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Okanagan Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Okanagan tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Okanagan website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Okanagan pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.




    Okanagan Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Okanagan"? What does it mean?
Okanagan is pronounced "oh-kuh-nah-gun." This is an English pronunciation of the Salishan place name Ukwnaqin. It is spelled many different ways in English, including Okanogan and Okanagon. But in their own language, the people call themselves Syilx or Silx.

Where do the Okanagans live?
The Okanagan Indians are original people of the Northwest. They live in Washington state and British Columbia, Canada.

How is the Okanagan Indian nation organized?
The Okanagans live on a reservation, which is land that belongs to them and is under their control. The Okanagan Nation has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Okanagans are also US citizens and must obey American law. In the past, each Okanagan band was led by a chief who was supported by a tribal council of elders, clan leaders, and other important men. Okanagan chiefs were highly respected, but didn't have a lot of political power. They had to listen to the tribal council most of the time. Today, Okanagan bands are still ruled by tribal councils, but councilmembers are elected by all the people and can include women as well as men.

What language do the Okanagan Indians speak?
Almost all Okanagan people speak English today, but some Okanagans, especially elders, also speak their native Okanagan language. Okanagan is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Okanagan word, way' (sounds like the English word "why") is a friendly greeting in Okanagan.

What was Okanagan culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the homepage of the Okanagan Nation Alliance in Canada. There you can find information about the Okanagan tribe in the past and today.

How do Okanagan Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Okanagan children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have buckskin dolls, toys and games to play. Like many Native Americans, Okanagan mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

What were men and women's roles in the Okanagan tribe?
Okanagan women gathered plants and herbs and and did most of the child care and cooking. Men were fishermen and hunters and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Okanagan homes like in the past?
The Okanagans lived in villages of earthern lodges sometimes known as "pit houses." These homes are built partially underground, with a basement-like living space dug from the ground and a dome-shaped wooden frame built over it and packed with earth. These lodges were small (about 15 feet across) and only a single family lived in each one. Later, as some Okanagan bands began to follow the buffalo herds, they started using portable hide tepees like the Plains Indians. Today, Native Americans only put up a tepee for fun or to connect with their heritage. Okanagan families live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Okanagan clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Okanagan men wore breech cloths with leggings and short buckskin shirts with patterns of holes punched into them. Women wore buckskin dresses with leggings and sometimes a fringed cape. Both men and women wore deerskin moccasins on their feet, and in colder weather, they also wore socks woven from tule rushes and fur cloaks or blankets made of mountain goat wool. Here is a museum exhibit of Plains and Plateau Indian beaded clothing, and some photos and links about Native American Indian costume in general.

Originally, Okanagan men didn't wear headdresses, while women sometimes wore fez-shaped basket caps. As they became more influenced by styles of the Plains and the Eastern Plateau, many Okanagan men began to wear feather war bonnets in the straight-up style of the Blackfoot and Kootenai tribes. Okanagan women sometimes painted their faces with brightly colored designs, and also wore tribal tattoo designs on their arms and hands. Okanagan men didn't usually paint or tattoo themselves. Most Okanagans wore their hair long and loose, though some people adopted other fashions like braids from neighboring tribes. Unlike men from most Native American tribes, Okanagan men sometimes wore mustaches.

Today, some Okanagan people still have moccasins or a basket hat, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Okanagan transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes--the Okanagan Indian tribe made lightweight birchbark canoes for fishing and traveling on the rivers. Here is a website with pictures of Indian birch bark canoes. Over land, Okanagan people usually just walked. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) They sometimes used snowshoes to help them travel in the winter.

Today, of course, Okanagan people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes.

What was Okanagan food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Okanagan Indians were fishing people. Their staple food was salmon. Okanagan men also hunted for elk, buffalo, mountain sheep, and small game. Okanagan women gathered nuts, roots, and berries to add to their diet. Here is a website with more information about Native American hunting and fishing.

What were Okanagan weapons and tools like in the past?
Okanagan fishermen used spears, nets, and bone fishhooks. Hunters used bows and arrows and trained hunting dogs. In war, Okanagan men fired their bows or fought with spears. Sometimes warriors used shields of hardened elk hide to protect themselves from enemy archers. Here is a website with pictures and information about Northwest Indian weapons.

What are Okanagan arts and crafts like?
Okanagan artists are known for their Native American basketry and woodcarving crafts. Here is a website with some photographs of Interior Salish baskets.

What other Native Americans did the Okanagan tribe interact with?
The Okanagans were close allies with other Interior Salish tribes such as the Spokane and Thompson Indians. They traded with these tribes frequently and also intermarried. The Okanagans weren't really known as a warlike tribe, but they did sometimes fight with the Yakimas and Nez Perce.

What kinds of stories do the Okanagan Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Okanagan legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Okanagan Indian culture. Here is one Okanagan legend about how fire came to mankind. Here's a website where you can read more about Okanagan mythology.

What about Okanagan religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about the Okanagon religion or this site about Native American spirituality in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
There are not many books for kids specifically about the Okanagan tribe. Older kids may want to read We Are the People, a book of Okanagan mythology written for adults. Younger kids may like Beaver Steals Fire, a picture book based on a legend of the Flathead Salish tribe (relatives of the Okanagans.) Or Plateau Indians is a good book for kids about the Plateau Indian tribes in general, including the Okanagans and their neighbors. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended American Indian books in general.

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2013.

Thanks for your interest in the Okanagan Indian people and their language!

Learn More About The Okanagan Tribe

Okanagan Indian Tribe
An overview of the Okanagan people, their language and history.

Okanagan Language Resources
Okanagan Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Okanagan Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Okanagan Native Americans past and present.

Okanagan Words
Okanagan Indian vocabulary lists.



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