The involvement of First Nations People in Okanagan agricultural labour has a long history. This history involves local, other B.C. First Nations People, and also a First Nations tribe from the United States.

The Early Years

In the interior of British Columbia, the largest Indian nation is the Interior Salish. It is divided into five tribes: the Lillooet Indians (of the Lillooet river valley), the Thompson Indians (of the Fraser river valley), the Okanagan Indians (of the Okanagan lake and river), the Lake Indians (of the Arrow lakes) and the Shuswap Indians (from Lillooet eastward to the Rocky mountains) (Jenness, 1960, p. 351). The Okanaken Indians (or Okanagan) are not confined to this province, as they also reside south into the United States, with the border dividing them into two fairly equal parts. In his book The Salish People, Charles Hill-Tout explains that in British Columbia, the main settlements were along Okanagan Lake, the Similkameen River and Arrow Lakes (Hill-Tout, 1978, p. 131). The Okanagan tribes formerly occupied ten permanent villages or settlements, from the area of Enderby in the north to Osoyoos in the south. There were also main settlements around Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton, Okanagan Falls and Keremeos. Hill-Tout notes: "In addition to these main settlements, they had a number of fishing, berry and root camps, which were occupied only temporarily during certain seasons of the year" (1978, p. 131). A publication from the National Museum of Canada estimates that the Interior Salish Indians numbered 15,500 persons in 1780. By 1960, they numbered only about 6,000 persons (Jenness, 1960, p. 358).

Even before the appearance of the first white settlers, the Salish were involved in some forms of agricultural production. Ceremonies were held when the first berries or roots ripened:

The chief would send out his wife or oldest daughter to gather a portion (of berries or roots). The whole community would then come together and prayers would be offered to these spirits of the sky who were supposed to preside over the operations of nature. Portions of the fruit or roots would be distributed to all present, after which anyone was free to gather all he or she desired. (Hill- Tout, 1978, p. 133)
In Food of the Okanagan Indian, Mary Joe explains that various types of roots and berries were collected by the head women of a family throughout the spring and summer months. Around April, they dug up Spitlum (bitter roots). Later, they harvested Indian potatoes, foam berries, Saskatoon berries, strawberries, raspberries and chokeberries. Joe explains:
During the later days of winter, when food was hard to obtain and little could be expected until spring, the chief of the tribe would get together all the women of the tribe to determine how much food each family had to get them through the winter. When they were called, they had to say how many sacks of food they had. (Joe, 1981, p. 73)

Chief N'Kwala (Nicola), head of all the Okanagans and Colvilles, had a great many head of cattle obtained from Indians and white settlers. He even wintered cattle for dealers in exchange for trade goods, such as guns and ammunition. Brent (1966, p. 108) notes in reference to Chief N'Kwala:

He also cultivated some patches of corn and a little tobacco before 1860. Seeds were obtained from traders from the south and from Kamloops. The Hudson Bay Company directed his cultivation and also gave him seeds of different things. These he raised at his home by the lake, eight miles down from the head of Okanagan Lake. (Brent, 1966, p. 108)

In 1912 the Penticton Herald reported the following description of local First Nations People by an Indian Agent named J.R. Brown:

Occupations. - They farm extensively and grow fine fruit. They also fish and hunt and quite a number work out both on the provincial roads and for settlers, with teams and alone, while others are engaged as cowboys and teamsters. I am informed by those who employ them that they compare favorably with white men....

Characteristics and Progress - These Indians are for the most part industrious and are certainly making progress both in mixed farming and fruit- growing. They rank high when compared with some Indians in this agency. ("Interesting Report," 1912)

Around 1910, about two dozen Indian reserves in B.C. were operating commercial orchards, some dating back to 1880. In his book Indians At Work, Knight states that the farms ranged from semi-abandoned apple orchards to well-tended operations producing marketable fruit (1978, p. 73).

By the late 1800s, First Nations people and white settlers clashed over the possession of land. Early agriculture of white settlers consisted mainly of cattle ranching which required thousands of acres for pasture. Land ownership, a foreign concept for First Nations People, was introduced but not without friction. Around 1860, the Okanagan First Nations people were asked to define the boundaries of their land. They were wealthy in horses and cattle and placed a great value on land which provided the best pasturage, especially as winter range. According to Thomson, who researched the history of Okanagan land treaty, they chose "land of the quality and extent that would allow development of good-sized stock ranches at the foot and head of Lake Okanagan." The lands "would have supported them had they been allowed to retain them" (1978, p. 46).

However, the white settlers laid claim to some of the same land and were awarded ownership by the Provincial Government. In the end, land cut off from Indians reserves formed the basis for the Ellis Ranch in Penticton and the pioneer ranches of the North Okanagan, including the O'Keefe, Greenhow, Tronson and Houghton ranches (Thomson, 1978, p. 51).

