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Emerging from the Ashes of an Okanagan Cultural Genocide

Bernadette Gregoire
July 20 -- Oct 25, 2023




My name is Bernadette Gregoire, an Okanagan First Nation Artist of British Columbia, daughter of the late Dave and Edna Gregoire of the Bear Clan. My maternal grandparents are Edith and Christie Parker and great grandparents are Catherine/Christine and Isaac Harris and Annie and Joseph Parker; and paternal grandparents are Germaine and Angelique Gregoire and great grandparents are Harriet and Chief Antoine Gregoire. I give recognition and honor to these ancestors because I am the result of their life experiences. This gives me a strength based of Syilx (Okanagan), Secwepemc(Shuswap), Flathead, French and Irish. 

I was raised in the Okanagan tradition and the Catholic religious dogma. The Colonization of British Columbia as with all Settler Colonialism precepts is to target Indigenous populations with Genocide and Assimilation of the survivors. During that time the British Columbia Provincial Government did not recognize the Indigenous title therefore treaties were not negotiated or signed throughout most of the province. This means our lands are unceded and we are not conquered. The introduction of Colonial diseases into the Native populations in British Columbia nearly decimated the Northern Okanagan Nation. The survivors of the Northern Okanagan Nation encouraged re-population by inviting members from the Southern Okanagan Nation across the border. The survivors then went through the process of Assimilation through Religion and Government acknowledgment of given names. My surname is one example of the Assimilation process as it was bestowed upon my Great great-grandfather who was named Chief Sehowtken and given the name Adam Gregoire when baptized. His son, Antoine also became a strongly recognized Chief and then his son Neskonlith.

Catholicism played a huge role in our family through my mother’s influence as she had spent years in the Residential Schools as a child to young teen. My mother experienced many traumatic events in her early years that reflected in her parenting skills. I and my nine siblings went through the Catholic rites of passage of Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, and later myself having a Catholic marriage. My father was raised in the Okanagan tradition by his father and grandmother because he somehow avoided the wagon retrieval program that swept through the Okanagan Reserve. Through my father’s influence the Okanagan oral tradition of culture, religion, and legends were often shared in our family in many ways during our daily lives. The generational trauma experienced by my parents resulted in being raised in a loving yet extremely violent and abusive environment. My formative years were spent learning methods of escape which resulted in many mishaps physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. My mind became the ultimate escape through literature and art expression. The first memory I have as a budding artist is as a toddler drawing on my parents bedroom wall. When my artwork was discovered I stood in the doorway smiling as my family discussed the drawing and what could be done about it. My first critic was my eldest brother whose decision in regards to the drawing achievement was a swift and memorable punishment slap to the face. After that I confined my artwork to the girls’ bedroom wall or paper, including pages from literary novels to encyclopedias.


The reintroduction with my Okanagan heritage happened through a cherished and memorable experience of the Okanagan rite of passage and naming ceremony performed by my father especially for me. It began one day when I was home visiting my Mom, Dad and younger brother. I was already married and in my early twenties so this ceremony was quite unexpected. I was looking out the living room window and saw our cat playing with what I thought was a mouse at first until I saw the stripes down its back. I was startled and excited because normally chipmunks are not seen on Grandview Flats. I became anxious and did not want the cat to kill the chipmunk so I ran outside and quickly rescued it from our cat. I observed that the little chipmunk was breathing quickly, limp and its eyes were closed as I held it in my hands. Walking into the house I checked it for noticeable injuries and found no blood or scratches. To my surprise the chipmunk stirred and jumped out of my hands. My Dad was blind and deaf aided by a hearing aid for the one ear that could function with assistance.

So, as soon as the chipmunk leapt from my hands I told my Dad a chipmunk was on the loose in

the house. As I chased the chipmunk around the house in attempts to capture it I gave dad play by play progress and he laughed and encouraged me and the chipmunk during our antics. Having the same sense of quirky humor I enjoyed the chase and capture. My brother thoughtfully provided a bird cage to house the chipmunk. I observed that the little chipmunk was scared as it scrambled around in the cage and voiced my concern to dad who then asked me to bring the chipmunk to

him and place it and the cage on his lap, which I did. Dad put his hands on the cage and started to sing to the cchipmunk. The beautiful song he was singing was in the Okanagan language . Completely captivated by the song, I watched in amazement as the chipmunk stopped scrambling around the cage and simply sat down facing my Dad and it was no longer hyperventilating. I told Dad this and asked what he had been singing. He told me it was the chipmunk song and all animals have a song in honoring their place in creation. I was quite impressed and awe-struck  to learn that bit of information about our Okanagan culture.


