Historical Overview

Old Shuswap Band Village Site.
Courtesy of the Shuswap Indian Band

Based on archaeological evidence, it appears that the Secwépemc, or Shuswap people, have lived in the high Plateau of South Central British Columbia for at least 4000 years. However, the archaeology of the area begins earlier with an incomplete skeleton of a young man discovered at Gore Creek near Kamloops, radiocarbon dated to 8360 years ago. Anthropologists believe the earliest occupants of the Plateau entered from the south sometime after the glacial retreat freed the land. Secwépemc elders say their people have lived on this land forever.

The Secwépemc are a division of the larger Interior Salish people. There are currently seven Interior Salish languages, divided into two groups: a north-western (northern) group consisting of Lillooet, Thompson and Secwépemc and a south-eastern (southern) group consisting of Okanagan-Colville, Columbian, Coeur d’Alene, and Kalispel. The Interior Salish based their economy on salmon and ungulates resulting in a pattern of occupation centering on river meadows and forest edges. The Interior Salish were probably the first occupants of the Plateau to exploit these resources efficiently enough to make them reliable sources of food.

Following the separation of the Secwépemc from the other Interior Salish groups, the Secwépemc developed an intricate system of travel corresponding with the seasons, as well as an important social and political system that governed their interactions with each other and the use of their traditional lands. This system was passed down from generation to generation through stories, using a rich oral history that continues to play an important role among the Secwépemc to this day.

The fur traders, missionaries, and miners had a significant impact on the Shuswap Band’s way-of-life by influencing their economy and their beliefs.

The first fur traders didn’t initially cause much harm to the Secwépemc way-of-life as they generally lived in a similar manner and depended on the knowledge and goodwill of their hosts for survival. However, the fur trade led many of the Secwépemc people to focus their time on trapping furs for trade rather than on sustenance activities. European goods acquired from the fur trade led the Secwépemc people to spend less time hunting, fishing, gathering, and making traditional garments and tools, such as baskets, robes, coats, mats, and bedding. The increased trade also encouraged competition among Native groups as access to trapping areas became increasingly important to survival. The fur trade also encouraged the mixing of cultures as fur traders took Indian wives.

Eventually, over-hunting led to a scarcity of big game animals, which in turn led to a shortage of the raw materials for clothing and tools, thus increasing dependence on European items. The beaver populations began to decline, which meant fewer returns and harder work and little time for traditional hunting and fishing. This led to periods of starvation for the Secwépemc. Having become somewhat dependent on the European goods and not trapping enough to trade for the goods they required, the Secwépemc started trading their salmon.

Gold was discovered along the Thompson and Frasier Rivers. By 1858, gold miners had “invaded” Secwépemc territory and interrupted the Secwépemc people’s life. Without experience in the mining industry, the Secwépemc were not able to capitalize on the gold which they had known about for centuries, and the people were forced to take semi-skilled jobs as labourers and ranch hands.

By the end of 1859 as the mining boom in the area declined, white settlers arrived looking for land for farming and ranching and often in conflict with the needs of the Shuswap.

Significant events that impacted the Shuswap Nation and way of life:

  • a severe smallpox outbreak in the early 1860s reduced the Secwépemc population by almost two-thirds;
  • the influx of missionaries and subsequent  introduction of residential school; and
  • the creation of the reserve.

Gilbert Malcolm Sproat was sent by the Provincial Government to allocate reserves and in 1884 the Shuswap Reservation was established. The Shuswap Band was at their village near Invermere when the reserve boundaries were determined.  

A year later, the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed.  The Kootenay Central Railroad was added in 1915, to service the area between Cranbrook and Golden. With the opening of the Banff-Windermere Highway in 1923, the Columbia Valley was fully accessible by rail and by road.