The Family in Contemporary and Traditional Stó:lô Society

        Society & the Individual 11/12

Comparative Civilization 12

Family Studies 10

Career and Personal 11/12

Brian Thom

Stó:lô Curriculum Consortium

May 1996


Family is one of the most important parts of social life among people from all cultures of the world. However today, in high-tech, fast-paced, industrialized, capitalist societies like Canada, many family ties are unravelling. Over the generations, Stó:lô society has had important and unique family connections. Although it operates within the context of contemporary Canadian politics and economy, the Stó:lô maintain their complex family structure in the face of historical change.

Family is an important aspect of Stó:lô society. It is the focus of many social relations. Family ties give the Stó:lô a sense of who they are, their connection to the land, and what their relationship to other community members should be. Each family has its own history and rights and privileges to different cultural traditions. These traditions include, for example, the right to tell particular stories, fish and gather plants in certain places, and receive particular names. A number of changes in family relations have occurred due to the processes of European contact and subsequent assimilation and marginalization. In many cases, these processes have had devastating impacts on the functioning of family relations. However, these relations continue to exist and shape the lives of the Stó:lô today.

This unit examines the Stó:lô family in both a contemporary and historical perspective. It explores the family in Stó:lô culture through examining its role as a social group, the importance of family ties for traditional inherited rights and privileges, and the changes in family relations that have occurred over the past 200 years of contact and assimilation.

The Family as a Social Group

Nuclear and Extended Family

A social group is defined by a set of people who have some things in common. Therefore, the family is the most basic social group. In Stó:lô society, the family also forms the core of many social, political, economic, and spiritual relations.

In Euro-Canadian terms, the nuclear family consists of one's parents, siblings, and grandparents. In Stó:lô society one's nuclear family often also includes a parent's siblings (aunts and uncles) and their children (first cousins). When the Stó:lô dwelled in longhouses and pithouses (skémél), the extended family lived under one roof. It was with these people that most of the major economic activities took place. When a family wanted to fish at a weir, the extended family worked together to catch and process the fish. They also worked together to conduct ceremonies and feasts. Today, few extended families live in a single household, but they still work together for many of these activities.

Figure 1: In Paul Kane's sketch of the interior of a longhouse, he illustrates an extended family living under one roof (Paul Kane, Stark Foundation, Orange, Texas).

Family Networks

Traditional extended family connections went beyond the individual house. Villages comprised of extended families, and therefore encouraged people to marry outside one's own community. This practice of exogamy, still followed today, ensures that relatives do not marry each other. Marriage is not permitted with anyone related closer than a fourth cousin.

As a result of establishing marriages with people from various villages, relatives are spread out through a number of communities in the region. The family tree of Simon Pierre from Katzie (located on the northern shore of the Fraser River above Fort Langley), illustrates how one person can have an entire family network extend throughout the Salish Coast region. Wayne Suttles, an anthropologist who worked with Simon Pierre in the 1950's, commented on this tree.

Something of the wide range of relationships that a Coast Salish community might have may be seen in Simon Pierre's own family ties... Thus Simon's father's father's father nexné'xeleq, a Pitt Lake man bearing a name identified with Pitt Lake since creation, married a Kwantlen woman who brought with her three Kwantlen names which she gave to their three sons. One of these sons, Simon's grandfather, married a Samish woman, probably renewing an older alliance, since his own mother, through Kwantlen, bore a Samish name. Through this marriage Simon traces his relationship with several Samish on the Swinomish Reservation, including Tommy Bobb, who is famous as the most active possessor of skwedi'lich in the Coast Salish area today. But this Samish grandmother had two brothers with names identified as Skykomish, and her mother was said to be the daughter of wi'nipa. Simon believes that wi'nipa was swa'dabsh, which he identifies as Colville. Actually swa'dabsh is the Puget Sound term for all the Interior Salish, but wi'nipa was more likely the Snohomish wi'nipa, whose Indian name was a corruption of the nickname given by the whites, "Bonaparte." Through his mother, Simon traces his relationship with people as the Saanich communities at Patricia Bay and Brentwood Bay and with people at Tsawwassen. Through the marriages of Simon's father's siblings, links have been established with the Scowlitz of Harrison River, with the Lillooet, and with the descendant of white settlers.

