Nemiah Valley Lodge represents more than one thing to the Xeni Gwet’in people of Nemiah Valley.
The lodge, purchased by the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation in 2019, represents a return of land to their people, a new venture in economic development and an opportunity to share their culture.
Originally built by German settlers in the valley in the 1980s, Nemiah Lodge was known as Elkins Creek Guest Ranch, a guest horse and cattle ranch for many decades.
Local rumours still circulate about a land deal in the works in the 1930s with Xeni Gwet’in leader Sil Ganim (also known as Seal Canim) to get the property back in the hands of the local community. The deal reportedly disappeared when Cannon suddenly passed away and the land was later sold to a non-Indigenous family.
Some elders still suspect his death was not an accident and was meant to sideline the property purchase, explained current Chief Jimmy Lulua.
“Those are the stories I’ve been told,” recounts Lulua, who was one of those who made the tough decision to take a risk and purchase the property back for just over $1 million.
This was not a purchase made lightly, and he recalled being in the room with fellow community leaders James Lulua Jr. and David Setah debating spending so much of the community’s budget.
“We were pretty split down the middle … but you look at any community, any First Nations community across Canada, one thing they lack is property,” explained Lulua of their reasons for making such a large purchase.
In the Nemiah Valley, Lulua said there are few spots with good pasture and this property is one of the best, so he thought it was an important path to following their cultural connection.
“The land means so much to us.”
As well as returning the property to the community, Lulua said the lodge will also provide employment opportunities, something he sees as key to people’s health and wellness.
“Mental wellness for me is one of the top priorities,” he said, adding having a job and purpose, and doing things important to their community supports people’s well-being.
Lulua believes Nemiah is a fairly healthy community, and he wants to maintain their positive momentum.
While the purchase did not all go as planned, and Lulua said the community will have to involve legal help with future land deals, he still wants to see the community pursue purchasing more land and pursuing more projects which could help afford the community more self-sufficiency and control of what was historically their land.
“We’re not stopping … this is the tester,” he asserted. “That should be a strategic plan for any community.”
This is after they had researched thoroughly previous operations and what went in to operating such a remote wilderness lodge, and one they aimed to make sustainable.
One of the large overhead costs associated with operating the remote lodge was providing power, done by diesel generators which cost a lot to fuel and maintain. So one of their initial investments has been the installation of a large solar power array.
“It’s basically a trial and error pilot project for us too, to see if we’re ready,” explained Lulua of taking on the lodge, which combines accommodation in the beautiful valley setting with cultural experiences.
He meant ready to not only share their culture, but also to get into the more modern developed world. Nemiah Valley has long been known as a remote refuge, which has allowed the Xeni Gwet’in to maintain strong cultural traditions and connection to the land in the rugged Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) wilderness.
Lulua acknowledged they had a lot of help from both the provincial and federal governments to complete the project, including replacing some of the necessary parts of the operation like hot water tanks, appliances, tools and machines. The community ended up investing more than the purchase price to get the lodge where it needed to be.
“We didn’t actually think we’d get that much support,” admitted Lulua.
Today, the lodge is finally open, after two years of work to get the planning, hiring and renovations all done. The opening of the lodge was delayed by two months after a chimney fire caught the shingles of the lodge roof on fire and required a major repair. The roof is no longer shingles and you would never know there had been a fire. Handcrafted leather and bead work are displayed on the wall.
There are seven cabins and three houses plus the lodge on the property, as well as other outbuildings like the shower house and washrooms by the beach at Vedan Lake.
The facility has a 40-person capacity and are now hosting smaller bookings for the most part, but also have corporate retreats and leadership meetings scheduled, including a visit from the premier in September.
There is still more to do, but Kathryn Nair, lodge manager, said they have had at least some of the lodge booked for most of this season, with a group of 20 set to arrive in the summer.
“We were surprised for our first season that we’re this busy,” admitted Nair, who has been working on the project to get the lodge up and running for the entire time with Xeni Gwet’in and had worked in Nemiah Valley for three years previously. Nair is originally from Australia, but now makes her permanent home in 150 Mile House, near Williams Lake.
The lodge already has seven full time employees, including a Red Seal chef from Whistler and more work part time for the operation. They offer cultural experiences, hiking, stand up paddle boarding, canoeing, archery, fishing, and float plane fly-in or horseback add-ons, with even more possibilities in the future.
As we left the idyllic setting of the private lake access at Vedan Lake where Bull trout and Rainbow trout were hidden beneath the calm surface, Nair assured me they were there.
She drove the side-by-side through the property, detailing some of the plans still in the works. A shower house by the lake with extra space may have a meditative spot for yoga or quiet contemplation, horse corrals are still to be completed, with guests able to add on horse experiences or even bring their own horse.
It is not hard to understand the Xeni Gwet’in desire to return this stunning place to the community and to want to harness the potential somewhere as unique and as yet unspoiled as Nemiah Valley. Sil Ganim would be pleased.
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