Before there were any peaches


Coralee Miller of the Sncəwips Heritage Museum

Peachland was a fruitful place long before there were any orchards in the area.

For millennia before contact was made with Europeans, the Syilx/Okanagan people had been benefitting from the rich ecology that lay between Deep Creek and Trepanier Creek.

“Peachland was a place to hunt and fish,” said Coralee Miller, assistant extraordinaire at the Sncəwips Heritage Museum in West Kelowna.

“There are nice flat areas near the waterways and we would set up camp and create dwellings. But Peachland was more of a walk through – down further in Penticton is where you’ll find pit houses.”

The Okanagan people span an approximate area of 69,000 square kilometres throughout B.C.’s southern Interior and northern Washington State; from Merritt to the Kootenays, and from Mica Creek to Wilber Washington (The US-Canada border is an arbitrary divide through the Okanagan Territory).

The Okanagan people, being largely nomadic, would follow seasonal migration routes around the territory. That would eventually cause turbulence come the early 1800s, when first contact was made with the Europeans, who began developing sections of land for permanent occupation.

But there were many positive effects – Miller says diplomacy is deeply ingrained in the Okanagan People and contact with the first Europeans was mostly peaceful. White settlers brought about new opportunities for trading and intermarriage.

After the Government of Canada was established in 1867 (B.C. joined in 1871), systematic efforts were being made to culturally assimilate every aboriginal community. Children were forced to attend residential schools (local Sylix children were taken to Kamloops); freedom of movement was heavily restricted; and traditional practices, which included speaking the nsyilxcən language, were punishable by law for decades.

Their once-thriving population was vastly reduced because of numerous factors, namely through smallpox, tuberculosis and residential schools.

Fortunately, attitudes have become much more enlightened and hard work is underway to preserve and restore indigenous cultures. Over at the Sncəwips Heritage Museum, strong efforts are being made to revitalize all aspects of the Syilx traditions – especially their nsyilxcən language.

“Artifacts can only do so much – if you lose the language, you lose the whole spirit,” said Miller. “Language opens up a whole different world.”

Oppressive laws nearly caused the extinction of the Okanagan peoples’ canoes-craft techniques. Until an amendment was made to the Indian Act in 1948, it was a criminal act to build one.

But thanks to elder Gordon Marchand, that flame didn’t go out.

The ancient technique saw them carve a vessel by burning and boiling one solid giant log from the inside out. Marchand inherited the trade as a young man but went decades without practicing. Then in the year 2000, he had a dream to revive the tradition.

“He knew in his heart that it was something that needed to come back,” Miller said.

Marchand was inspired to take on the project by an elder named Louise Gabrielle.

Before Marchand passed away from cancer in the year 2009, his canoe-crafting techniques were passed onto two younger members of the community – his son Frank Marchand as well as Marvin Louis, who can now pass that torch onto future generations.

“Frank saw that his dad’s project was good,” Miller said. “He had a knack for it, and he’s still working up in Vernon banging them out.”

The success of the canoe project rehashed another ancient Okanagan tradition – the Unity Trek – a large canoeing adventure into Washington State.

“Our ETA is usually the 4th of July as a  way to reclaim space and remind people that we were here before the border,” Miller said.

Sncəwips Heritage Museum launched as a repository shortly after Westbank First Nations established self-governance in 2005, and gained full status as a museum in 2013.

The team at the museum are continually growing their collection. There’s a strong focus on the repatriation of lost artifacts, and Miller wants to see more workshops to promote traditional practices. It’s located on the Old Okanagan Highway and has an abundance of Syilx treasures and stories. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cost of admission is a donation.

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