirit Bear Lodge, operated by the Kitasoo and Xá:xais, is located some 100 km (62 mi) northwest of Bella Coola, in the wilds of the Great Bear Rainforest. Here, guests are provided with a unique cultural and historic perspective as part of their all-inclusive bear-viewing packages, complete with comfortable accommodations.

In the northern Chilcotin, the Nazko lands are known for celebrated Carrier First Nation artists working in leather, buckskin and moose hide, beadwork, watercolour, wood, stained glass and intricate cross-stitch. In the southern Chilcotin, no fewer than 11 different communities make up the St’át’imc First Nation, whose traditional territories are located in and around an ancient gathering place now known as Lillooet. Today, Xwisten Experience Tours offers award-winning guided excursions along the banks of Fraser to view “fishing rocks,” the traditional wind-dried method of preserving salmon, and guided explorations of Xwisten (hoysh-ten) archaeological site’s 80 pit houses, dating back thousands of years. As well, the neighbouring Sekw’el’was/Cayoose Creek Band offers interpretive walks of the beautifully restored Lower Seton spawning channel.

Five minutes from downtown Lillooet is the site of a traditional s7istken (shesh-ken), or pit house, built by the T’it’q’et (tlee-ti-cut) community. Constructed with only earth and timber, such structures once housed up to 20 people and featured two entrances, one on ground level and one in the roof, which also released smoke from cooking fires.

Don’t miss the Seton Lake Band’s Kaoham Shuttle (featured in BBC Travel), a travelling window into the past and a convenient way to view local wildlife. The train runs Fridays, with a scheduled double-run, skirting the shores of Seton Lake past numerous historical sites, including an Indigenous cemetery precariously located between the tracks and the lake’s crystalline banks.

Visit the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region for a glimpse into the wonders of Indigenous artistry and culture that looks towards the future while honouring the past.