Figure 2: The family tree of Simon Pierre from Katzie (Suttles, 1955).

Because the Stó:lô pay close attention to who their relatives are, they maintain a broad social network of family ties with other communities which they can rely on, and from whom they may claim particular rights and privileges.

Local Kin Groups

Many Stó:lô people can often trace their lineage back to an ancestor who lived in the time of Xexá:ls, the siblings who transformed the world from a largely supernatural place to the way it is today. These ancestral people are often original members of a community. Many were also transformed into important natural resources. Stó:lô Elder Bertha Peters told the following story about the origin of the red cedar to Wally Henry.

There was a real good man who was always helping others. Whatever they needed, he had; when they wanted, he gave them food and clothing. When the Great Spirit [Xá:ls] saw this, he said, "That man has done his work; when he dies and where he is buried, a cedar tree will grow and be useful to the people - the roots for baskets, the bark for clothing, the wood for shelter.

Figure 3: According to Stó:lô oral tradition, "a real good man" was transformed into the red cedar tree (Stewart, 1984).

People who trace their ancestry back to an ancient ancestor are classified by anthropologists as a local group or local kin group. Members of a local kin group not only have a spiritual family connection to each other, they often have a special connection to the land, plants, and/or animals. The Stó:lô believe that many of these things are their ancestors. This important system was described by anthropologist Franz Boas in 1890.

The inhabitants of each village are believed to be the descendants of one mythical personage. [...] The tribal traditions tell that Xá:ls, the deity, met the ancestors of all these tribes and transformed them into certain plants or animals which generally abound near the site of the winter village. [...] In many cases the ancestor is said to have been transformed into a rock of remarkable shape or size, which is found not far from the village.

Figure 4: Xá:ytem, is a transformer rock located near Mission in the Fraser Valley. It is the site where three siya:m were transformed into stone for failing to teach people how to write their language (Photo courtesy G. Mohs).

Therefore, local groups have both a shared history and a connection to a particular place or region where the transformation originally occurred. This connection often carries with it the right to use resources in that area. For example, people from the village at Cheam are sometimes referred to as "the mountain goat people," because of an ancestor who was transformed into a mountain goat. Some families living at Cheam will carry the proper ritual and technical knowledge needed to successfully hunt mountain goats, giving them a particular right to that resource.

The family is therefore traced simply beyond one's kin connections and into a more spiritual realm. The rocks, trees, and animals are, in a special way, related to the Stó:lô living today.

Figure 5: Along the shores of the Fraser River are numerous fishing sites that are shared by local kin groups. Only members of the local group have access to these sites (RBCM).

Figure 6: The people from Cheam share a common ancestor who was transformed into the mountain goat (Stó:lô Sitel Curriculum, 1986).

Family Leadership

The family is important in the realm of politics. Under the Department of Indian Affairs election system, community leaders are elected into the position of chief and council of the Indian band through a majority vote. Only registered members who live on reserve may vote. Often, large families are able to stay in office for several terms because they have the most voting members. This system, which was imposed by the federal government towards the end of the 19th century, does not always follow the traditional means of Stó:lô leadership, particularly when many families presently live off reserve.

The traditional Stó:lô leadership system is family based. Each extended family had a "head" or leader, called siyá:m, who looked after most family affairs. It is not a title like "chief," but rather describes the qualities of respect and leadership an individual has. This person was usually the most respected family member.

Some Stó:lô bands now operate on a system of leadership modeled after the traditional family-based system. In this system, a leader or yewal siyá:m is chosen by consensus from all family heads, and represents the families in all band affairs.

