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‘You have to keep going regardless’

Declaration Ride arrives in Lil’wat Nation

The Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe was signed in Spences Bridge on May 10, 1911 by a committee of chiefs. The assertion of sovereignty over traditional territories was recorded by anthropologist and local resident James Teit.

“We speak the truth, and we speak for our whole tribe, numbering about 1,400 people at the present time. We claim that we are the rightful owners of our tribal territory, and everything pertaining thereto,” reads the Declaration. “We have always lived in our Country; at no time have we ever deserted or left it to others. We have retained it from the invasion of other tribes at the cost of our blood. Our ancestors were in possession of our Country centuries before the whites came.”

The document goes on to explain B.C. never had any right to the land.

“We never gave it nor sold it to them. They certainly never got the title to the Country from us, neither by agreement nor conquest, and none other than us could have any right to give them title.”

One hundred and thirteen years later, the Declaration Ride honours the signatories and serves as a reminder of who the land belongs to. Real-life cowboys ride their horses from N’Quatqua and back again from April 24 to May 10, delivering invitations for the St’at’imc Declaration gathering. The number of riders varies during the long and exhausting journey.

Three riders stopped at the Ullus Centre in  Mount Currie on Thursday, April 25 during their journey through the territory, and were warmly welcomed into the community with hand drumming.

One of the riders, Karen Aleck, told Pique the ride has been happening for 20 years now.

It used to coincide with an event called the Unity Run, she said, but now the riders and runners embark on their journeys separately.

The riders still ride on horseback, the transportation their ancestors in 1911 used to travel around the territory. However, every year the area looks more and more different.

“It keeps reminding us of what we have and the changes that are happening,” said Aleck. “All the BC Hydro lines that are going through the land are diminishing our plants, our medicines and our wildlife.”

One brave man, Pomus, even kept the tradition going during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s ride also remembered Pomus’ legacy—and was carried out in his style.

“He rode the route himself during the pandemic, but he kept it going. He didn’t go into the communities that year,” said Aleck.

Pomus was one of the first founders of the ride and had a deep family connection with the Declaration.

“His great-great-grandfather was one of the signatories of the declaration,” said Aleck. “It is emotional when someone who has gone to the spirit world has left such a legacy. It’s our responsibility to carry on his legacy. He carried the legacy on for his ancestors. When you’re dedicated to fighting to keep your land, you have to keep going regardless.”

Cars in front of the group slow traffic and let people know the riders are coming through their territory, another needed change in the modern world.

“It is tiring every day, but it’s worth the tiredness,” said Aleck. “Every community feeds us and welcomes us in with songs and prayers. We just sit around and have a social gathering with drumming and dancing. It’s an honour. It’s their way of honouring our ride through our territory for our Declaration.”

The riders have grown more and more familiar with the route and the work they have to do with each given year.

“Our first year was a little rough, but now we have our trails down pat,” Aleck said. “We know physically, mentally and spiritually what we have to do to prepare to go on this journey.”

They also teach their children and grandchildren about the importance of the event so they can carry it on long after they are gone.

“We teach them where their territory is,” said Aleck.

Lil’wat Nation Chief Dean Nelson was among the crowd of hand drummers welcoming the riders into the community last week. He said he is always happy to see the riders arrive.

“The Declaration itself is stating that we are still in unity,” he said. “We continue to exercise that, riding and running on the land, being visible. The Declaration itself is a statement of our rights on the land. It’s always a good thing when people are carrying it on. We commemorate them for their efforts, to see things carried on.”

Aleck feels the ride serves as an important yearly reminder to all who live, work and play in their territory.

“It’s to recognize that this is our territory and that we have never, ever given it up to anybody,” said Aleck. “The purpose of our ride is to let the government and everybody know that we have never, ever signed our land or title away. The rest of B.C. will recognize that this is our land."

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