When two-year-old suʔkncut estikʷ Manuel first saw his father’s new mural, which depicts him giving an offering to n’tyxtix (salmon), he immediately recognized himself.
suʔkncut’s eyes widened as he pointed at the mural, exclaiming “Baby!” then pointed back at himself, touching his chest, and saying: “Me!”
“He was so emotional. He got shaky and teared up. It was amazing to watch his reaction,” said suʔkncut’s father, Sheldon Louis, a syilx visual artist from Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB).
“When you look at it, there’s no real facial piece. But he knew it was him right away. That in itself, the reward of him having an emotional response to it, it was so awesome.”
Reverence for water and salmon
Louis was first asked by the Peachland Watershed Protection Alliance to create the mural for the inaugural Peachland Making Waves Mural Festival in syilx homelands in August. The festival, which consists of several murals around “Peachland,” has the goal of creating a year-round “open-air public art gallery,” according to the festival website.
The Alliance had highlighted excerpts from the syilx Nation’s siwɬkʷ (water) Declaration, hoping that Louis could create a design that spoke to protecting and advocating for water.
Known for his vibrant murals that honour the syilx Nation and its members, as well as captikʷɬ teachings and environmental protection, Louis knew he wanted to create a mural that highlighted the reverence the Nation has for water and for salmon.
He said that he had initially envisioned covering an entire wall space with an image of a school of salmon. But when the canvas shifted from a two-storey-wall to a three-metre high by 15-metre-long space, Louis had to pivot and change the scope of his design.
“I wanted to show the protection of salmon and protocols around reciprocity. I wanted to highlight that,” said Louis. “But I wanted to highlight it in a way where I wanted to make it an ongoing thing, where it’s not just a one-time thing.”
A generational journey
He thought back to a mural that he had created for the Kelowna Gospel Mission last fall, which featured Billie Kruger — a fellow artist from OKIB — making an offering to the water. Louis began thinking of creating a mural in the same vein.
“What if I find a youth? And show that it’s a generational journey, where it has to be something that’s continued through the generations by passing on these protocols to the young ones of having to protect, having to respect, and pay that reciprocity back to the water,” said Louis.
As he typically does, Louis began looking for reference photos of people in the Nation, this time seeking an image of someone making a tobacco offering. But he didn’t have much luck, since photographing that protocol isn’t permitted. He did, however, stumble across a photo of suʔkncut bent over playing with some dirt.
“If I change the background and add some colour, context to it, it really looks like this little one is making an offering,” said Louis. “That’s so powerful, to create an image of a little one like that, acknowledging the water and making an offering to the water, to the salmon.”
With his reference photo found, Louis found his mural. In “Suʔkncut’s Offering,” suʔkncut is depicted making an offering to n’tyxtix (salmon), one of the Four Food Chiefs, to highlight the reciprocal relationship the syilx Nation has with the Four Food Chiefs. Painted behind suʔkncut is a siyaʔ (Saskatoon berry) bush, which is one of the Four Food Chiefs that represents youth.
“It almost looks like it’s kind of growing out of the little one,” said Louis. “Again, showing how the Four Food Chiefs kind of work through us and how they come through us.”
It took Louis just under a week to finish the mural, which was completed on Aug. 21. It was his first major mural project since losing his mother, he said, and although there were some tough moments in the process — having the subject be his son, and seeing his reaction, made it feel all the more rewarding to complete.
Passing of protocol
suʔkncut’s mother, Csetkwe Fortier, is trained to do the Nation’s annual salmon ceremony alongside her family, and Louis said that the mural ties into the passing of protocol and of ceremony onto Youth.
“Just really instilling it in these little ones because it’s going to take, probably them, to continue doing the work in order for us to really get the salmon back in full force again,” he said.
By instilling captikʷɬ teachings and the importance of salmon to his children at a young age, Louis said that he knows that this type of work will be carried on by them in the future.
“Coming in, enforcing, reminding and bringing back that knowledge of how we have to give thanks to the salmon — I think that’s a super big part of that protocol,” he said. “Coming in, making that offering, just remembering that salmon gave themselves for us. We’ve also got to pay something forward for that sacrifice they made for us.”
The syilx Nation has invested a number of resources and efforts over the years to help reintroduce salmon back to the region. On Aug. 31, the Okanagan Nation Alliance announced a historic salmon return, as more than 633,000 salmon returning to the mouth of the Columbia River, with 80 per cent of those returns being sc’win (Okanagan sockeye).
More than 477,000 sc’win made it past the Wells Dam on the Columbia River and into the Okanagan River system, making this year’s return the largest since recording began in 1938.
“Highlighting that all it takes is one little person, one little prayer and one salmon just for it to keep going,” Louis said of his mural and the return of salmon to the region.
“That’s all it takes in order to bring this back.”