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B.C. First Nation takes over historic Gold-Rush era site, plans to Indigenize

Future plans include a new rodeo ground and even a firehall to help protect the site
Hat Creek Ranch will now be run by the Bonaparte First Nation via the St’uxwtews Pesuten Heritage Society. (File photo)

The Historic Hat Creek Ranch opened May 1 this year under new management.

For almost two decades, the popular heritage site north of Cache Creek was operated by the Friends of Historic Hat Creek Ranch Society. However, the society has now dissolved and passed those responsibilities over to the Bonaparte First Nation who will run the ranch through the St’uxwtews Pesuten Heritage Society.

Kukpi7 Frank Antoine, chief of the Bonaparte First Nation, said he and his community look forward to managing and developing this historic site for the next six years. He noted that he has had plans for the ranch for years and is eager to bring them to life.

“Hat Creek Ranch has been in existence in our community since it started and the history goes beyond that. It’s part of our traditional territory,” Antoine said. “It’s always been part of Bonaparte’s responsibility to take care of the land, water and the animals.”

Hat Creek Ranch features several historic buildings built during the Cariboo Gold Rush in the 1860s and is located on some of the few original sections of the Cariboo Wagon Road that prospectors took to get to Barkerville. Those who visit the ranch can explore these buildings and interact with guides dressed in period clothing. They also offer campgrounds and cabins for rent for those looking to stay overnight.

Many visitors also make the trip to the nearby McAbee Fossil Beds, a 50-million-year-old deposit of fossils from the Eocene epoch, which Bonaparte has run since 2019.

For the people of Bonaparte, Antoine said the relationship with Hat Creek Ranch began well before it was a historic site. When it was still in operation as a working ranch its owners J.B. and Dorthy Jackson employed many First Nation members as ranch hands, including Antoine’s own father Willard Antoine.

In the past, the ranch has had an Indigenous site where local members of the broader Shuswap Nation could share their history and culture with visitors. Antoine said, however, that over the years the relationship between the society and his people waxed and waned.

In 1995 when he helped build the first interpretation centre at the site it seemed good but over time the people of his community told him they didn’t feel welcomed there. That’s why he plans to Indigenize the site while preserving the existing exhibits on the Cariboo Gold Rush.

“We’re going to grow our history right alongside the Gold Rush history,” Antoine explained. “I think the biggest scare from local people is we’re going to go up there and rip apart the history that’s there now. We’re not even going to touch that, it will always be maintained as the Gold Rush Trail.”

For this year Antoine said no major changes are planned. Going forward, however, he has plans to complete several new infrastructure projects to help grow the site and honour his people’s culture.

This includes a permanent powwow arbour, a new bridge to the site on the back of the property, a new rodeo ground and even a firehall to help protect the site. These new facilities will allow the ranch to host more events and attract new people to the site.

Antoine remarked there may be other changes as well, though this will have to be decided by the St’uxwtews Pesuten Heritage Society board. It currently consists of six Indigenous seats and three at large seats, the latter of which Antoine hopes to fill with non-Indigenous members of Bonaparte’s neighbouring communities. The chiefs of the Highbar First Nation, Pavillion First Nation, Skeetchestn First Nation and Whispering Pines First Nation will also be involved with the board.

“I know we want to build an Indigenous village site where we are going to have our winter homes for people to stay in. There’s so many opportunities now to grow that ranch into more of a tourist attraction,” Antoine said. “This fall I’ll be bringing the community and board together to start building this five-year strategic plan so every year we know what’s coming.”

In the coming months, Antoine said Bonaparte will begin advertising when positions on the board become available. In the meantime, he encourages the public to come out and visit the site anytime this summer.

“It’s taken us eight years to get this far but our ancestors are probably singing and dancing in the sky right now. My late father Willard Antoine told me we had two opportunities to take over that ranch and now we have this opportunity to share our history and our culture,” Antoine said. “I’m very proud of that.”

READ MORE: Bonaparte First Nation to operate Hat Creek Ranch, McAbee fossil site

Patrick Davies

About the Author: Patrick Davies

An avid lover of theatre, media, and the arts in all its forms, I've enjoyed building my professional reputation in 100 Mile House.
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