(LILLOOET) There were prayers for the dead and lessons for the living on a special rafting trip down the Fraser River commemorating the 150th anniversary of the devastating 1862 small pox epidemic.

Three members of the New Pathways to Gold Society (NPTGS) Board of Directors took part in the five-day trip from Sheep Creek to Lillooet earlier this month. Co-chair Cheryl Chapman, Secretary Brent Rutherford and Director Dr. Ron Ignace made the journey last week with about 30 other participants. They were joined by Secwepemc Elders, youth, community workers and tourists interested in the journey.

Organized by the Phyllis Webstad, Stswecem’c/Xqat’tem (Canoe/Dog Creek) First Nation, Irvine Johnson, Esketemc (Alkali Lake) First Nation and Fraser River Raft Expeditions, the voyage marked 150th anniversary of the catastrophic small pox epidemic that killed an estimated 60 per cent of B.C.’s Aboriginal population. Some put the death toll even higher. It was one of the most deadly epidemics in Canadian history, yet most people know nothing about it.

And that has to change, says Chapman.

“This story has to be told to both Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people,” said Chapman, a member of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation. “Assistance needs to be provided to enhance opportunities to share the real history of what happened in 1862 for generations to come.”

Improvements to the area’s trail network with interpretive signage telling the story of the small pox tragedy along with more education materials for school teachers are good initial steps to raising public awareness, says NPTGS Co-chair Terry Raymond, and something the New Pathways to Gold Society may be able to help with.

“Some of this could be accomplished through the New Pathways to Gold Society Heritage Trails Program and other cultural initiatives,” said Raymond. “This is the kind of initiative that is in keeping with the Society’s commitment to First Nations reconciliation.”

During the journey downriver, participants said prayers and sang songs to honour those that perished and set their spirits free at places like Under a Leaning Rock, the Home Place, Out of the Water, the Place of Horseflies. They also gave thanks for their survival.

For Ignace, Skeetchestn (Deadman Creek) First Nation, the journey was a powerful experience.

“The small pox epidemic reduced our nation from 32 communities down to 17,” said Ignace. “It was said that these people had no one to properly preside over them because of the small pox and this was a way to honour them and to put their spirits to rest… I shudder at the needless and senseless loss of lives and traditional knowledge.”

Rutherford was grateful to take part: “I thought it would be a very cogent memorial to the thousands that died and I wanted to be part of that ceremony,” he said.

An educator and retired high school administrator from Lac La Hache, Rutherford said he sees the development of new teaching resources to tell the story of the 1862 outbreak as vital.

For Chapman, it was a journey of self-discovery.

“What I found most moving was seeing reflections of myself and shadows of my ancestors in the brass plaque on a jade monument to honour our relatives who did not survive the 1862 small-pox epidemic, as my ancestors did,” said Chapman.