ETHNONYMS: Isonkuaíli, Okinagan, Okinaken

The Okanagon (Isonkuaíli), including the Northern Okanagon and the Sinkaietk (Southern Okanagon, Lower Okanagon), live along the Okanagan River from its confluence with the Columbia River in north-central Washington to the Okanagan Lake region of south-central British Columbia. They speak an Interior Salish language and today number about twenty-one hundred. Their history differs little from that of neighboring groups such as the Thompson except that their traditional territory was on both sides of what became the boundary between the United States and Canada. Over the last two centuries, beginning with their acquisition of the horse, the Okanagon have slowly moved north and have displaced the Shuswap who once hunted in the environs of Okanagan Lake and the Stuwik and Thompson from the Similkameen Valley. The traditional culture was gravely affected by the invasion of gold miners and settlers in the gold rush of 1858 and by resulting smallpox epidemics. The Sinkaietk are now mainly settled on the Colville Reservation in Washington, and the remainder of the Okanagon are on Several reserves in British Columbia.

Prior to being placed on the reservations, the Okanagon were divided into bands, each of which had a civil chief, Usually hereditary, and one or more war chiefs, with power vested in a council of mature men. Like other Plateau groups, the Okanagon relied on salmon as the basis of subsistence; the fish were caught in traps with dip nets and spears, in weirs and traps, and by other methods. Game animals were of Secondary importance as a source of food, with deer, elk, and sometimes bison hunted. Camas bulbs and bitterroot, fruits such as chokecherries, huckleberries, and serviceberries, nuts, and other plant foods were gathered by women. Like other groups in the region, they were seminomadic, following food sources as they became available. During the summer they used portable, conical dwellings covered by mats and later by skins or canvas. Winter dwellings were semisubterranean earthlodges.

Dome-shaped sweatlodges were used by both sexes for purification, seclusion, and the quest for guardian spirits. The material culture included bark canoes, snowshoes, doublecurved bows, cedar bark and spruce baskets, and goat wool blankets. The traditional religion was animistic, centered around spirits residing in natural objects, animals, plants, and clouds. Guardian spirits were important as, among other things, a source of power for shamans to use to cure the sick. Important ceremonies included the First Fruit Festival, the Sun Dance, and other dances.


Cline, Walter, et al. (1938). The Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagon of Washington. Edited by Leslie Spier. General Series in Anthropology no. 6. Menasha, Wisc.

Teit, James A. (1930). The Salishan Tribes of the Western Plateaus. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, 45th Annual Report (1927-1928), 198-294. Washington, D.C.

Turner, Nancy J., et al. (1977). The Ethnobotany of the Okanagan Indians of British Columbia and Washington State. Victoria: British Columbia Language Project.

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