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Land back: syilx people reclaim sacred salmon fishing site



y̓ilmixʷm ki law na Chief Clarence Louie of Osoyoos Indian Band stands on a piece of original Osoyoos Indian Reserve land on April 14. One acre of land, which is home to a sacred salmon fishing site, was recently reacquired by the band in the sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ (Little Falls) area in syilx homelands. Photo by Aaron Hemens

The Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) is celebrating the return of an important piece of land which includes a sacred salmon fishing site that’s been utilized by syilx people for thousands of years.

For more than 100 years, syilx people have been denied access to the salmon fishery, according to OIB, but now the community has been able to buy back one acre of the site after the land went up for sale on the open market.

The acre of land was originally part of the band’s reserve, a statement from OIB said, but the community lost it after the provincial and federal governments took back 71 acres of OIB’s designated land in 1913. 

On Friday, dozens of Youth, Elders and everyone in between from the eight member communities of the syilx Okanagan Nation took part in a historic gathering at the banks of the Okanagan River across from sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ park (Okanagan Falls provincial park).

“Whether it’s Osoyoos Indian Band or other First Nations in this province, truth and reconciliation starts with getting our land back,” said y̓ilmixʷm ki law na Chief Clarence Louie of OIB.

“All over Canada, urban reserves are being created because of land thefts in the past. I hope that in our territory that no mayor and council, no regional district and the provincial governments, are not obstacles to us getting our old reserves back.”

The one acre of reclaimed land that was recently purchased by OIB is located on one of two of the most important salmon fishing spots in syilx territory, Louie said. 

The site in question, sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ (Little Falls) — as well as the other site, sx̌ʷnitkʷ (Big Falls), which is located in “Washington” and known as “Kettle Falls” — share a special connection in syilx culture and history.

“These two places are related in our language. Our people gathered here, fished here, died here, gave birth here, for thousands of years,” said Louie.

“We don’t have to climb over or under anybody’s fence to come to this spot (sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ) any longer.”

Set aside in 1877, the 71 acres of Osoyoos Indian Reserve was taken back by the federal and provincial governments in 1913 through the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, which authorized “British Columbia” to add to, reduce and even eliminate Indian reservations. 

Much of the land from that original Osoyoos Indian Reserve is now “owned” by private homeowners, one of whom has displayed an inaccurate sign on their front yard which says that the land where their property is situated is “ceded.”

“It’s too bad we have to use our money to get our land back, but you can’t just kick somebody off their property without compensation. You can’t do what the government did to us,” said Louie.

“You shouldn’t force anybody to sell their land. They have to be willing to sell, and First Nations are willing to buy.”

If the province can take land away with the swipe of a pen, just as they had done in 1913, Louie said that they can also give it back with a swipe of pen. 

“The truth is, this was our land,” he said.

“Your ancestors, my ancestors, set this aside on purpose for the Osoyoos Indian Band and the Okanagan Nation member people because of the cultural and historical fishing significance of this site.”

‘I want you children to know this is yours’

The celebration on Friday began with drum songs and a prayer by Youth from OIB’s Senpaq’cin School, who sang and drummed throughout the entire event. Students from Penticton Indian Band’s (PIB) Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School and Okanagan Falls Elementary School were also in attendance. Guests were invited to a salmon lunch hosted at OIB’s office following the event. 

A group of syilx community members and Elders who had organized an informational roadblock in 1974 near the site of the 71-acre land theft were also honoured. Many took to the mic to speak of their experience from that moment in time.

syilx community members and Elders who had organized an informational roadblock near the site of the 71-acre land theft in 1974 were honoured during the Osoyoos Indian Band’s celebration on April 14 of a reclaimed one acre of that original reserve land. Photo by Aaron Hemens

“(Our people) supported one another. They took up the cause,” said snpinktn (Penticton) Hereditary Chief Adam Eneas, who was chief of PIB at the time of the roadblock. 

Eneas proudly shared how communities from the syilx Okanagan Nation stood by then-OIB Chief Jim Stelkia.

