On a gentle slope that meets a milky blue lake, the aroma of silver sage, bear root, juniper and cedar are carried by the wind into a sunbeam.
I’m standing still with eyes closed as Xeni Gwet’in elder Patrick Lulua traces my silhouette with a fan of eagle feathers that he holds in one hand. His other hand clutches an abalone shell cradling the smoldering blend of finely-ground sacred plants. He wafts a whisp of smoke that trails from the shell over me, cleansing and balancing my energies in a tradition known as smudging.
The smudging is a send-off after having shared lunch with Patrick on the grounds of the Xeni Gwet’in’s traditional village, situated deep in Tŝilhqot’in (Chilcotin) territory on the shores of Chilko Lake in British Columbia. This is where the Xeni would winter and a nearby reconstruction of a pit house offers a glimpse into life before the arrival of European settlers.
Smudging and long conversations with Indigenous elders are experiences you can get as a guest of the recently opened Nemiah Valley Lodge—the most recent chapter of the Xeni Gwet’in story of reclamation and self-determination. That the lodge is wholly Indigenous-owned and operated is simple enough for most people to understand, but complex to unpack.
Chilko Lake | Jennifer Hubbert
It is easy to appreciate the Nemiah Valley and Chilko Lake’s natural beauty. A crown of peaks tower over the 65-kilometre long, wind-whipped lake with water so milky blue, if it wasn’t so remote, it would be overrun with day-trippers and influencers.
Pretty as it is, this wilderness is not untouched by happenstance; the Xeni Gwet’in have fiercely protected their ancestral homeland for centuries, defending against the encroachment of European settlers at the encouragement of the Colony of British Columbia’s colonial government and, in more recent history, against deep-pocketed corporate attempts to mine and log it.
In the silence that reverberates across the Nemiah Valley’s grassy, wide-open spaces and whistles across Chilko Lake, Xeni Gwet’in territory doesn’t resemble a battleground, but in 2014 a radical victory was won here. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Tŝilhqot’in Nation Aboriginal title to their land, an area spanning 1,750 square kilometres. The ruling was seismic, not only for the Xeni Gwet’in, but for the precedent-setting roadmap it may offer other First Nations with unsettled land claims in acquiring title of their traditional territories.
“This little piece of title land . . . it’s recognized by BC and Canada as ours, but we always knew it was. We never lost it,” says Roger William, a long-serving former Xeni Gwet’in chief who, despite not having a legal degree at the time, was the historic case’s lead plaintiff.
William still remains active in the community, in roles both official and symbolic. At Nemiah, he is one of four cultural ambassadors, welcoming guests, drumming and orienting them to Xeni people, history and place.
Long-serving former Xeni Gwet’in Chief and current Nemiah Valley Lodge cultural ambassador, Roger William | Jennifer Hubbert
A focus of his is bridging English-speaking Xeni young people with their Tŝilhqot’in-speaking elders. Without a unifying mother tongue, the community-wide relearning of Tŝilhqot’in Law (a guiding set of values and principles), knowledge, legend stories and traditions that were systematically dismantled through colonization and the residential school system can not be fully realized.
“I think preserving our language is learning Tŝilhqot’in Law. The best way an elder explained it to us was that Tŝilhqot’in Law is like a trail. This trail is not an easy trail, but it is the best trail. You could die on this trail; there are other trails that come and go; you could take them because they might be easier . . . but you’re not going to get to the other side. Our creator is looking at us to get to the other side because we have afterlife spirituality,” William explains. “The closer you stay to the trail, the better it is for you, your loved ones, your animals, your community and your nation. Anything I do, I’m impacting the ones I love. [Tŝilhqot’in people] were scared to break our Law because we didn’t want to hurt our loved ones but when Catholics and Europeans came in, we weren’t scared; we [were taught to] go to Church on Sunday, tell our sins and be forgiven. One of the elders said, that’s when they noticed a change.”
Catholicism and colonization eroded the importance of Tŝilhqot’in Law and ultimately, it was lost. What's going on now is the process of relearning the Law.
Title area | xeni-gwetin.ca
Contrary to what it sounds like, winning the Aboriginal title did not mean non-Indigenous private landowners living in the Xeni Gwet’in homeland automatically ceded their properties.
“We call them islands,” William says with a chuckle.
The lodge had most recently been owned and operated by a European couple as a dude ranch, existing as one such “island.” In 2019, the Xeni were finally able to purchase it.
Repatriating the property was something of a homecoming, but the timing could not have been worse.
The pandemic shuttered the only road in and out of the remote community and supply chain congestion delayed the delivery of materials and furnishings.
All told, the top-to-bottom renovation of Nemiah Valley Lodge and its seven handsome cabins took two years to complete. It also includes the installation of a brand-new solar panel, reducing reliance on diesel generators.
A cabin at Nemiah Valley Lodge | Jennifer Hubbert
Officially, the lodge opened to guests on June 23, 2022. Hundreds of Tŝilhqot'in people gathered for the grand opening. For some Xeni, it was the first time they’d ever stepped foot on the property, despite its location in the heart of the Nemiah Valley.
