July 11, 2016 - 9:00 PM
ENDERBY - First Nations elders in a North Okanagan community have served their band’s chief and council with a declaration urging them to protect an ancestral burial ground.
With a referendum set for July 16 asking band membership whether it supports accepting a $300,000 settlement from the federal government for a cemetery site, elders are calling on local leadership to cancel the vote.
Splatsin band member Rosalind Williams says they served the band council with a formal declaration July 7 to cancel the referendum, thoroughly survey the grave site, and conduct a full archaeological report. They also want the grave site, which is located in a farmer’s field, returned to the band, fenced, and marked with a monument.
“There’s human beings in that field that are being run over top of. Their human rights are totally being disregarded — nowhere else would that happen,” Williams says.
According to Williams, Splatsin elders who died from smallpox in the 1800s are buried on the three quarter of an acre site on Old Vernon Road in Enderby. The land was historically claimed by settler Alexander Fortune, although he put a fence around the cemetery and respected the grave site during his lifetime, Williams says. When he died in 1912, the farm changed hands several times, and the cemetery lands were eventually ploughed under. In the 1930s, the federal government removed the site from the reserve without consulting the band, Williams says.
“We want that land back,” Williams says. “That site is significant to B.C. That piece of history, as ugly as it is, it happened and those ancestors are the ones who died from the small pox that was introduced to our community. You can’t leave that information buried underneath a corn field.”
The elders are also concerned not enough research has been done into the grave site and the announcement for a referendum was rushed and done without proper consultation with the band membership.
Spokesperson for the movement Protect Splatsin Ancestors Jody Leon says the chief and council needs to back up and do more research and public consultation before pursuing the settlement.
“When you read the agreement it very clearly says it extinguishes our rights to the land. That means for $300,000 we are giving away the rights of our sacred ancestors forever,” Leon says.
Leon is asking all indigenous, and non-indigenous, allies who support protecting the site to write letters to the Splatsin chief and council, local MLA, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. She is also asking people to come together July 16, the day of the referendum, to stand up for the ancestors.
“We are calling on everyone to stand with us and send a message to our government this is absolutely zero per cent acceptable,” Leon says.
Meanwhile, new information is being uncovered behind the scenes through the efforts of lawyers, researchers and archeologists, Leon says. According to research conducted by 4 Seasons Heritage Consulting, various artifacts and human remains have been uncovered around the Fortune Field site, including the nearby creek bed, however the actual location of the cemetery is unconfirmed.
“I recommend that a non-invasive study be undertaken to relocate the cemetery, as a way to support the community through their process of reconciliation and healing. While the large archaeological site may prove impractical to fence-off; it is reasonable to undertake GPR (ground penetrating radar) work to relocate the cemetery, and potentially provide fencing to protect the ancestors in a way that is done collaboratively with and reflective of the Splatsin commuity and their cultural protocols and practices,” researcher Meghan Fisher says in the report.
Splatsin Chief Wayne Christian was out of town in meetings and unavailable for an interview.
More information about the Save Splatsin Ancestors movement can be found here. Anyone wishing to get involved can contact Leon at 250-306-1240 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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