Aboriginal People

Settlement of the area known as British Columbia could have begun as early as 5000 years ago according to some estimates, and before European contact began in the 1700s the population could have been as high as 100 000. In Southeastern British Columbia there were two distinct nations that lived in the region, The Sinixt in the Arrow Lakes, and Kootenay Lake and the Ktunaxa in the Rocky Mountain Trench and Lower Kootenay Lake. Water for the Sinixt culture was the centre of their world. Free-running rivers were their transportation between villages and trade centres. These rivers provided them with salmon, sturgeon and bull trout, three mainstays of their diet. Traditionally, they buried their dead overlooking the water. For them, water held both biological and spiritual significance. The Lower Kootenay - Yaqaón Nuñkiy also lived in close proximity to water and depended on the natural wetlands around present-day Creston, the Kootenay River and Kootenay Lake for food and cultural materials. Today there are few traces of the these first inhabitants in the region other than post European contact signs as permanent and destructive development deviated from the beliefs and practices of these people.

The Sinixt

The Sinixt, meaning People of the Place of the Bull Trout speak a language that is part of the Interior Salish language family. They are also known as the Arrow Lakes Indians in Canada and the Lakes Indians in the United States. As the border did not exist prior to 1846 they lived north and south all along the Columbia River. Archaeological evidence places their villages from Kettle Falls to Revelstoke, and from Kootenay Lake to Christina Lake. For generations, the Sinixt fished, hunted and harvested plants in the region as part of their traditional territory. The loss of ocean salmon from their food cycle as a result of dam construction was particularly devastating for their culture.

In 1956, prior to the development of the Arrow Lakes for the Columbia River Treaty, the Department of Indian Affairs declared, following the death of the last officially recognized Sinixt in Canada, the Arrow Lake Indian Band extinct. At the time 257 Sinixt people were enrolled with the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington State as Lakes Indians. Today thousands of Lakes Indians live south of the Canada-US border or have been absorbed into other neighbouring tribes in Canada. A small handful have returned to their traditional territory in Canada to challenge the government-declared extinction. Much of the archeological evidence of the lifestyle, customs and rituals of the Sinixt is now seasonally underwater under the Arrow Lakes Reservoir.

The Ktunaxa

Also known as Ksanka in the state of Montana, they traveled and were known as Ktunaxa. There was no distinction among the various groups who were located around the region. Their language was different from all of their neighbours and their traditions of using resources were complex. They moved with the seasons throughout our territory to thrive.

After the 1960s the Ktunaxa were stationed in fixed areas and known as Bands. The band near Creston is known as Yaqaón Nuñkiy (pronounced “ya-qan nu-kiy”) also known as the Lower Kootenay Band. There are four other Bands located in the Rocky Mountain Trench along the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers; the Columbia Lake Band at Invermere, the St, Mary's Band at Cranbrook, the Tobacco Plains Band at Grasmere and the Shuswap Band at Invermere. There are also two bands located in the United States, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho at Bonners Ferry and the Ksanka Band in Elmo Montana. North and south of the border between Canada and the United States, they are all the same people, although their name is spelled as Kootenai.

David Thompson

North West Company employee David Thompson crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1807 with his children and half-Cree wife, Charlotte Small. At Windermere Lake, he built the trade station “Kootanae House” in the shadows of the Purcell Range. He began to survey the region, looking for a “Great River” that fell to the sea. Unknown to him, the Columbia River’s roughly 2,000-kilometre (1,200-mile) journey to the ocean began nearby at Columbia Lake. Thompson spent several more years mapping the Columbia’s passage through the West Kootenay.

In the winter of 1810-11 David Thompson and his men created a camp at the confluence of the Columbia, Wood and Canoe Rivers, that was known as Boat Encampment. He continued to explore the region that spring, reaching the mouth of the Columbia in April of 1811. Pushing upstream again, Thompson arrived at Kettle Falls in September 1811. He joined a party of eight Sinixt canoes and pushed north on the Columbia, past the mouths of the Pend d’Oreille and Kootenay Rivers, to Boat Encampment. He had charted the final stretch of the river before retrieving his family and eventually returning to Montreal in 1812.

David Thompson later composed a definitive map of Western Canada from his notes.


In 1899, 7,500 Doukhobors arrived in Canada as religious refugees from Russia. After the cancellation of their homesteads on 62,000 acres of improved land in 1906 in Saskatchewan, they sought their own land in the Kootenay area in 1908 settling in what is now Castlegar and expanding to Grand Forks. As the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood incorporated in 1917 with $1,000,000. capital, by 1938 they became the largest communal enterprise in North America comprising 760,000 acres and industry valued at $10,000,000. Planting extensive orchards, gardens, developing industries, there were ninety villages in this area alone. As pacifists believing that the spirit of God dwelled in all living things they practiced a vegetarian lifestyle and were conscientious objectors.

The Doukhobors had their own floating electrical generators on the Columbia River before the dams were built, but were also a substantial labour force in the later construction of the dams during World War II.