Historical atlas brings local First Nations culture to life

Cover of Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas
Cover of Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas

Stó:lō and Coast Salish lifeways detailed in ground-breaking book

By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer

First Nations history is an often-neglected field, even in British Columbia. The astounding diversity of culture around the Fraser River is something that goes unnoticed by most who live along it, even members of those First Nations. In 1999, a decision was made to rectify that. The result was one of the most comprehensive, detailed, and important examinations of a Native American group published in the 21st century. The Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas is a colossal effort to bring to light the lives and history of the people who called, and still call, this land home.

The atlas was completed in 2001 and has a total of 14 authors, most of whom are lawyers, Aboriginal Rights advocates, and professors from the University of Saskatchewan, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and University of the Fraser Valley. It’s filled with historical and modern photographs of Stó:lō and Coast Salish towns, art, and people, supplemented by endless graphs of geological and demographical data. It’s an ethnographer’s dream: The amount of information is absolutely staggering. From the names and religious significance of mountains, to the historical migration of peoples up and down the Fraser River, to the impacts of residential schools on the population; everything is covered and backed with a scientific—yet passionate and caring—eye.

The Stó:lō live throughout the Fraser Valley, and are largely based in Chilliwack, where the book was printed. The Coast Salish are a much broader group spread along the coast and Vancouver Island, from Bella Coola to Seattle. Both groups can trace their ancestry and culture in the area back thousands of years, and this history is detailed in the atlas with maps of important archaeological sites and oral histories.

From the late 1800s to the 1980s, the cultures of both Stó:lō and Coast Salish were actively stifled and repressed by a series of institutions, most notably by the residential schools program. The result of this startlingly-recent system of racism was that many First Nations people, especially youth, aren’t connected to their own heritage and culture. One of the principle aims of the Historical Atlas is to educate First Nations youth on their own history and inspire them to be more active in their communities. In a foreword to the book, Xwelixweltel, also known as Judge Steven L. Point, says, “It kills me when my kids come home and tell me they don’t want to be Native.” Though First Nations culture has been smothered for generations, the authors and contributors involved in the creation of the Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas clearly believe we live in a time when it can be resurrected, remembered, and respected.