Saturday, April 27, 2013

A TINY, ENDANGERED DESERT IN SOUTHERN BC

by Julie H. Ferguson


On a mild April day, I was privileged to have a private tour of the Osoyoos Indian Band's breathtaking Nk'mip Desert Cultural Centre high above the lake with Tara. She is one of the aboriginal employees steeped in the culture and history of her proud nation who has a passion for the desert and its flora and fauna. For two and a half hours we rode a golf cart through the "Sea of Sage," the Indian village, and up and down narrow paths looking at Antelope Brush, cacti, petroglyphs, and wildlife. She also took me around the cultural centre that opened in 2006, explaining the history of the band, their independence, their myths and folklore. Tara's commentary and stories were so detailed I recorded them for future articles.

Antelope Brush in flower

The desert here in southern BC is the northernmost tip of the Arizona Sonoran Desert, though it has differences caused by its latitude and cold winters. Some indigenous plants are similar—the Antelope Brush reminded me of the Ocotillo, for example. Here mice live among the twisted lower branches where the rattlesnakes seek them out for their meals. Today the plant was covered in tiny yellow blooms that the mice love to eat.


This ecology is fragile and many species are endangered, so I was warned not to step off the paths as scuffing the surface disrupts the water preservation for the plants.

Sweat lodge with
its firewatcher
A woman tanning
 a hide


I've never had the opportunity to go inside a sweat lodge or a pit house before and both are a part of the re-created Indian village, along with their teepees used as summer homes. All are grouped around a source of water. Throughout the area are metal statues that are a wonderful addition to enable visitors to visualize what life in Osoyoos villages really looked like.





Winter pit house
The semi-subterranean pit houses were used in the winter, each by a couple of families. Women only were allowed to use the front door; the men entered via the hole in the roof and climbed down a pole ladder. High benches around the perimeter were for sleeping, but in the image at left, they have been replaced with seats so visitors can enjoy storytelling programs here in the summer.

This band were also adept at carving dugout canoes to use on Osoyoos Lake. They made them from the dense wood of cottonwood trees that grow along the dry water courses. They are smaller and less decorative than the big ocean-going canoes used by the Haida.




We ended the desert tour by winding down an ochre, sandy trail through a sea of sagebrush, the grey-green shrubs that smell of the herb we use in our kitchens. The path is a popular one for hikers and the views of the lake are spectacular from this height.

I spent some time in the centre itself—I watched two short movies and enjoyed the artifacts well-presented in brightly-lit glass cases. The gift shop is worth a visit too. Many of the items are made by local aboriginals and are lovely. The rest are made in Canada. Of course, the proceeds go to the upkeep of this important centre, which must be considerable.

And yes, I did see a live rattlesnake. Not in the wild though! Two were injured here during construction, so they have a permanent home now in a small habitat and regular meals of frozen mice. Research programs keep a close eye on all the desert species and some are only found in this small area. Most are endangered and one frog is almost extinct.

As you leave, look back. The exterior of the centre shows all the desert colours in an innovative construction method—they are like watercolours, subtle and very beautiful.

Nk'mip centre's rammed-earth wall reflects the desert colours

IF YOU GO: The Nk'mip centre is located off Hwy 3 on the east side of Osoyoos Lake at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort, along with Nk'Mip Cellars, and Sonora Dunes Golf Course. quietest days to visit are Fridays and Saturdays

ALL IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2013