When four Elders from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) visited the Hedley Museum last Friday, memories flowed like wine at a wedding.
Eighty-five year old Henry Dennis, oldest man on the reserve, came with an especially large reservoir of recollections. He spoke with the knowledge and authority of a patriarch. The others, Mona Heinrich, Kathy Allison and Tony Qualtier respectfully allowed him to take the lead and also contributed from their own history vaults. For the five museum members present, it was an opportunity to gain an understanding of the Elders’ personal experiences and also band values and history. We began huddled around a table in the Tea Room, eating lemon pie, drinking coffee, and listening to the Elders reminiscing.
We were surprised by Henry’s response to the question, “What was the happiest time in your life?” Without hesitation he replied, “The happiest time in my life was when I attended school in Hedley until I was 15.” Interestingly, Mona said it was also the time that provided the happiest memories for her.
When I asked if any of them trace their lineage back to the original Nora Allison, they were eager to talk about this legendary ancestor. “Kathy and I are both great-granddaughters of Nora,” Mona responded. Henry added, “Nora was John Fall Allison’s first wife. When he married Susan, a white woman, he wanted to give Nora to his foreman. She resisted initially but in the end agreed. She taught Susan how to live in the wilderness, including how to chop wood, build a fire and prepare meals.”
Nora Allison became famous for her pack train, bringing supplies from Hope to Princeton, Keremeos and beyond. According to Mona, she had 20 mules. The actual number may not really be known. Another great granddaughter told me several years ago she thought Nora’s team had consisted of approximately 40 horses. Whatever the number, she’s been a courageous and inspiring role model for her people.
Tony seemed content to let the others talk, but he was quite happy to answer questions. “I was born in a house in Chopaka,” he said. “I’ve lived in the same house my whole life. I became a rancher, but a stroke made it hard to carry on.” Although he walks with a cane, his enthusiasm for life seems not to have been dampened. Kathy also mostly listened. We did learn she was born in the old hospital in Tenasket, Washington and is the sister of Nancy (Nan) Allison, who is well known here.
Henry told us about a time in his early life when his mother instructed him to dig up roots. “It was hard work,” he recalled, “but I noticed the muskrats were digging them up too and leaving them out to dry. I decided it was a lot easier to steal some of theirs than to do the work myself.” As an adult he went on to become a rancher and could no longer depend on muskrats to do the work. He still owns a ranch.
Mona, who lives across the highway from the iconic “Standing Rock” between Hedley and Keremeos, offered a few insights into her life as a child. “When I started school I spoke only Okanagan, no English. My father said I had to attend school so I’d be able to manage my affairs when I grew up.”
Mona, Kathy and Tony accepted an invitation to visit the media room. Here the photo albums evoked pleasant memories and some surprises. “We used to go to the dance at the Community Hall in Hedley on Boxing Day,” Mona recalled. “We had lots of fun.” Turning the page in an album she said excitedly, “Look, there is the present Nora Allison. I was born in her home!” Then, quite surprised, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, here I am!” On many pages she and Kathy recognized people from their long ago past.
After almost 3 hours it was time for them to leave, but Mona had one more story. “My great- grandmother was a tough lady,” she said. “When she heard about a man who physically abused his wife, she went after him with a stick and gave him a real beating. ‘Do you like it? Do you like it?’ she asked. He didn’t and she warned him to never beat his wife again.”
Then there was a flurry of handshakes and hugs and the Elders departed, promising to return.