The traditions and culture of the Osoyoos Indian Band come alive here.
With the precision of a surgical incision, the Okanagan Valley slices in a north-south direction through the mountains of south-central British Columbia. Since Oblate priests planted the first vineyards here in the 1850s, the wine industry has flourished. Today, grape vines march up and down the slopes in military precision supporting over 100 wineries. But one stands out.
NK’MIP means bottom land
NK’MIP Cellars, the first Native owned and operated winery in North America, is tucked away at the south end of the valley. Located in a postcard setting on a hillside in Canada’s only desert, this is the land of the Osoyoos Indian Band. (NK’MIP means bottom land in the Native language.)
The winery displays Native art including masks, paintings and carvings and, of course, offers tours and tastings. Aboriginal-inspired cuisine is featured at the Patio, a seasonal outdoors restaurant overlooking the lake. The winery is one of the most elegant and culturally rich in British Columbia, an impressive achievement considering the fierce competition.
Opened in 2001, NK’MIP Cellars has been very successful, hosting multitudes of visitors and producing premium varietal wines such as riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, as well as the exotic ice wine. Thanks to the hot desert weather, NK’MIP makes big bruising reds. Their reservation has 32,000 acres of which 1,200 acres are planted in grapes. About 300 acres are used for NK’MIP Cellars and the rest are leased to other wineries.
The Band has been growing grapes since 1968 and long dreamed of starting a winery. Two people played key roles in bringing the vision to reality. Sam Baptiste, a former band-chief, provided the technical leadership. He studied horticulture and viticulture at the University of Washington State and has applied that knowledge as the general manager and viticulturalist of the vineyard.
Leadership came from Clarence Louie, who first became band chief in 1985, and is one of the most colourful and dynamic Native leaders in Canada. His approach is no-nonsense. “Get off of welfare. Get off your butt,” he said at an Aboriginal conference. “Our ancestors worked for a living. So should you.”
Although the winery is the economic engine, the heart and soul of the tourism complex is the stunning NK’MIP Desert Cultural Centre, which celebrates the land, the legends and the history of the Osoyoos Indian Band. Here, the Indigenous traditions and culture of the Band come alive. Inside you learn about the desert ecology and wildlife in “Critter Corner” and “Living Land” displays. The legends of Sen’klip (Coyote) are told in two multi-sensory theatres. As Derek Bryson, the Centre’s marketing manager says, “the centre has really helped the Osoyoos Indian Band learn about our culture.”
The Centre is made of rammed earth, an ancient building technique. Each layer is made, poured and tamped separately, forming a wave-like design. The thick walls greatly increase energy efficiency and earthquake resistance. The building is semi-underground, a design which is a reminder of the traditional winter dwellings and makes use of the insulating properties of the surrounding hillside.
Outside, you smell wild sage as you stroll along 1.5 kms of walking trails on the 50-acre site and visit a reconstructed village, step into a traditional pit house and sweat lodge and explore desert ecology.
And there is much more. This tourism complex includes the Sonora Dunes golf course, the luxury Spirit Ridge Resort & Spa, which includes a conference centre, and an RV park. Many activities are available including horse-back riding, fishing tours, rappelling, helicopter rides and more. But as you walk keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, who live in this desert habitat (Don’t worry, they’re shy.)
The winery, cultural centre, resort and associated facilities are an impressive accomplishment, for the Osoyoos Indian Band consists of only 550 people.
When goals and a vision were established at the start, a casino was rejected. Instead the Osoyoos Band wanted a facility that would showcase their culture. Not only did the winery and associated complex prosper, but the NK’MIP band has become one of the most progressive in the country and is recognized for its entrepreunership and economic self-sufficiency.
NK’MIP Cellars, the Desert Cultural Centre, the Spirit Ridge Resort and associated facilities have surpassed their goals. They generate revenue, form one of the most elegant tourism complexes in the province and are a huge source of pride. And like a good vintage, the complex continues to improve with time.