Fabian Alexis

Fabian Alexis

Syilx Spirit launches understanding

Okanagan Indian Band launches a traditional canoe at a special ceremony, which also welcomed aboriginal students back to school

For longer than anyone can remember, hundreds of canoes from all over the lake would come to what is now called Kin Beach for trading and gatherings.

The Syilx Spirit 2016 Ceremony was the launch of a traditional wood canoe and a welcome back to the school year for aboriginal students.

“This is a traditional village site and was shown on one of the oldest maps made by a fur trader in 1827 and it was always used as a fishing station,” Ruby Alexis told the gathering of Okanagan Indian Band members, aboriginal students, parents, teachers and others at the ceremony.

The canoe, named Syilx Spirit, was built by students at Fulton school under the direction of OKIB members, starting with Gordon Marchand and carried on after his death by master carver Mervin Louis and artist David Wilson.

“This canoe is made of a large hollowed out cottonwood tree, which would have been sealed with pitch,” said Louis. “It was used for freight and fishing on the lake and even to transport horses. People would take them as far as the Columbia River in Washington.”

The event was also an opportunity to learn more about Okanagan culture. Eric Mitchell and his wife Chris Marchand have a display about the cultural safety program they will be presenting to teachers on pro-D days.

“We want to get teachers to understand our culture so they can be better teachers to our aboriginal students,” said Mitchell. “Cultural safety is a new term from New Zealand which includes presenting positive information about the Okanagan and Syilx people, dealing with the 150 and more years of not-so-good history with aboriginal people and Canada and B.C., talking about the issues and how to resolve them. We need to work together for change and I think that is starting to happen. This program was well-received last year.”

The school district now has an Aboriginal Education Advisory Council and a director of aboriginal programs, Gerry William. There are four aboriginal lead teachers and 17 aboriginal support workers in district schools.

“There is direct support for students in the schools as issues come up and most of the time these are resolved with the support workers, teachers and families working together,” said William. “Support workers can consult the lead teachers and I am always there as a resource for everyone, with my assistant Gwen Louis Torres.”

William, who was born in the Splatsin nation in Enderby, grew up in Vernon and graduated from Vernon secondary school in 1970. He got his BA from the University of Victoria and has had a variety of experience, as a native court worker in Vancouver, in aboriginal societies, teaching aboriginal students at college level, as dean of a private college, in the penitentiary system and in counselling. He has had two novels published and has been in his present position for nearly two years.

“I oversee the incorporation of aboriginal values in schools and work with superintendent Joe Roger towards this goal,” he said. “We emphasize community — there is a strong sense of community in aboriginal people — as we are doing here today. There are 1,120 aboriginal students, 13 per cent of the population in area schools, and it is important that they feel that they belong, in school and in the wider community.”

The Syilx Spirit and all those who will use it received a traditional blessing by Eric Mitchell. Four Okanagan Indian Band members were recognized for their contributions to the Okanagan/Syilx culture as they paddled the canoe out on the lake.

Patricia Wilson is active in many cultural programs, Fabian Alexis represented the First Nations Friendship Centre and the Okanagan Indian Band, Frank Marchand was there for his father, Gordon Marchand, who started the canoe project, and Mervin Louis as the master carver.