Shortly after moving to Kelowna, a town in southern British Columbia known for its vineyards, water sports and hiking trails, I saw a story about a monster sighting. Two brothers had seen something ripple on the water in the middle of Okanagan Lake, an 84-mile-long lake that curves along the Okanagan Valley through Kelowna in the shape of a snake. The wave peaked and faded like a wake, but there was no boat in sight. They were categorical: it was Ogopogo.
Ogopogo is to Kelowna what Nessie is to Loch Ness
You can’t live in Kelowna for a long time without hearing about its mysterious creature from the lake. Ogopogo is to Kelowna what Nessie is to Loch Ness: an as yet unidentified cryptid who supposedly resides in the depths and surfaces of the lake just often enough to keep the legend alive.
He has been described as a serpentine beast with several bumps, with green or black skin and the head of a horse, a snake or a sheep. The drawings depict a coiled sea dragon like what you might see on an old sailor card that says, “Here there are monsters.” In the city, Ogopogo takes on a benign caricature like a 15-foot-long green and cream statue on the waterfront, the smiling mascot of the local WHL hockey team and as toys in plush in souvenir shops. Like its palindrome name, its physical appearance – and its very existence – is something no one can make head and tail about.
Ogopogo’s mania peaked in the 1980s when the region’s tourism association offered a $ 1 million reward for proof of the creature’s existence. Greenpeace came forward and named it an endangered species, demanding that Ogopogo be captured only on film, not in the flesh. American television shows of the time, including In Search Of and Unsolved Mysteries, even reported the mysterious inhabitant of the Okanagan Valley.
However, it wasn’t until I attended the International Aboriginal Tourism Conference in Kelowna last fall that I realized the ogopogo of popular Canadian culture – a creature 16% of British Columbians believe – was born only from poor communication between Canada’s first European settlers and the original Okanagan, Okanagan / Syilx.
It’s not really a monster, it’s a lake spirit and it protects this valley from one end to the other
“It is not really a monster, it is a lake spirit and it protects this valley from start to finish,” said Pat Raphael of Westbank First Nation, a member nation of the largest Okanagan / Syilx Nation Alliance, which guided me through the ancestral lands of the Syilx bordering Okanagan Lake. As our bus drove south along the water, she explained that even though many in Canada know the creature like Ogopogo, in the syilx, it is n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ (n-ha-ha-it-koo), which means “the sacred spirit of the lake”. Raphael pointed to the brown hump of Rattlesnake Island across the water, where the spirit is supposed to dwell. She also asked us to practice saying n ̌x̌ax̌aitkʷ in nsyilxcən, the syilx language.
“It’s not Ogopogo! What are you doing, colonized?” She joked when some of us struggled with the pronunciation and came back to say Ogopogo.
Before European fur traders arrived in the valley in 1809, the syilx had lived in the region for at least 12,000 years. They had their own laws, justice system and beliefs. The most important of these was the importance of water, represented by n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ. It existed in two forms: a spiritual form and a tangible physical form, which was embodied by the lake itself. Sometimes, however, the spirit was revealed from within the lake.
“In our stories, [n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is] actually very dark in color and has the head of a horse and the antlers of a deer, ”said Coralee Miller, deputy director of the new Sncəwips Heritage Museum in West Kelowna. “Missionaries saw our spirit from the water and the habit was to demonize our spiritual beliefs.”
The syilx symbolically feeds n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ, with tobacco and sage, and occasionally an offering of Kokanee salmon to thank the lake for providing food and water. “That’s where I think this misunderstanding came from – the settlers saw us throw some meat into the water,” said Miller.
The pioneers soon told stories of a snake in Okanagan Lake that needed a sacrifice of living animals to appease it and ensure a safe passage through the water. Once the idea of a blood snake was thirsty for the lake, it got out of hand – the settlers started patrolling the lake with guns because they were nervous that the beast would attack.
But in the 1920s (and probably in the absence of any real human predation), fresher buds prevailed. Tourism officials named the creature Ogopogo after a catchy English folk song, the lyrics of which included: “His mother was an earwig; his father was a whale; a little head; and almost no tail; and Ogopogo was his name. “N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ had gone from a revered spirit to a cartoon-like creature that would attract tourists.
