Kekuli house in the Okanagan

Traditional winter house explained

By Katherine Mortimer – Vernon Morning Star
Published: December 28, 2011 1:00 AM

Eric Mitchell admits he has a pet peeve about the word kekuli.

As supervisor of the Okanagan Indian Band’s kekuli house at Komasket Park, Mitchell is on a mission to explain the correct use of the word.

“If you read about our traditional winter house, you’ll read about the word kekuli,” said Mitchell, a band member. “There was a traditional language our people used when we went to the Coast, called Chinook Jargon (a trade language used for communication between European traders and First Nations people in much of the Pacific Northwest), and kekuli actually means something underneath, so people know what you mean, but the proper term should be kekuli house or in English it would be a pit house.”

Mitchell provided an entertaining presentations at a recent Vernon School District board meeting, as he showed photographs of the work in progress, while regaling trustees with anecdotes and his own brand of humour.

The kekuli house is a collaboration between the district’s Aboriginal Education Committee and the Okanagan Indian Band. Once completed, it will give district students a chance to experience the traditional winter home of the Okanagan First Nations as they learn more about their people and culture.

“Komasket Park is deemed archaeologically sound, and the pit has to represent our people in the area,” said Mitchell. “Komasket Park is where all of the district kids come for a cultural day, where kids come out to learn about our people on our ground,” said Mitchell, laughing as he explained the use of a “traditional” waterproof membrane on the structure to keep out the elements.

Built of local Douglas fir logs, the structure was built thanks to local builders and the assistance of band chiefs from throughout the Okanagan. A grand opening is planned for May 2012.

“We’ve got lots of room inside to seat entire classrooms of kids,” said Mitchell. “And while traditionally the entrance was lowered to keep the house hidden from enemies, we’re not at war with anyone, so the entrance is visible.”

Another modern concession made to the traditional structure is the addition of electric lighting and outlets for plug-ins. As well, the house is wheelchair-accessible.

Board chairman Bill Turanski concluded the presentation by presenting Mitchell with a commemorative mug from the district.

“You can be very proud of what you’ve accomplished,” he said.