The presently known Okanagan valley is also known as the Okanagan Indian Nations traditional territory, or as the “Syeelhwh Nation”, which means "the people who live here.” “S-Ookanhkchinx” or Okanagan translates to mean “transport toward the head or top end.” This refers to the people traveling from the head of the Okanagan Lake to where the Okanagan river meet the Columbia river. In other words Okanagan Lake and Okanagan river were the traditional transportation routes of the people and their traditional boundaries encompassed this area.
Welcoming and Acknowledgement of the sqilxʷ/syilx (Okanagan) peoples traditional territory
Why acknowledge territory?
Territory acknowledgement is a way that people insert an awareness of Indigenous presence and land rights in everyday life. This is often done at the beginning of ceremonies, lectures, or any public event. It can be a subtle way to recognize the history of colonialism and a need for change in settler colonial societies.
However, these acknowledgements can easily be a token gesture rather than a meaningful practice. All settlers, including recent arrivants, have a responsibility to consider what it means to acknowledge the history and legacy of colonialism. What are some of the privileges settlers enjoy today because of colonialism? How can individuals develop relationships with peoples whose territory they are living on in the contemporary Canadian geopolitical landscape? What are you, or your organization, doing beyond acknowledging the territory where you live, work, or hold your events? What might you be doing that perpetuates settler colonial futurity rather than considering alternative ways forward for Canada? Do you have an understanding of the on-going violence and the trauma that is part of the structure of colonialism?
As Chelsea Vowel, a Métis woman from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, writes:
“If we think of territorial acknowledgments as sites of potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure. I believe this is true as long as these acknowledgments discomfit both those speaking and hearing the words. The fact of Indigenous presence should force non-Indigenous peoples to confront their own place on these lands.” – Chelsea Vowel, Métis, Beyond Territorial Acknowledgements
How to acknowledge territory?
Often, territory acknowledgements are concise, along the lines of: “I want to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of [nation names].” Some people may also mention the name of a local treaty. Some may learn the language and speak a few words in it. If you are not sure how to pronounce a nation’s name, there are a number of ways to learn, including:
- Respectfully asking someone from that nation or from a local organization such as a Friendship Center or Indigenous Student Center;
- Check the nation’s website, they may have a phonetic pronunciation on their “About” page, an audio-recording of their name, or videos that include people saying the nation’s name; or
- Call the nation after hours and listen to their answering machine recording.
While a brief acknowledgement may work for some groups, others wish to add more intention and detail to acknowledgements. To thoughtfully prepare an in-depth acknowledgement requires time and care. You may find it helpful to reflect on and research questions such as:
- Why is this acknowledgement happening?
- How does this acknowledgement relate to the event or work you are doing?
- What is the history of this territory? What are the impacts of colonialism here?
- What is your relationship to this territory? How did you come to be here?
- What intentions do you have to disrupt and dismantle colonialism beyond this territory acknowledgement?
These statements are examples of simple yet respectful acknowledgements:
- I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered here today on the unceded territory of sqilxʷ/syilx (Okanagan) peoples.
- I would like to acknowledge that we are conducting our business today on the unceded territory of sqilxʷ/syilx (Okanagan) peoples.
The Okanagan people were hunters and gatherers. Their staple diet consisted of deer, salmon, rabbit etc. The Okanagans were also gatherers of roots, berries and various other plants. The first contact with the Okanagans was probably made in the late 1700’s through the Hudson’s Bay Company.
One of the first actual contact dates was recorded in 1805 at Fort Kamloops. The Hudson’s Bay “brigade trail” led right through the Okanagan Nation’s territory, from Fort Kamloops to Fort Colville, presently know as Colville, Washington, U.S.A. From that point the influx of European settlers was slow and yet steady, and both the Okanagans and Europeans worked towards a living arrangement than would satisfy both.
It was understood that Okanagans would continue to use their traditional hunting, fishing and gathering grounds. As settlement of the Okanagan increased, the establishment of the international border and the colony of British Columbia joining confederation, put considerable pressure on the provincial government in B.C. to designate reserves for Native people. This would allow for the settlers to formally own the lands they settled on.
Reserves were finally established in the early 1900’s. The Okanagan people opposed the establishment of the reserves without first having negotiated a treaty. Today the Okanagan people still believe that the land is theirs, as no treaty has been negotiated as yet.