American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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"Okanagon" means "seeing the top, or head." Another self-designation is Isonkva'ili, "Our People." The Okanagons were the main tribe of a culturally related group of Indians that also included the Senijextee (Lake), Colville, and Sanpoil Indians. They are occasionally known today as the northern Okanagons (Canada) and the Sinkaietks (United States). Okanagon Indians spoke a dialect of interior Salish.

Okanagons traditionally lived in the Okanagon and Similkameen River Valleys, including Lake Okanagon, in Washington and British Columbia. Today, most Okanagons live on the Colville Reservation, on reserves in British Columbia, and in regional cities and towns.

Two geographical divisions, the Similkameen and the Okanagon proper, were each composed of between five and ten autonomous bands. Each band was led by a (usually hereditary) chief with advisory powers. The true locus of authority was found in a council of older men. War, hunt, and dance chiefs were selected as needed.

Winter dwellings were of two types. One was a conical, semisubterranean, pole-frame lodge covered with earth. This type was about ten to sixteen feet in diameter, and entry was through the roof. The people also built rectangular, mat-covered, multifamily lodges. In summer they used conical, tule mats on pole frames and, later, skin teepees. Men and women used domed sweat houses for purification; the structures were also used as living quarters for youths in spirit training.

Salmon was the main staple. Large and small game, including elk, bear, bighorn sheep, and marmot, was also important. Dogs sometimes assisted in the hunt, in which animals were often surrounded and/or driven over a cliff. Meat was roasted, boiled, or dried. Buffalo was always part of the diet but became more important when groups began using horses to hunt the herds on the Great Plains. Important plant foods included camas, bitterroot, berries, and nuts.

Men caught fish with dip nets, seine nets, traps, weirs, spears, and hook and line. Stone, bone, and antler provided the raw material for most tools. Women made cedar-bark or woven spruce root baskets with geometric designs. Some baskets were woven tight enough to hold water. Women also specialized in making woven sacks. They sewed tule mats with Indian hemp.

Okanagons undertook a gradual northward expansion following their acquisition of horses in the mideighteenth century. They first encountered non-Native traders in the early nineteenth century and Catholic Indians and missionaries shortly thereafter. The tribe was artificially divided when the United States–Canada boundary was fixed in 1846. The Sinkaietks did not participate in the Yakima War (1855–1856), although some joined in fighting the United States later in that decade.

A gold strike on the Fraser River in 1858 brought an influx of miners and increased the general level of interracial conflict. Most U.S. Okanagons settled on the Colville Reservation in 1872. The Canadian Okanagons were assigned to several small reserves.


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