Close-up: Bringing First Nations history to life

Close-up: Bringing First Nations history to life

Reporter Wade Paterson takes a sneak peek at a new Westbank museum opening June 14, which focuses on First Nations history.

Set in a traditional aboriginal ceremonial site near Gellatly Bay, a pictograph, surrounded by graffiti, was discovered more than a decade ago.

At the time, the pictograph couldn’t be distinguished from the other markings, so cleaning products were used to erase the perceived vandalism.

The graffiti was successfully removed, but the pictograph wouldn’t be erased.

Later, someone recognized the pictograph. They chipped the rock off of the wall and brought it to Westbank First Nation staff.

That rock now sits in a display case in the main gallery of Sncəwips Heritage Museum.

“It’s a metaphor for who we are as a people,” says Jordan Coble, curatorial and heritage researcher for WFN.

“They were able to clean up all the other graffiti with chemicals, (but) they couldn’t do anything with the pictograph. That’s all natural and it’s who we are. It’s the voices of our ancestors living through that rock.”

The pictograph rock represents one of the many stories Sncəwips Heritage Museum hopes to tell when it officially opens June 14.


The opening of Sncəwips Heritage Museum (pronounced SEN-CH-WEE-PS) has been in the works for several years.

In June 2011, the Westbank First Nation Heritage Repository and Offices officially opened to provide a safe place for artifacts to be housed. Prior to that, artifacts were stored in a small space within WFN’s Community Services building.

The new location at Estates Square in Westbank, 201-1979 Old Okanagan Hwy., has a greater capacity and will focus on the heritage of WFN, as well as Okanagan Nation and First Nations people across Canada.

Tracy Satin and Jordan Coble have been tasked with bringing that history to life.

Satin, heritage officer and curator of Sncəwips Heritage Museum, brings a wealth of experience with her.

After earning a Master’s Degree from the University of Alberta in classical archeology, she worked as an archeologist for several years, but found that it wasn’t a satisfying career path.

Satin then furthered her education in collections conservation and management before landing a job with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, where she was one of several conservators who worked on the Star Spangled Banner exhibit.

After Satin’s visa expired, she moved to the Okanagan and worked with Kelowna Museums for nine years. She was hired by WFN as heritage officer and curator in January 2013.

Coble’s resumé isn’t as extensive as Satin’s, but he brings an important cultural understanding to the team.

The WFN member was born and raised in Kelowna and has been involved with the community throughout his entire life.

He was hired as curatorial and heritage researcher around the same time Satin was brought on board; however, he volunteered at the repository prior to that. He also has a degree in cultural studies.

“I do a lot of speaking on behalf of the community, on behalf of this space and on behalf of intergovernmental affairs,” says Coble.

“Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be a part of the community…and be accepted as someone who is knowledgable in the ways of our cultures and traditions.”

The duo agrees their unique backgrounds have been beneficial during the process of creating Sncəwips Heritage Museum.

“I think that’s why our space has kind of blossomed the way it has,” says Coble.

Sncəwips Heritage Museum showcases archaeological artifacts, political gifts, pieces donated by artists in the community and objects such as baskets and tools.

“Now that we have a public face and we have a safe space and a bigger space to house objects and to care for them, people are now slowly starting to come in and donate,” says Satin.

“Being an arts organization we have a very limited budget, but we really do want objects (that are) connected to the community. Those are the stories we want to tell.”

For Coble, there isn’t one item in the museum’s current collection that is the most important.

“There is definitely a lot of pride that I take in this space,” says Coble.

“I handle each artifact and each collection piece with the utmost respect: Whether it’s a gift of a water bottle from another nation or a headdress.

“To me, it’s all equal.”

The museum is also currently working with B.C.’s Archeology Branch to recover artifacts that are from the Okanagan.

Satin points to one part of WFN’s Self-Government Agreement, which states: Canada and WFN shall negotiate and attempt to reach agreement regarding the possible return of Okanagan artifacts reasonably attributed to WFN held by the Canadian Museum of Civilization to WFN.

In order to retrieve the artifacts, WFN is required to have a facility, which meets accepted Canadian museological standards for long-term storage and display of donated cultural artifacts.

“That was really the seed where this all grew from,” says Satin.

And the plan is to keep growing: The long-term goal is to establish a heritage centre and museum of national significance.

Coble says community consultation has been an integral part of creating Sncəwips Heritage Museum.

“The community members were the drivers in creating a museum,” says Coble.

“It’s not what I’m trying to say, it’s not what Tracy is trying to say, it’s what the community is trying to say in respect to our past, present and future.

“A place for the storage of artifacts, a place for education and utilizing those collections is of the utmost importance to our people.”

Satin says the name Sncəwips was chosen because it means “a house/protector of First Nation heritage.”

When the museum officially opens in June, members of the public will discover a main gallery, a rotating exhibition, a reading room and an educational room, complete with a chalkboard wall, which will be ideal for hosting small groups.

Coble’s vision of the museum is a space that is welcoming to everyone who enters its doors.

“I see them not just here to look at the artifacts and read the collections…I see them here just to be here, because they enjoy this space.”

Like Coble, Satin also wants the museum to be a lively atmosphere.

“Museums are supposed to be fun places. They’re not supposed to be boring, which some may have become.

“(We’d) love to have lots of kids around doing tours and projects…but we also want the museum to be really comfortable for everyone in the community, so elders can come here and maybe look in the archives, or help us identify people in photographs, or just come and have tea and sit.”

Education is another key part of Sncəwips Heritage Museum’s mission statement.

Coble says the biggest misconception is that First Nations people are the same all across the country.

“We’re definitely very diverse.”

Satin says the point of the museum is not only break down stereotypes, but also illustrate that First Nations cultures of Canada are still flourishing.

“They were here 10,000 years ago, but they’re still thriving today,” says Satin.

Coble says he believes the museum will be a place that will benefit both First Nations and non-First Nations people.

“This space is for everyone, and by everyone I mean WFN members, I mean non-members who live on reserve, I mean the greater Kelowna, the Okanagan Valley and the syilx territory as a whole,” says Coble.

“That’s what we’re really trying to show here: How we interconnect with one another.”

Twitter: @PatersonWade



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