How the Osoyoos Indian Band cultivates prosperity

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These grapes grow in the Okanagan Valley — the hottest and driest climate in Canada — where the long hot summers have led to a prospering wine industry. Photo by Milk Creative Communications

Story by Emilee Gilpin and Stephanie Wood

Justin Hall says he doesn't call himself the first Indigenous winemaker in Canada — but many others do.

Hall, a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band, is one of two Indigenous winemakers in North America. He's partway through his 15th season at Nk'Mip Cellars. The winery is owned by the band, and the wealth is shared among the people.

Hall started working for Nk'Mip in 2004, when it was a small, lone winery set on a hill in the stunning Okanagan Valley of B.C.'s southern interior. To his knowledge, there were no other Indigenous-led wineries in the country.

At the time, Hall was 20 years old and working seasonally on a golf course in the area. He wanted a steadier job to help support his son, so he started pestering the winery’s supervisor for a position — any position.

He knew there was red wine and there was white wine, but not much else. The supervisor agreed to let him clean equipment and hoses. As Hall watched and learned, he became intrigued with the idea of capturing his culture in a bottle of wine. He hadn't planned on being there forever, but as soon as he started, he was hooked.

He immediately signed up for night classes at Okanagan University College, earning his certificates in the winery assistant and viticulture programs. He travelled to West Australia to work at the Goundrey winery, and studied viticulture more in New Zealand.

Upon his return in May 2017, Hall was promoted to winemaker at Nk'Mip Cellars.

“Within one week of working at the winery, I knew it was something I’d be in for the rest of my life,” Hall said. "But you gotta start at the bottom. That's the only way to get anywhere in life."

Chapter 1

Capturing culture in a bottle of wine

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Nk’Mip Cellars is one of many business, health, social, educational and municipal initiatives that have earned the Osoyoos Indian Band economic independence and high employment rates. Photo by Milk Creative Communications

Nk'Mip Cellars, pronounced 'ink-a-meep,' describes itself as the first Indigenous-owned winery in North America. It was named after a traditional Osoyoos meeting place, translating to “Bottomland.”

Nk'Mip Cellars, pronounced 'ink-a-meep,' describes itself as the first Indigenous-owned winery in North America. The Cellars translate Nk’mip to “Bottomland" on its website.

But, as is often the case with Indigenous languages, there are multiple understandings of Nk'Mip as the term has changed with time. An employee at Nk'Mip Cellars says she heard it means “coming to the bottom,” while a speaker at Osoyoos Indian Band says it means "the bottom of" or "the end of."

Hall says it means "meeting place at the head of the lake," and that is what's significant to him — that it was "a meeting place for our ancestors."

The Osoyoos Indian Band lives in the southern interior of the Okanagan, one of the country's driest and hottest climates — perfect for growing grapes. The Okanagan First Nations people have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years and carefully tended to its land and resources.

Before Nk'Mip, Hall says the spot the winery sits on was just a sandhill with a burn pile at the bottom. In 1968, members of the Osoyoos Indian Band agreed to allow outsiders to build a vineyard on their land, with the vision to develop their community's economy. Many people had just come out of residential schools, Hall explained, and sought independence from colonial structures.

“They knew we couldn’t depend on the government but needed to do it ourselves,” he said.

Nk'Mip Cellars launched in 2002, after the band's leadership partnered with a privately owned, independent wine company called Arterra Wines Canada. The band owns 51 per cent of the winery and leases some of their land to other wineries, golf courses, campgrounds and business ventures.

"We're doing things that are natural and that fit the land," Hall explained.

The hill now houses the Desert Hills Cultural Centre, Nk'Mip and the Spirit Ridge Resort & Spa. Hall said it's still profound to him to see reserve land as a tourist destination.

He grew up on a small reserve. He still calls himself a “half-breed,” and says he was picked on by his step-siblings for being "too white," and people at school for being "too native."

