The Inkameep Indian School
by Anthony Walsh
Masked Figures on Horses, by Sis-hu-lk (Francis Baptiste), Osoyoos Museum Collection
One day in the late fall of 1930, I was working with Bob Fanning on his fox farm in the hills behind Kelowna when there was a phone call from Fr. Carlyle of Bear Creek. He told me there was a letter in the mail for me from him, and after I had read it, to phone him back. The letter arrived and I was amazed at its contents. For it stated that the teacher at the Indian School at Six Mile Creek near to Vernon had left in the middle of the term. There was need of a teacher for the remaining six weeks, and he thought I was just the man for this temporary job.
I picked up the phone, "Father, you must be crazy. I know nothing about children or education".
He replied that as I had a weekend free, to accompany him and see the reserve and the school. I went as requested, met the Chief and the Indian Agent and saw the reserve and school. I was pressured to take the job. But I had a partner to consider, so could not give a definite reply.
After consultation with Bob, he asked, "Do you want to go?"
"Well it is only for six weeks, and there is little work here on the ranch except the feeding of a few apples a day. It would be an adventure."
Off I went into entirely new territory for me. Within three weeks I realized that these Indian children were of a creative and talented people. And they were not dirty and decadent as thought by many of their white neighbors. After I had been teaching for a month, the agent paid a visit to the school. He said little but contacted Ottawa, who then contacted me with a request to continue teaching in the new year.
On returning to the ranch for the Christmas vacation, I took up the matter with Bob. He said he was planning on returning to Vancouver Island. I then decided to return to the Reserve and complete the school year.
That summer I took a Teacher-training course at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and read whatever was available on Indian Affairs in the libraries. This gave me an opening and provided me with a base of study of the cultures of the main Indian tribes throughout Canada. I then started to search for material dealing with the Okanagan Tribe, but as they were a small group, and were made up of fishing and hunting people, there was not much material available.
During the second year of teaching I was able to get a start on different art forms dealing with Okanagan designs. Then we were able to secure some examples of bead and silk work on buckskin to make a small exhibit. At the close of the year there was a concert given under a big fir tree in the school yard, and among those attending were Miss Topham Brown, Jim and Mrs. Goldie, Mr. & Mrs. Bob Allison and Gordon Massy. There was much surprise and praise on the part of the visitors, and the children and parents were delighted. They met their guests as equals, and with a sense of some accomplishment in that they had something to contribute. This small venture was like the opening of clouds following a black storm, and the sudden appearance of a shaft of golden sunshine.
But the effects of much extra curricula involvements was demanding and draining. I felt a need of a slower pace with some time to think and do research. There then came an opening at the small day school at the Inkameep Reserve just south and east of Oliver. Here I started a career that was to last for ten very full and fascinating years of creativity and research. After attending courses for two summers at Edmonton, I then attended two other summer schools at Victoria, B.C. Then came a freedom to travel and study for a number of years. Largely at museums and universities at Victoria, Seattle, Berkeley and the Natural History Museum in New York. The latter having very well-equipped and pleasingly displayed West Coast Canadian Indian art and replicas of life in those parts before the coming of the white man. Then too a study at the National Museum at Ottawa proved of great value.
The Inkameep Reserve is in a small valley quite distinct from the main Okanagan Valley. It is surrounded by high hills and distant mountains, due to irrigation there were fine meadows of green alfalfa in contrast to the dryness of the sandy soil and the sage brush. On some of the hills there were examples of rock paintings. These provided a start with art native to the reserve. There were days after the closing of school when pupils and myself would ride off and sketches would be made of these designs, and then transferred to the top of the blackboards of the school. Then further sketches were made of the designs on bags and moccasins, and so a start was made.
Chief George Baptiste was an old man at this time. He had been a man of wisdom and vision. And the fine bands of horses and herds of cattle were largely due to his initiative. And he had built up a type of life of value to his people just beginning to feel the impact of the encroachment of another culture.
He was ahead of his time in that he wanted his children taught within their own background, not sent away to the residential schools. And with persistence, he held to his views and eventually got a small day school established on the reserve. It took about two years for the children to fully accept me. For though I appeared friendly, I was after all a white man. And it was generally assumed by adults, and so was accepted by the children that no matter how kind a white man might seem, he was always suspect. This attitude which is easily understandable, was largely due to the many broken promises of the past, and the greed and disdain.
