HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The origins of Columneetza

We have all heard the word “Columneetza,” but what do we really know about this word?

Barry Sale examines the origins of the word: Columneetza

Barry Sale examines the origins of the word: Columneetza

We have all heard the word “Columneetza,” and many people in this area attended Columneetza Secondary School, but what do we really know about this word?

Where did it originate and what does it really mean?

Back in the 1960s, Irene Stangoe, who also wrote a history column for the Williams Lake Tribune, spent a considerable amount of time on these questions.

The name Columneetza appears on fur brigade maps of the area from the early 1800s.

Williams Lake is marked as “Lac du Columetza,” and the San Jose River between Lac La Hache and Williams Lake is shown as “Riviere de Columetza” (the fur traders were mostly French Canadian, and their maps were labelled in French).

A couple of early books by gold rush travellers also refer to Williams Lake and area as “Columetza.”

Irene consulted with a friend of hers who was a judge, Henry Casillou. He was an amateur anthropologist and he also had an interest in local First Nations history.

His opinion was that Columneetza was Athapaskan word meaning “the meeting place of the noble ones” or “the meeting place of princely people.”

It was his belief that the Williams Lake area was a central gathering place for First Nations people and had been for hundreds of years, so the term was a fitting one.

For years, that has been the accepted version, but I wonder if it is correct.

When the Europeans arrived in this area, the lands were occupied by the Secwepemc or Northern Shuswap people.

They had been here for hundreds of years, and they occupied some well-established villages.

They had networks of trails throughout the area and they carried out a thriving trade network among themselves and with their neighbours.

But they were not Athapaskan people and their language was nowhere close to the Athapaskan language.

It just does not ring true that an Athapaskan word like “columneetza” would be in common use by a non-Athapaskan group.

I have several Shuswap-speaking friends. I asked one of them, a respected elder, if “columneetza” or some variation of the word could be a Shuswap term.

The answer was yes — there is a Secwepemc word — “Kulemnitsé — which means “self made” or “self reliant.”

Often, I was told, the Shuswap leaders took their names from their outstanding qualities, so this could easily have been the name of one of the local band chiefs.

Then I discovered some of the early journals from Fort Alexandria.

In these journals the HBC traders at the fort recorded names, dates and events of note.

These were written by men who were not particularly well educated, so spelling was often phonetical. Here is a sampling of what I found:

Aug. 24, 1824: “Columneetza arrived last evening … says he got news by a lad before he left his lodge that salmon was in abundance at the entrance of Chilk-otin River. God grant it may be true.”

July 17, 1833: “Columetza, Chief of the Barge was one of best two hunters.” (“The Barge” was what the white fur traders called the large Secwepemc village at the mouth of Chimney Creek.)

April 30, 1838: “Columnetza the chief of the Barge with brother William the Atnah come for me to take the count of the population of the Atnah tribe. They also fetch horses for me.” (The word “Atnah” is a Carrier word meaning “the others.” This was the term that the Carrier people used to identify the Northern Shuswap people).

In 1838, the HBC made a list of First Nations peoples who they considered to be friendly to the company.

The total number of Secwepemc people included was 419.

Chief Columneetza was at the head of the list, and he was considered to be the main leader of the Northern Shuswap people in the area.

It also appears that Columneetza was Chief William were actual brothers.

They often travelled together and they were given presents by the HBC on an annual basis to ensure their continued trade and co-operation.

April 13, 1843: “Old Columnetza, William and other Atnahs arrived — but I know not whether they have anything to trade.”

April 16, 1843: “Settled with Columnetza’s part; and made the old man and William their usual presents.”

July 24, 1847: “I gave William a large pan full of potatoes, with some turnip seed and carrots — the same to Columetza — they traded a few furs.”

The last entry in the journals that shows Columneetza’s name was in 1851, on March 11: “William the Atnah and Coolunetza arrived late yesterday evening, bringing a few beaver.”

So, from 1824 through to 1851, a 27-year period, a Northern Shuswap chief by the name of Columneetza was trading with the HBC at Fort Alexandria.

He was a good hunter and a respected leader, and he was the head of a large Shuswap village.

If we assume that he was in his mid 20s when he was first mentioned in the journals, then he must have been in his early to mid-50s when he stopped making the trip to the fort.

Was he too old and infirm? Did he die? We do not know.

Clearly, Columneetza was related to William, for whom our lake and our city is now named.

Oral tradition among the Sugar Cane Band has it that Columneetza was the name of the first Chief William’s father.

Could it be that this man had two sons, one of whom (William) was the chief of the village located on the site of the present day Dairy Fields, while the other (Columneetza) was the chief of the village located at the mouth of Chimney Creek? That seems to me to be a likely scenario.

The family name Columneetza lived on for a few more years. In the Baptism records of the St. Joseph’s mission, on Feb. 6, 1871, “Agnes Kolemnetza, 15 year old daughter of Kolemnetza” was baptized.

In the 1881 Census records, we find Paul Columnitza with his wife and four children (two boys and two girls) recorded as “Williams Lake Indians.”

So, what to make of all of this? I do not think that Columneetza is an Athapaskan word at all.

Rather, it seems far more likely to me that it is a Secwepemc word which recognizes and honours a strong Northern Shuswap leader whose life coincided with early European contact in our area.

What do you think?