Family and Inherited Rights and Privileges

A variety of rights and privileges are obtained through family ties. They are generally kept in the family and are an important part of one's social status. Family names which are given to people link these rights and privileges to a particular person.

Names and Naming

In Stó:lô culture, formal names are given to a person when they approach adulthood. These "Indian names" are held in one family, passed on through the generations. Many are connected with a respected and honourable ancestor. For example, Th'eláchiyatel was one of the four brothers who were the first members of the Chilliwack people. Chief Richard Malloway received that name from his grandfather, who was a family leader during the early and mid 19th century. A few years after Richard Malloway died, the name was given to his grandson, who continues to carry it today. Names do not always follow every second generation like the example given here, but this is not an uncommon practice, for the same name cannot be held by two people at the same time.

A name is also connected with a place. A well-respected person who is given a name in one community may also receive a different name within another community. Having names in various communities allows people to access resources in these areas. A person who is well respected in many communities will have several names. This has been explained by Sonny McHalsie:

An example is my great great-grandfather from Yale. He had a name in Yale, and attached to that name were certain rights, such as where he could fish, where he could go gather berries, and his position in the longhouse. The main emphasis was his access to resources. He also had a name at Semyó:me, and a name across in Duncan. So whenever he went to those places, using his Yale name was useless, especially when he was trying to get access to resources. But having a local name allowed him access to the resources. Those names also had to stay within the locality of their origin. When he moved from Yale to Ruby Creek, he had to host a gathering to pass his name onto his youngest son. (1)

When a person receives a name, their family will host a ceremony to publicly present the name. Family members, friends, and acquaintances are invited to witness the event. At the turn of the last century, anthropologist Charles Hill-Tout recorded a traditional naming ceremony. The description he provides varies slightly from those which are practiced today.

Titular names were bestowed upon their bearers only when they had reached and passed the age of puberty. To show the way in which this was generally done let us suppose a nobleman of standing has a son fifteen or sixteen years of age, on whom he desires to bestow one of the family names or titles. He first goes to the chief of his commune, informs him of his desire and secures his acquiescence and promise of assistance. A date is then fixed for the event and invitations are sent to the neighbouring tribes. On the day appointed for the ceremony great numbers of guests come in from the friendly villages around, some also coming from distant settlements if the giver of the feast is well known and of distinguished rank. Preparations have been going on for days past to receive and entertain these visitors. Large quantities of food have been brought together by the host and his kinsfolk; the family treasure-chests have been opened and their contents set in order for distribution at the feast. When all is ready the father of the boy who is to receive the name, the boy himself, and his immediate sponsors, friends and kinsfolk all ascend the roof of the house - the pitch of the roofs always being low and convenient for the purpose - and from this vantage point the proceedings take place. These vary a little from tribe to tribe and from district to district. Commonly the ceremony is opened by the father of the boy dancing one of his family dances - to dance meaning also to sing at the same time. This song dance is probably a more or less dramatic representation of some event, fancied or real, in the life or history of his ancestors, perhaps that which gave rise to the name he is going to bestow upon his son. When this is over a distribution of blankets - the measure of wealth of the coast tribes - is made to honour the names and spirits of his family, it being held dishonourable to speak of or even mention an ancestral name publicly without making gifts. The father now calls about him some thirty or forty of the leading noblemen among his guests to act as sponsors or witnesses of the rank his son will acquire by the name he is about to receive. Two elder men, or preferably two aged chiefs, who know his lineage and ancestry, now bring the youth forward and standing one on either side of him the elder of the two proclaims in a loud voice to the assembled audience that it is the wish and intention of the father of the youth to bestow upon him his paternal grandfather's name or title. At this the people express their assent and pleasure by clapping of hand and shouting. The name is then given to the youth after which another distribution of blankets takes place, special care being taken to give at least one each to all the formal witnesses of the ceremony and to the officiating elders. If the father is wealthy he will throw other blankets among the common-folk to be scrambled for. When this part of the ceremony is over the feasting begins.