The parents and the old folk were always courteous. The Chief just wished for one thing, that his children be equipped to be able to hold their own in a white man's world. For he sensed clouds ahead foretelling of storms. It was essential that they should have some understanding of sales and the marketing of fine horses and fattened cattle in the markets and the stockyards of the Coast.
Meanwhile the art studies continued and enriched the more difficult subjects within the curriculum. And any information that I could pick up during the summer vacations was like grist to a mill that consisted of a very small but fascinating school room. A room in which hardly a week went by without there being some new development.
Then there came about a very unusual breakthrough that was to bring in its wake very extraordinary happenings. As one Christmas was approaching, I brought up the following suggestion.
"How would you like to make some sketches for Christmas cards". There was very great excitement.
"If the Nativity had taken place in the lower Okanagan Valley, what would have been the setting?"
"There would be no stable, but there would be calves in the hills of our reserve."
"There would be no ass or ox, but there would be deer, coyotes and rabbits."
Every available space on the blackboards was made use of. There was tremendous concentration and along with the sighing, considerable erasing of chalk lines. What eventually emerged was a tepee made of bull-rushes. The Baby was laced on to a brilliantly decorated papoose board. There was a tree and an owl, a deer and a coyote, and a boy and girl dressed in fringed buckskin.
"But where are Mary & Joseph?"
It appeared that they were visiting relatives, and the boy and girl were left to tend the baby.
These rough unfinished sketches on pieces of birch bark were then sent off to friends of the school. They were welcomed and acclaimed by the receivers. Then someone suggested that a large picture should be made of the different sketches, and carried out on a piece of buckskin. So the effort became a group project, and then the finished sketches were submitted to the young artists, and between them they chose the one they thought best. (For by this time they had developed sufficiently to appraise each other's work). And the artist, whose work was the most finished, was Francis Baptiste.
The Fisherman, by Sis-hu-lk (Francis Baptiste), Osoyoos Museum Collection
His grandmother prepared him a beautiful piece of buckskin. And when he had finished his picture there was much oohing and ah-ahing. As I had no car, the garage had been turned into a studio for the small school room had become jammed with utensils and sketches and finished projects. And there the buckskin painting was left to dry, supposedly safe from any smudges or handling. It was to be sent to a competition to the Royal Drawing Society's Exhibit for Commonwealth children to be held in London, England. A few days before it was to be sent away, one of the children had gone to the studio to get some materials. Then he came rushing back to the school in great distress and screaming that the bush-tailed rats had chewed holes in Francis's picture. Everyone took flight from their desks as though they were a flock of birds to survey the situation. When I arrived they were holding up the buckskin from which great chunks had been gouged. There was only one thing to do. Get Grandmother to give another piece of buckskin. She did, but it was not as nice as the first one. Within two days time Francis had completed the second picture, and then after being carefully packed and insured it was on its way, and just arrived a couple of days ahead of the deadline. After some weeks there came an announcement over the radio that the picture "Inkameep Nativity" had won a Silver Medal, and was going to be taken to Buckingham Palace for the Queen to see.
Then in 1938 a portfolio of the children's drawings and paintings were exhibited by the Junior Red Cross in different capitals throughout Europe. In that same year I took an exhibit of the Inkameep art which was exhibited in London, Paris and Dublin and at a big exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland.
The next area of importance in connection with the art was when the old Chief agreed to send Francis Baptiste to an Indian Art School at Santa Fe, New Mexico. There he studied for one school year. On his return the Chief built him a studio near to Francis's home. And here he painted many pictures that were sent to different countries throughout the world.
While these developments were going on in the art field, other creativities started to take shape. There came a feast day in the fall of the year, when a picnic had been arranged amid the high hills. But as the afternoon approached the sky darkened and a deluge descended battering on the roof and the dry earth. The old stove was lit, and because of the increasing darkness the oil lamps had to be lit. And whatever cooking had been planned was carried out. Then there were games and much merriment. There then came a pause and a little fellow by the name of Johnny Stelkia, who had very little English, came to me and said.
"Teacher, me know Indian story."
I was all ears. The others wished to squelch him, for this was forbidden territory. But I said, "Let him speak."
