The sudden passing of Colville tribal leader and musician Jim Boyd was a shocking blow to the tribe and especially to Boyd’s home community of Inchelium. Much is being written about Boyd’s passing, given his fame in Indian country and the world more broadly for his long and impressive music career. Music has the ability to touch people’s hearts in a special way and Boyd’s music did that. He made us feel our Indian pride, especially for us as Colvilles. Words cannot convey the depth to which Boyd’s music inspired my life, and the kindness I felt from him as a friend.
But what the world doesn’t know is that Boyd’s death was the second loss in as many weeks in Inchelium. It would have been devastating enough on its own, but it came on the heels of the loss of another beloved community member, Virgil Seymour.
I had just returned from Inchelium the day before hearing the news about Boyd’s passing. The Inchelium community had just completed several days of memorial services for Seymour when the news of Boyd’s death was dropped like a bomb out of nowhere.
On Monday, June 20 the Inchelium Community Center was overflowing with grieving family members and friends who had come to pay their last respects to Seymour. This was likely the last event Boyd would have been present for, and the last time most of the community would have seen him.
The passing of Jim Boyd and Virgil Seymour comes strangely at a time of profound joy for the Colville and other local tribes, having just completed a historic canoe journey and intertribal gathering at an ancient sacred site on the Columbia River. This was the first gathering of its kind in at least 80 years among the Colvilles, Spokanes, Kootenais, Kalispels and Coeur d’Alenes.
The canoe journey, in the planning for at least a year, couldn’t have happened without the leadership and contributions of Boyd and Seymour. Seymour was not currently on the tribal council, but he had served three two-year terms on the council in years past. He served on the Natural Resources Committee and was instrumental in the canoe journey’s planning.
Seymour was known for his dedication to the protection of the Columbia River. After his stint on the tribal council he’d gone to work for the tribe as the Arrow Lakes Facilitator. The Arrow Lakes, or Sinixt people, are one of the 12 bands of the Colville confederation, and are so-named for their original homelands across the Canadian border.
The Sinixt were fractured as a people by the establishing of the border between the U.S. and Canada. Many Sinixt had moved south after the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Kettle Falls in the early 1800s. Many had also stayed north of the border, but to this day the Canadian government does not acknowledge the existence or land rights of the Sinixt.
In his role as facilitator, Seymour was tasked with establishing relationships between the Sinixt people in Canada and other Canadian institutions. His goal was to establish a dialogue also with the Canadian government about issues pertaining to ancestors’ remains, artifacts, sacred places, the resources and first foods of the territory that are central to Sinixt culture and history.
The cultures of the Sinixt and other bands and nations of the Upper Columbia River region have been intricately intertwined for thousands of years, connected through the Salish language and their attachment to Kettle Falls—known in Salish as “Sx??nitk?—a central fishing ground for salmon. The Interior Salish language is one of the most endangered languages in the world, but efforts to reclaim the language are resulting in a new generation of speakers on the Spokane and Colville reservations.
In addition to his music and service to the tribe, Boyd was also known for his dedication to language revitalization. His wife Shelly Boyd is the president of the board of directors at the Inchelium Language and Culture Association (ILCA). The ILCA has its home at the Language House in Inchelium, a vital element of the Colville’s innovative language program where language learners can come and stay, immersing themselves in the only pocket of traditional language that exists today on the reservation.
“Not everyone appreciates what we are doing here because of the money it takes to run this place,” Shelly told me one day during my stay at the house. “But Jim has been one of our strongest supporters, something we’ve needed in the tribal council.”
The Colville nations will go on without Jim Boyd and Virgil Seymour, but not without many broken hearts in the wake of their passing. Their legacies will, however, live on through the continued healing of the Columbia River, the mending of Sinixt relationships and language, and the music of Jim Boyd that we all know and love so well.