Shortly after moving to Kelowna, a Canadian city in the south of the British Columbia region, known for its wineries, water sports and hiking trails, I saw news about the appearance of a monster.
Two brothers spotted a ripple in the water in the middle of 135 km long Lake Okanagan, which cuts across the valley of the same name, passing through Kelowna in the form of a snake.
They saw the crest of the wave that soon dissipated, but there was no boat in sight.
They were convinced that it was Ogopogo.
It is impossible to live long in Kelowna without hearing about the mysterious creature from the lake. Ogopogo is for Kelowna what Nessie is for Loch Ness in Scotland: a mythical yet unidentified being who supposedly resides in the depths of the lake and appears on the surface often enough to keep the legend alive.
It is described as a snake-shaped monster with several “humps”, with green or black scales, and the head of a horse, snake or sheep. The drawings depict a sea dragon like the one you can see on an old sailor’s map, in which it says: “There are monsters here.”
Around the city, Ogopogo takes the caricatural form of a nice 4.5 meter long sculpture by the lake; smiling mascot of the local WHL hockey team; and stuffed animals in souvenir shops.
Just like its name (which is a palindrome), its physical appearance – and existence itself – is something that no one is able to decipher.
The Ogopogo fever peaked in the 1980s, when the region’s tourism association offered a $ 1 million reward to anyone who proved the creature’s existence.
Greenpeace spoke out and classified the species as endangered, demanding that Ogopogo be captured only in fiction, not in real life.
American TV programs at the time, including “In Search Of and Unsolved Mysteries”, even reported on the mysterious inhabitant of the Okanagan Valley.
Guardian of the lake
However, it was only when I attended the International Indigenous Tourism Conference in Kelowna last fall that I realized that the Canadian popular culture ogopogo – a creature that 16% of British Columbia residents believe in – only came about because of a misunderstanding among Canada’s first European colonists and the native inhabitants of the Okanagan Valley, the syilx / Okanagan indigenous people.
“Actually, it is not a monster, it is a spirit of the lake and it protects this valley from end to end,” says Pat Raphael, of Westbank First Nation, an indigenous nation that is part of the Okanagan / syilx Alliance.
She was my guide through the ancestral lands of the syilx, which border Lake Okanagan.
As our bus headed south along the shore, Raphael explained that while many Canadians know the creature as Ogopogo, for syilx it is n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ (n-ha-ha-it-koo), which means “the holy spirit of the lake “.
Raphael pointed to a brown mound on Rattlesnake Island across the lake, where the spirit is said to inhabit. She also taught us to say n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ in the syilx language.
“It’s not Ogopogo! What are you, a colonizer?”, She joked as some people gave up on the complicated pronunciation and went back to saying Ogopogo.
Before European fur traders arrived in the valley in 1809, the syilx had lived in the region for at least 12,000 years. They had their own laws, justice system and beliefs. The main one was in relation to the importance of water, represented by n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ.
N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ existed in two forms: spiritual and physical, which was tangible and personified by the lake itself. Sometimes, however, the spirit revealed itself from within its waters.
“In our stories, [n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ] it’s actually quite dark, it has the head of a horse and the horns of a deer, ”explains Coralee Miller, assistant manager at the Sncəwips Heritage museum in West Kelowna.
“Missionaries saw our spirit from the water and used to demonize our spiritual beliefs.”
The syilx symbolically fed n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ with tobacco and sage – and sometimes made an offering of Kokanee salmon to thank the lake for providing food and water.
“That’s where I think the misunderstanding came from – the colonists saw us throw some meat into the water,” says Miller.
And soon they were telling stories about a snake in Lake Okanagan that needed the sacrifice of a living animal to be appeased and to ensure safe passage through the water.
Once the idea of the existence of a bloodthirsty snake in the lake was consolidated, the situation got out of hand – the colonists began to patrol the lake armed, fearing that the beast might attack.
But in the 1920s (probably in the absence of any real predatory human activity), reason spoke louder. Tourism officials named the creature Ogopogo in honor of an English folk song, the lyrics of which say:
“His mother was a seal, his father a whale; a little head; and almost no tail; and Ogopogo was his name.”
