A decades-old controversy over who should control use of a lake that the Okanagan Nation Alliance considers sacred is heating up again around the town of Osoyoos, about 13 miles north of the United States border.
The property containing Spotted Lake is currently owned by descendants of the late Ernest Smith, who once had the idea of developing a spa there but who was thwarted when Native people and their supporters blocked rezoning of the property.
The bottom line, according to the chiefs of the alliance, is they never ceded the land in any treaty, so the current ownership of mineral-rich Spotted Lake by Smith?s estate is not the last word.
The property has been appraised at $250,000; the alliance has offered $500,000 to purchase it; but Christine Smith is said to be asking $1.2 million, a figure the chiefs and the mayor of Osoyoos said is unreasonable.
Chief Stewart Phillip of the Penticton Indian Band said, ?what they?re attempting to do is exploit the situation. They know it?s a sacred site and they know we have placed a high value on it for those reasons, and they?re just attempting to extort an unreasonable amount of money out of the Okanagan Nation.?
The alliance is requesting the federal government step in to purchase the land for a reserve to be shared by all the member bands.
?The federal government has been put on notice as to the urgency of this situation,? said Chief Phillip. ?I believe the federal government has a great deal of experience with respect to spiritual conflicts. They know spiritual conflicts can be very volatile and very emotional, so I think they realize that there?s a potential for this to escalate into a conflict. And I think they?re fully aware . . . that we?re not going to allow the proposed developments to take place.?
The latest battle started when the Okanagan Nation was alerted that someone had placed an advertisement in the Osoyoos Times calling for trucking contractors to tender bids to haul 10,000 tonnes of mineral mud from the lake to Oroville, Washington. It is believed the owners want to market it for cosmetic or spa products. Since then the Okanagan bands have been attempting to reopen negotiations for the property with the Smith family, to no avail.
The Native leaders said their people still go to Spotted Lake for its spiritual and medicinal properties, despite the ?no trespassing? signs. At one time the lake was full of rainbow colors from mineralization. These features were partly destroyed by mining for minerals that were apparently needed for the war effort during the 1940s. No one could say for sure what minerals these were, but Mike Newman, publisher of the nearby Oliver Chronicle, said he had heard they needed magnesium.
Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band and Chief Dan Wilson of the Okanagan Indian Band both mentioned 365 colored rings visible within the small lake.
Chief Louie said a meeting was arranged for Dec. 11 at a place chosen by Christine Smith, between the alliance, Christine, her son Roy Smith and her daughter Darlene MacMillan. The family didn?t show up but sent their two lawyers.
In a press release issued Dec. 13, Chief Wilson, who has a law degree from the University of British Columbia, said ?Ironically, our non-productive meeting with these lawyers happened on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court?s Delgamuukw decision.?
Spotted Lake?s current owners are not accepting any telephone calls from the Okanagan Nation.
When Windspeaker contacted Darlene MacMillan to discuss the dispute, all she said was ?No comment. Talk to my lawyer.?
Lawyer Larry Salloum did not return our telphone call, but a man identified as Salloum was interviewed with Chief Louie on CHBC TV evening news in Kelowna Dec. 14. In response to the interviewer who said the nation ?is prepared to protect the site from any development from the owners,? Salloum retorted, ?they are not intimidated by threats of camping on the grounds or an of that other nonsense that takes place when the Aboriginal people don?t always get their own way.?
The chiefs say if a solution is not reached soon they fear the dispute could escalate the way disputes over other sacred sites have escalated. They mentioned Ipperwash, Oka and Gustafsen Lake. Although they said they don?t want a confrontation, they are prepared to do what is necessary to save Spotted Lake from desecration.
They have the backing of the Assembly of First Nations. Chief Mike Mitchell of the Mohawk Nation seconded Chief Wilson?s motion at an AFN confederacy meeting in Ottawa in December to ?safeguard the sanctity? of Spotted Lake and, if negotiations with the owners fail, to press the federal government to expropriate the property and convert it to reserve status.
On Dec. 19, Mayor Tom Shields of Osoyoos said he had heard Spotted Lake?s owners were telling people they had the zoning changed, but he was not aware of any application to do that. He placed a call to the regional district office in Penticton and found ?it went to a public hearing in 1980. . . . It featured a lot of Native people, coming from as far away as South Dakota, and after the hearing, the (Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen) board rezoned the land (for a health spa). However, the minister of municipal affairs at the time (later Premier Bill Vanderzalm) . . . reversed that decision.? Shields said he believes the original zoning is for grazing.
?All I know is . . . we?ve heard that somebody wants to take up the mud. And I guess we?re not in favor of that.?
Shields, who has lived in the area since 1979, added as he is a friend of Chief Louie and was a friend of his late brother. He understands and respects the sacredness of the lake to the Okanagan bands.
?And also from our side, a non-Native issue . . . as you?re passing Highway 3, coming from Vancouver, say five kilometres outside of town, off to the right there?s a lake and it?s got all these spots on it . . and it?s obviously a unique feature that I don?t think any of us would like to see disturbed. . . . I think it is very important to us all.?
Shields said the town?s economic development committee met a week prior and had agreed they did not want to see the lake developed or commercialized.
?We?re in favor of it being left as it is.? Prior to the mid-1960s when Highway 3 was constructed within 200 metres of the lake, there was no road access.
?They can?t be selling something that they think has got a market value for a spa that would never get rezoned to that,? said Shields, in reference to the million dollar plus price tag.
The Okanagan Nation Alliance was set to meet with Osoyoos town council on Dec. 21. Shields said current town bylaws might not be enough to protect the environment surrounding the lake. He indicated they will put a motion through that the matter goes to the provincial Department of Mines for review, ?and in the meantime, we?re going to ask that no movement be made to change any of the landscape around Spotted Lake.?