Frank Marchand wants to be a fountain of knowledge about his Indigenous culture for the younger generation to learn from.
As he learned from his elders growing up, the Okanagan Indian Band member wants to teach the traditional waterway routes by canoe used by his native band across the Okanagan region.
“A lot of people don’t realize the canoes were mostly used to transport dry goods or smoked meat and the elders. The rest of us had to walk or run,” Marchand said.
“We didn’t have horses here until we started having contact with the Europeans in the early 1800s. All the generations prior to that would walk or run. We would send messages to villages up and down the valley by sending runners.”
Preserving that history for future generations is a driving force behind the second annual Okanagan Indigenous Youth Canoe Journey, a three-day expedition from the Wood Lake shoreline at Reiswig Park in Winfield to the head of Kalamalka Lake in Coldstream, co-organized by the Okanagan Indian Band and First Nations Friendship Centre in Vernon.
The journey for the participants started Tuesday morning, with overnight camping planned for Kaloya Park and Kekuli Park.
Indigenous youth from School District 22 have been given the opportunity to be part of the journey.
Maria Alexis, 16, took part in the canoe trip last year from Okanagan Falls to West Kelowna, and is back to do it again.
She remembers last year as being cold and a lot of work paddling.
“I enjoy taking part in the cultural activities and spending time with people,” said Alexis, a Grade 12 student at W.L. Seaton Secondary School in Vernon.
“The canoeing is a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of work, your arms get tired.”
She said the key to staying warm is to not fall in the water and wear a sweater under her life jacket.
Marchand said the canoes were historically carved out of cottonwood, the paddles designed with diamond shaped handles to prevent blistering of hands and fingers.
For this week’s journey, the OKIB has borrowed a traditional 18-foot-long canoe belonging to the Westbank First Nation as part of the canoe entourage, but Marchand said he is currently carving two traditional canoes, a skill he learned from his father and other band members growing up.
“I hope to pass on that knowledge to whoever wants to learn it,” Marchand said.
While the traditional hunting and fishing grounds and shoreline sites where local Indigenous people preserved their meat and fish as a winter food source up and down the Okanagan Valley have been overtaken by population growth and development, the cultural attachment to the territories they lived and sometimes fought over with other native bands remains.
“Our younger generation needs to learn about the importance of their heritage, that our land is part of their identity. It’s our territory and we want to make sure they keep it,” he said.
“Much of it has been settled and overtaken (over the past century), but it’s still our territory regardless of what anyone else says.”
OKIB elder Ranger Robins, who spoke to the group prior to setting out on their journey, also talked about the importance of retaining their culture’s past.
“I don’t know what the future brings. I only know what happened yesterday,” Robins said.
“Our young people are the elders of tomorrow and must carry on the historical knowledge of the elders who came before them. And we must learn from our mistakes.”
Robins talked about Wood Lake being three feet higher when he was a child prior to the Oyama canal connecting it to Kalamalka Lake, of what is now Winfield being largely agriculture and ranch land, of the kokanee salmon being larger and more plentiful than is the case today.
“We have adapted to European ways but there is nothing wrong with ways of life. We can learn from each other,” Robins said.