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Women of the Year: Shelly Boyd works for recognition of the Sinixt tribe in NE Washington

Shelly Boyd, a member of the Sinixt/Arrow Lake band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, is seen here in a 2020 photo taken on the Ferry County Rail Trail by advocate Bobby Whitaker. Boyd, who has worked for years to preserve the language and culture of her people through numerous avenues, is now involved in the legal fight for their recognition by the Canadian government.  (Bobby Whittaker / Courtesy)

The fires that raged in the hills near Inchelium this month carry an additional warning for Shelly Boyd.

“There’s nothing like a fire to remind us how important the water is, and how important it is to take care of the land,” said Boyd, a member of the Sinixt/Arrow Lake band of the Colville Confederated Tribe of Indians. “All of these things that bring attention to the wildlife, and our natural environment.”

Boyd, a graduate of Gonzaga University and co-founder of the Inchelium Language and Culture Association, took a break from preparing lunches for workers building fences around new ranch land for horses on Sept. 14. The work occurred several days after wildfires burned thousands of acres of tribal land in northeastern Washington.

The threat to the natural world posed by the fires, she said, mimicked the threat to the history of her people, a threat she has fought for years by supporting a battle for the tribe’s legal recognition, pushing for instruction of the Salish tongue of her ancestors.

“The reason that we don’t know our language, or you know, weren’t raised in our language, was because our grandparents loved us,” Boyd said. “They didn’t want us to go through the same kind of hardship that they had to endure while speaking their language.”

Those efforts were hardened following the death of Boyd’s stepson by suicide in 2006, and again following the death of her husband, the late singer-songwriter Jim Boyd, in 2016. At the time, he was serving as chairman of the Colville Business Council.

“He was a huge inspiration to my life, obviously,” Boyd said of her late husband, who performed several of the songs for the soundtrack of the 1988 film “Smoke Signals,” from a screenplay written by Sherman Alexie. “He was an amazing man.”

Her husband’s death thrust Boyd, who had worked to teach her tribe’s language and culture to younger students at the Medicine Wheel Academy in Spokane and the center in Inchelium, into an ongoing legal battle that’s reaching its apex this summer.

The Sinixt tribe is scheduled next month to make their argument before the Supreme Court of Canada in a case that is now a decade old. A member of the Sinixt tribe, in an effort to assert the tribe’s ancestral hunting rights in British Columbia, hunted an elk in 2010 and was then cited by the Canadian government for violating federal hunting laws.

In 1956, the Canadian government labeled the Sinixt tribe extinct and thus incapable of claiming their right to ancestral hunting lands. The tribe has prevailed in all levels of the court, but will have to make their argument virtually next month, due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions imposed by both the U.S. and Canadian governments.

“It’s really about our ancestors and future generations,” Boyd said. “I just don’t want our children to grow up being declared extinct.

“There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re not important, as a person of color,” Boyd added.

A 30-minute documentary highlighting the case, called “Older than the Crown,” debuted at both the Garland Theater in Spokane and Gonzaga University this spring. Boyd, who is a producer on the film, also appears as both a supporter of Rick Desautel, the tribal member who received the hunting citation, and in a ceremony releasing salmon in the Upper Columbia River near Kettle Falls.

These salmon ceremonies, and historic trips in sturgeon-nose canoes this summer on waterways key to the Sinixt tribe, are an extension of the work to protect the Salish language, Boyd said.

“We’re river people, and we’ve been pushed off of our river,” Boyd said.

The work on the canoe trips, and a lifetime spent defending the culture and language of her native people, prompted Bobby Whittaker, of the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners, to nominate Boyd for the Women of the Year honor.

“A lot of people don’t realize the Sinixt have been walking these trails for 10,000 or 15,000 years. Those trails, they’re still here,” Whittaker said. “We need to respect that, and our decisions moving forward need to be informed by that.”

Whittaker said he was inspired by the breadth of Boyd’s work to support her people and their culture.

He attended the documentary premiere in Spokane, in a packed Garland Theater earlier this year. Boyd stood on stage and asked how many in the audience traced their ancestry to the Sinixt. When most of the crowd raised their hands, Whittaker said, it brought tears to his eyes.

“She’s doing so much good. She’s spinning a lot of plates,” he said.

Boyd was quick to point out that the task of telling the story of the Sinixt/Arrow Lake people extended beyond her own efforts, and that the work of the tribe in its legal case had larger implications than for just her own people.

“This case is huge, and it’s a landmark case. It affects every border tribe across this continent,” Boyd said. “It’s a big deal.”