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Sechelt Indians

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(Properly SICIATL).

A small tribe speaking a distinct language of Salishan linguistic stock, formerly occupying the territory about the entrance of Jervis and Sechelt inlets, Nelson Island, and south Texada Island, and now gathered upon a reservation on the Sechelt Peninsula in south-western British Columbia, under the jurisdiction of the Fraser river agency. In their primitive condition the Sechelt consisted of four divisions occupying different settlements. Socially they had three castes: chiefs, nobles, or respectables, and the lower class. The chiefs as a rule owed their hereditary distinction to the superior generosity of some ancestor on occasion of the great ceremonial gift-distribution or potlatch , common to all the tribes of the North-west Coast. The middle class, or nobles, consisted of the wealthy and those of unquestioned respectable parentage, and its members were eligible to the chiefship through the medium of the potlatch . The third and lowest class consisted of the thriftless and the slaves, which last were prisoners of war or their descendants, and could never hope to attain the rank of freemen.

They seem to have been without the secret societies which constituted so important a factor in the life of several other tribes of the region, but their shaman priests and doctors of both sexes possessed great influence, and in some cases appear to have had clairvoyant powers. The severe tests to which candidates were subjected, including long fasts, seclusion, and sleepless vigils, served to limit their number to those of superior physique and will power and to correspondingly increase the respect in which they were held. Certain candidates for occult hunting powers were prohibited from having their hair cut and were shut up in boxlike receptacles, from which they were never allowed to issue for years, except after dark and accompanied by guards, to prevent their being seen by others. the same custom prevailed also among the neighbouring Thompson River Indians. Descent was in the male line, and polygamy was common. The clan system proper apparently did not exist, and the carved and painted poles set up in front of the houses were, in this tribe, commemorative rather than totemic. Both boys and girls were secluded and subjected to a special discipline for some days at the puberty period. The general religion was animistic, with many tabu regulations, the chief gods being the sun and the "Great Wanderer". The dead were laid away in boxes upon the surface of the ground on some retired island. Their souls were supposed to ascend to the sun and to return later in a second incarnation. A few of their myths have been recorded by Hill-Tout.

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The Sechelt subsisted by hunting, fishing, and the gathering of roots and berries, the salmon, the deer, and the salal berry being the three most important food items, and the fishing, hunting, and drying paraphernalia, their most important belongings. Their houses were long communal structures of cedar boards divided into family compartments by hanging mats, related families generally living together. A continuous platform running around the inside served both as lounge and bed. Food was stored in secret places outside. Baskets of various sizes and purposes, woven from cedar rootlets and taste-fully designed and decorated, were the principal household furniture, together with bowls, tubs, and dance masks of cedarwood. Dressed skins, fabrics of cedar-bark, and blankets woven from the hair of mountain sheep, or of dogs, served for dress. Head-flattening was practiced, as among other tribes of the region. Practically all of the former beliefs and customs, except such as relate to household economies, are now obsolete and almost forgotten.

The work of Christianization and civilization was begun among the Sechelt in 1860 by the Oblate Father (afterwards Bishop ) Pierre P. Durieu (d. 1899). At that time, they, in common with nearly all the tribes of the North-west coast, were sunk in the lowest depths of drunkenness and degradation from contact with profligate whites. In spite of abuse and threats, Father Durieu persevered, with such good effect that in a few years the whole tribe was entirely Catholic, with heathenism and dissipation alike eliminated. For the better advancement of civilization and religion he gathered the people of the several scattered villages into a new compact and orderly town, Chatelech (meaning "Outside Water"), with about one hundred neat cottages, each with its own garden, an assembly hall, band pavilion, street lamps, waterworks, and a mission church, all built by the Indians, under supervision, and paid for by themselves. A flourishing boarding-school in charge of the Sisters of St. Anne cares for the children. Hill-Tout, our principal authority on the tribe, says: "As a body, the Síciatl are, without doubt, the most industrious and prosperous of all the native peoples of this province. . . . Respecting their improved condition, their tribal and individual prosperity, highly moral character and orderly conduct, it is only right to say that they owe it mainly, if not entirely, to the Fathers of the Oblate mission, and particularly to the late Bishop Durieu, who more than forty years ago went first among them and won them to the Roman Catholic Faith. And most devout and reverent converts have they become, cheerfully and generously sustaining the mission in their midst, and supplying all the wants of the mission Fathers when amongst them".

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The Sechelt probably numbered originally at least 1000 souls, but were already decreasing from dissipation and introduced diseases before Father Durieu's advent. In 1862, in common with all the tribes of southern British Columbia, they were terribly wasted by an epidemic of smallpox introduced by gold-miners. During the continuance of the scourge some twenty thousand Indians of the various tribes were vaccinated by the four Oblate missionaries then in the country. In 1904 they were reported at 325. They number now about 250, all Catholics. Their principal industries are hunting, fishing, and lumbering, while the women are expert basket-makers. According to the official report, "they are very honest, industrious and ambitious, and are making marked progress. Drunkenness is practically unknown and they are strictly moral ".

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