With a revered spirit, N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ had transformed himself into a creature with cartoonish features that would attract tourists.
It is difficult to know how many people have traveled to Kelowna in the past century in hopes of seeing the legendary lake monster, but the fact is that over time, Ogopogo has made Kelowna a popular destination in Canada.
For years, the creature appeared on Kelowna floats, both in the city and at larger parades in the Pacific Northwest and Alberta.
Souvenir shops sold pots with Ogopogo’s “eggs” and even their “feces”, which flew off the shelves.
Although the tourist office no longer actively promotes Ogopogo today, the legend remains as popular as before.
However, the misappropriation and commercialization of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is a delicate issue.
For Miller, a member of Westbank’s First Nation, n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ and Ogopogo are two separate entities and should not be confused. One of the museum’s missions is to tell the story of the indigenous peoples of the region and talk about the importance of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ in protecting the lake.
It is part of what she calls “deprogramming”; question or deconstruct the colonial perspective on local history and culture. It is also an important step towards reconciliation, an ongoing process across the country to establish and maintain respectful relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.
Last spring, the indigenous tourism company Moccasin Trails launched rowing boat trips on Lake Okanagan, where the guides present n nx̌ax̌aitkʷ as a spiritual talisman – not a monster – and explain how the appropriation took place.
The canoe tour begins with a ceremony to feed the water. As the vessel glides across the crystalline surface of the lake, a syilx cultural leader spreads sage and tobacco into the water, evoking the spirit world and asking his ancestors to keep everyone safe.
Greg Hopf, co-owner of Moccasin Trails, says the ceremony is powerful – and designed to illustrate the connection that the indigenous people have with the land, which is very personal.
“We want people to leave the tour with a better understanding of indigenous culture.”
In downtown Kelowna, the Okanagan Heritage Museum works in partnership with representatives from Westbank First Nation to tell a more complete story of the region.
The museum remade its entire gallery in 2019 and represents the syilx as a living culture, instead of focusing only on the way of life of the people of the region before colonization.
According to the museum’s executive director, Linda Digby, the knowledge and perspective of the sylix are now integrated into all the portraits depicted – and an exhibition on Ogopogo explains how n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ was misinterpreted by the colonists and caused a boom in tourism.
“For the colonizers, [Ogopogo] it was something real, “says Digby.
“They definitely misinterpreted what they heard from the indigenous community and had no qualms about making up their own stories and appropriating it, it wouldn’t even have occurred to them that they were doing it.”
Over time, the colonists’ collection of stories grew – either the neighbor had seen the creature, or the person himself had seen something strange in the lake.
“You live here long enough, everyone has seen something,” adds Digby.
During my journey to understand n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ, I met some people who really believe in the legend based on what they saw at Lake Okanagan.
And they are not alone: the museum’s archives are filled with newspaper clippings of alleged Ogopogo appearances over the decades, along with stories about how the figure of a lake monster is beneficial to the city’s coffers.
“Ogopogo is wonderful for tourism. It adds color, boldness and atmosphere,” says Robert Young, professor of earth sciences at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, who is often called as the voice of reason when a new “appearance” occurs. Ogopogo.
For Young, Ogopogo is not a matter of biology, but an issue related to the processes of earth science – the way water moves over the surface.
Thermal stratification in a lake can cause a wave to appear out of nowhere when a denser layer of water slides under a more superficial layer, as it usually does in spring or autumn, he explains.
He calls the phenomenon “the Ogopogo wave”.
This theory offers a plausible explanation for what people may be seeing in the water.
But while Young is entirely in favor of critical thinking about Ogopogo, he also hates to dispute its existence.
According to him, the legend must be preserved, since it is a Canadian cultural icon, and ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is an important part of the syilx’s belief.
I am not afraid that a creature in the depths of the lake may bite my foot when I go for a swim, but the power of nature makes me reflect.
I started taking a morning walk that takes me on a trail surrounded by mountains overlooking Lake Okanagan.
I am delighted to live in such a stunning place. When the wind makes the lake’s water ripple and rocks the pines that grow on the hillside, I feel a connection with the natural beauty of my land.
Perhaps this spirit is my interpretation of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ.