Indigenous Law in Language: nsyilcxn with kt̓ʕápłniw̓t, Rob Edward

woman hands microphone to man in red shirt outside under wooden roof with trees in background

Rob Edward is a sməlqmíx community member & Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) tech specialist. He works with language and language translation for the sməlqmíx, the syilx people of the Similkameen Valley.

On April 28, 2022, the sməlqmíx, declared the nʔaysnúlaʔxw snxaʔcnitkw (Ashnola Watershed) a sməlqmíx protected area. We sat down with Rob to explore words in nsyilcxn that describe ecosystem relationships and the collectivity of all beings, what might be referred to as “biodiversity” or “ecosystem health” in English.

Would you like to introduce yourself?

way̓ x̌ast sx̌əlx̌ʕalt iskʷist ktaʕłniwt kn sməlqmíx. My name is Rob Edward and I'm a tech specialist. I work for the Lower Similkameen band or the Similkameen people and the rest of the syilx nation on some of the language and language translations and different things. 

What are some words in nsyilxcn that express the idea of ecosystem relationships and the collectivity of all beings, what we might refer to in English as biodiversity and ecosystem health?

siwɬkʷ is water. siwɬkʷ is a really important thing about our land. Everything survives on water. Everything comes from water. A drop of water is just as important as the ocean, what we call the səlxʷʔitkʷ. We knew about the ocean, the big water, so everything flows into the big water and everything, our food, comes from the big water like the salmon especially.

When you’re looking at the Creator, he made water. Some of our language comes from that. When you’re looking at land, our language comes from that. Anything with iwɬkʷ in it is water, laʔxʷ is everything that was land or dirt. And mixʷ is anything that talks about all creation.

iʔ x̌aʔx̌atət          
iʔ x̌aʔx̌atət, is the sacred. Everything is sacred. You know, we don’t look at this bird and say oh, well, that’s sacred because it’s a particular bird. Then we look at a different bird and say well, yeah, we can eat him and kill him and do whatever you want because he’s not sacred. Everything is sacred.

captikwɬ [are stories that] talk about everything that was given to us. st̕ək̓ʷk̓ʷxixtət is what was given to us by the Creator, our sovereignty. When we look at everything we do, we give thanks. We’re taught to do that. We were taught to do prayer. We’re taught to do ceremony. We’re taught to share.

The captikwɬ gave us all the instructions for our laws, our responsibilities. It gave us ceremony. I talked about climate change; you know that’s the big thing now. We see it, it’s really prevalent. There were floods here, you look at rain, and you look at all those things. There is ceremony to start rain, and there’s ceremony to stop rain. There’s ceremony to stop wind, ceremony to start wind. I don’t think there’s anything that we don’t have a ceremony for because that’s what we were charged with.

When you look at the four food chiefs captikwɬ, the black bear gave his life. Everything that we can utilize from his body was given to us so we could flourish. I look at documents where they say we’ve survived. We weren’t put on this land to survive. We were put on this land to flourish, just like the tmixʷ, just like everything else.

It’s always in our captikwɬ about our territory. The language is really important.

What is tmixʷ?

tmixʷ is every living thing. And so, when you talk about the root of the word, m̓iʔm̓àyt – that is the truth, that which is true and is known. The mixw, you know people talk about the hair on your head, when you put your hair down, all the strands are attached to your head. They come from one, that is the mixw. They come from the land, or they come from the Creator. In our language, we call it sq́c̓əc̓mnwixʷs; we are intertwined or braided together like roots. We are part of that tmixʷ.

When we look at the tmixʷ, even though they were created at different times, water is a part of tmixʷ. The land is a part of tmixʷ. tmixʷ is every living thing, everything – rocks, the air, everything. And we were the last ones made. We’re like somebody’s kid, right?

We look at the tmixʷ in essence as a parent. You know, they’re our parents. They taught us language; they taught us medicines; they taught us everything.

How do you express responsibilities or obligations to the land and water in nsyilxcn?

Well, when I think about our responsibility, we look at stɬʔtaɬt. We refer to that as title rights and responsibility. But where that really comes from is through our chaptikwɬ.

stɬʔtaɬt, we look at the translation, and we say title, rights, and responsibility because you can’t just have title and rights and no responsibility. The responsibility was given to us by the tmixʷ after they were charged with seeing how we were going to flourish on the land. That was the Creator’s dream.

The word təmxʷúlaʔxʷ talks about the tmixʷ [the life force in all living things], the xʷul is the spinning, laʔxʷ is the dirt. We’ve always known the Earth spins on an axis. təmxʷúlaʔxʷ is the land that was given to us. Our territories were given to us to manage. We had land management because there were so many of us.

When you look at the construct of our hunting seasons, right, we had a season to hunt elk and deer and all the ungulates and whatnot. But at a certain time, they could live next door to each other, and they were never bothered. Never touched until it was over. Those seasons are really strict because they were in captikwɬ. So, when wood tick woman ate, we didn’t eat. We knew we’d get sick. We knew about Lyme disease and different sicknesses we got from those kinds of things.

When we look at another word, that’s called ktɬɬtans. And that refers to a balance, in water and trees or ecosystem or life in general. When you have too many eagles or something like that, well, what is there to eat? We talk about grizzly bears and badgers moving into a territory and utilizing the food until it starts to get a little scarce, then he moves, then, you know, something else comes in. The same is true for people. Like I said, we manage land. We’d say oh, we were up there gathering on those lands. Then next year, we’d say, you know, we’ve gathered there, so this year, we’re going to go over there because they’re resting this place so they don’t over utilize it.

The suxʷtuxʷcncút are the ones who govern land management, I guess, the land managers. They are the gatherers. You know people talk about hunting. “Oh, it’s hunting season.” We don’t really look at ourselves as hunters. Yeah, we did go hunting, but it was actually gathering food. We weren’t fishing. We were gathering food. We’re picking berries and roots and everything else like that. They’re the ones that said, oh, well, you know, we need to burn it because it’s getting thick. Things are having a hard time growing, so we need to burn. The people that burnt, the suxʷtuxʷcncút would go up, and they’d have a ceremony, and they’ll burn. So that was always burned off, and it went back down to nutrients for the land.

And ḱəɬʕaćxən, these are the tracks that are made, the obvious. So, you follow a deer track in the snow, or in the mud or something, you see that deer track, but what’s underneath that track is what we’re talking about when we look at ḱəɬʕaćxən tmixʷ.

We look under the obvious of what our work is going to be so it’s not just taking over the nʔaysnúlaʔxʷ (Ashnola). What we’re doing now as a process as people is we’re looking under the obvious. We’ve taken it [the Ashnola] over, and now the responsibility comes into play. When we’re looking at it, we have to look at it and say, okay, what is our responsibility to water? What are the impacts? What are the pros and cons of it? We’re looking at the land the same way. What are the pros and cons to the land? The tmixʷ  – what are the pros and cons for them? We have to really look at that and scrutinize what we do.

kt̓ʕápłniw̓t, Rob Edward, in conversation with Jessica Clogg and Whitney Vicente, West Coast Environmental Law. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Top photo: kt̓ʕápłniw̓t, Rob Edward (right) at the Declaration of the nʔaysnúlaʔxʷ (Ashnola) sməlqmíx protected area (Photo: Wakefield Agency).  

Indigenous Law in Language Series

kt̓ʕápłniw̓t, Rob Edward
Jessica Clogg, Executive Director & Senior Counsel
Whitney Vicente, Staff Lawyer