“And they did everything they could to make sure that we were victorious, which we were,” he said.

snpinktn (Penticton) Hereditary Chief Adam Eneas speaks in front of Youth during the Osoyoos Indian Band’s celebration on April 14 of a reclaimed one acre of their original reserve land. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Jack Kruger, an Elder from PIB who was involved in the 1974 roadblock, relayed to the Youth what he was told by his own Elders — that the land belongs to the children.

“I want you children to know this is yours. We only carried on for you — we’re only the caretakers. We’re nothing,” he said. 

“You are the ones that are important, and I want you to know that.”

syilx Elders watch as students from Senpaq’cin School play a drum song during the Osoyoos Indian Band’s celebration on April 14 of a reclaimed one acre of original reserve land. Photo by Aaron Hemens

The Stelkias, the Louies, the Baptistes, the Terbaskets, the Gabriels, the Armstrongs, the Pierres, the Krugers and all the other syilx families involved in the roadblock “loved you so much that they cared about what your future is going to be like,” Kruger told the Youth.

“The road was very rough in those days,” he said. “We tried to work it so now you can drive on paved road. You don’t have to drive on the rocks.”

Students from Senpaq’cin School listen to a speaker during the Osoyoos Indian Band’s celebration on April 14 of a reclaimed one acre of their original reserve land. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Other Elders also took to the stage to share the history and cultural significance of the site.

“There are all kinds of pictographs around here. There were some graves here too that were found quite a few years ago. They were thousands of years ago, here,” said 93-year-old Elder qʷʕayxnmitkʷ xʷəstalk̓iyaʔ Jane Stelkia, the oldest member of OIB.

93-year-old Elder qʷʕayxnmitkʷ xʷəstalk̓iyaʔ Jane Stelkia, the oldest member of OIB, speaks in front of Youth during the Osoyoos Indian Band’s celebration on April 14 of a reclaimed one acre of their original reserve land. Photo by Aaron Hemens

caylx Richard Armstrong, a syilx traditional ecological knowledge keeper and nsyilxcen language specialist who also participated in the blockade, shared a teaching from the captikʷł related to the site, specifically the story of how sənk̓lip (Coyote) brought salmon up the river.

“(sənk̓lip) left monuments for the people to be. When he did that, there was no people – they were people to be, and that’s talking about you folks,” said caylx.

While sənk̓lip believed that his story of how he brought the salmon up the river may be forgotten, caylx said that the monuments and responsibilities that sənk̓lip created for sʕanixʷ (Muskrat), stunx (Beaver) and fisher from the high mountains are there to remind people of his efforts.

‘One acre at a time’

Leading up to the celebration, both a women’s and men’s sweat was held at the site. The reclaimed acre is now going through the additions-to-reserve process, Louie said.

y̓ilmixʷm ki law na Chief Clarence Louie of Osoyoos Indian Band speaks in front of Youth during the band’s celebration on April 14 of a reclaimed one acre of their original reserve land. Photo by Aaron Hemens

However, he noted that OIB is still short of more than 4,000 acres of original reserve land, and said that they’re going to get that land back, even if it takes one acre at a time.

“Land is always more important than money. Always has been and always will be,” he said. “We don’t like the fact that we have to buy our own land back, but that’s just the way it is.”

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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors




From left: Whitney Cardenas, Chris Ingle and Jaden Sampson were at the career fair with PIB’s fire department. Photo by Athena Bonneau

During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.

The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.

It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.

The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more. 

Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).

Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.

Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.

“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.

“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”

Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau

As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience. 

“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.

Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.

Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.

“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.

“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”

Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.

“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.

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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect




sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr., an 18-year-old syilx Youth from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, pictured at Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court on Nov. 3. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.

The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves. 

So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops. 

“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band. 

“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”

Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.

In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.

“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.

But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed. 

At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.

“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.

Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.

He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.

In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.

“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.

A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached. 

“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.

This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”

Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.

“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.

He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process. 

“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.

Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.

Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.

“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.

“Honestly, it could save someone.”

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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’




The Sweláps Market features Secwépemc language and culturally-influenced architecture. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve. 

The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples. 

The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.

The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door. 

The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish). 

On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.

Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.

The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse. 

After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place. 

General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.

The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.

Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.

“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.” 

Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.

A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.

Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.

Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS. 

“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.

Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.

“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.

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