By: Athena Bonneau, Local Journalism Initiative
Penticton Indian Band (PIB) celebrated the grand opening of a new qʷc̓iʔ (winter home) at the Outma Sqilx’W Cultural School with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday
The ceremony, held the day following National Indigenous Peoples Day, featured a traditional prayer and drum song from PIB Elder Arnie Baptiste. Grade One students from the Outma Sqilx’W Cultural School also shared a song.
“I am just so amazed with the songs and the drumming that our kids have done,” PIB Chief Greg Gabriel said in his opening remarks. “It catches your heart and it’s so important that they witness this part of our history and I’m hoping that they learn and understand what a qʷc̓iʔs is all about.”
qʷc̓iʔs are traditional winter dwellings that ensured safety and warmth throughout the wintertime and a secure place for ceremonies. They’ve been utilized by the syilx People of the Okanagan Nation and others in the neighbouring region, according to Joseph Pierre, PIB Education Department’s school administrator and the MC of the opening ceremony.
“We would stay in our qʷc̓iʔs, our winter home, sharing what we learned over that winter, sharing our captikʷl (the documentation of syilx knowledge), our laws, our ways of being,” said Pierre.
Kathy Pierre, former director of the PIB Education Department, said at the time of developing the qʷc̓iʔs, the department was looking at different ways that they could teach students either out on the land or through other cultural practices.
“We saw winter houses coming up in all of the communities, Okanagan Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian band, some of our museums in the area were building winter houses,” she said.
The qʷc̓iʔs is intended to help bring Outma Sqilx’W Cultural School students back to their historical Indigenous roots as a place of learning culture and heritage. It will also be a welcoming environment for non-Indigenous neighbours and schools in the community to learn as well.
“We want to be able to tell the world and tell the people that are visitors to our area, who we are and what our rich history is all about,” Kathy Pierre expressed.
In 2012, PIB completed its comprehensive community plan to build a qʷc̓iʔs within the community for members to utilize the space for meetings, gatherings and celebrations.
The community was then awarded a grant from The First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) to build a qʷc̓iʔs in 2019.
Pierre says this project was in the works for many years, however, the pandemic lockdown slowed progress.
“We slowly kept doing the work, the groundwork, in order to develop our winter home,” she said. “And then as soon as our own rules were changed to allow more community members in, then we started a little bit more and more and we reached out and we established support in our nation.”
Throughout this progress, many knowledge keepers, local builders and various tradespeople were contacted in efforts to provide their expertise in the qʷc̓iʔs building stages.
Dolly Kruger, the main contractor, was introduced into the building of the qʷc̓iʔs in 2021 back when she said there was only “a hole in the ground.”
She says she was driving home and received an unexpected phone call from Kathy Pierre, who asked her to come in for a meeting, and Kruger was presented with blueprints for a qʷc̓iʔs.
“Not a whole lot of people were working at that point in time. A lot of offices and of course our community was shut down,” Kruger, who is also a member of PIB, recalled. “I was looking at the blueprints, and was like `wow, I can totally do this.”’
qʷc̓iʔs are partially built into the ground, and the size is about nine-metres in diameter and four-and-a-half metres tall — with four main supporting posts in the middle. There are an estimated 20,000 pounds of dirt on top of it.
“I created and built the foundation wall and the concrete foundation wall, after the foundation was done, I started to build log templates, so they’re able to fit together nicely,” Kruger said.
Eric Mitchell from Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) was the cultural advisor who helped to develop the blueprints and shared his knowledge on how to cut the qʷc̓iʔs logs at a certain degrees and angles.
“Over 10,000 years, we’ve perfected a structure that will hold up that kind of weight being a little bit underground.” Mitchell said. “My grandpa Sam from Lytton said we learned that from the bear. The bear goes underground to hibernate and so that’s where the idea came from for the people.”
This traditional and contemporary qʷc̓iʔs is a new way of sharing syilx history and knowledge, utilizing modern building technology along with traditional aspects.
It’s concrete inside, with electricity, heaters, and a network with wifi screens, but it also has a fireplace. Arnie Baptiste also arranged the doorway so that when the sun rises over the hill at certain time of the year, the light will shine straight through the qʷc̓iʔs.
According to Kruger, this project would not have been possible without the support from several local contractors working together.
She credited Kelly Mercer, Neil Campbell, Shane Hardy, Westhills Aggregates, Top Roofing, Interfor, Fortis BC, Diane Sterling, Family of Enterprises, snpink’tn PublicWorks, PIB Education Department and PIB Chief and Council.
She said the most rewarding moment was seeing the finished product and working with her son, Tyrell Kruger.
“I was really happy and honored and pleased to have my son Tyrell, by my side working on this project,” Kruger expressed, “because now this project is something when he becomes an Elder, when I become an Elder, it’s something that’s going to be in the community for generations to come” .
To Kruger this was a big learning experience, one that she’ll never forget.
“I hope to even just be an example to one syilx woman in our nation to say, `you know what, I want to go and get a building career. I wanna go build things and be able to look back and say, I was a part of building that,”’ Kruger said.
Kathy Pierre said it was phenomenal to witness this type of work come together, because of how far the syilx People have come from thousands of years ago when qʷc̓iʔs were first built.
“I just realized how incredibly gifted our people were in the past. Their old ways, their old technology. They didn’t have what we had,” she said. “They did this by bringing things off the land.”
She explained, syilx people had their own traditional methods and technology and to make the qʷc̓iʔs locked together without modern equipment, which stood for many years.
“We still have remnants of our winter houses throughout the area that are proof of the technology that our people utilized to build those structures,” Pierre said.
Mitchell said he feels like his heart has been lifted because he know the generations to come will be the ones who benefit from the qʷc̓iʔs.
“The one thing with all these young people here, the best thing that’s gonna come out,” Mitchell said.
“So this one here is gonna not be a story anymore, not a picture, in the book. It’s a real thing, they can go in there, they can touch the wood, they can smell it in the wood.”