Dad handed the chipmunk and cage back to me and told me and my brother to take it up the hill

across the railway tracks and release it. My brother drove me and chipmunk up the hill where we stopped at a clearing in the trees. I carried the chipmunk and cage over to a nearby tree and opened the door of the cage and watched it run out and quickly scurry up the tree. My brother and I said goodbye and prayed for the chipmunk and returned home. Back at the house I hugged Dad and told him where we released the chipmunk because he used to log in that area using handsaw, axe, splitters, rope, chains, horses and wagon. To say the least I considered Dad as my hero.

Dad held my hands and informed me that finding and saving the chipmunk has made the chipmunk my spirit guide. He said  that traditionally I would have had to go on a quest into the mountains and fast until I had a dream but my spirit guide decided to make itself known that day and time. My heart swelled and tears started streaming down my cheeks as I felt the most sacred honor being bestowed upon me during my rite of passage. Dad informed me that part of the rite of passage is to also receive my Okanagan name of the chipmunk or another animal that is important to me. The Blue Bird instantly filled my mind and I shared the image with my Father. He told me the Okanagan name for the Blue Bird and we repeated the name back and forth till I started pronouncing it correctly. I hugged my Dad fiercely and said thank you for the wonderful Okanagan Rite of Passage ceremony. Dad held me gently running his hand down my long braided hair calling me by my nickname “Bended Up”; because he could not pronounce my French name Bernadette. That Rite of Passage ceremony overshadowed all the Catholic Rite of Passage ceremonies because it was my Dad, my hero bestowing the honor.

For years I had a love-hate relationship with my parents until I came to the realization that they did all they could for the family with the limited resources and knowledge in their parenting skills they had as the internal and external battle with colonialism and tradition waged and continued to lay waste to everything in its path.

My mother and I had our first mother-daughter connection during a very painful time as I struggled and fell in my internal twisted path. I had separated from my then husband, experiencing tremendous emotional failure, guilt, fear, anger and loss. I was alone with my mom listening to her one of many lectures that Catholics did not divorce and I must return to my husband. I then realized that I must share the secrets I have been keeping bottled up inside for many years,and come clean or spill the beans as the saying goes. Through anger, fear and tears I brokenly shared the experiences from living with my husband and his parents and always returned because of my Catholic beliefs about separation and divorce but wasn’t going back again.  My mom laid her hand on my cheek saying it is his loss in losing her beautiful daughter. I was shocked as fresh tears streamed down my cheeks. My mom and I hugged and for the first time ever she said she loved me. Those words and actions from my mom bridged a chasm between us and gave me the strength to begin examining my broken psyche and obtain a divorce. I am forever humbled by my mom’s physical and internal beauty, tremendous strength and love though not spoken was always present in her actions and sacrifices. A true warrior in every way.

My heart was drawn to Anthropology to learn more about our history and ancestry. The art work continued with the use of numerous mediums as finances and work, college and time allowed.  It included painted and inked drawings on tanned deer hide, aka buckskin. A deeper connection to creation led to charcoal and pencil sketching of pieces that would result in the bead work used in the pieces. These pieces are the result of intense searches to obtain the specific colors thus creating the desired reflection of my visions.


As I came into myself I decided to attend the arts program at Red Deer College. I was in my element and dove in to challenge myself and let my creativity flow freely and was a sponge to absorb the teachings. Receiving honored recognition and being given artistic freedom and the request to have specific pieces used in an exhibition was humbling.

The artwork went on sabbatical as my husband underwent open heart surgery and had long-term effects from it which later resulted in another heart surgery. Emerging from this was the urge to sketch as I walked the land which became my salvation and strength. It resulted in the metal profiles shown in the pieces today. My spirit was soaring. And then I was diagnosed with cancer and life halted except to have the necessary surgeries and chemo treatments. A terrible side-effect is the chronic pain in my fingers, hands, arms and legs. During the recovery stages I was drawn to the outdoors again and began taking pictures. Attempts to sketch or paint was painful and I persevered with the sketches which led to more metal profiles and then the  inspiration to meld it with the photography. I found an exciting new expression of my cultural connections to creation of dance, animal spirits, earth, moon and plants.


My father and mother influenced my series of artwork pieces as I now have a deep respect and pride in my Okanagan traditions interspersed with Catholicism. The creation of my artwork is strongly influenced by the legends of my people therefore each piece has a story to tell. Thus I am slowly emerging from the ashes of my personal trans-generational trauma created by the Okanagan Cultural Genocide and Assimilation and Oppression process. And the work continues …..

Emerging from the Ashes of an Okanagan Cultural Genocide

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