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Section 1. Secwepemc Nation Before Contact

Shuswap Culture before European Contact

At the time of contact with Europeans, the Shuswap occupied a vast territory. It extended from the Columbia River Valley to west of the Fraser River and south to the Arrow Lakes. Shuswap territory covered about 142,000 square kilometers.

The Shuswap used local materials and their own skills to obtain everything they needed. Food, clothing, shelter, tools and other essential items came from their local environment.

Shuswap Territory Map
Shuswap Territory - shaded area is dual claimed land

A) Economy

The economy was based on fishing, hunting, gathering and trading. The lakes and rivers provided an abundance of fish, particularly salmon and trout, and a variety of fruit and other plants supplemented the diet. Elk, caribou, deer, mountain sheep and mountain goats were plentiful and were a staple for food and clothing. A number of animals such as fox, bear, wolf, cougar, beaver, ermine, marten, wolverine, otter and marmot were important for their furs. The loon, goose, duck, eagle, hawk, woodpecker and owl were commonly used for decorative feathers. Ducks and geese were a good food source and the feathers of these and other birds were also used.

B) Trade

There was also trading with other tribes, for example, "The Canon band served as middlemen between the other Shuswap band and the Chilcotin. They bought products from both groups and sold them at a profit." The Soda Creek Band traded with the Carrier, while the bands in the North Thompson Division had contact with the Plains Cree, Stoney, Kootenai and Iroquois. The Iroquois were voyageurs from the fur trade who had settled in the interior. The bands in the Kamloops Division and the Shuswap Lake Division traded mainly with the Lillooet and Thompson.

By trade, the Shuswap obtained dentalium shells, woven goat's hair blankets and belts, snowshoes, dressed animal skins, buffalo robes, wampum beads, roots, bark and baskets.

In exchange, they traded dried salmon, salmon oil, baskets, paint, deerskins, shells and rawhide bags to other tribes.

C) Dwellings

Summer Home
Summer Home

During winter, the people lived in a kekuli (Chinook jargon for 'pit house'), a circular underground home built near streams, lakes or rivers. A pit was dug 60 to 90 centimeters below ground level and a coneshaped framework of poles was erected over the site and covered with grass, cedar bark and earth. During the warmer months the Shuswap used portable mat lodges made of tule reed or bull-rushes. They were similar in shape and size to the teepee of the Plains tribes. Sometimes bark or fir boughs were used in place of the tule or bull-rush mats. Bedding was made from the hides of animals such as dear, sheep or goat. Baskets were used for cooking, root gathering and berry picking. These were usually made of coiled cedar roots, birchbark, woven spruce, balsam or poplar bark. Rawhide bags were also used for storing and carrying food, household goods and personal items. Cups were made from birch bark, and spoons carved from goat or mountain sheep horns. Stone mortars and pestles were used to grind berries and other foods.

Winter Home
Winter Home or Pit House or C7ístkten

D) Clothing

Shuswap clothing was made from the hide and fur of animals. The men wore leggings, breechcloths, shirts or jumpers. Shirts were decorated with feathers, dyed hair tassels, fringes, horsehair and quills. The rest of the clothing was worn plain, however, some robes were dyed using natural materials. Women also wore shirts and leggings as well as skirts and dresses which were belted and decorated with quills, bone beads, shells and animal teeth. All the Shuswap favored fur coats, capes, caps, mittens and socks for added warmth during the winter. Bone was used to make awls and needles for sewing, and sinew made strong durable thread.

Smoking Animal Hides
Smoking Hides

Footwear was made from the hide of deer, elk, caribou and moose. Moccasins were usually plain but occasionally embroidered with dyed quills and horsehair. Woven sagebrush or rushes and sturgeon skin were sometimes used to make shoes and sandals.

Making Moccasins
Moccasin Making

The Shuswap also wore headbands and headgear. Those worn by warriors, shamans and chiefs were decorated with feathers, shell and ermine pelts. Combs were made of gooseberry wood. Other accessories included earrings, necklaces, breastplates and nose ornaments. Worn by both men and women, these items were made from dentalium shells, bone, wampum beads, copper, animal teeth claws, quills, feathers and seeds.

E) Transportation

The Shuswap traveled mainly by canoe or by foot. Most canoes were constructed from the bark of spruce, birch and white pine. Other canoes were dugouts chiseled out of cottonwood logs. When travelling by land, the whole family carried their goods in bags made of caribou leg skins or rawhide that were supported by a buckskin strap around the forehead.