In 1881 the Canada Census listed 676 First Nations People in the Okanagan (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1883). They comprised 51% of the population at the time and were greater than the number of whites. As the Okanagan Valley became more intricately linked to an expanding Canadian society and economy, First Nations People's labour became important for white economic endeavors (Hudson, 1986, p. 459). Thomson notes that First Nations People provided a ready and valued labour force for white farmers doing such activities as seeding, harvesting, threshing, and fruit and hop gathering (1985, p. 308).

The Early Salish Farmworkers

At the turn of the century at the Coldstream Ranch, a large acreage of hops had been cultivated, cattle raised and a tree fruit orchard planted. Salish Indians from Lytton, Lillooet, and the Similkameen joined Vernon workers in the fields for the hop harvest in the fall. The Salish Indians thus became the first migrant farm workers recorded in the history of the Okanagan Valley.


Lady Aberdeen's journal of 1894 describes one aspect of First Nations People's agricultural labour:

Our hop-picking is a very picturesque sight from all accounts. The Siwash Indians arrive, tents & all & settle down for a holiday time at the picking. It is work that just suits them & they do it far better than either white people or Chinese. Big boxes are given to them numbered, & for each boxful they get $1 - some get as much as $20 or $30 enough to keep them through the winter. At night they light fires & dance & sing & amuse themselves & present a weird appearance. (Middleton, 1986, p. 56)
De Lautour recalled that Okanagan and Similkameen Indians were however "a very small item" in the hop camp:
Though no local pickers were ever refused work, they were not encouraged to apply, mainly because they knew too many people locally and many liked to visit rather than work. Those from a distance, like the Nicola or Lillooet, came to work and make a stake toward the forthcoming winter. (de Lautour, 1950, p. 112)
Dave Parker, a First Nations person born in Penticton in 1915, recalled staying on the Coldstream Ranch in 1922 where his mother picked apples and his father worked in the packinghouse:
They allocated a piece of ground where we could pitch our tent. They provided chip wood for the fires. This was generally the case - Indians going anywhere to do farm work were living in tents. It was a way of life for them, not a matter of discrimination or neglect on the part of the farmer. (Parker, personal communication, January 27, 1986)
Myra De Beck, an early white settler in the Okanagan, also recalled First Nations people working at Coldstream Ranch:
There would be an Indian encampment with teepees and the little campfires. Oh, one always went to see the hop picking at least once. And if you had guests you'd never dream of neglecting to take them to see the hop picking. There were sort of bins with poles that stuck out that they carried with a man at each end. The hops were dumped into these. I think the squaws and children did as much picking, or more, than the men. (Mitchell & Duffy, 1979, p. 12)
In addition to the Coldstream Ranch other farms were established in the Okanagan- Similkameen around the turn of the century. When help was required, the white settlers turned to the local First Nations people. One such case was the Ellis ranch, which operated an orchard in Penticton.
At that time all ranch help were Indians from the Penticton Reserve and there are still Indians at Penticton who remember their fathers and grandfathers riding range, putting up hay, and accompanying the Ellis pack train. (Sismey, 1975, p. 137)
Tom Ellis' daughter, Kathleen, recalled the First Nations people who worked for her father:
The Indians, at first naturally resentful and distrustful of a white man encroaching on their domains, soon became fast friends and allies. Work, both indoors and without, could not have been carried out without this help. The best gave this cheerfully for seventy-five cents a day. (Ellis, 1950, p. 98)

In Kelowna, the first white settlement was Father Pandosy Mission and Giovanni 'John' Casorso, founder of the Casorso clan, initially worked among Salish-speaking First Nations People on this settlement (Casorso, 1983, p. 104). In the Okanagan, fruit pickers were often drawn from local area reserves, while some First Nations women found employment in the fruit canning and packing plants. Farm labour and fruit picking were important to First Nations people from the southern interior.

Based on reports from the Department of Indian Affairs, Knight (1978, p. 146) noted that First Nations people had been harvesting berries and fruit in the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan since the turn of the century. Knight (1978) describes the role of First Nations People's migrant labour in the Okanagan Valley:


Hop, berry, and fruit picking was done on a piece rate, not a wage, basis. Seasonal earnings were usually very low. Conditions in the pickers' camps were not really much different from those portrayed in the Grapes of Wrath....

The fact that many Indian women and adolescents were available for seasonal berry and hop and fruit picking, the fact that Indian men worked as temporary farm help, argues for the paucity of better paid jobs available to them. Farm labour and fruit/berry picking was especially important to Indian people in the southern interior. (p. 146)

These indigenous First Nations People were part of the seasonal agricultural labour force, along with the Chinese, during the early settlement era, but they were not the only ones. For a short time period the Nez Perce First Nations People from Washington State were an important source of agricultural labour.

