Getting schooled on Syilx culture - a visit to Sncəwips Heritage Museum

Justin Mwakule, Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) & Sanchari Barua, Bachelor of Arts (International Relations)

A couple of weeks ago, the Cultural Studies department and Intercultural Development Program organized a trip for a small group of students to the Sncəwips Heritage Museum in Westbank, which displays some of the history of the Syilx (Okanagan) people through archival art and artifact collections. As individuals who have have been lucky to travel and grow up in countries other than Canada, we have developed curiosities in learning more about the history of the place where we currently live. We have grown eager to hear the stories that have shaped the Sylix people and culture into what they are now.

The hosts, Jordan and Coralee, shared with us their stories about the traditions the Syilx followed. Their stories took us through some of Syilx history: about the vast land they cared for, the battles their ancestors fought, and how they would welcome people (including prisoners of war) into their community, teaching them to become Syilx. Notably, these prisoners would eventually be granted freedom to move between their homeland and the Okanagan valley. We also learned about practices such as cave painting, canoe carving, and home building, including how these practices were rooted within the local Okanagan landscape and the materials available here.

The hosts also brought awareness to the challenges and long-term affects of colonization. Syilx people had to adapt their way of life (all the way down to their cooking habits) as European settlement limited their access to their own land. In this context, practices of adaptation and resilience allowed their culture to persist. For instance, they created bannock after losing freedom to hunt, and they played non-traditional sports like baseball as a way to keep the community social. 

Their stories led us to think about the importance of place, including awareness of our surroundings. For instance, the welcoming treatment towards prisoners of war demonstrated how even in conflict, respect for others and their connection to their home cannot be forgotten. Resourcefulness in using sport to maintain social connections, and the creation of new foods such as bannock, show how understanding one’s surroundings can help us stay standing, when the ground beneath us may seem like it is falling. As the Syilx remember and continue practicing their traditions, they are able to bring the strength of the past into the present.

Jordan emphasized the importance of the responsibility they have as Sylix people to preserve, collect and restore their traditions and lifestyle. The strength and resilience of the Syilx is to be admired and we would recommend all to go to the museum and listen and see how the fighting spirit of their ancestors still lives strong.

The Museum is open to the public for drop-ins (admission by donations) as well for booking tours.

Their location and contact can be found below:

  • Websitehttps://sncewipsmuseum.org/ 
  • Location: 201-1979 Old Okanagan Highway, Westbank, B.C. V4T 3A4
  • Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday to Friday (excluding holidays)
  • Contact: museum@wfn.ca, 778 755 2787