By Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A century in the making, the Osoyoos Indian Band celebrated getting back a very special piece of its traditional territory. Over 100 people gathered Friday on the one-acre property located on Hawthorn Place which backs onto the Okanagan River in Okanagan Falls. The land has been an ancestral place of culture and sustainability for Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. While it is just a small part of the estimated 1,618 hectares (4,000 acres) of their original reserve, the OIB hopes to get back and for Chief Clarence Louie, at least it’s a start.
”We’re going to get our land back and if it takes one acre at a time, that’s just the way it is,” said Louie at the end of the ceremony. “Our reserves were stolen from us and this reserve land right here was taken from the Osoyoos Indian Band in 1913. Now, after 108 years, we’re allowed back on this site.”Our people can come here from now on and nobody can say to them, `What are you doing here?’ Nobody can say to them, `Do you have permission to come here?’ We don’t have to climb over anybody’s fence.”The band had to use its own money to purchase the property earlier from a private seller.”Just a little bit it bothers me to use our money, but the owner of the property deserves to be paid. The land is more important than money,” said the chief. “You can’t just can’t kick somebody off their property without compensation. You can’t do what the government did to us, take our land away.”
Louie added he understands the majority of the Indigenous land claims involve private property and are not on the table for negotiations, but there are other sites like the nearby provincial park and Crown land that should come back to the band.The single acre is part of a 71-acre parcel that was removed by the government from the reserve.Particularly upsetting to the chief is that after all this time very little has changed from the days of demonstrations and blockades.”You still have to force, we’re still having to kick in doors,” he said. “Our people didn’t start forcing the federal and provincial governments to resolve land issues until the 60s and 60 years later we’re still arguing and fighting about land.”Maybe we have to have another roadblock in OK Falls?”That reference was to the January, 1974 information road and rail blockade initiated at the time by OIB chief, Jim Stelkia. Many of the surviving participants of the blockade were in attendance at Friday’s ceremonies.”We didn’t know what we were going to face, but we knew this was the start of a series of demonstrations that were going to happen. It was time to take action to settle the claims,” recalled Penticton Indian Band hereditary Chief Adam Eneas, who took part in the blockade along with other chiefs. “The motorists in general were very courteous except for a couple that tried to run over us. We felt after that we should have security with us, to guard us.”
PIB elder Jack Kruger was also there and told the crowd, “All the leaders used to say we are tired of living on our knees, we want to stand on our feet and that’s how we approached this.”They (demonstrators) were going to stand on this land so that you children can have this land in the future. They did this all for you and I guess it worked, we are here today.” PIB knowledge keeper, Richard Armstrong, shared the story about the legend of the coyote snk̓lip who brought the salmon to the river that runs through the property prior to the arrival of humans.He spoke about the appointed caretakers, “beaver, musqaut and fisher” and the monuments the rocky outcroppings on the riverfront represent.At the end he left the young people with this message, “Do what you have to do to protect this legacy.”For Louie. the time for talk with governments is at an end. It is time for action.”Land acknowledgements are nice gestures, but they don’t build a house on my rez. I too want to see genuine reconciliation. It’s good to see the province is taking baby steps, but I want to see adult steps here.”It’s about truth and reconciliation and the truth is this is our land,”While there is still a long ways to go, the chief was still happy with the reason for Friday’s celebration.”Our people have gathered here, fished here, died here and gave birth here for thousands of years. Now this land is ours once again.”