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  • Dave Butler

Layers of History and Meaning

By Dave Butler


I’m working on a stand-alone ecothriller about cross-border water issues. At its heart, the novel focuses on rivers, from headwaters high in the Rocky, Purcell, Selkirk, and Monashee Mountain Ranges to where they eventually meet the sea. And it focuses on human greed.


As I research the story, I spend increasing amounts of time pondering the history of the first peoples of the area, and how their stories link so intimately with those rivers about which I write, and with the ecosystems and the fish and wildlife species that rely on them.


For example, the Ktunaxa peoples have inhabited their traditional territory -- which covers portions of what is now British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, and Montana -- for tens of thousands of years. They migrated through the seasons to follow vegetation and hunting and fishing cycles.

That traditional territory is essentially the area about which I’m writing. But as I read and savour the Ktunaxa creation story, and as I look at the maps of ?amakis Ktunaxa, with areas are known as ‘Land of the Eagle,’ ‘Land of the Raven,’ ‘Land of the Wood Tick, ‘Land of the Coyote,’ ‘Land of the Chickadee, ‘Land of the Wolverine,’ and ‘Land of the Spruce Grouse,’ I realize how narrow my own view of this area has always been. Their stories, their use of the land, and their way of seeing the land are rich in history and knowledge and understanding that I will never have.


But it is not for me to tell their story. Or to tell the stories of the Secwepemc, Syilx, or Sinixt peoples to the east, or the Blackfoot, Blood and Piegans to the west.


Instead, it is for me – as a writer and resident of their traditional territory – to appreciate and respect and recognize that this is, and always has been their home. Even though I’ve lived here for nearly 33 years, I am a newcomer to this place.


When I look at the maps of the traditional territories, I see how they are place-based … they recognize mountains and rivers and lakes, the locations of areas rich in plant, fish and wildlife

(the bull trout, sturgeon, bison, caribou, wolverine…), and the traditional travel and trade routes between them. In some cases, our travel and trade routes today follow those same paths through the mountains, or up and down river valleys. They are now our highways and railways.


I’m a biologist as well as a writer and like to think that I use an ecosystem approach in my thinking. However, I see how both the traditional territories and the traditional stories are deeply rooted in interrelationships both natural and human. In many ways, they embody the true meaning of ecology.


I also look at our borders … the borders between states, the borders between provinces, and the 49th parallel, which separates Canada and the United States, and realize the degree to which they are an artificial construct. Created by non-Indigenous politicians for administrative and political purposes, they divide those traditional territories, and they divide the habitats of those same plants, fish, and animals.

The rivers about which I write have suffered the same fate. The Kootenay River, for example, starts high in the Rocky Mountains in Canada, flows through British Columbia before slowing behind the Libby Dam in Montana, then circles through Idaho and Washington before turning north back into Canada again. The Columbia River -- with its many hydro dams that act as barriers to the traditional salmon runs that were such an important food source and cultural inspiration for Indigenous peoples -- starts in British Columbia but meets the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon.


In my writing, I find myself thinking more and more about how the history of this place and the history of the people who have lived here for ten thousand years or more, are inextricably linked with the geography, with the rivers, the fish, the wildlife, and the plants.


It is, quite frankly, a realization that continues to fill me with awe and appreciation.


* * *


I acknowledge that I live, write, and play in the traditional territories of

the Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Nations.