Over time, Ogopogo is what made Kelowna a name known in Canada
It is unclear how many people have traveled to Kelowna in the past century in the hope of seeing the mythical lake monster, but over time, Ogopogo is what has made Kelowna a household name in Canada. For years, the creature appeared on the Kelowna parade float, both in town and in larger parades in the Pacific Northwest and in Alberta. Gift shops peddled jars of gadgets with “eggs” from Ogopogo and even his “droppings” that stole from shelves. Although the tourist office no longer actively promotes Ogopogo today, the legend remains more popular than ever.
However, the misappropriation and commodification of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is a sensitive issue. For Miller, a member of the Westbank First Nation, n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ and Ogopogo are two separate entities and should not be confused. One of the museum’s missions is to tell the story of the indigenous peoples of the region and to talk about the importance of the n ̓x nax̌aitkʷ in protecting the lake. This is part of what she calls “deprogramming”. challenge or deconstruct the colonial perspective on local history and culture. It is also an important step towards reconciliation, an ongoing process across the country aimed at establishing and maintaining respectful relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.
This spring, Aboriginal tour company Moccasin Trails is launching paddle tours on Okanagan Lake where guides will discuss n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ as a spiritual talisman – not a physical lake monster – and explain how it came about. appropriate.
We want people to leave our experiences with a better understanding of Aboriginal culture
Canoe trips begin with a water feeding ceremony. As the canoe glides across the glassy surface of the lake, a Syilx cultural leader disperses sage and tobacco in the water while invoking the spirit world and telling his ancestors to keep everyone safe. Moccasin Trails co-owner Greg Hopf said the ceremony was powerful and intended to illustrate the connection that Indigenous peoples have with the land, which is very personal.
“It’s sort of what each person interprets the spirit of being,” he said. “We want people to leave our experiences with a better understanding of Aboriginal culture.”
In downtown Kelowna, the Okanagan Heritage Museum works with the Westbank First Nation to tell a more in-depth story of the region’s history. He redid his entire gallery in 2019 and represents syilx as a living culture, rather than focusing solely on the lifestyle of people before colonization. According to Kelowna Museums Executive Director Linda Digby, Sylix’s knowledge and perspectives are now woven into each era depicted in the museum, and an exhibit on Ogopogo explains how n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ was misunderstood by the settlers and became a asset for tourism.
“To the settlers [Ogopogo] was a real thing, “said Digby. “They have certainly misinterpreted what they have heard from the indigenous community and have no qualms about inventing and owning their own stories, and it would not even have occurred to them that they were doing that. “
Over time, the settlers’ inventory increased – their neighbor saw the creature, or they themselves saw something strange in the lake. “You live here long enough, everyone will see something,” said Digby.
During my quest to understand n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ, I met a few people who are true believers based on what they saw in Okanagan Lake. And they’re far from alone: the museum’s archives are full of press clippings of Ogopogo’s sightings over the decades, as well as stories of how a lake monster is good for the city’s profits.
“Ogopogo is ideal for tourism. It adds color, flair and atmosphere, “said Robert Young, professor of earth sciences at the University of British Columbia in the Okanagan, who is often called the voice of reason when ‘an Ogopogo observation occurs or new’ image ‘surfaces.
For Young, Ogopogo is not a matter of biology, it is a matter of earth science processes – the way water travels on the surface of the earth. Thermal stratification in a lake can cause a wave to appear out of nowhere when a denser layer of water slides under a more floating layer, as often happens in spring or fall, he explained. He calls it an “Ogopogo wave”.
This theory offers a plausible explanation of what people might see on the water. But while Young is entirely for critical thinking about Ogopogo, he also hates to refute his existence. It should persist, he said, saying that Ogopogo is a Canadian cultural icon and that n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is an important part of syilx beliefs.
I don’t care if a creature from the lake nibbles my toes when I take a dip, but the power of nature gives me a break. I started several days with an early morning walk that leads to a ridge surrounded by mountains overlooking Okanagan Lake and the rounded hills and extinct volcanoes of the Thompson Plateau behind. I am impressed to live in such a beautiful place. When the wind ripples the water and makes the ponderosa pines that grow on the hillside oscillate, I feel a connection with the natural beauty of my house. Maybe this spirit of place is my interpretation of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ.
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