Then a very strange thing happened, this small boy became like a bear—for his story was about a bear. And there before our eyes the bear walked and rolled and talked in the Okanagan dialect. I was spellbound as were all the other children as they sat enthralled by the ability of one of their own number to portray the actions of an animal so vividly. There flashed through my mind the thought—here are the elements of drama in which bird and animals act and speak like human beings.
As the children were captivated by the presentation, I did not have too much difficulty in getting further stories. There then came a further development of art forms. For masks were needed. These were made of paper maché of the bird and animal characters. Then stories had to be chosen that had some aspect of dramatization.
One very surprising thing emerged in that these children had a certain grace of movement, there was no stiffening from the elbow or knees downward, for both legs and arms flowed. And in these flowing movements there came something very distinctive in the walk, run or crouch of each different portrayal.
Then, to give a further finesse to each character, for it would not have been in keeping to have used masks with jeans and shirts, I purchased cheese cloth. That was the only material cheap enough to buy on the small salary of a day school teacher. This was then dyed the color of buckskin, and the play making was under way. A cloudburst of creativity then took place that was breathtaking. A child would tell his story after much coaching by the old people. Others would then make comment and a script would start to take shape. But the contributions had always to keep within the framework of the story, although some speeches were added for some of the minor characters to keep the script flowing. And in very crude form, but authentic, small plays came into being.
Within the Oliver area there lived two white girls, Isabel MacNaughton and Elizabeth Renyi. Isabel had often listened to old stories told by Mrs. Shuttleworth of Okanagan Falls. She had written poems and was now willing to write plays for our children. One told of "Why the Ant's Waist is Small.", and another "Why the Chipmunk's Coat is Striped." Elizabeth had tried out some acting of plays with small white children.
When I read the first play about the ant and its waist there was great commotion. It was as though there had been an invasion of acrobats. There was a great joy in the eyes and much exaltation.
Later the Inkameep children were to write their own version of the Okanagan story of the Hare and the Tortoise, the latter known as a turtle. It was presented at a festival at Penticton. The adjudicator stated that practically every rule of the theatre had been broken, but somehow a very entertaining performance had been produced that was greatly appreciated by a rapt audience.
When this was repeated for the old people, they were amazed. It was played in a superb setting, the sun was descending upon the western mountains, and the vivid green meadow was entrancing against the silver grey of the sage brush. The smell of the baked earth and the pungency of the sage added to the fantasy of the evening. Something new was born. First the enthusiasm and skilled performance of the children. Then too, the eyes of the old, for no words can surpass the eloquence of the eyes either under stress, joy, or accomplishment. How they laughed at the antics of the boastful rabbit, and there was a lump in their throats when poor rabbit was humiliated. And the white audience, which included many sophisticated former Europeans, had difficulty in expressing their feelings, except that they had witnessed something essentially Canadian, something they knew was present, but which had always before evaded them. And their sincere appreciation gave to the adult Indian people a kind of seal upon their old culture, that still had the power to amuse and produce awareness and an attempted awareness of something of a people who had forged their own way long before the advent of the white people to the western valleys and mountains.
Often in the silence of the evenings, when sounds carry far, I would hear the Indian cowboys singing their own songs. This they did while driving cattle down from the high pastures to the meadows beside the river and the creeks.
Whenever I spoke of these songs and expressed a desire to hear them sung, there was always a silence and a blank stare, as though this was not my business. I often thought how I might break this impasse. For in all countries throughout the world, and among all people and all ages songs have been sung of sorrows and joys and happenings of importance in the lives of each of the people, something that was of their very own. There must be some way of breaking the bondage that tongue-tied a people, preventing free expression.
About this time a friend knowing of the children's love of color offered unbeknown a solution. For there arrived a large gaudy poster of an English thatched cottage with a luxuriant garden in which were many hollyhocks. It was so bright that one was forced to blink. When I held it up for the children to see, there was a kind of stunned surprise and then much exclamation. Then the interest was heightened when I told them that I was going to give it as a prize to the one who could sing three Okanagan songs, and who sang them the best. And that I would give them two weeks to learn the songs. Much animated chatter followed this announcement. After school and the carrying out of evening chores I would hear snatches of songs and during the week ends as they rode by on different errands a certain melody would be repeated time and again. I asked no questions but sensed that much effort and practice was underway.