"Now, people come to our reserve. They actually travel from Europe, and Calgary, and Vancouver, specifically to come to our reserve ⁠— which still sounds kind of weird," he said. "Our little resort here, the cultural centre, the winery, the campground, the whole little experience built all around us. People come here to see our land."

Profit for the people

Many of the band's members work on the vineyards or in the winery, which employs anywhere from five to 35 people, depending on the season. While some money from Nk'Mip Cellars is fed back into its equipment, supplies and future investments, some goes directly back into the pockets of the Osoyoos People, through social service and wellbeing programs.

One example, said Hall, is using the profits to cover the majority of the funeral costs for members of the community. Some revenue is also distributed at Christmas, when every elder in the community receives $500 directly from the pot.

"I don't know any business that takes raw cash and gives it back to their people," he said. "We're a tighter-knit community than most. Anything we have, we work and have worked for. There's no free money."

Winemaker Justin Hall explains the meaning of the word 'Nk'Mip.' "It doesn't necessarily mean the 'head of the lake,'" he said, "it was a meeting place for our ancestors."

Incorporating Interior Salish design

Some Nk’Mip’s wines are named in the Okanagan language, including the Qwam Qwmt (“achieving excellence”) chardonnay and the Mer'r'yim (“marriage”) red blend, which each won a gold medal in international 2018 competitions. Other names include Talon and Dreamcatcher, two blends which both won silver medals last year.

Hall says it’s obvious to outsiders that the wine is different and that it carries its own stories. The winery hosts tours every day that share these stories from the land. The Osoyoos chief and council helped decide on the labels to capture the artwork of the Okanagan Nation, rather than the more commonly recognized style of the coast.The Osoyoos People and their partners teach visitors the history of the land, and the meanings of their name and designs.

“When I look at it, I feel it’s from our specific area,” Hall said. “Coastal artwork is very different from ours.”

Spirit Ridge, the resort, is one of the largest of its kind in the area. On peak summer days, up to 500 guests tour the winery.

While the chief, council and board of directors handle the operation, Hall says the community is very knowledgeable about the winery as well.

“Our people have come to know our wines,” Hall said.

Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie, chief of Osoyoos Indian Band since 1984, heartily agreed.

“We have people on reserve that can talk your ear off about wine," he said. "We learned to adapt. They once put us on reserves, and our people have made the best of it.”

Chapter 2

Immemorial Indigenous economies

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Chief Clarence Louie is famous for saying that First Nations need to "get back on their economic horse." High up on the desert landscape stands a statue created by Virgil "Smoker" Marchand of the Colville Indian Reservation. Photo courtesy by Nk'Mip Cellars

In a discussion about the success of Nk'Mip Cellars and his community, Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie notes that Indigenous economies have existed in the area since time immemorial.

The Osoyoos Indian Band is one of seven member communities of the Okanagan Nation in the Okanagan Valley.

The Syilx People were traditionally nomadic and have lived in the region for generations in lands that stretch north of Revelstoke, and south to Spokane in the United States. Today, roughly half of them live in the "so-called" United States, Louie explained on the phone, looking out the window to the land he has always called home.

"This lake I'm looking at right now goes into Washington State. We're on the U.S.-Canada border, and half our people live in the American reserve system. But before white people came here, we never had Indian reserves."

Louie said the Osoyoos are lucky to live in the Okanagan, which has some of the biggest reservations in British Columbia. Their territory spans 32,000 acres, and as soon as they could, his people got involved in the economy of their territory.

The band is proud of its success, he said, and the decision to dedicate acres of land toward economic development. But doing business comes naturally to Indigenous Peoples, he explained, since they were the original entrepreneurs of the land and water, and had sophisticated trade systems, routes and economies long before the arrival of white people.

"When the Hudson's Bay Company came to Canada, who was the first supplier?" Louie asked. "Native people. We supplied furs for them. We traded with white people, but we did business with other tribes before white people ever came here."

