Water is vital to the Okanagan Nation people in many ways, not the least of which is nourishment.
Traditionally, it also provided them with essential food, transportation and ceremonial cleansing explains Leon Louis, a knowledge-holder with the Okanagan Nation.
The Syilx people travelled with the seasons throughout their traditional territory, which covers the Okanagan Valley on both sides of the international border, following the seasonal foods that made up their diet.
For instance, in fall, they would congregate around Okanagan Lake to fish for kickinee or kokanee salmon, which they dried, smoked, fried, boiled, baked and used for trading.
“It was like our money,” he explains.
By preserving the abundant little red land-locked salmon, they would have protein throughout the winter months, along with game meat and birds.
“We would eat different foods at different times of the year. We had all we needed; medicines too,” he said.
Local herbs would be used for good health—to prevent illness—as well as to heal, he noted.
For them to be healthy, Okanagan creeks need the kickinee to travel up them as they would naturally to spawn each fall. “That means the water is healthy,” he explained.
“Our bodies are also healthier if we eat the foods available naturally here, rather than going to the store to eat unhealthy foods,” he added.
In the winter ceremony, he said water is tops. “It’s very sacred to our people.” It would be followed by the chiefs of roots, berries, salmon and deer.
Water was also used to wash away the negativity. “We would wash in it before a trip for a safe journey. We would pray for the lake and the water and everything in it. Prayer can change water’s molecules,” he said.
As well, young girls are taken to pray at each of the Okanagan Basin’s creeks a different times of the year to teach them respect for water.
“It can give or take your life, so it’s important you take good care of the water,” said Louis.
His people have a committee of traditional ecological knowledge-keepers who meet to work on using water more wisely and prevent it from becoming more polluted.
“All of us need to work together to achieve that,” he said. “We need to look after our water. The environment is very important. It’s our children we need to think about.”
The water of Okanagan Lake was also used for transportation, carrying dug-out canoes 40 to 50 feet long to haul things from the head of the lake to Penticton, often visiting along the way.
He recalled that the first year that he canoed down the lake the wind wouldn’t let them go through past Rattlesnake Island.
Because of the wind they were stuck for two days until the elders told them what to do: to make offerings of moose or elk to Ogopogo, who guards Coyote’s sweat lodge.
Then, the water was as calm as glass and they were able to continue down the lake.
Elders are relied on for such knowledge instead of a manual of written instructions.
“Little is known about us because not much is written down by native people,” explained Louis, so he tries to make the public more aware of Syilx culture.