By Kelsie Kilwana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
skawilx, also known as Sarah Alexis, recalls having a vivid dream as a teenager that led her to understand her true responsibility to the siwɬkʷ (water), and specifically kɬusx̌nitkʷ (Okanagan Lake).
In the dream, she was visited by nx̌ax̌aitkʷ, briefly known by settler folks as “Ogopogo.” To have a dream of nx̌ax̌aitkʷ is very significant, and often, for sqilx’w, dreams carry information about the work you are being called to do.
“I remember telling my sister, and my sister was like, `Oh, my goodness, you have to remember this moment in your life and think about why you had that dream and why you’re seeing him,”’ she says.
Having grown up intimately close to kɬusx̌nitkʷ (Okanagan Lake), she says it was her first call to her responsibility to do what she could to caretake the siwɬkʷ (water).
And ever since then, skawilx has dedicated her life to the siwɬkʷ and has furthered her understanding of sqilx’w roles and responsibilities to the water through nsqilxʷcen.
As an academic and expert, the Okanagan Indian Band member has contributed knowledge towards developing the syilx siwɬkʷ Strategy (Okanagan Water Strategy) with Okanagan Nation Alliance.
“A lot more sama7 (visitor) people, a lot more Western people, are wanting to base work on Indigenous knowledge, syilx knowledge, localized knowledge,” she shares. “And that knowledge is really an extension of all of the places that we live in. It’s an extension of the natural world, the mimicry of the natural world, because that’s really what and who we are.”
Grasslands, deserts, forests, mountains, rivers, and lakes all each have a name — just like any person. And skawilx shares that it’s important for non-sqilx’w folks to learn about language, place names, and personal accountability in the natural world order — for this will begin to shift how people see themselves as part of place.
She says people can start by learning about the more accurate name for one of the major water landmarks in her nation’s territory, colonially known as Okanagan Lake — but historically known as kɬusx̌nitkʷ.
“Contemporarily, it’s really important that we recognize and talk about the places that we’re all from,” she says.
kɬusx̌nitkʷ is “a place or a body of water that has two long sides,” skawilx explains.
“Two long sides in the sense of like when you look at your body, and you’re talking about `my right side’ and `my left side.’ And if we were to visually look at Okanagan Lake, that’s exactly it, this long body of water.”
The tie-in to human autonomy in kɬusx̌nitkʷ is important to recognize, skawilx says, and is something that is common in other place names.
“Recently, I was reminded that a lot of the words that we have in nsqilxʷcen, or in nsyilxcen, often reflect the words we have for ourselves and vice versa,” she shares.
“We are based off of the land. And so, of course, words that are associated with our body, our physical body are also reflected out there on the land on the tmxʷulaxʷ (the land) in the natural world order.”
To build on this, skawilx shares, a lot of the place names in sqilx’w homelands share unique sounds that mimic the natural habitat and give the listener knowledge about the essence of each place — mimicking sounds of the rushing water or other attributes.
“We can look at them and listen to them and figure out what they’re really trying to tell us because a lot of place names often mimic the natural world order that’s around there,” she says.
“So when we speak in nsqilxʷcen, when we understand nsqilxʷcen, we’re just an extension of the timx’w (everything alive) and the tmxʷulaxʷ (the land) and syilx. So, thinking about the importance of recognizing place names and learning them is very fundamental in this contemporary context.”
skawilx says she has witnessed many changes to kɬusx̌nitkʷ just within her lifetime.
“In the Okanagan, it has this aesthetic that it’s so beautiful, you can come here, and you can go boating and swimming and fishing, and in the winter, you can come skiing, and you can explore all these places,” she says.
“We have wineries, vineyards and this playground that you can come in and enjoy, but all of those things take away from the actual ecosystems that are out there. We have a lot of red-listed and blue-listed species here in the Okanagan, and so anytime you buy into all of these like recreational things — think about the impacts it’s having.”
She also encourages sama7 (visitor) folks to get curious about their water use, asking themselves questions such as: Do you know where it comes from? Do you know which tributaries are responsible for providing you with water? Have you visited those places?
She says it’s also important for settlers to do their own research, since sqilx’w people already have a lot of responsibilities to shoulder.
“You know, growing up sqilx’w, we were going to high school and beyond that, to live and learn, to be educated about knowledge systems and knowledge beliefs that aren’t ours, and now we’re very familiar with those,” she says.
“So now those tables need to be flipped in a way. I think the big thing non-syilx people can do in terms of kɬusx̌nitkʷ, is to be curious about how water plays a role in their own life.”
For sqilx’w people, many feel a heavy responsibility to the timx’w and siwɬkʷ that can feel overwhelming because of colonial interference. syilx Peoples are commanded to caretake the land as intended by Creation.
skawilx shares a good way to start that connection with the timx’w, for syilx people, is by learning a traditional introduction in the language.
“When you learn how to introduce yourself, you’re not only talking about yourself and your own job, or your responsibilities or the pieces that you hold, but also you’re bringing in your extended kinship,” she says.
“We all have roots that stem from different places. And I think recognizing those places is important and fundamental in terms of each of us stepping into our own roles, each of us stepping into our responsibilities of being sqilx’w, being syilx.”
Knowing that nsyilxcen introduction will show sqilx’w how interconnected life is in terms of water — there will be water-based words found in names that enact responsibilities, life work, place names, and family names. It’s embedded deeply into sqilx’w existence.
“You know, whether that’s in people’s jobs, or whether that’s in their families, or whether that’s in community work, volunteer work, or whether it’s in more abstract thinking, it’s always there. You’ll see it’s the basis and foundation of everything, and I know, it’s really cliche to say, but water is life,” she says.
“I think if we were to step forward into the future, recognizing that water is in every single thing that we do, I think that’s a very strong step forward.”