Blackeye Folklore

The Nicola Valley looking north toward Douglas Lake (to the right) and Kamloops

The open grasslands of the Nicola Valley were home to the horsemen of the Okanagan, Stuwix, and Secwepemc Natives

At the turn of the century, a small group of Athapascan warriors from the Chilcotins crossed the Fraser River and made their way south, toward Kamloops Lake. They knew they were on lands that belonged to Native peoples who were their enemies, but they were well-armed and prepared to defend themselves. They had come, perhaps, to avenge the death of a member of their community; it is also possible they were pushed out of their home villages by people who were stronger than themselves. We do not know why they came, and those who are descended from them no longer remember their old stories — or are not sharing them with us.

It was said that these Native warriors made their way down the Bonaparte river to the north banks of the Thompson River. Although the Bonaparte valley was settled by various Native tribes, these warriors found no one, and did not know where all the people had gone.

The invaders were not discovered, and disturbed no one. Then, as they made their way along the Thompson River’s north bank, some Nlaka’pamux people, who had remained behind in their village, saw the strangers.

Most of the Nlaka’pamux people were fishing for their winter food, at the place where the Thompson flowed into the Fraser. Some of those who had remained behind, rode west to the fishing place and told the story of the war party of strangers who had come to invade Nlaka’pamux lands! Immediately, the warriors were mounted, armed, and riding over their ancient trails to the place where the invaders were last reported to be. They found them, and engaged them in battle — and were surprised at how well these invaders, likely smaller in number, were able to protect themselves.

When the darkness of night descended on the first day of battle, the two armies faced each other — though both invaders and protectors were pinned down behind the rocks of the river valley. When the sun rose in the morning the invaders had gone! They had crossed the fearsome Thompson River and were now making their way down the Nicola river into the Nicola Valley. The Nlaka’pamux men found their track and followed them south, and on occasion engaged them in battle. The two parties fought their way through the Nicola and beyond, toward the base of the Tulameen plateau.

Before long, the Nlaka’pamux men realized that many of these invading warriors were women — young and beautiful women who fought as strongly as their men! Through all the battles that followed, the Nlaka’pamux’s admiration for these women grew, until the Nlaka’pamux decided, together, to negotiate for peace. Some of these women became wives of the Nlaka’pamux chiefs, and the children they bore for their husbands had the strength and beauty that had been a characteristic of their mothers’ tribe!

Is this story true, or a fable? It might be both. The supposed descendants of the invading Athapascans are called the Stuwix (strangers), or Athapascan Nicola-Similkameen. The Stuwix are best represented today by their 1840’s chief, Blackeye, “the Similkameen.” Blackeye lived with his band on the lake just north of Otter Lake, which is in itself a few miles north of the modern British Columbia town of Tulameen.

Blackeye was well known at the HBC post at Kamloops, and was trusted by Chief Trader Sam Black. Alexander Caulfield Anderson met this Similkameen chief and his son-in-law in 1846, and in 1847 “Blackeye’s Son” showed Anderson his newly explored trail that ran up the hills behind modern-day Boston Bar. Whether Blackeye’s son-in-law, and Blackeye’s Son (as he was known by the HBC men) were the same men or different, I do not know. But in 1848, the man who was known by the HBC men as Blackeye’s Son guided Henry Newsham Peers over what the HBC men called “Blackeye’s Trail,” to Fort Hope. In 1849 Blackeye’s Trail was used by the hundreds of horses of the New Caledonia brigades for the first time, and it would be used as the brigade trail to and from the interior, for the next fifteen years.

By the 1840’s, Blackeye was an old man: how old, I do not know. The village that Blackeye lived in was populous, having some 2,200 residents. The Stuwix were considered a wealthy people, and even before there was a Pacific Fur Company or North West Company post at Kamloops, the Stuwix owned (and were buried with) copper kettles and bracelets which could have come in trade from the coast, or from the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

The Sto:lo people on the south side of the Coquihalla, west of Fort Hope, told stories of a skilled hunter who came from the “other side of the mountain,” to invite their fathers and grandfathers to hunt. He left game for the Sto:lo people, at a place that had been prearranged by him. He was a great hunter, they said, who did not hunt for himself, but hunted for the people. His name was Yo:a’la. When the Sto:lo told this story a generation or two later, they thought this generous and skilled hunter might have been Blackeye.

And perhaps it was. There are, however, many conflicting stories about the Stuwix people. In some stories the Stuwix came to the Nicola Valley in early 1700, in others the late 1700’s or early 1800’s. They say there was no peace between the Stuwix and the other tribes in the district, but many years of violent war — it was only after enough Stuwix woman had married Nlaka’pamux and Okanagan men that the Natives ceased their constant feuding, in case they killed a family member.

The Stuwix were also culturally distinct from their neighbours, the Nlaka’pamux and Okanagans. Blackeye’s people acquired things by trade instead of manufacture: they owned many slaves, who were traded from far away as California. They marked their slaves by blackening their eye, perhaps with a tattoo. They tattooed their own bodies, too, and are the only group of people in the Nicola Valley likely to have had tattoos. Their method of burial was by burying a body under a rock-slide, by sliding rocks over the body: there are, in fact, known burial places in the Similkameen valley, kept secret by people who know the location. By the 1800’s the Stuwix were a dying people, and today they are virtually extinct. They were decimated by the small pox, and were invited by their relatives to move to Douglas Lake. They left behind them two pictographs, some grave sites, one mass grave, and many descendants who married into other tribes.

The story with which I began my research, and this article, appears to be a fable — or if it is true it happened many years ago. The Stuwix people lived for a century or more at the mouth of the Nicola, they say, but were driven away from their then-homeland and settled at the base of the Tulameen plateau.

I would like to know more, but I think I never will. But if you want to read a little more, go to: Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s story of his meeting with Blackeye, in summer 1846, is also here.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.