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  • Alexis McGillivray

A Brief Indigenous History of the Fraser River

The Fraser river has been home to many different cultures, nations and groups for time immemorial. The Fraser has four main sections: The upper headwaters, the canyon, the estuary and the lower Fraser. In the lower mainland, we are located in the estuary, where the river expands, and the water slows. The estuary is located on the traditional territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Halq̓eméylem speaking peoples. The Stó꞉lō and Musqueam are also known nations to live along the Fraser. Stó꞉lō means “river,” and so many people refer to the body of water as Stó꞉lō instead of the name given after the colonizer, Simon Fraser.

Around the 1800s, much of the estuary was beautiful wetlands with great agriculture created by local Indigenous groups. Throughout the wetlands, they created paths and trails within the forestry that allowed them to travel and sell their goods in a wide trade network. The Fraser was often temporary, seasonal homes during the trade season where they would pick berries, fish and hunt.

Simon Fraser was a colonizer of the Hudson Bay Company and originally thought he was exploring the Columbia River in 1808. Unbeknownst to him, he traveled 1,375 km of the Fraser River before the dominion of Canada was established. Mr. Fraser did not make a good impression on the local Nations, such as the Stó꞉lō and was not invited onto their land. However, Fraser did not believe the Indigenous Peoples had the right to the land they had used immemorial and believed he had discovered the body of water; thus, the land with it was considered his.

Simon Fraser was one of many colonizers who pushed Indigenous Peoples out of their land and tried to legitimize settler land claims. Once the dominion of Canada was created, legislation was developed that restricted who was allowed to access the land (spoiler alert, no Indigenous peoples were allowed). Not only were Indigenous Peoples kicked out of the beautiful wetlands they spent generations and generations crafting, but they were also further alienated by the development of the economy and city that would come to be known as New Westminster. The wetlands cease to exist because of the urbanization of the estuary, and further colonization begins to decay local Indigenous communities.

History has much been created to reflect the one-sided colonizer stories, such as changing the name of the river from Stó꞉lō, to be named after the colonizer Simon Fraser. There is much information and history of Simon Fraser and his adventures, but the knowledge of Indigenous history around the Fraser River seems to have been purposefully forgotten. For example, when many think of the Fraser River, they think of the gold rush, which was a significant colonizer experience. In truth, gold was first discovered in the Fraser Canyon in 1856 by a member of the Secwepemc nation, but that was never deemed important in colonizer history. Because of the one-sided story, we miss out on so much valuable information that has been deemed of no necessity- because Indigenous Peoples were deemed unnecessary. Not only were Indigenous Peoples harmed at the hands of the colonizer’s one-sided story, but many immigrants, such as Chinese workers, were also stolen of their culture and knowledge and treated as second-class citizens.

When the colonizers changed the story to no longer reflect Indigenous ways of knowing, the Fraser River ended up paying the price. The industrialization of the places scattered along the vast river created a thriving economy, but a deteriorating environment. There is a constant struggle between balancing the economy's prosperity with the prosperity of the environment, as we can not have civilization without either. However, the history of the Indigenous Peoples was cut out, along with the way they cared for the environment. This is why we see the Fraser River beginning to pollute and the ecosystem around it dying. Indigenous ways of knowing in relation to the maintenance of the environment are strongly dependent on the idea of reciprocity. Reciprocity in action looks like only taking what is needed, not more, and giving back after taking.

The Fraser River does not know what it is to be taken care of through the principles of reciprocity- if it did, it would look like a thriving ecosystem. Only the amount of fish needed for one meal at a time would be fished, instead of dozens of fishing vessels collecting dozens of fish per day. By fishing through the colonized way, the latter, our fish populations will deplete and soon will be so barren there will be left no fish at all. The hundreds of fish taken from the river a day not only go against reciprocity, but we offer nothing in return for the gist the river gives us. We do not give back the fish for our meals but clean up the ecosystem or support it. Worse, we take even more of it by using the habitat to travel with our goods and services. We take more than what the river can replenish and then take more.

The Fraser River is rich with Indigenous history, but many stories were never told. I hope the story and principle of reciprocity are remembered next time you take from the river- when something you've ordered arrives, when you fish or benefit from the ecosystem- remember to give back and take only what you need. Question history- because there is more to every story, and you have probably only learned a single story.

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