When the fourteenth day arrived there was much suppressed excitement. Then one by one each made contribution. Some had just one song, a few two, and a still further few, three. And the one without any question the winner was a small frail child named Irene, maybe she was six or seven, who from birth had a slight disfigurement on her upper lip. In everyday life she was highly strung and nervous, but on this occasion she had poise and self confidence and there was a glow in her eyes as she sang her three songs. Because she was so outstanding, this was an occasion that demanded care and careful communication. There was praise for all the competitors, odd remarks on weaknesses, and much expressed interest in the songs themselves that dealt with many phases of life and of interest. But the prize was for the one who had sung three songs the best. And the only fair conclusion that I could come to was that the singing of Irene Baptiste was of unusual quality. As she came forward to receive this picture of garish coloring no saint could have looked more ecstatic. Then holding it very close, she returned to her seat in wonderment. And for a few days she went about in a world of her own, very far removed from everyday life. But after a time she returned to her normal self and I was able to question her.
"Irene, how was it that you sang those songs so beautifully?"
"Teacher," she said, "When I saw that picture, I wanted it more than anything else in the world. After school I ran as fast as I could and found my Grandma."
"Grandma, you got to teach me Indian songs." Grandma kind of laughed and then she said in a deep voice.
"I have not sung Indian songs since I was a little girl like you."
"Grandma try and remember, I'll wash the floor for you, and I'll get the water, I'll help you weed the garden. I'll do anything you ask me, but please teach me Indian songs. Just three Indian songs. She thought for one day, and then sang and sang. And when she got tired, you know what I made her do?"
"I made her whistle.
Berry Picking Song, artist unknown
Osoyoos Museum Collection
"Shame on you, for your Grandma has few teeth."
"She just laughed and started to whistle. That is why I sang the songs well, and how I won the prize."
Within a few months we had garnered thirty different songs, some were important ones. One old man enthused by the interest of the children gave us a drum, this then formed a background for the singing. Here was another step forward in gaining respect and joy for something that was essentially of their own background. Something that no longer need be hid from the critical whites.
The playground had always been a behaviour laboratory, you never knew what next might happen there. One day I was looking out of the window and there were three small children acting much like small ducklings. I stood fascinated as they waddled and quacked, preened their feathers and were squatting down on the earth with little kinds of murmuring. There then came the thought, these movements could be coordinated into a dance. Most of the Indian dances, though now forbidden, had been based on the movements of birds and animals. I awaited an opportune time, and then presented the situation that their people had always danced, and where these movements had come from. I related about watching the duck game and that there was the possibility of making a dance, a dance that would be a funny one. We had a drum to keep time, we had a pet deer of much graceful movement. So let us put our heads together and try.
There was great concentration for some weeks. Some were most agile and with good coordination. Others, though keen observers, lacked the ability to carry out the steps and movements. Others had a good sense of timing with the beating of the drum, and dances started to take shape. As with everything else associated with the first attempts at new forms of creative activity it was carried out by group effort.
Then after a certain amount of testing an avenue was opened up for individual effort. Each child chose their own bird or animal. And by careful observation and concentration some very beautiful and amusing dances were brought into being. Some of the drummers were uncanny with their sense of rhythm that gave an effective setting and pause to certain expressions of hand and body movements.
There were three little girls aged four, five and near to six who came each day for a few hours to get their ears attuned to the English language. At times they were as merry and mischievous as kittens. Two were slim and light on their feet, the other was pudgy, slow moving and very serious.
There came a perfect day, a Saturday when I wished I was riding the hills, but there were reports to complete and other necessary school chores. Then I heard a tapping on the door and some giggling and whispering. As I was not in the best of moods, knowing it was not adults, I growled, "Who is there?"
The door was pushed gently open and there were the three.
"What do you women want?"
There was a flurry, soon they were beside me, all talking at once.
"Teacher, we have a dance."
"A butterfly dance."
"I'm busy; run along now."
"It's true, Teacher."
For some time the argument went on, but sensing their intensity, which was most rare,
I gave way before their determination.
"Alright, alright, now listen carefully. No fooling around or climbing trees, and getting
stuck and yelling and disturbing the school, so no one can study."
But to all my misgivings, they gave reassuring answers. They left not one stone unturned in getting their own way on this occasion.
I must admit that on the whole they carried out my wishes. There were occasions though when the exasperated drummer in desperation at having to cope with the antics of the butterflies would explode. And flinging her drum in one direction, and with drumsticks in each hand would pursue the shrieking butterflies. Fully prepared to batter them should she catch them, which was seldom, for she was heavy of limb and slow on her feet. I would then have to go outside and yell so hard that the windows would rattle. They would return with heads hung low and very crestfallen to get a scolding.
