- Patricia Sulbaran Lovera
- BBC World
One fall morning in 2010, Rick Desautel left his home intending to hunt elk, but also to get arrested.
The 65-year-old American crossed the northern U.S. border with Canada, chased the animal away and presented himself to authorities in the province of British Columbia to say what he had done.
Desautel maintained that he had not committed a crime, but had exercised his right to hunt on land inhabited by his ancestors, the indigenous Sinixt tribe, for thousands of years.
For him, there was no difference between hunting on American territory or on the Canadian side of the border with Washington State, since it was all part of the same sacred land for the natives.
But authorities arrested him anyway, accused of not having a hunting license or residency in the country.
The Sinixt tribe, which once lived in the area, is recognized as an indigenous community in the United States, but Canada declared them extinct in 1956.
Desautel’s goal was to provoke a lawsuit in Canada to get the country to once again recognize Sinixt’s existence and rights in the country, his lawyer, Mark Underhill, told BBC Mundo, the Spanish-language service of the BBC.
Since then, seven years have passed. Last week, a Canadian judge ruled in favor of Denautel.
In her order, Judge Lisa Mrozinski found that the accused “exercised his ancestral right to hunt on the Canadian-American border, his territory by historical tradition, as his people have done for thousands of years”.
The decision was celebrated in the Canadian court by around sixty members of the Sinixt community in the United States, who accompanied Desautel in this case.
“Even if the government appeals this decision, it will be a giant step for them, who have been fighting for years to be recognized in Canada,” Underhill said.
For his part, Desautel told local newspapers that the judge’s decision was based on “honor and the history of our origins.”
The British Columbia government told BBC Mundo it cannot comment on the matter because it is a court matter.
But how did Canada declare the Sinixt extinct?
At least 5,000 years ago, the Sinixt Nation inhabited the lands that today constitute a large northeastern fringe of Washington State, United States, and southern British Columbia, Canada, according to the website. Sinixt Nationwho says he represents the community.
“Most of their ancestral territory, however, is in British Columbia,” says Paula Pryce, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia who wrote a book on the history and traditions of the Sinixt.
The first contact between the indigenous community, also called Arrow Lakesand foreign explorers took place in 1811.
With the establishment of trade routes in the region, outbreaks of disease also appeared, causing the death of a high percentage of Sinixt community members, according to Pryce.
After the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846, the international boundary between the United States and British Columbia was demarcated. And thus, the territory traditionally inhabited by the tribe was divided.
On the American side, President Millard Fillmore ordered then-Governor of Washington, Isaac Stevens, to begin a dialogue with the region’s tribes to create Indian reservations for their communities.
But in Canada, Pryce says, “there was no presence of organized colonial government in the territories where the Sinixt lived.”
According to the anthropologist, what ultimately pushed the Sinixt to settle in the United States was the arrival of settlers and miners in search of gold and silver in British Columbia.
Land exploitation is an “effort to displace the original inhabitants,” according to the website. Sinixt Nationcontributed to the displacement of a large part of the indigenous population to the national reserve established by the government of Washington.
The few people who remained in Canada were adopted by families from other indigenous nations and some were taken to a small village far from their original lands.
It was there that Anne Joeseph, the last member of the Sinixt tribe recorded in Canada, died.
“The Sinixt in Canada lived in diaspora due to historical circumstances, but they always wanted to return because of the ancestral value of these lands,” explains Pryce.
After the Canadian court’s decision, Rick Desautel and other members of the indigenous community hope to one day make that wish come true.
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