Water Transportation
Water Transportation

F) Hunting Tools and Technology

Traps, snares, and the bow and arrow were important for hunting. Bows were made from juniper wood while the strings were of sinew. Bows were usually stained and decorated on the handgrip with quills and the tail feathers of the red shafted flicker and the Shuswap arrows had a distinctive streak of red paint down half their length. Arrowheads were usually made of stone such as basalt, obsidian, agate and quartz; however, sometimes bone, horn or beaver tooth would be utilized. Wolverine and fish skins were popular for making quivers. The bow and arrow was the main weapon of defense and war but other implements of war included tomahawks, spears, knives, clubs and machetes.

Glossy basalt, obsidian, jasper, agate and quartz were worked into spear points, knife blades and axe heads. Serpentine and jade made excellent clubs, tomahawks chisels, adzes, scrapers and blades. Various antlers were also used for this purpose. Whetstones and files were made of sandstone or grit stone.

Pestle and hand hammers were made of many types of stone, those least liable to split, and at the same time not too hard. They were worked into shape by pecking with a jade pestle and the hammers were used for driving chisels, wedges and stakes. Sandstone arrow smoothers with grooves were made with beaver tooth knives. Large chisels for cutting trees were made of elk, caribou and buck antler. Adzes, knives and daggers were also made of antler and bone. Wedges were made of hard wood and occasionally of stone.

Stone Bowls
Stone bowls

G) Plant Foods of the Shuswap

Roots and berries formed an important part of the food supply and the latter were gathered in great quantities. Roots were harvested with a digging stick, usually made of service berry wood that usually had a handle of birch wood. Some root diggers were made of caribou, elk or deer antler in a single piece, thus being shorter than the ones made of wood. Some of the more important fruits were service berry, soapberry, blueberry, choke cherry, strawberry and Oregon grape. These were generally dried in the sun on mats or mashed into cakes and dried for later consumption. Some of the fruit was eaten fresh.

Root plants were usually steam- cooked in a pit or dried for later use. Some of the more common vegetable plants included the nodding onion, wild potato, balsam root and wild carrots. Other plants that were eaten (steamed) were black tree lichen found on the branches of evergreen trees such as fir and pine. Tea was made from the leaves and stems of the "Hudson's Bay plant". Hazel nuts were used principally by the North Thompson people who sold them to other bands.

(James Teit, The Shuswap)


H) Traditional Lifestyle and Customs of the Shuswap People

The majority of the Secwepemc lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place as foods became available in different areas. They had to devote a great deal of their lives satisfying their basic needs, but they did so very successfully, developing a unique culture that was totally self -sufficient. This manner of living required a great deal of knowledge of their surroundings, nature, and the skills of the generations that had come before them. To live comfortably in their environment, the Shuswap people had to develop as capable and strong individuals and every aspect of traditional Shuswap society was directed towards this goal. They had to create knowledgeable, responsible and independent people who could look after all of their personal needs and be aware of the requirements of the people as a whole.


Amongst each of the 30 original Shuswap bands one individual was the hereditary chief, gaining his position as the eldest son of the previous chief. Sometimes another son or male relative of the former chief was chosen to be the new chief if he had better leadership qualities than the eldest son. The chief was not given special privileges but was responsible for ensuring that all members of the community had food. He also dealt with people who were not members of his band. He took on a leadership role at celebrations or ceremonies but did not greatly influence the day to day life of his people. If members broke the rules of the society, the chief would deal with them but would take advice from the elders in handing out discipline. The chief's most important role was to oversee the welfare of the whole band.


Leadership of hunting, fishing and war parties was decided on ability. The best hunter was given the job of leading the hunt, the best warrior the war party, and the best fisherman would take charge of planning where and how the fishing would proceed. The leaders did not make decisions on their own; councils were often held with the elders of the community. Leadership in these areas could change as new members improved and honed their skills. With leadership came the responsibility of ensuring that food or goods obtained was divided equally among the people involved.


Another important member of the band was the Shaman, or Indian Doctor. He was specially trained in the medicines of the Shuswap people and gained special powers through training from knowledge passed down from previous Shamans, usually a relative. The special skills of the Shaman were called upon in times of trouble or need and he would take part in special ceremonies to help people in times of drought, famine, war or illness.

