For Sheri Stelkia, late August means berry-picking season has begun and it is time to stock food for the winter ahead. If she can pick five pounds of huckleberries before the season ends she will have enough to last her until spring.
Generations ago, Stelkia’s ancestors would have camped in the mountains for a week to secure their bounty of berries. Today, visitors to the Osoyoos and Oliver region of British Columbia can participate in the Indigenous practice of collecting berries at various locations around the area. For Stelkia, the gathering of food is a way of life that provides a direct connection to her lineage as a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band.
“Many, many years ago they would have been picking for weeks. They would have dried up all the berries and it would have been saved for the winter,” she says. “Now we all have jobs, we have busy lives. We can’t afford to go and camp at the spot for days so we need to get up there when we can. So when my friend called me yesterday and said it’s time, the berries are ready, I have to go.”
The Okanagan Nation, some of whom refer to themselves as Syilx people, has for thousands of years lived on territory that covers forests, grasslands, lakes and desert. On that land and in the waters, Stelkia, an elder in the Osoyoos Indian Band, tells visitors stories, known in her Syilx language as captíkʷł (pronounced “chapteekwthl“) about how the Okanagan people were self-reliant and well provided for through their own ingenuity.
The Osoyoos Indian Band, one of the seven member bands in the Okanagan Nation, were part of an Indigenous population that hunted, fished, grew and harvested a large swath of territory in the interior of the province. Late summer and early fall was the time for picking, gathering and drying Saskatoon berries, blueberries and huckleberries.
Stelkia’s favourite spot for picking huckleberries is on Big White Mountain near Vernon, about a two-hour drive north from her home in Oliver. As she accumulates her five pounds of huckleberries, she places them in tiny jars.
“If I have 12 jars, I’ll be ok. That works out to two jars a month with rationing and when it’s winter, I take out a jar and put it on ice cream,” she says.
Living in the South Okanagan, Stelkia says she hopes visitors to her region will learn about how the story of the Four Food Chiefs combines land and sea and the old and new worlds.
“It tells people about why we’re so respectful of the land and the food,” she says.
The Four Food Chiefs represent the elements that are most significant in Indigenous cuisine, an approach to food based on the creation stories of the Syilx people of the Okanagan Nation. The chief of all animals, Skimxist, the Black Bear, represents leadership and giving; the Chinook salmon, known as Ntytikxw, symbolizes hard work and determination; Bitterroot, which the Syilx call Speetlum, is the story of plants in the ground and the relationship to the land and above ground, Seeya, the word for the Saskatoon Berry, represents growth and community.
Language and culture remain alive for the Okanagan Nation because it can be shared with others, including visitors. The Syilx Language House, located at 190 Footprints Court in Penticton, was formed as a non-profit for the purpose of creating new generations of nsyilxcən speakers in the community and recording the stories told by elders like Stelkia. Nsyilxcn, (pronounced “nseeylxchin” with the “x” sounding like an “h”), like most Indigenous languages, is critically endangered. Fewer than 100 fluent elders remain and until recently no new speakers had been created in Canada for decades.
“You can’t have language without culture and you can’t have culture without language,” says Stelkia. “I can’t teach my kids their culture, if they don’t have any language.”
When visitors come to Osoyoos and Oliver and the region where the Okanagan Nation people have inhabited long before colonization, Stelkia hopes they can see and hear how the Syilx-speaking people are keeping alive their rich culture and legends through interactive activities and programs at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre.
Generations of the Syilx or Okanagan people and their traditional boundaries encompass the area. Local excavations and pictographs taken in more recent times found that a prosperous culture dating thousands of years had lived semi-nomadically, where the people ate deer and other wild meats, and for winter smoked Chinook salmon, dried berries and consumed root vegetables. Tens of thousands of them travelled widely by horse and canoe throughout the region.
“The land is where we come from and where we’re all going to go back to,” says Stelkia. “It’s like our language and culture. It’s all locked together.”
For Stelkia, living in the place where her family has lived for generations, the land, the language and the culture are all tied together by timing and the seasons. There are times to share stories. But at this moment, it’s time to pick berries in preparation for the glorious fall and challenging winter ahead.
MORE ABOUT VISITING SOUTH OKANAGAN
Where to Stay: Spirit Ridge Resort, Unbound Collection by Hyatt
Location: 1200 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos, BC (see map below)
Room Rates: A search on the property’s booking engine returned a nightly rate of $199 for a September weekend. In addition, the property is offering 100 resort credits when a guest books three nights or more.
Syilx Language House: Visit the facility’s website to learn about its impressive programs focused on keeping alive and broadening the knowledge of the Syilx language.
NK’Mip Desert Cultural Centre: This outstanding attraction includes exhibits, programming and educational seminars about the Okanagan Nation and Osoyoos Indian Band. It is adjacent to Spirit Ridge Resort. Check its website to plan your visit.
Note: This article is the first in an expanded content series focusing on travel to Osoyoos and the Oliver. It was created in partnership with Destination BC, the Osoyoos Indian Band, Arterra Wines Canada, Spirit Ridge Resort – Unbound Collection by Hyatt, Destination Osoyoos, and the Oliver Tourism Association.