Sasquatch, Ogopogo and other Syilx spirits remind us to respect Okanagan environment | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Sasquatch, Ogopogo and other Syilx spirits remind us to respect Okanagan environment

In Syilx culture, Sasquatch and the Ogopogo are the embodiment of the land.
Image Credit: Pixabay
January 31, 2021 - 7:00 AM

For thousands of years, Indigenous Syilx communities have passed down stories of their beliefs of spirits like n’ha-a-itk, the Okanagan Lake’s water spirit or Stronitum, a dimension-hopping forest dweller.

But settlers in the 1800s in the Okanagan Valley misunderstood these spirits and the meanings behind their stories, said Sncewips Heritage Museum assistant Coralee Miller.

The Ogopogo, known to the Syilx as n’ha-a-itk, is the embodiment of Okanagan Lake, not a giant animal-eating monster, she said. Now the Ogopogo is a symbol of Kelowna, often depicted as a goofy green dragon, of which you can buy stuffed-animal versions in gift shops and see on Kelowna Rockets jerseys. 

In the 1980s, Greenpeace declared the Ogopogo an “endangered” species after a $1 million reward was offered by the Okanagan's tourism association for its capture. Greenpeace's idea was close, but missed the point, Miller said.

“It was a misunderstanding that became a misappropriation. What was once a benevolent water spirit became this virgin-devouring sea demon because when settlers came and they saw what they saw (and) they got spooked,” she said.

Strontium, also known as Sasquatch, is a keeper of fish and a dimensional walker in Syilx culture. Indigenous elders still carry rocks in their pockets to offer him as part of a long-time pact with the forest spirit if they ever come upon him in the Okanagan Valley forest, she said.

“I know today we think of them as a metaphor but they’re this embodiment of our value system and respect for the land,” Miller said.

“The stories are just as old, well actually older, than us and I think (these stories serve as a reminder) that animals and the natural world were here before us. We are a reflection of our natural world… These spirits remind us how old the land is, how sacred and how magical (our world is.) We don’t need to go into a sci-fi fantasy to see that natural magic is still around us.”

With Ogopogo and Sasquatch, “the first instinct always is ‘we have to catch it,’ but with Stronitum, you go to catch him and you’re just going to get forest,” she said, adding that if you also try to catch a water spirit, you’re only going to catch water.

READ MORE: Searching for Sasquatch in the Okanagan

While these spirits manifest in a physical form, as Miller said her great-great-grandmother saw both the spirit of the lake and the forest dweller, they only will be seen when they want to be seen.

At the Sncewips Heritage Museum, “we’re trying to get people to think a little more critically about where things come from because today there’s no excuse for ignorance. Appropriation has become such a hot-button topic and a lot of people are more understanding around appropriation and appreciation,” she said.

Appropriation can be harmful as it can give people the wrong idea about the Syilx peoples.

“Some of our own people believe that we used to feed (Naitaka) chickens and pigs and I think ‘good god people, we didn’t have chickens or pigs,’” Miller said.

READ MORE: Lake monster or wave? UBC professor explains Ogopogo theory

The museum is a safe place, and Miller invites people to come and ask her questions.

“If people come into the museum and don’t learn something, then I’m not doing my job,” she said.

— This story was corrected at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021 to clarify the proper pronunciation of n’ha-a-itk, the water spirit.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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