At the U.S.-Canada border, an

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In the early morning hours of an October day in 2010, Rick and Linda Desautel left their hunting camp on traditional Sinixt lands near Vallican, British Columbia, and drove to the steep, thickly forested hills a few miles away. After the road faded to gravel, they turned left at a blue Valhalla Provincial Park sign and continued to climb. At 7 a.m., Rick spotted a cow elk and a calf down a steep embankment, standing among the shrubs about 100 yards away. They rolled to a stop off the road and crept back toward the elk. Rick raised his Mauser 98 bolt-action rifle, aimed down the hill and shot the elk.

Six years later, in a courtroom in Nelson, British Columbia, Desautel described his relationship to the area like this: “When I come up here, I’m walking with the ancestors. … It just runs chills up and down me that I can be where my ancestors were at one time, and do the things that they did.” Desautel, a member of the Arrow Lakes Band, descendants of the Sinixt, bent to work dressing the carcass: He pulled out the heart and liver, then quartered the meat.

Linda sweated up and down the hillside, a packboard heavy with a hundred pounds of elk strapped to her back, the climb slippery with frost. After loading up the truck, the two went back to camp to hang up white cloth game bags full of meat and spotted with blood. Then they drove until they had cell reception, called the game wardens and told them what they had done. 

The Canadian government had declared the Arrow Lakes Band “extinct” in 1956, after the death of the last known member in Canada. But just south of the U.S.-Canada border, Arrow Lakes Band members were alive and well on the Colville Reservation in Washington state, where the Desautels live. The planning behind the hunt had been in the works for years — some would say decades — and it was a strategic attempt to force the Canadian government to recognize the Arrow Lakes Band’s right to hunt and, by extension, its tribal sovereignty.

To the Arrow Lakes Band, what Rick Desautel had done was a ceremonial hunt on land his ancestors had never ceded to the Canadian government. But to Canada, it was a crime.  Although the charges eventually brought against Desautel were for hunting, at the heart of the case is something bigger — whether Canada will have to recognize the Arrow Lakes Band as a modern First Nation, acknowledging the members' right to hunt and use their traditional lands. If Desautel loses, it means the Lakes will remain, in the government’s eyes, “extinct.” 

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are composed of the Arrow Lakes Band and 11 other tribes from the region, who share a 1.4 million-acre reservation in Washington state. To go forward with the hunt, the tribal council representing the 12 bands had to agree to support it, and the court case they knew would follow. For months leading up to the 2010 hunt, tribal officials spoke with their British Columbian counterparts and with wildlife biologists, explaining their plans. The Canadians continued to insist that Arrow Lakes Band people did not “presently exist” in the province. The tribal representatives, who had expected as much, responded that they were going ahead with the hunt regardless.

Afterward, prosecutors charged Rick Desautel with hunting without a license and hunting as a nonresident of Canada. (Linda Desautel was not charged.) He pleaded not guilty.

Desautel’s case is unique because the Lakes are, as far as they know, the only First Nation to receive an explicit declaration of “extinction.” But his case, if it succeeds, means that other tribes cut off by the U.S.-Canada border with Aboriginal ties to the land could make a First Nations claim, too, even if their members aren’t Canadian residents. And that would require Canada to consult with those nations if any activity or development could impact their traditional lands. The right to own, use and control ancestral lands is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Canada announced its full support of the U.N. declaration in 2016, the same year Desautel’s case went to trial, as “Canada’s commitment to a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples.”