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Grand Chief Nicola played important role in Okanagan history

19th-century leader’s land once included most of the region
This is the second oldest map of the Okanagan Valley, created by fur trader Archibald McDonald in 1827. It shows Nicola’s Prairie and the river was called the Nicola River, now Aeneas Creek. (Photo courtesy of the Summerland Museum)

By David Gregory

Yilmixwwem N̓kwala (Grand Chief Nicola) was one of British Columbia’s most important indigenous leaders.

British Columbia witnessed the first recorded arrival of fur traders in 1811. Conflicts took place between Indigenous peoples, fur traders and missionaries. These conflicts included the murder of Chief Factor Samuel Black in 1841.

Missionary activities also caused problems. Roman Catholic Priest Modeste Demers became known as “mlxạ ʔnti̓ m” (the liar”) when he broke his promise and never returned to the Interior. In 1855, just south of the international border, were the American Indian Wars (Cayuse, Yakima and Spokane Wars). And in 1858, the Fraser and Cariboo Gold Rushes disrupted social structure.

All of these conflicts were mediated by the significant political skills of Yilmixwwem N̓kwala. He is primarily known as a peacemaker during this important part of the British Columbia’s early history.

READ ALSO: Summerland was once known as Nicola Prairie

READ ALSO: Land once belonged to Grand Chief Nicola

It was a young Yilmixwwem N̓kwala who greeted the Pacific Fur Company guided by David Stuart and Alexander Ross in 1811.

The fur trade industry in the interior of British Territory was mostly active during the years 1826 to 1846. Chief N̓kwala oversaw most of this trade.

His formal name was Silxwa Yilmixwwem Syilx , Grand Chief of the Okanagan Nation. His original given name in the Spokane language was hwistesmetxoqwn, which means, “walking grizzly bear.”

The Shuswap peoples called him Shiweləan. The Okanagan people called him Nkwala and the fur traders knew him as Nicola or Nicholas. Fur Trader John McLeod described Chief Nicola as, “of all the Indians resorting in this place, Nicola has rendered the most aid to the whites and (is) undoubtedly the most manly and the most to dread if he turned against us.”

His nation stretched from almost Fort Spokane, to just south of Fort Kamloops. In the 1820s, fur traders described a portion of the Okanagan Nation as the “Land of the Nicola.”

This included most of the Nicola Valley. At one time, all lakes rivers and mountains were named Nicola. A portion of this “Land of Nicola” extended into the Okanagan Valley. Summerland’s indigenous name was xsu̓ laʔxw n̓ kwala (Nicola Prairie) and the river was saʔti̓ kw n̓ kwala (Nicola River, today Aeneas Creek).

In 1807 and early 1808, Finian McDonald, and David Thompson were the first explorers to reach the Columbia River. Yilmixwwem P̓əlk̓mulaʔxw III met Finian McDonald and fur trader Lagace near Helena Montana. Later Yilmixwwem P̓əlk̓ mulaʔxw III visited the chief of the Lillooet (St̓at̓imc) in the Fraser Canyon.

He mentioned about seeing white people and buffalo. He was accused of lying and was fatally wounded by the Lillooet Chief. As Yilmixwwem P̓əlk̓mulaʔxw III lay dying, he declared that his son Nicola would be the new grand chief. The young Nicola, probably aged 14, vowed to revenge his father’s murder.

According to fur trader John McLeod, the leadership skills of the young Nicola, created a united alliance of Okanagan, Shuswap, Stuwix and Upper Thompson countries and they invaded the Lil’wat. They killed between 300 and 400 and captured over 300 women and children for slaves. This was the first Okanagan alliance in recorded history

A major historic event took place at Fort Kamloops on Feb. 8, 1841. Samuel Black, chief factor at the fort was murdered by the son of Secwepec Chief Tranquille. According to the journal of Archibald McKinlay, through the diplomatic skills of Grand Chief Nicola, he gave a stirring eulogy which called for calm and Nicola gave assurance that the killer would be captured, which was done.

By, at least 1826, Grand Chief Nicola had located his headquarters at Nicola Prairie (Summerland). Again, land forms provided protection. This time it was steep silt cliffs along the eastern border of his property, Trout Creek Canyon to the south and the steep Goat Bluff to the north. The western portion of Nicola’s property contained the Okanagan’s three most important trails, the Brigade Trail, the Red Forks Trail (Indian Road) and the Nicola Valley Trail.

In August 1845, Nicola was most anxious for Father Nobili to settle in his lands.

When Father Nobili visited Nicola Prairie in August 1845, he described 80 bodyguards who protected the grand chief. In Nobili’s letters in 1845, he describes Nicola Prairie as “a temperate, rather mild climate with never more than a foot of snow even in the dead of winter and therefore consistently good pasture for the cattle. The land is flat, vast and fertile, already blooming with the odd garden here and there which Nicola himself tends with his own hands and which have been yielding good crops of potatoes.”

Three years later, in 1848, Father Nobili was reassigned to California. In a remarkable change of heart, Father Nobili removed his condition of multiple wives. The priest had realized the importance role of multiple wives in creating peaceful alliances as well as preserving family units. For an Indigenous chief to be able to change the views of a devoted Jesuit priest is quite remarkable.

In a gesture indicating that Nobili planned to return to the Okanagan Valley, he buried some of his belongings at the village site. In 1986, a Jesuit crucifix and a leather container were unearthed at the very centre of the speculated location of Father Nobili’s station.

Yilmixwwem N̓kwala died in the winter of 1858 to 1859. He was temporarily buried near Fort Kamloops. In 1860. He was reburied at Nk̓ ma̓ pəlks just north of Okanagan Lake. The grave site is across Head of the Lake Road, west of Vernon, beside the Saint Benedict’s Church. His father is buried in the adjacent plot to the west and his son Nkwala is buried to the east.

David Gregory is a Summerland historian.

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Grand Chief Nicola is buried at the top of Okanagan Lake, overlooking the Okanagan Nation. (Summerland Museum photo)