Nez Perce First Nations People

At the turn of the century until 1912 Nez Perce First Nations People from Washington State migrated annually to the Coldstream Ranch to pick hops. On September 1, 1904, E.V. de Lautour, an employee of the Coldstream Ranch in Vernon, finalized the arrangements with custom officials at the Canada - U.S. border crossing in Osoyoos, which allowed the Nez Perce to come up to Canada. Myra Beck, a long time resident, noted the Nez Perce and other First Nations People' annual migration to the Coldstream Ranch:

The thing about the Coldstream that was interesting to other people was the hops. They were growing them extensively and shipping them to England. The Indians came for the hop-picking, not only from around here, but as the hop fields got more extensive they brought them in from Lytton one year, possibly Lillooet too. Finally, they brought them in from Washington. (Mitchell & Duffy, 1979, p. 12)
De Lautour described the Nez Perce First Nations People as fine, clean, well dressed people who certainly knew how to pick hops, and noted that their numbers varied in different years but averaged around one hundred (de Lautour, 1950, p. 111). Another employee of the Coldstream Ranch also had a very positive perception of these First Nations People:
I must describe these Indians, as the Nez Perce at that time were about the finest example of the Plains Indian in existence. The men stood well over six feet in their moccasins, wore their hair in two long braids, usually one over each shoulder. They lived in teepees and wore buckskin clothing, blankets, etc. There was not a half-breed in the whole tribe. Fine-looking people, both the men and women. They brought their whole families along and travelled on horseback, in democrats and wagons, in which their teepees and other belongings were carried. (Bennett, 1950, p. 120)
The Okanagan leg of the trek began at Osoyoos and was remembered by many white settlers. R.J. Sugars, an early settler, described the following:
One of the outstanding things I remember was an annual event: the migration of the Nez Perce Indian tribe. Practically the entire tribe came through the Hudson's Bay trail up to the Coldstream Ranch where they picked hops. And they moved their wives and families, hundreds of them, hundreds of pack horses. It was a real show... They looked like Indians of the traditional types - they wore the buckskins and moccasins and cowboy hats. (Mitchell & Duffy, 1979, p. 13)
H.W. Corbitt, one of the first residents of Kaleden, a small village south of Penticton, also remembered the annual trip by the Nez Perce:
It gave a newcomer a decided thrill to see seventy-five to one hundred of this band with their families pass through the village. The males wore long hair, generally two braids hanging over each shoulder. (Corbitt, 1980, p. 129)

Their travel usually lasted three days. At the Coldstream Ranch, the Nez Perce selected the area for their camp very carefully and every few weeks, moved to fresh ground. All arrangements were made for sanitation and garbage disposal.

Their teepees were erected in rows similar to an army camp. After a good meal, they soon settled down for the night, but not before their usual evening ceremony was performed at sundown. Stepping out from their teepees and looking to the west, they prayed to their God. (Bennett, 1950, p. 122)
Hop-picking was work the Nez Perce had done in southern Washington for many years thus their work in Canada was familiar to them. Anthony Casorso noted that: "The work lasted about a month. They received one dollar for picking a box of hops approximately eight foot long, two foot deep and two foot wide" (Greening, 1968, p. 44).

One important Nez Perce, named Charlie Wilpoken, acted as a labour contractor as he was in charge of gathering the pickers from the tribe, for which he was paid one dollar per person and his wife and young daughter would pick hops and earn three dollars a day between them (de Lautour, 1950, p. 111-112).

According to de Lautour, the Nez Perce were good customers of woollen goods:

After picking-time and the 'pay off', with their earnings and their gold, they spent several thousand dollars at the Vernon Hudson's Bay store, all on good materials. After their first year or two, Charlie Simms, the manager in Vernon, used to get blankets and stroud by the bale, ordered from Glasgow by boat via Victoria. He would take the order before the Indians went home for delivery the next season. Charlie knew they wanted good material and that none would be too high class for these cash customers. (de Lautour, 1950, p. 116)

At the end of each season, arrangements were made for the following year. The ranch would send someone to the Fourth of July celebrations at their home in Nespelem on the Columbia River and there, together with family and friends, they would make plans for a number of pickers to return for the early September start of the hop harvest (de Lautour, 1950, p. 111).

