Arts & Culture

Celebrating First Nations: Indigenous Influence in Kelowna's Cultural District

A carved wooden mask with intricate details on a pink wall.
Kelowna Art Gallery


The Cultural District displays the city's diverse culture, deeply enriched by its First Nations heritage. This article explores the profound influence of Indigenous culture within this lively district, exploring its impact on art, cultural centres, and events, weaving a story of a community vibrantly alive with its rich ancestral roots.

Historical Context

Long before the urban landscape of Kelowna took shape, the Syilx/Okanagan people thrived in the Okanagan Valley. Their profound connection to the land shaped not only their sustenance strategies but also their cultural and governance structures. This deep-rooted heritage forms the bedrock of Kelowna's cultural identity, infusing the city with traditions and practices that date back thousands of years.

The Syilx/Okanagan people’s lifestyle, intertwined with the natural bounties of the land, was reflected in their mobile hunting and gathering activities. Salmon fishing and fruit harvesting were not just economic pursuits but cultural pillars that continue to resonate in the city's ethos today.

Indigenous Arts and Culture in the Cultural District

Kelowna’s Cultural District is a canvas showcasing the artistic brilliance of Indigenous creators. Indigenous artists, storytellers, and musicians are pivotal in knitting the cultural tapestry of the city. At the Kelowna Art Gallery, historical and contemporary Indigenous art finds a prestigious platform, connecting the past with the present.

The public spaces of Kelowna are adorned with art that pays homage to its Indigenous roots. Monumental pieces like the "Medicine Bear" and "Elk" sculptures, and the striking sculpture of Syilx Chief Charlie swkncut, stand as symbols of the city's enduring respect and acknowledgment of its First Nations heritage.

Cultural Centres and Museums

The Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society was established in 1974 in Kelowna. Offering a wide range of services and programs, the Society bridges cultural gaps and fosters understanding between cultures. It operates an affordable housing project and is set to expand its impact with a new housing project in the Black Mountain neighbourhood.

The Sncəwips Heritage Museum is another cultural jewel, offering a window into the rich history and culture of the Syilx people. It stands as a living museum, where artifacts, some still in use today like traditional drums, tell the tale of a civilization thousands of years in the making.

Indigenous Influence on Environmental Conservation

Environmental stewardship has vast roots in Indigenous practices in Kelowna. The Syilx/Okanagan Nation has been instrumental in integrating traditional ecological knowledge with modern conservation science. This harmonious blend is exemplified in the Syilx/Okanagan Nation Fisheries Water Management Tools, a pioneering initiative safeguarding the Okanagan watershed.

Economic Impact and Indigenous Businesses

Indigenous businesses are vital cogs in Kelowna's economic machinery, especially in the tourism sector. Enterprises like Moccasin Trails offer immersive cultural experiences, while Indigenous World Winery and Kekuli Cafe blend economic ventures with cultural exploration, inviting both locals and tourists to partake in a rich cultural exchange.

Indigenous Events in the Cultural District

The Okanagan Indigenous Music and Arts Festival is a highlight in Kelowna's cultural calendar, celebrating Indigenous music, arts, and crafts. The festival, along with accolades like the “Best in Arts and Entertainment 2020” award, underscores the significance of Indigenous contributions to Kelowna's cultural life.


Recognizing the Syilx/Okanagan people's influence in Kelowna is a commitment to a shared future, while still acknowledging the past. This is exemplified by gestures like the City Council's Welcome to the Land acknowledgment, a step towards understanding, respect, and reconciliation. In Kelowna’s Cultural District, every art piece, every event, and every story is a thread in the rich tapestry of a community that continues to honour and celebrate its First Nations roots.