After the naming ceremony is over the youth is known by his newly-acquired name though, according to their customs, he is never called by it except on special and ceremonial occasions.

Today many people spend a great deal of effort listening to their Elders and studying archival records to learn what their family names were. These names continue to be used at ceremonies and in the longhouse. Many of the rights and privileges that come with these names - or with family associations - are important today. They include access to fishing or gathering locations, the right to tell particular stories, sing particular songs, and use particular carvings in ceremonies.

Fishing Spots

Every Stó:lô person has the right to fish within their traditional territory. This right is one of the aboriginal rights enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. However, not everybody can fish anywhere at anytime. Particular fishing spots - both gill netting and dip netting - are controlled by families and access is regulated by the family head. There are a limited number of excellent fishing spots along the Fraser Canyon and lower Fraser River, several fairly decent locations, and a large percentage of poor places to fish. Each year during fishing season, people who have access to these fishing spots through their hereditary family rights, go there to catch fish.

Because family networks may be extremely large, there are frequently disputes about who has the right to fish in that spot. These disputes are not about ownership of property, but rather about rights to access a family controlled fishing location. Detailed information about one's genealogy is needed to justify a claim to a traditional fishing location.

Inherited Rights to Non-material Items

Families also have particular rights to use sacred masks and costumes, and perform certain rituals. Connected with this, are the rights to tell some of the stories, particularly the origin of the sxwó:yxwey. These rights are passed along the mother's side. This ceremony is the most sacred of ceremonies in Stó:lô culture, and these practices continue to be strictly adhered to.

Your family also determines where you can sit in the longhouse during a gathering. Higher status families will often have better seats than families who are not as well respected.

Figure 7: A family controlled fishing spot along the Fraser River (RBCM).

Changes in Family Relations

In day-to-day Stó:lô life, family plays an every-present role. However, these roles are always changing in the context of contemporary Canadian society. This section provides an overview of how the family plays a role in the everyday life of people in Stó:lô society, and points to many of the historical processes that have had adverse effects on the operation of the family and its functions. Providing this kind of historical context helps address the various issues which so many negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people originate.

Many families who follow their cultural traditions have family roles which are organized in the same way as their grandparents and great-grand parents. Adults are usually involved in day-to-day economic or subsistence activities, and the grandparents provide child care. Grandparents are the children's teachers, sharing with them the stories, traditions, and teaching of Stó:lô culture. As children get older, they often join their parents in economic activities. This provides a place for learning important skills such as fishing, hunting, preparing food and meals, making tools, baskets, and blankets, skills which were needed in their adult life.

Children are generally treated like small adults and given responsibilities from a very early age. Even a baby is supposed to hold their milk bottle without help. Most Elders, on the other hand, are taken into their children's homes and cared for in their old age. Only in some cases are temperamental or difficult elderly people relegated to their own home, separated from the rest of the community.

A person's bond with their extended family is reinforced by visiting family members who live in other communities. These visits often involve sharing food, cooperating in labour involving an economic activity, or as part of their ceremonial and spiritual life. The parents of children's spouses play a particularly important role in these extended family relations.

Throughout the past 200 years, many unique challenges to family life have been presented to Aboriginal people living on the Pacific Coast of North America. These challenges have made it difficult for family relations to always function successfully. The most devastating of these was the spread of infectious diseases - particularly smallpox - which took the lives of many Stó:lô.

Smallpox and other epidemics disrupted family life through the death of large numbers of people. During the height of these epidemics, as many as 67% of community members were sick or dying. This death rate left an enormous generation gap, wiping out entire family lines. In many cases, children and Elders were the worst affected. Individual cases of the disease usually ran through the course of a winter and returned every few generations for almost 100 years. This kind of recurrence of death in Stó:lô communities was the first and possibly most important disruption of family life over the past 200 years.

