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Okanagan Indian Band celebrates return of Cultural Arbor

A long awaiting gathering was held to celebrate the return
Seth Spotted-Eagle, a syilx and Dene (Navajo) dancer, participates in a Grand Entry Powwow hosted at grand reopening. (Aaron Hemens)

By Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter


Hundreds of community members gathered on May 28 to celebrate the grand reopening of the Cultural Arbor, a gathering space for the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB).The event, which took place four years after the original Cultural Arbor was decommissioned, consisted of a full-day of celebrations and ceremonies to welcome the return of the space, to honour loved ones who transcended to the Spirit World during the pandemic, and to celebrate the return of community members who were displaced by last year’s wildfires.”It’s really important to our community because it’s one of the places where we have events, have families come down and have some sort of family gathering or something,” said Chief Byron Louis of the OKIB. “You’ll never find a more nicer place anywhere in the Okanagan.”

Louis said that even bigger and grander celebrations at the Arbor are coming.”It may not be the biggest event of the year, but it actually opens the door for those bigger events.”“That’s what I’m really happy about,” he said.

The land that has housed both the past and present Arbor structures is located at Komasket Park in syilx territory, on a pre-contact syilx village and fishing site. The syilx Nation has traditionally used the space to host powwows, ceremonies, gatherings and other cultural events.

The original Arbor was built in the 1980s and decommissioned in 2018 due to safety concerns.

“Since the original Arbor was made of wood, there’s a lot of rot in there, so we had to take everything down,” Louis said. “This one, I think it’s going to be lasting at least 30 to 40 years, if not more.”

The new, circular open-air, roofed structure can accommodate approximately 300 people and consists of bleacher-style seating that flows around the inside in four tiers. Elements of the old Arbor were used to create the new one, such as reclaimed logs and timbers. In doing so, the nation carries forward the energy of the many past celebrations, ceremonies, and gatherings that took place in the previous Arbor.

While construction of the new Arbor was completed in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the community’s opportunity to come together and celebrate its completion.

The grand reopening began with remarks from Louis, followed by smudging and an opening prayer from Elder Pauline Gregoire-Archachan, who also carried out the ribbon cutting ceremony and officially kicked off the day’s celebrations.

The OKIB’s Recovery Team for the 2021 Wildfire Season also used the Arbor’s return as a way to welcome home OKIB members who were displaced by the White Rock Lake Wildfire last summer.

Peggy Joe, an OKIB member who works as a case manager on the Recovery Team, said that the families occupying the 10 homes that were lost last year due to the wildfire are now living in the community again, either in the interim or in rental homes. The next stage is to rebuild the homes that were lost.

“I think this event is such an amazing opportunity for our community to reconnect and feel good, because there’s been so many days where we’ve not been able to,” Joe said. “First the pandemic, then the fires. Now, it feels like finally, finally we can come together and have these gatherings.”

The grand reopening, Joe said, is almost like a homecoming for the community.

“I think that was the biggest thing, is that we’ve all been impacted, and we just want to create space for people to recognize, feel it and then be able to let that go and look at the beautiful things,” she said. “(The Arbor) is beautiful. That was the intention, to honour and recognize and create some space.”

For lunch, guests were treated to an Indian Taco meal. There were also a number of activities and vendors set up in an open field beside the Arbor. Community members sold arts and crafts, and local organisations such as the Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs put on interactive workshops.

Prior to the Powwow Grand Entry, Great Shirt Tyler Jensen was initiated as a whipman by his uncle, Melem’stya..Everett White. After the initiation, the Powwow Grand Entry was underway, with Jensen serving as the Powow’s whipman. In this role, Jensen had the responsibility of encouraging and directing dancers to get up and dance at the Arbor’s centre, as well as ensuring that protocols were followed and honoured.

Two drumming groups, Birch Creek and Cree Confederation, provided drumming. Fawn Wood, a Plains Cree and Salish award-winning musician, accompanied them with vocals and also performed a rendition of her song, “Remember Me.”

During the Powwow, Jensen guided women, men, Elders and Youth dancers through the event. There were moments of Intertribal dancing weaved into the Powwow, and even a one-person hand drum contest.

Before the Powwow’s flags were retired, Cree Confederation performed one final drum song to honour OKIB members who lost their homes due to the wildfire last summer, as well as for syilx Nation members who have transcended into the Spirit World since the pandemic began.

Following a smoked salmon dinner, the day was capped off with live entertainment and a community fashion show that featured 12 OKIB members as models. The models wore ribbon skirts, outfits and accessories that were designed by 13 OKIB members. In total, there were 35 unique outfits designed and modelled by the community.

“It’s all local. We wanted to really just have it all local to OKIB,” said Glenda Louis, an OKIB member who was the lead organizer of the show.

Glenda said she and the OKIB want to put on more fashion shows in the future.

“I think that we would like to be able to showcase this,” she said. “From an artistic-creative side, as well as some entrepreneurism, how do we become a collective where we can support each other?”

With the Cultural Arbor now open, Chief Byron Louis said that there are discussions around hosting a full-day honouring ceremony in the near future, to continue remembering those community members who have transcended into the Spirit World in the last four years.

“That would allow people to come in there, talk about their loved ones, and basically finish off that process of putting them to rest,” he said. “I think that’s really important. That’s one thing that’s always kept us going was continuity, and that’s just part of it.”

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