Madeline Gregoire

Madeline Gregoire

Project reawakens Okanagan culture

There is a permanent monument to reigniting the bond between the Okanagan’s original inhabitants and those who followed.

After decades of separation and misunderstanding, there is a permanent monument to reigniting the bond between the Okanagan’s original inhabitants and those who followed.

A full-sized pit house — qwc’i? in the Okanagan language — was unveiled before 600 enthusiastic elementary students at Komasket Park on the Okanagan Indian Reserve Wednesday.

“The spirit of the project is such that it’s meant to be shared with our friends and neighbours,” said Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Okanagan Nation.

“Our successes in life depend on our ability to sustain and nurture relationships.”

The pit house was a collaborative effort of the Okanagan Indian Band, the Vernon School District and the First Nations Friendship Centre.

For Phillip, it’s a sign that the sometimes strained relationship between First Nations and non-natives is being mended and returning to that immediate post-contact period when economic and family connections existed.

“It’s a means for us to come together again,” he said.

Elder Madeline Gregoire has been a leader in promoting the Okanagan culture, and on Wednesday, she was offering tobacco to visitors so they could place it on a fire and pray to the Creator.

“This place is a sacred place,” she said, adding that pit houses traditionally were open to everyone.

“Different families would be in here as a community. People travelled all over picking berries and drying food.”

This is the first pit house constructed in the area in about 200 years.

“When you’re in there, you feel so welcome and safe, like you’re in the arms of your mother,” said Eric Mitchell, who led the construction team.

The building process has reaffirmed Mitchell’s respect for his ancestors.

“It took us six months with trucks and the equipment of today and they did it without these things,” he said.

“It amazes me how they lifted up the logs by hand.”

The structure is 30-feet-wide and 16-feet high at the peak.

It may be ancient technology but digging into the earth and covering the pit with timbers is extremely practical.

“They are warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” said Phillip.

It’s expected the pit house will become a critical aspect of the Vernon School District’s curriculum.

“We’re very proud to be part of it,” said Bill Turanski, school district chairperson.

“This is a symbol of what can be accomplished in an environment of mutual understanding and respect.”

Among those exploring the pit house Wednesday was Jackson Appleby, a Grade 4 student who travelled by bus from J.W. Inglis Elementary in Lumby.

“It’s so big,” he said as he craned his neck upwards, trying to take in the full scope of the ladder carved out of a log.

“It’s so cool that they built this.”

Reactions like that are exactly what Byron Louis wants to hear.

“It’s a place of learning,”  said the chief of the Okanagan Indian Band.

For Bill Cohen, construction of the pit house is about respect and tolerance.

“We’re here to celebrate Okanagan knowledge and new relations,” said Cohen, a band councillor and co-chairperson of the school district’s aboriginal education committee.

“It’s a place that’s welcoming and celebrates the diversity of everyone here.”

Beyond creating awareness among non-natives, the goal of the pit house is to introduce Okanagan youth to their deep, rich culture — something generations of children had been forced or urged to abandon.

Dina Brown has absorbed the lessons from Gregoire and other elders.

“It’s a blessing and an honour to revive our old ways and to know who we are and where we come from,” said Brown, who is graduating from W.L. Seaton Secondary and wants to become an Okanagan teacher.

Mitchell is left feeling optimistic about the future of his community by turning to the past.

“From this day forward, it can only get better,” he said.