By the Okanagan Nation Alliance
Since 1996 and years before that, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), under the leadership of the Chiefs Executive Council (CEC), has dedicated their tribal efforts to re-establish their role as Indigenous Peoples by reintroducing ntytyix (sockeye salmon) – itself a indigenous species – back to the upper reaches of the Columbia River Basin. This transboundary work is best described by our peoples as kt cp’elk’ stim’, an nsyilxcən term that translates to “cause to come back”.
This has been a journey fraught with insurmountable obstacles due to hydro-electric power dams, environmental degradation, urban sprawl, agribusiness, and pollution, all of which negatively impacting the ntytyix from coming home to their ancestral spawning grounds. The success of kt cp’elk’ stim’ is grounded in the foresight of ONA to know that one Tribal group alone could not achieve such goals. Instead, the ability and capacity to collaborate with multiple partners in both the US & Canada, while retaining deep cultural and spiritual commitments to the salmon has enabled the successful reintroduction of ntytyix. For Syilx communities this return is a core part of rejuvenating culture, food sovereignty & food security while overcoming centuries of colonization.
The ONA Fisheries Department projected that the 2015 sockeye salmon run was to be one of the largest to take place on the Columbia in decades. As the summer took hold 500,000 sockeye entered the mouth of the Columbia and began to make their ancient journey back to spawn deep in the Okanagan. At the confluence of the Columbia and the Okanagan River in Washington these salmon were met with a wall of heated river water, otherwise known as a thermal barrier, which disabled the vast majority of these fish from completing their migration. The thermal barrier was the result of a multitude of effects, including diminished snow packs, low water levels, and increased heat due to the onset of drought. By mid-July the ONA suspended the commercial and recreational sockeye salmon fishery. This stated 10,000 sockeye (the minimum required for ensuring successful spawning) were able to return to Osoyoos and Skaha Lake to spawn in their original habitat.
These events received a certain amount of recognition by national and international media. The problem is that the focus tended to be on the devastation more as an abstract indicator of climate change, while belying the humanitarian, cultural and spiritual components of such loss. It bears recognition that these events have taken place within broader ecological disturbances that are effecting the Pacific North-West of North America in general and all of the communities that are inextricably linked to these lands and waters.
Syilx peoples are not new comers to the challenges of change and disruption though. In the face of such difficulties one of the strongest responses has emerged from within the resilient nature of Syilx communities and culture, that of the Salmon Feast. From September 18-20th, the Salmon Feast honoring the sacredness of the river at sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ (Okanagan Falls), and provided the opportunity to collectively gather and conduct ceremony for the return of the salmon. The Salmon Feast is an essential practice in the continued efforts by the Okanagan Nation to rehabilitate local ecosystems and renew connections with water, fish and people. It is clearly understood that it is vitally important that Syilx Peoples honor the salmon so they will always come back to feed the people.
As put by Pauline Terbasket, ONA Executive Director, “at the core of our Syilx way of life and worldview as peoples is the love of our lands, our waters, our peoples – thus our families, our Salmon. We certainly are very troubled by the severity of negative impacts that our lands, peoples, waters – our families, our salmon have endured over the years. However, by the very nature of our resiliency to these ways of life and being, including our spiritual connection and relationship to the land, which has provided a solid foundation of Tribal significance in which we are born into and carry within us. These attributes of perseverance, strength and resiliency of knowing we will overcome and continue to overcome difficult times in our world”.
This local work and action is not only important and vital to our co-existence with our environment as responsible stewards, but also a recognition and call to our global community, for the need to drastically re-evaluate and support the act of reconnection of our local communities, local practices to their distinct and sacred places, through ceremony and celebration, particularly in the face of times of such drastic changes and uncertainties.