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The Syilx People

Okanagan (Syilx) people have been here since time immemorial, long before the arrival of the Settlers.

The word “Syilx” takes its meaning from several different images. The root word “Yil” refers to the action of taking any kind of many-stranded fiber, like hemp, and rolling it and twisting it together to make one unit, or one rope. It is a process of making many into one. “Yil” is a root word which forms the basis of many of our words for leadership positions, as well. Syilx contains a command for every individual to continuously bind and unify with the rest. This command goes beyond only humans and encompasses all stands of life that make up our land. The word Syilx contains the image of rolling or unifying into one, as well as the individual command which is indicated by the “x” at the end of the word which indicates that it is a command directed at the individual level. The command is for every individual to be part of that stranded unified group, and to continue that twisting and unification on a continuous basis. It is an important concept which underlies our consideration of the meanings of aboriginal title and rights.

The Okanagan (syilx) people occupy an area which extends over approximately 69 000 square kilometers. The northern area of this territory is close to the area of Mica Creek, just north of Revelstoke, BC, and the eastern boundary is Kootenay Lake. The southern boundary extends to the vicinity of Wilbur, Washington and the western border extends into the Nicola Valley.

View the Okanagan Nation Territory Map

“S-Ookanhkchinx” in the Okanagan language translates to mean “transport toward the head or top end” this refers to the people traveling from the head of the Okanagan Lake to where the Okanagan River meet the Columbia River. In other words Okanagan Lake and Okanagan River as well as other water systems were the traditional transportation routes of the syilx.

For thousands of years, the Okanagan people were self-reliant and well provided for through their own ingenuity and use of the land and nature. We lived united as a nation with a whole economy, travelling the breadth and depth of our territory, hunting and fishing, growing and harvesting, crafting and trading to meet our needs. Colonization divided us from one another and from our way of life. We were divided from the resources we relied upon, and our self-sufficient economy collapsed. (Okanagan Nation Alliance Business Development)

In our histories we are told that the creator sent Senklip (Coyote), to help our people survive on this land. Coyote’s travels are a record of the natural laws necessary for our Syilx people to survive and essential to our ability to carry on. We weren’t born with the instincts to know how to live in nature’s laws, instead we are given memory to remind us of what we could and couldn’t be doing. Understanding the living land and teaching our young generations how to become a ‘part of it’ is the only way we, the Syilx, have survived. (Okanagan First Peoples)

Each youth and young adult was not only trained in a special area but they were also taught the lifestyle and laws of the community at large. They understood that everyone had a role and a responsibility to ensure the survival of themselves as individuals, to their families, their community and even their people as a whole. They were taught to love, honor and respect each other’s roles and their own roles and taught the role of children, youth, adults, elders and as a man or women. Each Syilx person understood what it meant to be in a role of a warrior, a teacher, a hunter, a healer, a chief and a singer. Each Syilx person understood what it meant to be a child, a sibling, a parent, a grandparent, an aunt/uncle, and a husband or wife. (Okanagan First Peoples)

From first contact the influx of settlers was slow and yet steady, and both the Okanagans and settlers worked towards a living arrangement. It was understood that the Okanagans would continue to use their traditional hunting, fishing and gathering grounds.

As settlement of the Okanagan increased, the establishment of an international border, and the colony of British Columbia joining confederation, put considerable pressure on the Provincial government in B.C. to designate reserves for Native people. This would allow for the settlers to formally own the lands they settled on.

Reserves were finally established in the early 1900’s. The Okanagan people opposed the establishment of the reserves without first having negotiated a treaty. Today the Okanagan people still affirm that the land is theirs, as no treaty has been negotiated.

For more information on the Original Okanagan People, click here to read part of the first chapter of a book complied by the Okanagan Rights Committe and The Okanagan Indian Education Resources Society for the Okanagan People:

We Get Our Living Like Milk From the Land
Edited by Armstrong, Derickson, Maracle & Young-Ing
Published by Theytus Books Ltd.