Shaman or Indian Doctor


The elderly of the Shuswap people also played an important leadership role. In council, their voices were listened to carefully and their expert skills in all areas were relied upon to help in making critical decisions and to help in training the young people. They continually shared the knowledge of the Shuswap people throughout the ages in the stories they told and retold to their large extended families or whole bands during the long winter evenings or around the fires at large gatherings.

There was no hierarchy among the Shuswap; even the Chief and Shaman had no special privileges although they were highly respected. Slaves remained slaves only until they married a member of the band but could not become a Chief. Often times they were sold back to their families.


I) Birth and Childhood

Midwives, who were paid for their services with animal skins, assisted mothers in giving birth. The newborn was bathed immediately in warm water and had a daily bath until he or she could walk. The day after birth, the father gave a feast. The new baby was carried in a birch bark cradle wrapped in marmot and rabbit skins. A soft buckskin blanket was used to hold the child firmly in place as he was carried on his mother's back or hung in a place where he could be observed while mother was doing her work.

Young children were given the freedom to move about their environment without limitations but were encouraged to help with the many jobs that had to be done to secure and process food and make clothing. Much was learned about the past while listening to the stories of the elders throughout the winter evenings. They learned about the beliefs of their people by listening to the songs, watching the dances, and joining in the ceremonial celebrations that took place. The elders of the band shared information they possessed with the young people and showed them the skills that would have to eventually be mastered by each child.

J) Youth Training

As each child reached puberty they began a strict training regime which acted as their entry into the adult world. For both boys and girls, this period began with a four day fast to help themprepare for their new life. All youth in training had older relatives as mentors who watched over them and helped them during the training ordeal.

The young girl in training lived in a cone-shaped lodge, away from the other people of the band. She wore a headband of inner willow bark and a robe that was painted red and carried her birchbark basket at her waist. Around her neck she carried a scratcher (she could not touch her skin with a bare hand) and drinking tube. Sometimes, the scratcher was held by her comb and was secured behind the ears.

Young Woman's Lodge
Young Woman's Lodge

Throughout the training period young girls took part in many activities that prepared them for life as adult Shuswap women. She practiced working on buckskin, mat making, basketry, root digging and cooking and prayed to the Day Dawn for strength, health, endurance and ability in her work. Days and nights were spent working toward expertise in all the things she would be expected to do as a woman. She left articles in trees or crossroads in the trail near her lodge so that they could be seen, but no one else other than her trainers would be allowed to see her. It was during this time that the girl received her guardian spirit which would be her protector throughout her life. After about one year, if herprogress was judged successful by her trainers, she could return to the band as a woman and could then marry. If deemed unsatisfactory, she had to remain in training until she received a guardian spirit.

A young man trained for the same kind of strengths, but did not live away from the band constantly. He spent his time away at intervals and built his own sweatlodge for spiritual and physical cleansing. By setting himself tests of strength, speed, and endurance, he reinforced the skills needed for hunting, fishing and war. Outside the youth's sweatlodge hung the feathers of the largest bird he had obtained. He also prayed to find his guardian spirit who would help him attain the life for which he found himself most suited.

Boys in training had drinking tubes and scratchers and wore red painted robes for part of the training period. Although it might take several years, a boy's training ended when he had obtained a guardian spirit and he could be considered a man.

The young men and women painted their visions on rocks near their lodges or stored things that they made or captured during their vision quests.

Childhood Activities

The Shuswap enjoyed many kinds of recreation. They had several games that could be played at the end of the day or during the winter months. They also enjoyed active games of a competitive nature, where they tested themselves against one another in a number of skills. These activities were designed to enhance physical and mental abilities in preparation for their survival in adult years.

Ring and Spear Game

Many active games were popular. In the Ring and Spear game, the players threw the spear at the rolling ring. The object was to cause the ring to fall on the spear. Points were gained according to how the ring sat on the spear. The knobs inside the ring had different values when the spear lined up with them. The person who gained the most points, by making the ring land on the spear with the highest value knobs being aligned, won the game. A similar game was played with this equipment with the teams of players sitting facing each other.

Ring and Dart Game

In this game the teams sat facing each other. The ring, with a hole about ten centimeters in daimeter, and made of reeds, bark or grass wrapped around a bent stick, was rolled from player to player. As it rolled other players threw darts at it, trying to knock the ring over. The dart was about ten inches long and made of wood. Points were awarded for hitting the ring. In another dart game the players tried to hit the middle of a ring one or two inches in diameter from a distance of about three feet. When children played dart games they played to win the darts. If the thrower lost the match, he or she lost his or her darts.

