Shawn Swanky watches a Lahal game.Two nations. Occupying the same land. Separated by an invisible wall. A wall nevertheless as certain as bricks and mortar. So a Xatsull elder once described it to me.

The Tsilhqot’in Chiefs’ Memorial recognizes this bi-jurisdictional reality in a small way. I discovered the reality for myself at a Tsilhqot’in function this spring. I was in my own backyard… but also in a foreign country! At home, yet a tourist in a place where people spoke a different language and had different customs. Remarkable. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to sense this invisible wall. And to be so warmly welcomed by the living spirit of the Tsilhqot’in nation on the other side of it.

This is one great challenge: to show the present day reality to people who deny the occurrence of a holocaust and who do not acknowledge the resulting invisible wall which is its legacy.

Holocausts remain emotional and politically charged long after one would think them over. In some Europeanized countries, it is a crime to deny the 1940s Nazi Holocaust of non-Ayrian people. In Turkey it is a crime to describe as a holocaust what happened to the Armenians, 1915-1919. In British Columbia, historians say “what holocaust?” and pretend the death of half the native population, or more, made no difference, or so little difference as not to be worth studying. All this without actually studying the event. Amazing. If half B.C.’s population died in the next nine months would that make it into the history books? You bet it would.

Tsilhqotin Chiefs memorial plaque at Quesnel.The Tsilhqot’in did not just survive as forced Canadian immigrants. Isolated and separated from their homeland. The Tsilhqot’in nation itself survived. Not just the Tsilhqot’in, of course, certainly others as well. This story affects all of B.C. But the Tsilhqot’in experience is a nice example as they were at the centre of the storm.

The basic theme of the Chiefs’ Memorial is one of injustice suffered. The Chiefs were martyred for defending their nation from people using smallpox as a biological weapon to seize land and resources. And for applying their laws, the laws properly authorized and executed by the established government, to control European immigrants using smallpox in Tsilhqot’in territory.

They were tricked into believing the Governor had invited them to a conference. A conference where they had been led to expect their regime and the old laws would be recognized.

Instead they were ambushed, subjected to a show trial and hung in public. To “send a message,” as the saying goes. One can say, then that the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs were martyred on behalf of all B.C. natives. The Sheriff estimated a crowd of 250.

My task is to concentrate on laying out the evidence. To tell a persuasive, consistent story that accounts for all the known facts. I can’t do anything about the injustice. Nor be a spokesman for anyone. I can only do my best to create a narrative which tells an audience composed of people from both sides of the invisible wall what it needs to know. To be respectful of the innocent and of the good spirits on both sides of the wall.

The Tsilhqot’in Chiefs’ Memorial, one of the most important artifacts of Canadian history, seems almost lost on someone’s lawn. There is a second marker nearby. This redundancy somewhat illustrates the invisible wall thesis.

Both memorial plaques for the Tsilhqot'in Chiefs at Quesnel.

The second marker can be found along a popular walking trail. The local municipality placed it there. Local natives helped with the content. That practice is a huge improvement over previous official efforts touching on the Tsilhqot’in War. But… was there no room for the trail to pass the original marker? What do you think? Can you see the invisible wall which passes somewhere between these two markers?

As it happens, each marker continues some common misconceptions about the events surrounding the Tsilhqot’in War. Mostly on account of a lack of precision. Yet this contributes to a further obscuring of the truth which has been ongoing from the first. I will detail all this in the documentary.

The Memorial correctly notes the colony provocatively labeled “the battle preventing smallpox at Bute Inlet” as “a massacre.” Two different ways of “spinning” the same event. Yet would you have guessed from the Memorial that only two chiefs were hung primarily for their role at Bute Inlet?

Most of the Chiefs were hung for actions elsewhere. Actions better understood as in the nature of policing, not war. Though natives then did not have “policemen” quite as we understand them today.

Second marker for the Tsilhqot'in Chiefs at Quesnel.The second marker correctly refers to smallpox. In every record where he was interviewed, Klatsassin referred to smallpox as the sole cause of the war.

However, this marker refers to “killing…most of the members of a pack train.” It implies this action was also part of the war. But only three out of nine pack train members were killed (eleven members if one counts the native packers.) This hardly seems “most.”

Two of those killed were specifically targeted on account of their smallpox activities. So the killing was not random, as one would find in a war. The third death seems an unfortunate collateral casualty in the course of killing the other two. The six left to go free had not been involved with smallpox.

Actually, the theme of the pack train action should be the great care the Tsilhqot’in took to do no more harm than absolutely necessary. This could be the theme of Tsilhqot’in actions throughout these activities. What a very strange war.

Eight men, not six, were in Klatsassin’s party when it was tricked; nor does it seem they were “turning themselves in.” Two were set free at Quesnel because their actions seemed more like war than resisting arrest or aiding and abetting murder. What a strange trial. One also escaped.

Two Tsilhqot’in were tried later at New Westminster for their part in the pack train action. One was hung for murder. One was convicted then pardoned.

This is an exceedingly complex story. Accurate generalizations are hard won. It is quite understandable why no one quite gets it right. Add to this that the last stage of a genocide is denial. This adds a class of people with an interest in deliberately obscuring the truth. Some of them historians.

So I am going off to a quiet place now to sketch the backbone of the story as I will tell it in the documentary. Asking at every turn, “What is the evidence?” But also keeping in mind that this story has a present day component. Native nations did not become extinct. They are alive with cultures evolving to meet the challenges confronted in the present, just like every other culture. Each potential change or choice a gamble. Like a throw at a Lahal game.

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