Nearly half of the members of the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington state have ties to a tribe that Canada says no longer exists. In 1956, the last member of the Sinixt in Canada passed away.
But over the past decade, surviving tribal members who live in Washington have waged a legal battle to get their rights and access to traditional territory back. They recently celebrated their victories at an honor ceremony in British Columbia.
It’s been just over a year since a Canadian trial court acquitted Washington resident and Sinixt member Rick Desautel of illegal hunting in British Columbia. Back in 2009, he killed an elk in Canada on what he considers his traditional hunting grounds.
But he wasn’t supposed to be there, because that nation’s government had deemed his tribe ‘extinct’ decades earlier.
“Canadians love us. Canada hated us. They said we don’t exist anymore,” said Rick Desautel’s wife Linda. She helped her husband haul the elk out of the woods back in 2009.
“Even when the game warden showed up, I figured...well, you know, if I spend a night in the hoosegow, I guess it’s what I have to do. I don’t want to," she said with a laugh.
Rick Desautel’s case is still in the courts. The provincial government appealed his acquittal. That appeal was rejected late last year by a provincial Supreme Court judge. But provincial prosecutors are pressing on. And now, attorneys on both sides are waiting to find out if British Columbia’s Court of Appeals will hear a second appeal.
In the meantime, members of the Sinixt tribe are celebrating what they call the ‘Desautel Decision,’ because—regardless of the appeals—they believe they’ve reclaimed their home and tribal existence.
At a ceremony in Nelson, British Columbia, they played a huge drum and sang songs about freedom. Illness kept Desautel from the ceremony, but his wife Linda was there for him. Sinixt members wrapped her in a thick, purple Pendleton blanket, covered in red and orange designs.
After blessings and thank-you’s, Brian Phillips played a traditional flute. Phillips’ sister, Shelly Boyd, was the master of ceremonies. She also testified as a witness during Rick Desautel’s trial.
“There’s been some moments in this past year when we sat in the courtroom and heard the judge for the first time say that we were not extinct, that that was ridiculous,” Boyd said. “I never thought I’d hear that in my lifetime.”
Attorney Mark Underhill has been defending Rick Desautel for nearly a decade.
“I was told by a lot of senior lawyers, this case was unwinnable. That I would never, ever win this case. That I was crazy for trying to win it,” he said.
Underhill said he took the case because of what Rick and Linda Desautel told him about the tribe's history.
"The core truth is this is where the Sinixt are from, this is their homeland. And when I got my head around what may seem like a simple fact, I knew we would win, because it’s the truth," he said.
Underhill called it a landmark case. That’s why he expects the second appeal to be heard. From there, he said the case is likely to go to the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, not because the Canadian government doesn’t want to recognize the Sinixt, but because the case lays the foundation for reconciliation with native people across the country.
For now, Linda Desautel said she and other Sinixt descendants who live in Washington state will keep going north to British Columbia. She said going home is like bumping into an old friend.
“You’re not quite sure how to behave around them,” she said. “And then you find out they’re not any different, they’re a little bit older, a little bit wiser and they’re just really damn glad to see you.”