Okenagan People

The Syilx people, also known as the Okanagan people, are part of the Interior Salish ethnological and linguistic group in North America and today number about twenty-one hundred.

Okanagan is pronounced “oh-kuh-nah-gun.” This is an English pronunciation of the Salishan place name Ukwnaqin. It is spelled many different ways in English, including Okanogan and Okanagon. But in their own language, the people call themselves Syilx or Silx.

They live in British Columbia and Washington state, Canada. Their land lie on both sides of the Okanagan River, east to the Selkirk range, west to the Cascades summit, south into Washington bounded by the Columbia River and Lake Chelan and north up to Salmon River. 

Today the Syilx Okanagan People continue to assert their jurisdiction and responsibility over the stewarding of their land, resources and quality of life of their citizens.

Syilx Nation is comprised of seven member communities in the Southern Interior of British Columbia: Okanagan Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, Upper Nicola Band, Upper and Lower Similkameen Indian Bands, and Westbank First Nation; and in Northern Washington State, the Colville Confederated Tribes.

The Okanagans live on a reservation, which is land that belongs to them and is under their control. The Okanagan Nation has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Okanagans are still Canadian and US citizens. In the past, each Okanagan band was led by a chief who was supported by a tribal council of elders, clan leaders, and other important men. Okanagan chiefs were highly respected, but didn't have a lot of political power. They had to listen to the tribal council most of the time. Today, Okanagan bands are still ruled by tribal councils, but councilmembers are elected by all the people and can include women as well as men.

The Syilx Okanagan People’s territory is a diverse and beautiful landscape of deserts and lakes, alpine forests and endangered grasslands. It extends over approximately 69,000 square kilometers. The northern area of this territory was close to the area of Mica Creek, just north of modern day Revelstoke, BC, and the eastern boundary was between Kaslo and Kootenay Lakes. The southern boundary extended to the vicinity of Wilbur, Washington and the western border extended into the Nicola Valley.

For thousands of years, the Okanagan people were self-reliant and well provided for through their own ingenuity and use of the land and nature. We lived united as a nation with a whole economy, travelling the breadth and depth of our territory, hunting and fishing, growing and harvesting, crafting and trading to meet our needs.


Colonization divided us from one another and from our way of life. We were divided from the resources we relied upon, and our self-sufficient economy collapsed and traditional government and social structures of the syilx people began disintegrating.
With first contact with European settlers, many practices, tools, beliefs, and worldviews were introduced. The Fur Trade was very prominent throughout the interior of British Columbia and was one of the major disturbances of the Syilx Okanagan economy by the displacement and rapid settlement and extraction of tmixw species.

This Fur Trade era brought about a rush of development for settler communities throughout the interior of British Columbia amongst some of the many vital travel corridors and Syilx seasonal settlement areas including all of the major city locations in the Okanagan Valley. The Syilx Okanagan people were often swept aside or not thought about during this phase of settler development and is the centre of many social and economic issues still today regarding Title and Rights to the tmxʷulaʔxʷ, siw̓łkʷ, and tmixʷ. With rapid settlement occurring, the flux of rising activities including agriculture and ranching became very popular amongst Syilx Okanagan people and spurred a growth of gardening and raising livestock. While these activities were prominent in Settler communities and lifestyles, many impediments were felt by Syilx Okanagan people especially in regards to the introduction of disease.

The Okanagans lived in villages of earthen lodges sometimes known as "pit houses." These homes are built partially underground, with a basement-like living space dug from the ground and a dome-shaped wooden frame built over it and packed with earth. These lodges were small (about 15 feet across) and only a single family lived in each one.

 Like many Native Americans, Okanagan mothers traditionally carried their babies in baby carriers on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

The Okanagan tribe made lightweight birchbark canoes for fishing and traveling on the rivers. Over land, Okanagan people usually just walked. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.)

Like other Plateau groups, the Okanagon relied on salmon as the basis of subsistence; the fish were caught in traps with dip nets and spears, in weirs and traps, and by other methods. Game animals were of Secondary importance as a source of food, with deer, elk, and sometimes bison hunted. Camas bulbs and bitterroot, fruits such as chokecherries, huckleberries, and serviceberries, nuts, and other plant foods were gathered by women.

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"We weren’t born with the instincts to know how to live in nature’s laws, instead we are given memory to remind us of what we could and couldn’t be doing. Understanding the living land and teaching our young generations how to become a ‘part of it’ is the only way we, the Syilx, have survived. (Okanagan First Peoples) Each youth and young adult was not only trained in a special area but they were also taught the lifestyle and laws of the community at large. They understood that everyone had a role and a responsibility to ensure the survival of themselves as individuals, to their families, their community and even their people as a whole. They were taught to love, honor and respect each other’s roles and their own roles and taught the role of children, youth, adults, elders and as a man or women. Each Syilx person understood what it meant to be in a role of a warrior, a teacher, a hunter, a healer, a chief and a singer. Each Syilx person understood what it meant to be a child, a sibling, a parent, a grandparent, an aunt/uncle, and a husband or wife."

"Captikʷł" are a collection of teachings about Syilx Okanagan laws, customs, values, governance structures and principles that, together, define and inform Syilx Okanagan rights and responsibilities to the land and to our culture. These stories provide instruction on how to relate to and live on the land. captikʷł stories serve as reminder of Syilx Okanagan natural laws and protocols that need to be followed in order for future generations to survive in harmony with the tmixw. These stories are embedded in our culture and language and play a vital role in cultural renewal and revitalization.

In our histories we are told that kʷuləncutn (Creator) sent sənk̓lip (Coyote) to help our people survive on this land. sen’k’lip’s travels are a record of the natural laws necessary for our Syilx Okanagan people to survive and carry on. We weren’t born with the instincts to know how to live in nature’s laws. Instead, we were given memory to remind us of what we can and cannot be doing. Understanding and teaching our young generations about the land and how to become a “part of it” is the way that we, the Syilx Okanagan, have survived.

Today, our captikʷł are still used in this fast paced modern world. Syilx knowledge and cultural values from the captikʷł are being passed on to the youth to help them live in this modern world and to let them know who they are and where they come from.