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What's in a Name? Introducing Pelmewash Parkway

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In a nod toward the First Nations that originally inhabited the Okanagan Valley, Lake Country council has decided on a new name for the road that runs between Oyama and Winfield.

The roadway will be handed over to Lake Country control sometime next year, when the new Highway 97 opens, crossing the mountain range above Wood Lake and eliminating the twisting and turning highway in its current form.

And while any decisions on the future use of the road are still likely at least a year away, the name for the seven kilometre stretch of road was set this week.

In a nearly-unanimous decision, Lake Country council chose Pelmewash Parkway as the name for Old Highway 97. And while the name may seem like a tongue twister, it's history is long and rich and if Lake Country council has its way, Pelmewash Parkway will soon be rolling off local lips as easily as other First Nations' names like Spallumcheen, Osoyoos, Okanagan and even Kelowna.

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According to the 1958 book Early Days of Winfield, B.C., author W.R. Powley claims Wood Lake takes its current name from settler Thomas Wood who, in 1871, held land around what was then-known as Pelmewash Lake. Powley arrived in Oyama in 1907 with her family and lived there until her death in 1966. Hired by the Winfield Centennial Committe to write the history of Winfield, Powley wrote that the settler Wood increased his land holdings around the lake up until 1903, acquiring an extensive rangeland on the lake's east side that would become known as Wood's range. By 1903 Wood had subdivided his land and put it up for sale. The map that accompanied the sale referred to the lake around the settler's land as Wood's Lake. It was the beginning of the end for the name Pelmewash, which over the next 100 years would become unheard of in Lake Country.

That is until this week, when Lake Country council decided to dust off the name and bring it back, in the form of Pelmewash Parkway, the new name for the old Highway 97.

"I think this is a good lesson that shows our history didn't start when European settlers came to the area," said Lake Country coun. Jamie McEwan. "I've had people say that the pronunciation may be difficult and I've said to them 'what do you think the first person who heard Okanagan or Kelowna thought?' A lot of these names around here may have been viewed as difficult to pronounce. I think this is an opportunity to show some leadership and some recognition to the history and to a different history of our area."

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The First Nations who first inhabited the Okanagan speak an Interior version of Salish, a native dialect with some 23 different versions, depending on the location, from the B.C. coast, to the Thompson, up to Williams Lake and down into Washington State. In the Okanagan the language is known as Nsylixcn. Many words in the language are difficult to translate into English and many First Nations names were changed when European settlers arrived in the area.

"A lot of our place names got truncated when Europeans came and they couldn't pronounce them properly," said Ruby Alexis, a cultural researcher for the Okanagan Indian Band. "That makes it hard to translate some of our place names."

In her work to find and document place names that may have been lost over the years, Alexis has come across the word Pelmewash as the original name for Wood Lake on early maps produced by the Hudson's Bay Company.

But she has yet to confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that the name is actually part of the Nsylixcn language spoken by the Okanagan Indians that first lived in the area and plans to speak with elders and others who have expertise in the area to further research the name.

"I like it when we find old names," she said. "I'm fairly comfortable that (Pelmewash) is one of ours. It would be nice to have a translation. We can't always translate the names but I will try to."

Alexis says the end of the name Pelmewash (ewash) means a narrowing and could refer to the narrowing of Wood Lake where it joins Kalamalka Lake near Oyama.

Okanagan Indian Band chief Byron Lewis was thankful that the district had chosen to honour his band's history with the new name, even though he had never heard of it before.

"I think it's a nice gesture," said Lewis. "One of the things we'd like to do is do some research and talk to our elders about the name and make sure it's correct. But it's a nice gesture and something we appreciate."

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The man who submitted the name Pelmewash Parkway for consideration is not a member of the Okanagan Indian Band but is a long time Oyama resident and also somewhat of an expert on the history of the area when it comes to the interaction of white settlers and First Nations. UBC Okanagan associate history professor (retired) Duane Thomson was raised in Oyama, spent his teaching career at Okanagan College, OUC and UBCO and is the president of the Lake Country Heritage and Cultural Society.

In acquiring his PHD, he wrote about the Okanagan Indian's interaction with European settlers.

"When settlers come to an area they often try to obliterate the local names in order to assert their own power," said Thomson in an interview with the Kelowna Capital News. "That didn't happen in the Okanagan largely because there were so many Indian women and many Indians relative to white people. So names like Keremeos, Okanagan, Similkameen and a whole variety of names are true Okanagan Indian language names."

In an effort to involve the community, the District of Lake Coutnry invited submissions of names and there were 160 unique names were submitted and council narrowed the list to three finalists: Pelmewash Parkway, Lake Country Parkway and Wood Lake Parkway. All but once councillor (Penny Gambell) voted for Pelmewash, which received the most online votes out of the three finalists.

"It recognizes our heritage and the heritage of the Indian people and of the early pioneers," said Thomson. "It's what they called the lake. It's got historical and cultural meaning and it has the possibility of developing a theme for that drive."

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So whatever you think of the name Pelmewash Parkway, soon it should become part of the lexicon of Lake Country. In the end there was really no choice between the fairly non-descript finalists Wood Lake or Lake Country Parkway or the history-rich Pelmewash Parkway.

It's about the people who were first on the land that we call home and a perfect choice, according to the mayor of Lake Country.

"It's distinct and unique," said James Baker. "I would like to continue to work with and collaborate with the Okanagan Indian Band in our community to show the heritage and the culture prior to the settlement of the area and Pelmewash is a good start in doing that."

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