There came a late afternoon when all was quiet, and they insisted their dance was now ready. I tried to evade their pleas, but in vain. Again they stood their ground, and I was forced to give way. I was then dragged down to the rambling creek, told to put my hands over my eyes, and not look up until I heard the beat of the drum.
And what a sight greeted my eyes as I looked up at the end of the beat. I could not help but think, how in the long ago, the first dances were seen in such a setting.
There was blue sky overhead, and the swift soaring of an eagle in flight caused a swishing sound. The Saskatoon bushes were full of fragrant white flowers, while a chorus of birds completed the setting. Then an unseen signal must have been given and suddenly there appeared two white butterflies. They had clumsily used the blossoms of blackthorn as wings. With such scant disguise they lost their human form, and with delicate posturing emerged as butterflies, while the beat of the drum was subdued. I was transfixed by such a sight. There before me, created by children of four, five and six, was a true art form.
When the dance was ended, they disappeared and then came out just ordinary little Indian girls, but with eyes alight and eager to hear my comments. I was embarrassed, for I could not find words to express my feelings, but could only in some kind of a fumbling way let them know of my appreciation. But with that understanding which children have at times, they accepted my being so inadequate.
There then came about the formation of a mock broadcast studio, and for seven minutes every day the schoolroom became the radio station I.N.K. of Inkameep, with most of the youngsters taking turns to act as announcers. From such small beginnings, they were to go on to Vancouver travelling by train for the first time. They produced and carried out a program of their songs, much to the amazement of the CBC folk who had gone through anxious moments, for they feared mike fright and speechlessness. But they need not have feared, the troupe took things in their stride. And then by a big ship they went through the islands to Victoria to put on their plays and dances and sing their songs before a huge crowd in a park near to the Parliament Buildings.
Many other creative things were to happen, and wherever they went up and down the valleys they helped to bring understanding and a lessening of prejudice.
While all this work was going on, it was against a background of anxiety, a haunting of the shape of things to come. For Europe was preparing for war. Was it worthwhile to go on expending energy that could come to naught? But there followed another train of thought, seed had been sown that could flourish in the eventual constructive era that could follow the destruction of war.
Then too, there was the awareness that these children of talent and ability would likely be crushed between two opposing forces. That of the old ways and the merciless ones of the new. For always throughout history primitive folk have been unable to overcome the cruelty and the greed of invading white men and their ways.
But our venture had come too late, the gap was too wide to be bridged. And among this small group that had brought such joy to others, and opened up new channels of exchange and acceptance, a number died tragic and premature deaths. They became broken in spirit and the light of gladness that had once lit their eyes became glazed. But for a few brief years they had experienced happiness.
by Eric Sismey
It is with pleasure that I offer Mr. Anthony Walsh's story about his early activities at the old Indian school on the Inkameep Reserve. It is a valuable contribution to the history of the Southern Okanagan. But I must add there are many Indians now in middle age who remember Mr. Walsh well. They hold him in high regard and with affection.
The last paragraph of Mr. Walsh's story ends with a note of sadness. He writes that he fears the venture had come too late, and the gap too wide to be bridged.
This I do not think is quite correct. In 1966 1 was responsible for bringing Mr. R. Bouchard, a trained young linguist to Penticton (OHS 30th report, pp 67-69). Since then progressive studies have been made under his leadership; his work has been recognized.
He has devised and committed to writing the Okanagan language by means of an easily learned alphabet. He has gathered many tapes of Okanagan songs and legends and his work with trained informants is progressing with governmental support and the Indians, themselves, are showing increasing interest in their language and culture.
Eric D. Sismey
Okanagan Historical Society Reports:
18th Report pp. 24-29
30th Report et seq
Reproductions of Francis Baptiste drawings are available at the Osoyoos Museum.
A Nativity tape broadcast over the Christmas season by station CKOK at Penticton is based on Mr. Walsh's material.
Inkameep in Depth
Drawing on Identity
Inkameep Day School Art Collection
The Virtual Museum of Canada provides a comprehensive look at the history of the Inkameep Day School. It contains a gallery of the artists' work as well as an audio and video catalogue.