Although the smallpox epidemics were devastating, they did not change the way families related to each other. Although many people lost their families, the social structure remained largely unchanged. The assimilation policies of the colonial, provincial, and federal governments also made a very direct impact on the structure of family life. The foremost of these were the residential schools, which were established in Chilliwack, Mission, Lytton, Kamloops, Port Alberni, Kuper Island, and Sechelt. Stó:lô children were taken from their families and placed in these schools, where they were not allowed to speak their language or practice their culture. Contact with their families outside the schools were minimal. In this way, many of the important family bonds and teachings were drastically changed with the children no longer participating in their traditional family roles. Grand Chief Clarence Pennier commented that residential school "... has basically taken away the family experiences that I should have enjoyed and where I could have passed it on more to my kids..." By the time he attended residential school the people of his parents generation had already stopped speaking the Halq'eméylem language at home.

I don't think it was as bad as earlier times for people speaking their language. Most of us spoke English, since some of us weren't raised with the language from our parents probably because they weren't allowed to speak the language. Even though they spoke among themselves, they wouldn't talk to us in the language.

The federal government also passed a series of laws in the Indian Act which intended to aid the assimilation of B.C. Aboriginal people. Such laws included the banning of the potlatch and other aboriginal ceremonies and gatherings, not allowing Aboriginal people to hire a lawyer to argue for their aboriginal rights, and not being allowed to vote provincially until 1949, and federally until 1960. Indian reserves and Indian bands were imposed on Aboriginal communities throughout British Columbia without regard for their traditional political system. Family leaders were in many cases not given the opportunity to play leadership roles in the bands, as other "progressive" people were selected by Indian agents to be chief.

One of the harshest symptoms of the disease and oppression that the Stó:lô have faced is alcoholism. Alcoholic individuals disrupt and abuse family relations. Many families have seen generation after generation of cyclical alcohol abuse. It is likely that much of this alcohol abuse began in order to escape the horrors of the great disease epidemics and the oppression that resulted from these assimilation laws and policies. Taken over several generations, this pattern multiplied into a sort of "cultural depression." Its symptoms included alcoholism, loss of self-respect and pride, and the lack of teaching traditional "proper" behaviour and attitudes.

Figure 8: The emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects of alcoholism, disease epidemics and the oppression from assimilation laws and politics, resulted in a form of "cultural depression" (RBCM).

Since 1921, the population of the Stó:lô has been on the increase. Although many communities continue to face the problems of cultural depression, there is a strong current of positive, healthy family leadership and reassertion of cultural values. The process of re-establishing self-government continues to be a challenging but rewarding effort. Many family traditions and values are being revived with members of the present generation and Elders. The basic organization of the family has adapted successfully to the ever-changing, contemporary capitalist society. The importance of the Stó:lô family will continue to be evident as communities become healthier, re-establish self-government, and re-assert their cultural traditions.

Figure 9: Family is very important to the Stó:lô (Photo courtesy S. McHalsie, 1991).


Appendix I

Family Terms in Halq'eméylem (2) [not available online]

Instructional Strategies for:

The Family in Contemporary and Traditional Stó:lô Society


Society & the Individual 11/12

Comparative Civilization 12

Family Studies 10

Career and Personal 11/12

By: Brian Thom


Gerald Charlie

Don Sparks

Stó:lô Curriculum Consortium

December, 1995

Learning Outcomes (suggested):

It is expected that students will:

Gain a better appreciation of Stó:lô culture.

Gain an understanding of the importance of the Stó:lô family within Stó:lô society.

Have an understanding of the changes and continuity in Stó:lô family structure in the past 200 years.

Have an understanding of aboriginal goals for cultural revival.