When settlers failed to recognize Indigenous rights and title to their homes, colonized the land and enforced British common law, many Indigenous communities were gradually forced into welfare, he said.

Louie said colonization effectively made First Nations dependent on the government, as Canada excluded Indigenous Peoples from its economy, while simultaneously exploiting resources on Indigenous land and preventing First Nations from continuing their traditional economies.

In a phone interview, Chief Clarence Louie discusses how colonization effectively made First Nations dependent on the government.

When life gives you grapes, make wine

When asked why his community chose wine as a financial foundation, Louie pointed back to the land. It's what the land offers, he often tells people.

"If we were up north, maybe we'd be involved in diamond mines; on the coast, maybe fisheries. Being here in south-central B.C., it's wine country, golf country," he explained.

The band is sometimes criticized, he said, for its decision to sign joint business ventures with outsiders, and the way they use and lease their land in a certain way. But it's hard to get complete agreement in any community, he explained, and members often disagree about how decisions are made.

"It's not the way things were traditionally done, some might say, but traditionally," he said, "our people weren't forced on welfare."

Chief Louie has pushed hard for the economic independence and strength of his people since he became chief 10 terms ago. He has spoken at various events across the country and abroad. Leaders in other communities have travelled near and far to meet this well-known businessman and find out how the band has come to manage prime real estate.

A unique business model

Nk'Mip Cellars, along with the Osoyoos's other companies, have a unique way of doing business. You can only get so far with "corporate Canada and corporate America," Louie explained, which is why their operations have three or four bottom lines.

When a community member walked into his office and said everyone was going to attend the annual march for missing and murdered Indigenous women, he explained, he didn't think twice about granting time off work. The band also grants more leave for funerals and mourning — something that doesn't happen in other corporate offices, he said.

"We hire people sooner, keep them later and aren't concerned if we can sustain or afford the losses," Louie explained, adding that he would rather have a company lose money and employ their own people, or other Indigenous people, than make a lot of money and only employ non-Indigenous people.

And it shows — they love the work and are proud of it, which Chief Louie said he sees as a standalone success.

Chapter 3

Inspiring a generation of entrepreneurs

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The Okanagan Valley is B.C.'s No. 1 grape-growing region, hosting 84 per cent of the province's grape-growing acres. Photo by Milk Creative Communications

What some people miss in Nk’Mip’s story is how the success of Osoyoos and members like Hall has had an impact on other First Nations and youth.

When Hall thinks about his own achievements, and those of Nk'Mip Cellars — including a Canadian Winery of the Year award at the 2016 InterVin International Wine Awards and 27 medals last year — he acknowledges the media and attention, but says the greatest reward is felt at home.

“I have a lot of nephews, and they have a lot of cousins. There’s usually four to five kids running around my house on the weekend,” he said. “I think about what my success means to them. I think about the lessons I can pass on to them.”

Justin Hall tells National Observer about what motivated him to achieve success.

Patience, persistence and teamwork

Hall tells National Observer about what motivated him to achieve success.

Nothing is possible without a strong team, Hall said, crediting Nk'Mip's head winemaker, Randy Picton, as crucial to the success of the overall business.

"I wouldn't be where I am today without him," he said. "Together, with Aaron Crey, the cellar supervisor and a member of the Cheam Indian Band, we have been working together for over 14 years.

"I don't know any other team at another winery that has been together for so long. We can almost read each other's minds."

But success didn't happen overnight for Hall, and he wants Indigenous youth to understand that people grow by putting themselves in uncomfortable situations.

He says he used to drive tractors at a golf course, and golfed in the afternoons.

"It was amazing, so relaxed and calm. And you start winemaking and you're looking at the end of the year — lugging tanks, ordering yeast and barrels, and dealing with employees — and it's like, wow, this isn't so comfortable anymore," he said with a laugh.

For the Nk'Mip Cellars at least, it seems embracing the unknown has paid off.