Ball Games

Various kinds of ball games were played. Balls were made of tree knots rounded off or of buckskin stuffed with grass. One game played with a stick similar to a bat was similar to softball. In this game the player hit the ball and ran to a base. If he got home again he continued to bat. If he was hit by a player, with the ball, his turn at bat ended.

Children played ball games in which a ball was thrown up and the catcher ran with it until he was caught, then that person ran until he was caught and so on.

Ring and Spear Game
Ring and Spear Game

Boys played a ball and string game. In this game a long grass ball was held to the hand by a string. A wooden pin was held in the same hand. The player swung his arm, swinging the ball away and as it swung back toward the hand, the boy tried to spear it onto the end of the stick.

Boys threw stones wrapped with buckskin down hillsides while others tried to catch the bouncing ball in a net hoop with a twine netting. In another game the nets were used to catch the toggle attached to a ball.

Various tests of skill were included as games. Shooting arrows for accuracy was a common game. An arrow was shot into a target thirty to eighty meters away. The archers tried to split the shaft of the target arrows with their own arrows. Contests for shooting an arrow great distances were also held. In some target contests the winner won the arrows shot by the losing players. Moving rings were also used as targets for shooting.


A very popular game was that of lacrosse. Goals about a meter or more in height were placed at the higher end of the field. A ball, like those described, was used. Sticks were curved at the ends to catch the ball. In the winter the game was played with netted sticks so that the ball could be carried. The ball could not be touched with the hands, it could only be directed toward the opposing goal with the sticks or feet. Sometimes the teams used different colored face and body paint to identify members of the same team, i.e., red for one team and yellow for the other. The object of the game was to score the greatest number of goals.


Tug of War

Tug of war using ropes were played by men and boys. High jumping and long jumping contests were also held. Stone throwing, like shot putting, was also practiced. In another game stones were thrown at pegs for accuracy.

Wrestling and Foot Races

Wrestling and foot racing were other contests the Shuswap engaged in. Races could be of long or short distances. The long distance races were up to 15 kilometers. The Shuswap sometimes competed with the Thompson and Okanagan in races and large bets were made on the best runners. Wrestling was often done by challenge, with bets being placed, and the winner taking the highest stakes.

Foot Races
Foot Races


Almost all Shuswap could swim. They sometimes held swimming contests for distance or speed. Canoe races of various distances were also held on the lakes in the region.

Sling Shots

Boys made slings from Indian hemp bark and a buckskin thong which they used to throw stones great distances. Tops and whirligigs were made from bark with a sharpened wooden pin through it for the spindle.


Children enjoyed tobogganing on flat stones or thick pieces of bark turned up in front. Men sometimes descended the mountains by tobogganing down on large fir branches on the frozen snow. Children made snowmen and rolled snowballs for winter entertainment.

Cat's Cradle

Small children played the game of cat's cradle with strings. They used a variety of hand movements to make the strings look like the teepee, the eagle, the sturgeon, the mountain sheep or the ruffed grouse. They also played games of hide and seek.

K) Marriage

Young people could marry once they had completed their training and were considered adults. Girls usually married between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three. Men married from about ages twenty-two to twenty-five.

Sometimes, marriages were arranged, resulting in a young girl marrying a man twenty to thirty years older than herself. This union was usually to seal some kind of political alliance with another band, since one could not marry within their own band.

Otherwise men and women could choose their own mate and let their choice be made public in a variety of ways. Marriage by betrothal was common, and the proposal would be in the form of presents given to the girl's parents, but actually shared amongst her relatives. The gifts were often delivered to the girl's home by an older relative of the suitor and presented to the girl's family at that time. The intention to marry could be announced at a gathering, by the young man or his relative, and gifts presented the girl's family at that time. Sometimes, the girl's family began the betrothal, by approaching the desired man's family with the suggestion of marriage between the young people. If the marriage was agreeable to the families and the young people involved, the young man visited the home of the girl for several days. After many days, the young couple was announced as married and usually returned to the home of the boy's father but could choose to live with either family. This final visit was sometimes accompanied by feasting and the exchange of gifts between the parents and children which eventually became the property of the in-laws. When a proposal of marriage was refused all gifts were returned.

