Gold rush clothing: a Nlaka’pamux perspective

The Interior Salish lived along the Fraser River from Spuzzum to Lillooet; along the Thompson River, northward to Ashcroft; and along the Nicola River, eastward to Nicola Lake. The Nlaka’pamux Territory was divided into two main parts—that area below Lytton and that above. In 1858, there were about 2,000 Nlaka’pamux who lived along the Fraser River from near Siska (Cisco), on the north, to Spuzzum on the south. These people were sometimes referred to as the Lower Thompson.

Map of Nlaka'pamux Territory and surrounding peoples

Map of Nlaka’pamux Territory and surrounding peoples

The Lower Thompson wore clothing similar to that of the Upper Stó:lō which included capes and skirts woven of cedar bark. (In the Interior, sagebrush was used similarly to cedar). They also wore robes made of bear, groundhog, or rabbit skins sewn together and woven blankets made from mountain goat wool or dog wool. Buckskin shirts, dresses and leggings. The temperatures in winter in the Yale area were more extreme than downriver, and they were more likely to rely on buckskin clothing. Hunters wore moccasins. Others used dog salmon skins to cover their feet. In the summer and during wet weather, most went barefoot.

When goldseekers descended on the Fraser Canyon, Natives were intrigued by the clothing worn by these newcomers. Before the arrival of Europeans, the concept ‘Indian’ did not exist. People were simply ‘seytknmx’. Within a short time the Nlaka’pamux language had specific terms for Chinese, African, and Jewish people, but all were ‘shama’.

Oral history of the gold rush was passed along from generation to generation in the Nlaka’pamux culture.  Annie York (1904-1991) recalled various stories:

“Indians were very fond of buttons…the Hudson Bay buttons were very fancy. They trimmed their clothing that way. When the women saw broaches, they panned gold and went and got them. They would rub their index finger across their heart – that was the sign for the brooch. Their brooches were made of bone and their earrings of coral, sea shell. But they wanted Hudson Bay brooches and the Hudson Bay got to know that, too.

One white man asked one Indian to pack something from Thompson Siding [Nicomen] to Lytton, and he wouldn’t take money. He wouldn’t take gold pieces. He just wanted a shirt, pants, buttons. He told the white man, “Halo chikaman; just wants iktus”.

And they would buy blankets, Hudson Bay blankets—that’s the main thing they would buy. And goods— cloth—and make their own clothes out of that. Shirts, pants, everything—they made it. The women made those things. They would buy needles and thread, scissors and thimbles. They were the main things.

A white man told Granny’s cousin to watch the camp while he bathed in the water. Old Ki?me, they called him John. He was watching the white man go down to the water, bathing in the water. He watches him having a bath. Took his underwear off. ‘Gosh,’ he says, ‘this is funny, this skin comes off.’ And then they wash their bodies…
He saw the white men shaving their whiskers. And there’s a fire, and they just…throw it and wash it, then put their shirt on and another shirt and pants. So he told the people, ‘You know,’ he says, ‘these people, they’re funny. They got a skin inside. They skin themselves, and then they wash it and wash the other skin, then put another skin on…

They shaved themselves and throw it in the fire, and it smells. Sometimes they clip their whiskers and cut their hair. They throw that into the fire, and it smells. The Indians think that’s very peculiar because the Indians don’t do that to their hair.

Shoes. The Indians were very amused about shoes. They were heavy and made a noise when walking. They scared the animals.

The Indians called the Chinamen, “people with stick over their shoulder.” When they saw the Chinese black shoes, they didn’t like it.”