Reinventing the Okanagan: The Indians

The First Nations people of the Nk'Mip, or Osoyoos Band, offer a successful winery, desert culture center, and horseback rides at the arid southern end of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley

The native winery

NkMip Cellars, 1400 Rancher Creek Rd., Osoyoos, tel. 250-495-2985,, tours daily 11am, 1pm, 3pm, $7.50."Chief Louie likes to joke he's selling firewater to the white man."

It's an unwritten law of comedy that a statement isn't politically incorrect if a group is poking fun at itself, and as the tour guide started her spiel, a quietly smiling Chief Clarence Louie himself threaded through the little knot of tourists on his way out to the vineyards at Nk'Mip Winery (pronounced "Inka-meep"), North American's first—and only—native-owned winery.

This not just a curiosity It's an excellent winery. In fact, in 2012 it was named the #1 winery in British Colubmia by the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards.

Not everyone in the Okanagan is an arriviste, and the Nk'Mip—formally known as the Osoyoos Indian Band—have been here longer than most by a factor of thousands of years.

They also began their vineyard earlier than most, planting their first grapes in 1968. (Back then, paternalistic federal laws wouldn't allow the Indians to open their own winery, so they began a long partnership with the company now known as Vincor, Canada's largest wine concern.)

The Nk'Mip have approached stewardship of their ancestral lands with the same balance of modern entrepreneurial zeal and respect for the Okanagan's natural resources practiced by newer transplants to the region.

Chief Louie has formed his tiny tribe of 450 members into a corporation that owns a half-dozen business around the valley—from gas stations to construction companies—and oversees a variety of operations on the band's 32,000-acre Reserve outside the town of Osoyoos.

These include the winery and its fantastic patio lunch restaurant, a nine-hole golf course, resort and spa complex, RV park, and the excellent Desert Cultural Centre.

The desert of Canada

Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, 1000 Rancher Creek Rd.,
Osoyoos, tel. 250-495-7901,, $14.
The southern end of the Okanagan around Osoyoos is home to Canada's only true desert, a pocket microclimate of sunshine and low rainfall that actually marks the northernmost tip of the Great Basin Desert ecosystem, stretching south through the Mojave, the Sonora, and the Chihuahua in Mexico.

Though a desert, it's still full of life. Scientists have identified more than 25 new species in the Osoyoos area, which is home to one-third of the "red-listed" (threatened or endangered) species in British Columbia.

Several of the marquee rare species on display at the Centre—alongside multimedia presentations on the band's history, cultural traditions, and artwork—include spadefoot toads, tiger salamanders, black widows, and everybody's favorite: western rattlesnakes.

The Centre's 11am "Snakes Alive!" program is a fun mix of herpetology facts and anecdotes about the everyday encounters with snakes that are part of life in the desert, but don’t for one second imagine that the rattler shown on stage is the only one around.

Those "Watch for Rattlesnakes" signs by the interpretive trail meandering through the surrounding antelope brush are not just for show. As I entered the mock traditional village partway along the path, a rattler silently slid out of the bushes and, head slightly reared, slithered across the path at a pace I found rather alarming—especially when he turned and headed directly toward me. (Like a stupid little tourist, I snapped a few pictures before jumping out of the way.)

Horseback in the desert

Indian Grove Riding Stables, Rancher Creek Rd., Osoyoos, tel. 250-495-7555,, summer only, trail rides from $50.Deciding to explore more of the Band's desert Reserve by horse—which placed my ankles as far above the ground (and striking distance) as possible—I called Indian Grove Riding Stables.

Travis, my young guide, led me along a sandy trail that twisted through the yellow-tufted antelope brush.

Unlike the intermingled sagebrush, antelope brush is actually a member of the rose family, and Indian healers burn it in a ritual "smudging" to purify a house and clear out the evil spirits—besides which, it just smells wonderful. (Travis hangs small bundles on his car's rearview mirror, an Okanagan variant on the pine tree air freshener.)

We rode along ridges, picked our way in and out of steep gullies, and cantered into glens where the surrounding landscape eclipsed the view of the lake and its shoreline buildings and suddenly I could almost picture a John Ford western being filmed here among the antelope brush and blue-green sage, picked out with the lavender starbursts of hoary asters, fluffy-headed snow buckwheat, and bright yellow rabbit brush, all of it set against high cliffs of red and gold.

As we clambered up a berm, the lake popped back into view, just a few dozen feet below. We turned our horses to plunge down the sandy slope and galloped into the water.

Splashing along the shoreline under the warm desert sun, I gazed across the lake at a thin strip of green vineyards opposite, sandwiched between the Okanagan's rolling red hills bristling with Ponderosa pines and the rippling blue reflections of the water.


Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2013.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.