Instructional Strategies (suggested):

Suggested Time Frame: 2 - 6 hours

Context: These activities are designed to give students an opportunity to reflect on the roles and importance of the family in Stó:lô culture and in their own individual circumstances. The activities below relate to the three sections of the paper, with all of them requiring journal writing as a means for reflection and expressing their comprehension.

Lesson 1:

(1) Journals

Life long learning requires reflection and recording of new concepts and lessons. Journals are an excellent method of formalizing this process. Students will be required to keep a journal of the lessons and classroom discussions that they have found interesting. These are private and personal documents therefore, they will not be read by teachers. Students need to complete these on a daily basis and record the dates of entries in the top right hand corner of each page. A new page should be started for each entry. The completion of the journal can then be evaluated by looking at the top right hand corner of the journal. Students can then select journal entries (we suggest 3 per term) to submit for marking.

Lesson 2:

(2) Family and Extended Family

Knowing who your nuclear and extended family are is an important part of Stó:lô social relations. Draw a family tree of all your relatives on both sides of your family. Note that the Stó:lô ideally know who most of their relatives are as far as their fourth cousin. Use either large rolls of paper to map this out, or individual nuclear families on smaller pieces of paper. Be sure to write the name of the community each family member is from.

Identify through use of colour who your "active" family network is. Use different colours or symbols to identify "very active," "moderately active" and "somewhat active" family networks.

Using a map from an atlas, draw lines to the places where the members of your active family network live. Use more that one scale at a time if necessary. Indicate "very active," "moderately active" and "somewhat active" with the same colours as used in the exercise above.

Write in your journal reflections of your impressions on the importance and rolls of your family network. This entry will be submitted for marking.

Extension Activity

In your journals recall some of the stories connected with your ancestors. What are the stories which are passed down in your family about the people in the generations who lived before you. Submit these entries for marking.

Lesson 3:

(3) Family Names

Write in your journal some of the history connected with your family. Discuss some of this history with your parents, grandparents or a family member who is knowledgable about your family history. Are there any privileges that go along with the family name? These could range from particular histories, individual heirlooms or even a family business. Submit these writings for marking.

Lesson 4:

(4) Historical Review on Pressures on Stó:lô Family Relations

Before beginning this activity, a discussion of the reflective journal is strongly recommended in order to create a common understanding within the class. Between 1778 and 1995 many events have occurred that have disrupted the Stó:lô family, culture and traditions. In this activity we will use a record of these events to show how they would affect the events which occurred in the Stó:lô naming ceremony described by Charles Hill-Tout.


A timeline of events that includes :

disease epidemics

impact of missionaries

laws that impact Stó:lô


reservation creation

material wealth

destruction of the land

destruction of the environment




racism / prejudice / discrimination

anti - land claims and aboriginal rights movements

Using one of the events in the timeline as a focus to show pressure on the family system, write a narrative description of a naming ceremony illustrating a change that would have to be made to accommodate these pressures. Although this exercise reconstructs a fictional naming ceremony, try to be as "authentic" as possible.


In 1782, with the first smallpox epidemic, 60 % of the guest list would be eliminated. All of the consequences of this event would then have to be taken into account. The loss of knowledge and role players and the impact of this on the naming ceremony could be hypothesized. Smallpox occurred on 5 separate occasions.

Group Activity:

Divide the class into six groups. Have groups choose one time period to investigate. Each group must present their findings to the class. Oral presentations will be evaluated and student listeners will be evaluated on their ability to respect the oral tradition.


Throughout the activity students will write a reflective journal on how the historic record has impacted the Stó:lô family as seen through the naming ceremony.


The written consequences of these events will be evaluated for their logic and reasoning of their impact on the culture and the naming ceremony. Group work.


1. Conversation between Sonny McHalsie and Brian Thom, 1995.

2. Brent Galloway and Coqualeetza Elders' Group Wisdom of the Elders. (Sardis: Coqualeetza Education Training Centre, 1980.) Pp. 97-100.

hit counter code