Another method of choosing a marriage partner was by touching at a ceremonial celebration. During the ceremonial dance the chief announced that it was an opportunity for choosing a partner. The young people then chose partners by touching them. The young man or woman selected could decline the marriage proposal. Once this touching occurred however, the marriage agreement was fixed and could not be broken. This type of marriage was accompanied only by a small feast and no exchange of gifts. Such an open opportunity helped to ensure that all members of the band would have a partner.

When a woman lost her husband she was cared for by the brother of her late husband, by agreement with her brother-in-law. When a woman died, her husband took a new wife from among her sisters. This system ensured that each man and woman had someone to care of them in the event of their partner's death.

L) Death

The dead were buried along with some of their personal possessions. These items might include knives, weapons, gambling sticks, and always included all the person's moccasins. A grave pole was placed above the grave. On it were placed more personal items and gifts from friends. The relatives of the dead cut their hair and the children of a dead parent wore a buckskin thong around their right ankle. The mourning period for the dead lasted one year. After this time a feast was held by the deceased's relatives to repay all the friends who had helped prepare the dead or assisted the grieving family. The family was then considered no longer in mourning and they returned to their normal roles in the community. After this one year the name of the dead person could be passed on to another relative.

If a warrior was severely injured on the war trail, he could request that he be placed on a funeral pyre and be burned, so that he would not slow his party's progress or that his enemies could not desecrate his body. He sang his war song until he expired.

M) Warfare

The Shuswap people sometimes confronted their neighbors in warfare. They fought with the Okanagan, Lillooet and Thompson people on their south and west borders. They also fought against the Chilcotins to the west, joining forces with the Carrier people against them. These wars were sometimes fought to gain fishing territories or hunting areas. They were also fought to avenge death resulting from an attack. Slaves were taken from the enemy but these people gained full membership in the community upon marrying a Shuswap person.

The Shuswap divisions joined forces against their enemies to ensure success in war. A band could call upon relatives, gained through marriage between families of the villages, to assist in a defense against the enemy or to avenge a death with an attack on the enemy. So it was that the Kamloops and Bonaparte people joined forces against the Okanagan. The Fraser River and North Thompson people fought together against the Cree and Thompson. The North Thompson people had help from the Fraser River, Soda Creek and Kamloops people in fighting the Sekani. (see map on p.4 for location of various tribes)

N) Shuswap View of the World

Shuswap View of the World
Shuswap View of the World
The Shuswap people believed that the world was made good to live in by the all-powerful "Old One" with the help of Coyote. The original story, told and retold by generations of Shuswap people, explained how the earth was made ready for Shuswap people.

The Shuswap people lived in close contact with nature and their actions showed appreciation for nature's bounty and respect for her creatures. At the First Fruits ceremony, when the first saskatoons were picked, the people would show appreciation for the abundance of fruit that would help supply their winter needs. When game was taken, the hunters took time to show reverence for the animal that was to feed them.

During his or her training each Shuswap person found a guardian spirit from among the animals, articles or elements in their world which was thereafter a protector or helper to that person. During the winter ceremony each sang the mystery song of their guardian spirit. A person carefully studied everything about his guardian spirit, so that he could imitate the skill of it or use other kinds of knowledge gained from it to live a more successful life. It was also during training that the young Shuswap person learned the many prayers and rites which were to be used to show respect for the world and its creatures.

Respect and remembrance for the dead was shown by a ceremonial dance held each year. The Shuswap people practiced this ceremony to keep in touch with the world beyond and to help their dead reach the spirit land. Everyone took part in these dances which were led by the chiefs. During this dance, people received visions and prophesies about the future. (This could possibly be the Ghost Dance of the Shuswap people.)

All councils and many ceremonies began or ended with the smoking of the pipe. Everyone was in a circle and the pipe was passed in the direction of the sun's passage. The smoking of the pipe was a preparation for the discussion or celebration to follow. When going into war, the warriors passed the pipe in the opposite direction, to show that they were going to face an enemy.

In the traditional Shuswap view of the world, the earth was a place made good for them to live in. They believed that they should respect the things of the earth and each person found something of the earth and drew from its strengths, as it became his guardian spirit. The Shuswap people found order in the world, and used their knowledge of it to help them create a successful lifestyle. They regarded their success as people as a credit to the good will of the creatures of the earth, which they praised in songs and dances. They showed their appreciation for their bounty by sharing their goods with one another.

Annabel Cropped Eared Wolf, Shuswap History-A Century of Change, SCES
Marie Matthew, Shuswap Cultural Series, Book 1, SCES