No artifacts: B.C. heritage museum showcases 'living history'

The Westbank First Nation's museum in Kelowna began as a way to preserve and interpret their history, and that of the greater Okanagan Nation. Now, it’s purpose has expanded into education.
When this canoe isn't out on the water, it's on display at the Sncəwips Heritage Museum. (Sncəwips Heritage Museum)

In schools across the country — from elementary, right up to university — young Canadians are learning about Indigenous culture and history. But, not everyone is comfortable with the new curriculum.

A recent study in the International Indigenous Policy Journal found that teachers are "intimidated" about teaching the new material, even though they agree that incorporating Indigenous content in public schooling is needed.

That's where the Sncəwips Heritage Museum saw an opportunity.

The Westbank First Nation's museum in Kelowna, B.C. began as a way to preserve and interpret their history, and that of the greater Okanagan Nation. Now, its purpose has expanded.

Jordan Coble is the museum's cultural and operations administrator, he is also a proud Westbank First Nation and Syilx Nation member.
Jordan Coble is the Cultural and Operations Administrator at the museum.

"We started the museum based on the vision of our community, as a repository," he said.

"Just to start collecting our items, to make sure we knew what best museum practices were, but also inserting our own ways of being." Coble explained they developed traditional protocols when handling certain object, something most museums don't consider when dealing with sacred objects.

This idea is also changing the terminology used at the Sncəwips museum.

"Some of our items in museums, they're considered artifacts. We really try not to use that word, because our history is alive, our items are alive; they have spirit to them," he explained.

"I really stressed the importance of making sure that [we] didn't acknowledge our people as if we were dead and gone."

The museum has everything from written history, to pictographs, to "living history"; where items from the museum are still used.

For example, a popular conversation starter at Sncəwips is a dugout canoe. Coble says visitors are surprised to learn that the canoe is still used for fishing.

It's objects like the canoe that deepen understanding of Indigenous culture beyond the classroom. "I grew up in a time where that knowledge wasn't necessarily being passed on, for many, many reasons; colonial impacts, assimilation. All those wonderful things that have come across our desks these days, and entered into our community. Those answers weren't being provided to me."

Outreach is an important part of the work Coble does. But, he admitted, it has its challenges. Upon hearing about the Sncəwips Heritage Museum, he found some educators had a stereotypical idea of what learning Indigenous culture is all about.

"Some of the requests were very tokenistic. Like, 'Can you come in and teach us traditional resource practices?' And I truly felt like every time I walked in a classroom, they were just checking off a box and saying 'OK, we connected, we're done, and now we can move on with our unit.'"
The Sncəwips Heritage Museum serves as a repository for the community's rich history. (Sncəwips Heritage Museum/Twitter)

 He recalled one of the very first groups that toured the museum. Youth from a local school had the opportunity to learn some of the history, and also experience the history through song.

Coble recalled one particularly memorable encounter with a non-Indigenous student who came in with their school. "One of the children from that tour came back with their parents the day after," Coble said.

"They were so excited to be there again, and so excited to share with their parents what they had learned from the museum. It was beautiful."