Friday, May 10, 2013

The Mystique of Nicola

The Mystique of Nicola

By John Hall
The Daily Magi
September 3, 2043


Nicola (1780/1785 — ~1865) (Spokan Hwistesmetxe'qen, Walking Grizzly Bear), also Nkwala or N'kwala, was an important First Nations political figure in the fur trade era of the British Columbia Interior (early 19th century to 1858) as well as into the colonial period (1858–1871). He was grand chief of the Okanagan people and chief of the Nicola Valley peoples, an alliance of Nlaka'pamux and Okanagans and the surviving Nicola Athapaskans, and also of the Kamloops Band of the Shuswap people.

The name Nicolas (pron.: /ˈnɪkɵlə/ in approximation of the French) was conferred on him by French-Canadians in the employ of the Hudson's Bay and Northwest Companies who worked at a temporary unnamed trading post at the head of Okanagan Lake. The Scots and English in the employ of the companies adapted this to Nicholas and Old Nicholas, while First Nations people adapted it to Nkwala’.

Nicola was one of the four children and chiefly heir of Pelka'mulox ("Rolls-Over-The-Earth"), third chief in the lineage of Okanagan chiefs to bear that name (which was by linguistic origin Spokane), the first and second being born c.1675-1680 and c.1705-1710 respectively. The date of birth of the third Pelka'mulox, Nicola's father, is uncertain but his death was sometime in the first decade of the 19th century, caused by an arrow fired by a chief of the Lillooet (St'at'imc) at the historic fishing grounds around Fountain and Pavilion. The argument between the two chiefs had begun when chief of the Lakes Lillooet provoked a violent argument by denouncing Pelka'mulox, who had hunted buffalo on the plains and met North West Company traders Lagace and MacDonald in what is now Montana, for describing the existence of white people and their new civilization, and calling his story a lie.

Upon his death, the chieftaincy of the Okanagan people passed to Hwistesmetxe'qen (Nicola), while his uncle, Pelka'mulox's brother Kwali'la, who had helped him survived the wars of his youth with the Thompson, Shuswap and Kutenai, assumed the joint Thompson-Shuswap chieftaincy at Kamloops. Kwali'la also had helped Pelka'mulox establish the Okanagan people in the area round Nicola Lake, which had been Shuswap territory until that time (the people at Kamloops were a mix of Shuswap and Okanagan at the time). With his dying breath Pelka'mulox entrusted Kwali'la with the guardianship of his son, and that ordered that he be raised to avenge his father's death.

Pelka'mulox's status as chief of the Okanagan people in the Nicola Valley and the upper Okanagan Lake area, was passed to Nicola, who came to reside in the valley around the lake that now bears his name or at Kamloops, as Kwali'la's title as chief of the Kamloops eventually passed to Nicola upon the former's death. In addition to being presiding chief of that group of Okanagan, he was also grand chief of all the Okanagan nation, although since the drawing of the border a separate, independent American chieftaincy emerged, founded by Tonasket.

Because of his 15-17 wives, drawn from Okanagan, Sanpoil, Colville, Spokane, Shuswap, Stu'wix, Thompson and maybe others, and the about 50 surviving children he had by them (from those who died in infancy or childhood), many people throughout the Interior of both British Columbia and the adjoining regions of the United States are descended from Nicola. His hereditary chieftaincy passed, however, to an adopted son, his nephew Chilliheetza (Tselaxi'tsa, spelled by Teit as Chelahitsa) who was his sister's son, and continues today amid local bands.

Nicola was the most important and influential chief in the Interior of British Columbia in the time period spanning the opening of the inland fur trade to the time of the Cariboo Gold Rush. It is safe to say, because of his stance in the Yakima, Spokane and Fraser Canyon Wars and in mediating an end to the violence of the Okanagan Trail, that without him the history of British Columbia might have been considerably more war-torn and BC's native peoples might have become entangled with American troops (thereby increasing the existing American threat to British control of the Interior). His son Chilliheetza continued his father's policy of loyalty to his father's alliance with the Crown, and as his father had done before him, prevented all-out war against the whites - fomented by the Thompsons and Okanagans - at the time of the Sproat Commission and also in resisting the call by the "Wild McLean Boys" (the sons of celebrated Fort Kamloops trader Donald McLean, whose wife was one of the Kamloops Shuswap and a near relation) during their attempt to transform their own murder of rancher Johnny Ussher into a full-scale Indian uprising.

Because of the boundary treaty partitioning Okanagan territory, Okanagans south of the line became organized under a new chieftaincy founded by Tonasket, who was not of chiefly lineage but rose to prominence because of his campaigns against the miners travelling the Okanagan Trail. Most American Okanogan people reside at Omak, Washington, or on the Colville Indian Reservation, where they are intermingled with other Salishan peoples of the region.

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