In 1912, Patrick Bennett was sent to convoy the Nez Perce First Nations People from the U.S. border and he remembers their pride:

The Nez Perce Indians were the most picturesque people one could meet. They withstood all efforts made by the white people to undermine their moral standards. These standards were of the highest, for they knew the difference between right and wrong, and had the intestinal fortitude to uphold what they thought was right. To see these people on parade at state social functions, such as the time the Duke of Connaught (a Governor-General of Canada) visited the ranch, was to behold a sight never-to-be-forgotten. The meeting of the Duke with the Chief was full of dignity and mutual respect.The regalia of the Nez Perce tribe, on this occasion, was something to compare with, or even surpass, the opening of Britain's Parliament and Lord Mayor's Day in London. (Bennett, 1950. p. 122)

Recent Trends

During the 1950s and 1960s, the British Columbia Fruit Growers' Association (B.C.F.G.A). actively promoted the use of First Nations People's labour:

The Committee realized that the Indian Bands of the Okanagan and adjacent districts constitute the largest and most available source of harvest labour, and every effort was made to contact Head Men in each Band. Results were fairly good, though there were cases of bands arriving too late to be employed. This was unfortunate.

We strongly recommend that this source of labour be developed and the fullest possible use made of it. Anything that can be done to direct more of this labour to the Okanagan orchards will certainly pay dividends. (Orchard Labour Committee, 1958)
In the 1960s and 1970s, Indian Placement Programs formulated by the British Columbia Fruit Growers Association (B.C.F.G.A.) and Canada Manpower Offices provided the recruitment of many First Nations People from other parts of B.C. into the Okanagan. Citing lack of employment opportunities for B.C. First Nations People, the Canada Manpower instigated an Okanagan Pilot project in 1966 which involved recruitment of slightly over 100 First Nations People in 1966, 318 in 1967, and 500 in 1968 ("Indian Orchard Labor," 1968). The B.C. Orchardist magazine quoted some growers' comments on First Nations People's labour:
Said one grower: "My help problem turned out to be no help problem at all. I found my Indian family industrious and pleasant to have around. They caught on quickly and did their work well." Added another: "The Indians are especially proficient in picking because they have great finger manipulation. They are sensitive to a grower's need. They realize that a harsh picking technique - particularly with soft fruit - can seriously damage the crop." ("Indian Orchard Labor," 1968)
The 1967 Orchard Labour Committee Report for the B.C.F.G.A. stated:
One of the most logical sources of labour for this area is from Native Indians, and in pursuit of this we had a great deal of help from the Department of Indian Affairs, particularly from Mr. J. D. Addison who attended one of our meetings and assisted in recruiting. We were eventually able to obtain the services of 115 Indians who put in a total of 3492 man-days. This had a cushioning effect on our peak demands and played a big part in this year's operations. (Orchard Labour Committee, 1967, p. 15)
At the 1967 B.C.F.G.A. Convention Agriculture Minister Frank Richter addressed the delegates. He indicated that orchardists could ease their problems by paying the costs of transportation for their out-of-town labour. He explained that many Fraser Valley growers did this by transporting their workers from Vancouver ("Orchard Labor Transporting," 1967).

At the 1968 B.C.F.G.A. Convention the Orchard Labour Committee reported that 318 First Nations People came from outside the Okanagan to work on area farms, and "it is the opinion of the Department of Indian Affairs that our scheme has been of considerable benefit to the Indians involved" (Orchard Labour Committee, 1968, p. 17). These First Nations People's placement programs were not cut back and they continued into the 1970s and 1980s and were extended to First Nations People outside of B.C. The 1975 B.C.F.G.A.'s Orchard Labour Committee Report noted:

Our continuing liaison with Natives in B.C. and Alberta is producing some very satisfactory results. They are coming to the Valley on their own, at the right times, and are making their own arrangements for employment. It is interesting that the young children that accompanied their parents in 1966 when the Indian Program was started are now the main part of the labour force. (Orchard Labour Committee, 1975, p. 16)
At the 1976 B.C.F.G.A. Convention, the Orchard Labour Committee reported that "the 1975 season was unique in that there was a surplus of help available at all times". The orchardists were paying more than in Washington, and "this factor was responsible for more of our native Indians staying to work in B.C. rather than Washington State" ("Labor Good in '75," 1976).

The Canada Farm Labour Pool was a job placement system financed by the federal government with seasonal and permanent offices in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. The Farm Labour Pool recorded registration information which included the province of origin and "Native workers". At the Penticton Pool office in the South Okanagan, registration figures for "Natives" indicated that they formed 8% of all registrations from 1979 to 1983, and they remained stable until 1983 when they went down to 3% (Canada Farm Labour Pool, Penticton, undated). At the Kelowna Pool office in the Central Okanagan, registration figures show that local and B.C. Natives formed approximately 20% of all registrations from 1979 to 1986 (Canada Farm Labour Pool, Kelowna, undated).

The next two major groups of migrant agricultural workers are the Doukhobors and the Japanese, both of whom were particularly prominent during World War II.


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