Tsilaxitsa, Okanagan chief

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

Alexander Caulfield Anderson left Kamloops for the last time (as a fur trader, at least) in 1849 when he led the Fort Colvile brigades out to Fort Langley. He would not return until 1877, when he represented the Dominion of Canada’s government as their Indian Reserve Commissioner. Fellow commissioners were Archibald McKinlay, a retired fur trader who ranched at Lac la Hache, and Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, an immigrant from England.

The three Commissioners could not have had more different views on the Natives. Archibald McKinlay thought all First Nations were savages, and Sproat referred to some as “double-faced Indian chiefs.” But Anderson had known some of these First Nations men personally: he wrote in his journal that he had ridden many miles with Tsilaxitsa, the most important Okanagan chief of his time.

Tsilaxitsa’s name was written many ways, but in his journal Anderson spelled it Sel-a-heetza. Tsilaxitsa’s mother was Chief N’kwala’s favorite sister, who died when she was giving birth to him. N’kwala [Nicola/Nicolas] adopted the infant, and Tsilaxitsa grew up at N’kwala’s residence in the Nicola Valley. On N’kwala’s death, Tsilaxitsa became the nominal head of the northern branches of the Okanagan tribes, and played an active role in the politics of the time, especially in relation to the land question. [Most of this information comes from the 42nd Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, 1978, p. 59].

The author of Tsilaxitsa’s short biography did not connect the Okanagan man with the brigade trails. But on July, 1877, Dominion Indian Reserve Commissioner Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote from Kamloops to say that “Sel-a-heetza, the Chief of the Okinagans, who when a young man travelled with me a good deal, and who has now attained great influence, came recently to Kamloops and visited our camp to pay his respects to the Commissioners.

“He afterwards visited me privately at my tent, and after a good deal of conversation imported to me [some] of what has recently transpired among the natives at the General Councils that have been had.” Anderson finished his report with the words: “Sel-a-heetza, I may add, is a man of much influence. Like the rest he is astute, and his words must be accepted with caution. Nevertheless, under the influence of old friendship, he has probably been as frank with me, privately, as his nature will admit.” [Source: RG10, Vol. 3651, File 8540, General Correspondence to and from the British Columbia Reserve Commission regarding reserves, 1877-78: Canada, Dept. of Indian Affairs, Black Series, Library and Archives Canada].

From Anderson’s journals: “Today Selixt-asposem (Five Hearts, also Moise), the Chief of this section of the Okinagans, and Sel-a-heetza, the Chief of Nicolas Lake, his co-adjudicator, sent a message asking for a private interview. We received them in the afternoon…

“Sel-a-heetza acting as chief spokesman, began by saying that they had come thus privately in order to talk of bygone things and of matters as they now stand. He referred to the late chief, Nicholas [N’kwala], who as we well know had always been the firm friend of the whites, and who, by all the white chiefs, including some of ourselves, had been regarded as a brother. That Nicholas on his death bed had spoken to Selixt-asposem, his son, and to him, Sel-a-heetza, his Nephew, urging upon them the observance of the same friendly line of conduct, and told them that when they looked at these medals at any time of difficulty, they must recall his dying words.”

The Native chiefs presented two medals: one a very beautiful work of art, had on the front the head of King George III, and on the reverse side the arms of the HBC. The second medal was a coronation medal of Queen Victoria. This was 1877 — the first medal was probably that given to Chief N’kwala in 1824, by Governor George Simpson. [Frederick Merk, Fur Trade and Empire, p. 132].

At the end of the long meeting the two First Nations chiefs departed, and something special happened. “We should here mention that up to this time (among the Okinagans) we have made it a point to offer nothing in the shape of a present, even so much as a pipe of tobacco, lest we might be slighted by a refusal; the Chiefs having intimated that they and their people were averse to accepting anything in the shape of a gratuity until their land question was in train of settlement… Today, however, Sel-a-heetza, of his own accord, before leaving us, asked for tobacco. This was of course at once given to him, as well as to his companion, and they left us in great good humor.” [RG10, Vol. 3659, File 9500, Journal of the Proceedings of the Commission for the settlement of the Indian Reserves in the Province of B.C., 1878, Canada, Dept. of Indian Affairs, Black Series, LAC].

Tsilaxitsa fascinated me, and I was fortunate enough to uncover his portrait in the B.C. Archives, and included it in my book. However, my book was mostly written before I discovered how Anderson knew Tsilaxitsa so well!

Anderson was at Fort Alexandria when, in April 1847, clerk Montrose McGillivray arrived with dispatches from Fort Vancouver. Anderson was ordered to find a second route between Kamloops and Fort Langley, this time through the rugged canyons and rapids of the Fraser River. Anderson set off from Kamloops on May 19, 1847, and shortly afterward set up camp at the west end of Nicola Lake where he expected to meet his Native guide — Blackeye’s son.

Their First Nations guides had not arrived, but joined them later. Where the Nicoamen River flowed into the Thompson Anderson met his Sto:lo guide, Pahallak, who “made his appearance shortly after our arrival accompanied by a large concourse of Indians of every age and sex.” Blackeye’s son and Tsilaxitsa may have been with Pahallak, or they may have joined the party later. But by the time Anderson had reached the mouth of the Anderson River at Boston Bar, both Tsilaxitsa and Blackeye’s son were there. Anderson called the new trail the “Similkameen trail” — to the fur traders of that time, the Similkameen people lived along the Tulameen River and in the Nicola Valley.

At the top of the hills Anderson heard from two of his employees that they were familiar with this part of the trail, and that it would lead them all the way to the Nicola Valley and Kamloops. Anderson continued down the Fraser River, following Pahallak’s newly opened trail over Lake Mountain. They reached Fort Langley, and then the party returned upriver again, taking the Similkameen trail to the Nicola Valley.

When they reached the top of the hill once more, the parties separated — the Fraser River First Nations men returning to their villages at Spuzzum and Kequeloose, and the Okanagan and Similkameen continuing to work on the road with Anderson’s men. Anderson himself rode north to Kamloops and Fort Alexandria, and before he left his clerk, Montrose McGillivray, he wrote him a letter:

“The chief part of our survey being now completed, I purpose entrusting to your care the further charge of the party… Upon the return of [Edouard] Montigny, you will proceed to Okinagan with the horses, accompanied by the men here-in-named, and thence to meet the Boats, when you will place yourself under the directions of the Gentleman in charge of the New Caledonia brigade.

“Meanwhile you will employ the men in cutting the road… The Indian guides now here will point out to you the line it will be necessary to follow.” He then listed the men who were to do the work: Fallardeau, Lacourse, and Desautels remain with you. Also Nicholas’ Nephew, Black-eye’s Son, and Laronetumleun — the last as Interpreter.”

N’Kwala’s nephew was here. This was, almost certainly, Tsilaxitsa.

The full story of Tsilaxitsa’s relationship with Anderson (as far as I know it) is told in my first book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West. The book is now out of print, but I have a few copies left. If you want one, talk to me through my contact sheet. It will cost you $20 Canadian, plus postage.

Tsilaxitsa was a very important person in British Columbia’s history!

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. [Updated July 27, 2015] All rights reserved.