The opening of the lodge is impactful in other ways, too. It employs seven full-time Xeni and considering that only other place to swipe a debit card is at the reserve’s gas station-canteen, venturing into community-based, sustainable tourism represents an economic lifeline.
Chilko Lake | Jennifer Hubbert
My second day in the Chilcotin is a bluebird summer day. I meet Xeni Councillor James Lulua Jr. and 17-year-old summer student Xeni Lulua in the lodge lobby.
We’re headed out to Chilko Lake, a 40-or-so-minute drive from the lodge down a rumbly unpaved road where it dead-ends at the Xeni Gwet’in reserve. The community is home to some 200 year-round residents, which means in terms of permanent population, wild horses outnumber people in the Nemiah Valley.
We arrive at a narrow, pebbled beach where I sight Chilko Lake—Canada’s highest-altitude freshwater lake—for the first time. Here, Lulua Jr. backs a trailer holding a hardy 21-foot aluminum boat into the water. The vessel is Xeni-owned and otherwise used by the two Xeni Gwet’in rangers who keep watch over their lands.
As I sweep my gaze across the vast wilderness that hugs Chilko Lake, I’m hit with equal measures of appreciation and intimidation. I strain to imagine what it would feel like to survive, stranded in this unforgiving environment.
Others don’t have to imagine.
The shores of Chilko Lake were the backdrop for Alone, season eight—the History Channel’s breakout survival competition television series. As we cruise, Lulua Jr. points out the spots where various contestants were stationed. The winner lasted 74 days and faced down a charging grizzly.
Impressive, sure. But did you know the Xeni Gwet’in used to ferry horses across Chilko Lake, arriving at the western shore foothills where they would ascend thousands of feet into the alpine on horseback—with babies and children—to reach their summer camp? Elder Patrick Lulua mused it’s probably the closest thing to sleeping among the stars.
Had Xeni and Lulua Jr. been born pre-European contact, they would have marked their passage from adolescence to adulthood by spending seven days alone in the wilderness—surviving while fasting, refraining from even drinking water until desperately needed.
The glacier-fed water of Chilko Lake | Jennifer Hubbert
Lulua Jr. noses the boat toward a cove along Chilko’s southern lakeshore and secures it to a tree. I receive zero visual cues to suggest this obscure crook in the shore marks a trailhead, but he assures me a short hike leads to a pretty little lake. Before we depart, Lulua Jr. slings a rifle over his shoulder—a sober reminder we are in grizzly country.
The wilderness cabin at Muir Lake, built by Rolf and Heather Kellerhals | Jennifer Hubbert
Just when I’m about to arrive in what is surely the most remote pocket of British Columbia I’ve ever visited, we stumble upon a well equipped, wilderness cabin—complete with a guestbook, with entries from the preceding weeks scribbled in by folks from Germany, Poland and Puerto Rico.
Muir Lake is indeed pretty. We sit for some time, taking a long pause to listen to the wind whip down the slopes of the enveloping peaks, rustling the grasses that skirt the water’s edge.
I could survive here a few nights—in the cabin, I think to myself.
When You Go:Nemiah Valley Lodge guests are welcome to swim, lounge, kayak and fish at nearby Vedan Lake | Jennifer Hubbert
- Nemiah Valley Lodge operates seasonally; the 2023 season will run June 15 through September 24.
- Guest visits are booked as all-inclusive packages which include accommodation, meals (some cabins offer microwaves and burners but self-catering an entire visit is unrealistic), access to bikes, kayaks, fishing rods and other sporting equipment, a Xeni welcome and orientation, a host of Indigenous-guided programming, plus add-ons like trail riding or guided fishing off-property.
- The lodge is located two-and-a-half hours west of Williams Lake. Shuttle service to and from Williams Lake Airport can be arranged for an additional charge. For the 2024 season, this ground transfer will include a stop in the Tŝilhqot’in community of Tl’esqox with a catered lunch of traditional foods (moose, venison, salmon) and an excursion to Farwell Canyon to view the fishing rocks and pictograms with a Knowledge Keeper.
- If you plan to spend time in Xeni Gwet’in territory and/or Ts'ilʔos Provincial Park, it’s advised that you check in at the Xeni Gwet'in First Nations Government office, out of respect, but also for personal safety in this remote region of BC with limited services.
- The traditional village site should not be visited independently. Connect with Nemiah Valley Lodge to arrange a visit with a Xeni guide.
- If you self-drive into the territory, ensure you carry ample fuel; a jerry can isn’t a bad idea. Also, currently, cell phone service ends at Williams Lake’s western city limit.
- Xeni Gwet’in residents travel to Williams Lake for groceries and supplies. Stock up on snacks, beverages and other creature comforts you’ll want during your stay.
Disclosure: Our writer was hosted by Nemiah Valley Lodge, in partnership with Destination British Columbia and Indigenous Tourism British Columbia. All opinions are her own.