I met Ernie Philip in Squilax at the Quaaout Resort, somewhere between Chase and Salmon Arm, just off of Highway 1 in the middle of British Columbia. He showed up wearing a bright turquoise, traditionally patterned shirt and jeans, oversized sunglasses, belt buckle and a personality to match. Ernie is an Elder of the Little Shuswap Indian people and 26-time fancy dance (the traditional dance of the Native Indians) champion of North America. He is a spry 76-year-old with wild gray hair and an inviting grin. We eventually explored the Quaaout grounds and chatted about Shuswap Band ways over buffalo burgers served on a delicious Indian bread.
I should start by telling you that I am one of the worst interviewers of all-time. I wanted you to know that ahead of time as to not scare you later. But this is just for fun, so people can know more about you and the Little Shuswap Band of Indians. Can we start with the basics?
(Ernie smiles) First of all my name is Ernie Philip, my Christian name, and I go by Ernie. I have a native name I got back eight years ago, Dancing Bear from the Sioux Indians. I received another one in 1974 "“ I don’t ask for names, but they give me them anyway. I am also known as black feather, which was given to me by the Blackfoot Indians. I am from the little Shuswap Indian Band, and we’re a population of about 300 now. At our smallest point, around the late 1800s, maybe 1884, I think we were either 53 or 54 people. So we are increasing in numbers.
Have you lived in this region your entire life?
Well, I was a court worker in the past and I lived on the coast and everywhere, you know. Out in Maple Ridge and in the Chilliwack area, and I came back in 1989. This is my home with my little band. It is my tribe and my nation.
How long has your band lived in this region?
It has been noted, as there is a lot of information out there now, that the Shuswap have been here probably 12 or 13,000 years.
What would be unique about the little Shuswap band?
First of all, you must know the region. This region is what we call "Plateau People." It comes all the way down from Oregon and Washington State. All the way up here and we call this the Plateau People. We are not Plains, we are West Coast. We have connection to the Canadian Rockies and are similar to the Blackfoot and the Indians Warm Springs Indians. We are just one part of 17 different bands that make up the Shuswap Nation. We take up the largest area in British Columbia
Where does the Little Shuswap extend to and from?
We go from Chase Creek, to Williams Lake to Kamloops. We come from a very large area even down south. Jasper also used to be Shuswap Territory.
What should somebody from Los Angeles to know about the traditions or the Customs?
Well these people in the past were very unique. They were very good fishermen and hunters. They were good at survival. They had a system, which was completely opposite to the Western ways. Do you understand? The Western ways, the European ways. Our way of life here was close to Mother Nature. We loved Mother Nature in the past and we lived in harmony with Mother Nature. We lived in that society for 12 or 13,000 years. We loved animals, trees, and even bugs, anything that Mother Nature created. It is part of our tradition of the past. Always remember, we lived completely opposite to the Europeans. So this is the way that we lived for many thousands of years. So that’s what makes our culture outstanding. We believe that we must respect everyone. See our people, the Shuswap People, never had a cuss word or a swear word in our language. There is no word such as hate in our language. How could you hate anything in Mother Nature?
This was all the same before the European people came. This territory, the Shuswap people had everything. For instance animals: we had a rabbit, elk, caribou,and moose. We had all kinds of fish. We had thousands of them, millions of them, sometimes. This is the area, in which, they spawn, millions and millions of salmon. We had chickens and all kinds of Indian carrots and Indian potatoes, celery; we had all kinds of vegetables, you name it. All kinds of berries, just name it. And our people were all free from sickness in the past too.
All these things I am saying to you are true. It is not false. When the missionaries came they destroyed our way of culture. You’re not supposed to know about natives. They even put that into the law. We are not supposed to dance. We are not supposed to speak our language. We’re not supposed to dress up. We’re not supposed to know nothing about natives. At least until 1951 or 1952 when they passed the Bill of Rights. I think I have some information my room; do you want to take a look at it?
That’s OK. (Ernie then gives me a big toothy smile.)
I am just that kind of a person. I back up what I say. That’s the only weapon we have, the truth. We don’t believe in roadblocks, and we don’t believe in demonstrations. We just go day by day. We're very lucky to have our hotel. We’re very lucky to have our golf course. We have been fortunate. We have our schools for our people. We have many different things for our people. In the 1980s in the 1990s, I think it was, 93% people of our people do not take alcohol or do drugs. Since then it’s dropped off a little bit to about 87%. You know the young ones like to try it just like any other race.
Are the Little Shuswap Indian Band returning to the old ways?
Well it’s not 100% or nothing in that area because a lot of our young people are lost. But it is just the way of life, which has a lot to do with their forefathers when a lot of their identity had been destroyed, but they come back very slowly. I hope one day, I hope that we get our traditions and our culture back. And still try to combine it with some of the modern things that we have today. It would make us proud. It really makes me proud of who I am. There’s no one that can take that away from me. It is what I show to the world. I’m very proud of who I am. Pride, identity, respect. I truly respect all people. I love you. I love anyone for who they are that’s the way I look at things.
You should make sure to take pictures of the building in the area. I’m sure the people in Los Angeles will think it’s snowing here, but it’s not.
The Quaaout Resort offers comfortable stays, lots of outdoor activities and a few traditional Indian ones. It is not unusual for Ernie to do some dancing and accompany visitors for a traditional sweat lodge experience.
Written and photographed by Devin Galaudet