A Chief and a Day School Teacher: Guideposts for Reconciliation

Kathleen and I have just returned from two weeks of vacationing on First Nations land, traditional territory of the Osoyoos First Nation, one of eight communities that makes up the larger group of the Okanagan, or Syilx First Nations who live along the Okanagan valley from Vernon down into Washington State in the US. The Syilx have lived in this area for thousands of years since time immemorial.  Some believe that the Senora desert of Mexico reaches geographically up into this region. It feels like a Mexican desert in summer time!  It is Canada’s warmest and driest region and Kathleen and I have enjoyed holidaying here from the days our children were infants. 

Since 2007, we have stayed at Spirit Ridge N’Kmip Resort which is adjacent to North America’s first-ever indigenous owned and operated winery, supplied by the flourishing vineyards that surround the resort. Next door is the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, and below in the valley towards the west is Osoyoos Lake and a year-round campground. A little farther north along the lakeshore is a summer camp that the band has allocated for the use of Christian youth organizations. Everywhere in the resort are English signs with accompanying translation in Nsilxcin, their Okanagan native language which is nearly on the verge of extinction. Spirit Ridge Resort with a 4.5 star rating was built in partnership with the band, a developer, and private owners. When it was under construction, Kathleen and I made a small investment in the project as “fractional owners” and as such, we became entitled to two weeks of accommodations, about 6 or 7 times a year with the option of receiving a small income if we allowed our unit to go into a rental pool. It has been a wonderful place of replenishment and renewal for us. There is mystical sense of peace and connection that we feel to the First Nations land with its unique arid geography and indigenous culture.  

On our most recent visit, in addition to the many wonderful outings and adventures that Kathleen and I took to explore the region, I spent most mornings reading on the pool deck with desert, mountains, and vineyards in view. Ironically, a significant part of my readings included the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,[1] particularly the last section, entitled, “The Challenge of Reconciliation.” This section is a passionate appeal to all Canadians in light of the saga of Canada’s sad chapter of residential school history and is skillfully articulated by First Nations commissioners, Justice Murray Sinclair (chair), Dr. Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild. They address the question: “In the wake of the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential School system, how do we, as a nation, indigenous and non-indigenous, together move forward in reconciliation?” Recognizing that I was reading this summary on First Nations land, I was moved deeply by the challenges and calls to action. I have made subsequent commitments, commitments which can involve my family and my church family together with my indigenous neighbours on the long journey towards reconciliation. It is my conviction that every Canadian should read the Final Report,[2] and/or, at the very least, be educated and well-versed in its content – including its well-articulated way forward, taking into account Canada's government policy, its legal system, education, the churches, memorials and museums, the arts, media, and sports, but most importantly, the attitude of our own minds and hearts and the way we relate to one another

One day on our vacation, inspired by the Final Report’s call for the critical role of memorials and museums, Kathleen and I took some time to visit the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, which documents the story of the Osoyoos Band. There is a tremendous spirit of enterprise and cooperation on this reserve. Over 400 First Nations live and work in various ventures on their territory. In light of so much continued devastation and disparity in First Nations communities in Canada, why is the Osoyoos band doing so well? Of course, being such a popular tourist destination doesn’t hurt, but there’s so much more to this story. The cultural centre helps to provide some answers. The vision and leadership of the current Chief Clarence Louie cannot be overestimated. This is evident everywhere. He has been chief since 1988 and he also heads up the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation.

The three "chiefs"
It was evident to me that Chief Louie’s remarkable leadership was influenced by some significant historic factors. The cultural centre documents that in 1915, Osoyoos Chief Baptiste George, had a vision for education. He believed that a European education would give the band's indigenous children the skills they would need for the future but he did not want them sent away to residential schools. In light of this, he started a day school on the reserve in 1915 and worked out an uneasy compromise with colonial authorities. Due to his vision and foresight, many indigenous children, though not all, were able to avoid residential school and stay with their parents while they were educated at the reserve day school. That said, things were not always easy due to the destructive and colonial attitudes of the time that discouraged indigenous culture and spirituality. Going against the tide, one teacher, a non-indigenous man named Anthony Walsh, arrived on the Osoyoos reserve in 1932 to teach in the school. The cultural centre records that Walsh, “understood and respected the Syilx culture and encouraged his students to explore their heritage. During his eleven years as teacher, his students blossomed, creating works of art and performing Okanagan songs, legends and dances.”[3] Even though Walsh still taught Christianity to the children, he encouraged them to see the biblical stories in light of the children's own Syilx culture, and much of the art they produced was the result. After one school concert, Walsh wrote, “The thing that impressed me most was not the sincerity of the young actors in full costume and masks, the haunting melodies of the songs, the graceful movements of the dances… but a new light that appeared in the eyes of the parents and the old people. For they had witnessed something that brought back memories of distant days, when they had held their heads high and were ashamed of no one.” [4]

Tragically, the teacher who replaced Walsh denounced his teaching, and attempted to burn all of the children's art, but a non-native supporter, Katie Lacey, was able to salvage some of the art and donated that collection to the Osoyoos Museum in 1963.  Some of these pieces are currently on display at the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre. I have photographed two of these with the centre's permission. Dr. Andrea Walsh, a visual anthropologist and current associate professor at the University of Victoria, (no relation to Anthony) is presently working with the Osoyoos Museum and the Osoyoos Indian band to document the remarkable story of the Nk’Mip Day School and the art produced there during Anthony Walsh’s tenure. 

Chief Baptiste George, Anthony Walsh, and Katie Lacey were people far ahead of their time. They are heroes to me! They were visionary, courageous, as well as innovative. Their legacies have shaped the story of the Osoyoos Indian Band and provide guideposts, inspiration, and wisdom for the long road of reconciliation that still lies before us. 

To be continued…

[1] Honorable Justice Murray Sinclair, Dr. Marie Wilson, Chief Wilton Littlechild, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One: Summary, James Lorimer and Company Ltd., Toronto, 2015.
[2] The TRC Summary report is a public document and can be purchased online or through major bookstores. 
[3] Quote is courtesy of displays within the Nk’Mip desert cultural centre. Note, these and all photographs were taken with the encouragement and permission of staff members at the cultural centre, including photographs of artwork from the Nk'Mip day school. 
[4] Ibid.