Land back: syilx people reclaim sacred salmon fishing site

 By Aaron Hemens

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) is celebrating the return of an important piece of land which includes a sacred salmon fishing site that’s been utilized by syilx people for thousands of years.


For more than 100 years, syilx people have been denied access to the salmon fishery, according to OIB, but now the community has been able to buy back one acre of the site after the land went up for sale on the open market.


The acre of land was originally part of the band’s reserve, a statement from OIB said, but the community lost it after the provincial and federal governments took back 71 acres of OIB’s designated land in 1913.


On Friday, dozens of Youth, Elders and everyone in between from the eight member communities of the syilx Okanagan Nation took part in a historic gathering at the banks of the Okanagan River across from sx???x??nitk? park (Okanagan Falls provincial park).


“Whether it’s Osoyoos Indian Band or other First Nations in this province, truth and reconciliation starts with getting our land back,” said y?ilmix?m ki law na Chief Clarence Louie of OIB.


“All over Canada, urban reserves are being created because of land thefts in the past. I hope that in our territory that no mayor and council, no regional district and the provincial governments, are not obstacles to us getting our old reserves back.”


The one acre of reclaimed land that was recently purchased by OIB is located on one of two of the most important salmon fishing spots in syilx territory, Louie said.


The site in question, sx???x??nitk? (Little Falls), as well as the other site, sx??nitk? (Big Falls), which is located in “Washington” and known as “Kettle Falls’,’  share a special connection in syilx culture and history.


“These two places are related in our language. Our people gathered here, fished here, died here, gave birth here, for thousands of years,” said Louie.


“We don’t have to climb over or under anybody’s fence to come to this spot (sx???x??nitk?) any longer.”


Set aside in 1877, the 71 acres of Osoyoos Indian Reserve was taken back by the federal and provincial governments in 1913 through the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, which authorized “British Columbia” to add to, reduce and even eliminate Indian reservations.


Much of the land from that original Osoyoos Indian Reserve is now “owned” by private homeowners, one of whom has displayed an inaccurate sign on their front yard which says that the land where their property is situated is “ceded.”


“It’s too bad we have to use our money to get our land back, but you can’t just kick somebody off their property without compensation. You can’t do what the government did to us,” said Louie.


“You shouldn’t force anybody to sell their land. They have to be willing to sell, and First Nations are willing to buy.”


If the province can take land away with the swipe of a pen, just as they had done in 1913, Louie said that they can also give it back with a swipe of pen.


“The truth is, this was our land,” he said.


“Your ancestors, my ancestors, set this aside on purpose for the Osoyoos Indian Band and the Okanagan Nation member people because of the cultural and historical fishing significance of this site.”


`I want you children to know this is yours’


The celebration on Friday began with drum songs and a prayer by Youth from OIB’s Senpaq’cin School, who sang and drummed throughout the entire event. Students from Penticton Indian Band’s (PIB) Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School and Okanagan Falls Elementary School were also in attendance. Guests were invited to a salmon lunch hosted at OIB’s office following the event.


A group of syilx community members and Elders who had organized an informational roadblock in 1974 near the site of the 71-acre land theft were also honoured. Many took to the mic to speak of their experience from that moment in time.


“(Our people) supported one another. They took up the cause,” said snpinktn (Penticton) Hereditary Chief Adam Eneas, who was chief of PIB at the time of the roadblock.


Eneas proudly shared how communities from the syilx Okanagan Nation stood by then-OIB Chief Jim Stelkia.


“And they did everything they could to make sure that we were victorious, which we were,” he said.


Jack Kruger, an Elder from PIB who was involved in the 1974 roadblock, relayed to the Youth what he was told by his own Elders _ that the land belongs to the children.


“I want you children to know this is yours. We only carried on for you _ we’re only the caretakers. We’re nothing,” he said.


“You are the ones that are important, and I want you to know that.”


The Stelkias, the Louies, the Baptistes, the Terbaskets, the Gabriels, the Armstrongs, the Pierres, the Krugers and all the other syilx families involved in the roadblock “loved you so much that they cared about what your future is going to be like,” Kruger told the Youth.


“The road was very rough in those days,” he said. “We tried to work it so now you can drive on paved road. You don’t have to drive on the rocks.”


Other Elders also took to the stage to share the history and cultural significance of the site.


“There are all kinds of pictographs around here. There were some graves here too that were found quite a few years ago. They were thousands of years ago, here,” said 93-year-old Elder q??ayxnmitk? x??stalk?iya? Jane Stelkia, the oldest member of OIB.


caylx Richard Armstrong, a syilx traditional ecological knowledge keeper and nsyilxcen language specialist who also participated in the blockade, shared a teaching from the captik?? related to the site, specifically the story of how s?nk?lip (Coyote) brought salmon up the river.


“(s?nk?lip) left monuments for the people to be. When he did that, there was no people _ they were people to be, and that’s talking about you folks,” said caylx.


While s?nk?lip believed that his story of how he brought the salmon up the river may be forgotten, caylx said that the monuments and responsibilities that s?nk?lip created for s?anix? (Muskrat), stunx (Beaver) and fisher from the high mountains are there to remind people of his efforts.


`One acre at a time’


Leading up to the celebration, both a women’s and men’s sweat was held at the site. The reclaimed acre is now going through the additions-to-reserve process, Louie said.


However, he noted that OIB is still short of more than 4,000 acres of original reserve land, and said that they’re going to get that land back, even if it takes one acre at a time.


“Land is always more important than money. Always has been and always will be,” he said. “We don’t like the fact that we have to buy our own land back, but that’s just the way it is.”

 Aaron Hemens is  a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE DISCOURSE. LJI program is federally funded.

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