syilx women share knowledge about protecting kɬúsx̌nítkʷ for future generations: ‘It’s about them’

ONA is gathering input as it develops an Okanagan Lake Water Responsibility Plan for ‘our culture, our way of life, and our ancestral connections’
A a view of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake) in “Penticton.” Photo by Athena Bonneau

syilx women — who have long-held sacred relationships, roles and responsibilities to siwɬkʷ (water) — are sharing their wisdom on the protection of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake).

As part of wider efforts to protect the lake, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) held a syilx women’s meeting at the En’owkin Centre on July 26. The gathering was also open to Youth and 2SLGBTQIA+ members.

ONA is gathering knowledge and input from the syilx community to incorporate into a kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake) Water Responsibility Plan that’s being developed.

Tessa Terbasket, the meeting’s facilitator and a contractor for the ONA, said the alliance wanted to focus on gathering input directly from the syilx women throughout the Nation. 

“It became clear that we needed a strong syilx presence in the decision-making processes surrounding Okanagan Lake,” shared Terbasket, who is from Lower Similkameen Indian Band.

“Our culture, our way of life, and our ancestral connections demand that we take charge of its well-being.”

kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake)

There have been various concerns about the deteriorating state of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ — including escalating development, pollution, and shifts in water temperature.

Sarah Williams, a member of the Penticton Indian Band, was one of 22 participants in the meeting. She shared that she has noticed changes in the water levels coming from kɬúsx̌nítkʷ .

“A long time ago, we were able to play in the water in the creek, it was deep enough where we could have fun all day. Now, that water is so low, it’s very pitiful and that really is scary,” Williams said.

“We wouldn’t be here without our water from the Creator, everything needs water to be beautiful.”

syilx women gathered to give input for the kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake) Water Responsibility Plan at the En’owkin Centre in late July. Photo by Athena Bonneau

The significance of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ extends far beyond its geographical dimensions. It holds tales of generations past, and has been an intimate part of the lives of the syilx people who have nurtured it for countless centuries.

Its waters have provided sustenance for the diverse ecosystems that rely upon its presence. The imperative to restore the lake’s health and the habitats it sustains, including salmon and numerous other species, was undeniable to all participants in the meeting as the condition of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ will impact their community. 

As Williams spoke, she pointed to a newborn baby who was at the meeting and shared about the importance of protecting kɬúsx̌nítkʷ for future generations — something that resonated with the entire group.

“Everything that we do is gonna affect that little baby’s grandchildren. Everything that we do today is gonna affect his grandchildren and it carries on and on,” said Williams, a grandmother of nine beloved grandchildren.

“So it’s really important and a passion for me to do what I can to help them. It’s not about me, it’s about them and their children and their grandchildren.”

kɬúsx̌nítkʷ stretches approximately 120 km long, and up to five km wide. It spreads through the syilx Okanagan Nation, which is comprised of seven member communities: Upper Nicola Band, Okanagan Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian BandUpper Similkameen Indian Band, Lower Similkameen Indian Band, and Westbank First Nation.

Cities bordering the lake include Vernon, Kelowna, West Kelowna, Penticton, Summerland, and as well as the municipalities of Lake Country, Peachland, and Naramata — an unincorporated community.

The lake exits into the Okanagan River from the south end via a canal through the city of Penticton to Skaha Lake, and continues into the rest of the South Okanagan and through Oliver, Osoyoos and Okanogan County in Washington until it joins with the Columbia River.

Mapping the waterways

Janice Tom of Upper Nicola Indian Band is a geographic information systems drone pilot for ONA, and was present at the syilx women’s meeting. 

The meeting centered around four key discussion areas involving kɬúsx̌nítkʷ — knowledge, areas of priority, watershed issues and syilx-led solutions. 

“I came to provide my input as a syilx member about the water changes I’ve seen and the big changes I’ve noticed,” Tom said. 

“I am concerned about the future with climate change, lack of water.”

Tom explained how ONA is utilizing drone technology and geospatial mapping techniques to monitor the condition of the lake — aiming to provide insights into kɬúsx̌nítkʷ’s past, present, and potential future.

The drones, with their watchful eyes and precision, take flight above the lake, capturing data and displaying alterations in shorelines, habitats, and ecosystems that have unfolded over the years.

“Part of our drone work is looking at climate change, going where people can’t go after fires, as long as we have the proper approvals and permits,” said Tom. 

“Let’s say it’s a steep area or a rocky area, or if it’s flooded, our drones can get in there.”

What sets this endeavor apart is its integration of nsyilxcən place names, which breathe life into the geographical features that have shaped the syilx way of life for generations.

“Our drones have helped us to collect information on the watersheds, with that we have created a list of 300 place names of all the rivers, creeks and different locations through the syilx Okanagan Nation,” said Tom.

“The nsyilxcən place names hold within them stories of ancestors, their connection to the land and that specific place.”

syilx siwɬkʷ (water) laws

Meanwhile, Terbasket spoke about how the ONA follows traditional syilx protocol, syilx siwɬkʷ (water) laws and captikʷl (the documentation of syilx knowledge) when working with the water.

“syilx law and our authority come from Coyote and the animal people, and it was the animal people that taught us these things and this is passed down through our captikʷl,” said Terbasket.

“The traditional knowledge in our captikʷl is really a life a lifelong learning journey of truly learning our place on this earth and how we live in balance with it.”

To ensure a comprehensive approach, the community developed the syilx Water Declaration, embodying high-level principles and laws that guide their water conservation endeavors.

“The syilx Water Declaration is a beautiful story of how our people view and connect and our relationship with water. I really see it as water watershed principles, you could even call it a water law,” said Terbasket.

This declaration was endorsed in 2014, states water is not merely a resource, but it is a sacred entity that shapes the past, present, and future of the syilx people.

The declaration was accompanied by the release of the syilx Water Strategy in 2018.

This strategy serves as a call for action and went out to all local governments and watershed partners in the Okanagan, rallying partners to unite in safeguarding and rejuvenating water sources within their territories.

 “The syilx water strategy covers who we are as syilx people, our title and rights, our kind of views of water, what we see are the main water issues in the territory,” Terbasket said.

 “It’s really a learning document for non-syilx people.”

”I do truly believe that syilx and non-syilx people need to come together for our watershed problems to find the solutions,” says Tessa Terbasket. Photo by Athena Bonneau

The ONA will also be hosting another kɬúsx̌nítkʷ meeting for Elders and other syilx people on August 9th from 9:30 am to 2:00 pm at the WFN Elders Hall.

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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