B.C. Winery Nk’Mip Cellars: A Remarkable Indigenous Success Story Driven by Trailblazing Chief

View of NK’Mip (Inkameep) Cellars vineyards at south end of Lake Osoyoos
The Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) in the southern Okanagan Valley of British Columbia owns NK’Mip (In-ka-meep) Cellars in partnership with Arterra Wines Canada. Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

Wine writers love to wax poetic about wines that speak to a ‘sense of place’. Yes, it’s a bit of a tired maxim, one that’s often overused and steeped in hyperbole. But when you actually, truly DO find a wine producer who delivers on ‘place’, it’s a pretty big deal.

So what does it mean?

‘Sense of Place’ in its purest form, speaks to the character of the land: the geography, geology, climate, soils and flavour imparted to the wine. It includes the history, culture and experience of the people who farm the land and make that wine. ‘Place’ ideally reflects ancestral roots, hardships, setbacks, battles lost and won. When something is native to or indigenous to, we think of things that are authentically of that ‘place’.

Which is why of all the producers I’ve profiled and of all the wines I’ve reviewed, I’d argue no winery better captures the multi-layered spirit of ‘place’ than Nk’Mip (In-ka-meep) Cellars and its producer, the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB).

Can we not just sub-in the word terroir?

No. You. Cannot!

After reading the strikingly honest Rez Rules by trailblazing Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, the term “terroir” feels decidedly…. colonial. And if there’s anything that makes Nk’Mip unique, it’s the deliberate decision this Indigenous community has made to decolonize the Nk’Mip wine experience.

I mean, how many wineries do you know of that feature a dugout canoe of Indigenous warriors in the wine cellar?

winery with barrels and First Nation's sculpture featuring a hardwood canoe with four metal sculpture Indigenous warriors
A winery with an utterly distinct “sense of place”. The barrel room at Nk’Mip Cellars celebrating the Osoyoos Indian Band’s Indigenous Okanagan roots. Sculpture by Virgil ‘Smoker’ Marchand. Wine by Nk’Mip. Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

metal sculpture with Indigenous Chief on horse
Chief Louie: “I choose to get off my knees and back on my ancestral economic horse to create jobs and make money for my Rez!” Sculptures celebrating the Osoyoos Indian Band’s resilience and determination can be found throughout Nk’Mip vineyards and at neighbouring Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

“The First Entrepreneurs in North America were the First Nations”

Nk’Mip is the first Indigenous-owned and operated winery in North America.

The winery and its vineyards are located on the Osoyoos Indian Reserve, one of 1,600 First Nations reserves in British Columbia. Blessed with a dramatic landscape and picture-perfect location, the Osoyoos lands stretch from just north of the town of Oliver to the Canada/US border, along the 49th parallel.

The Osoyoos Indian Band has woven their proud, First Nations heritage into everything they do. They draw inspiration from richly textured creation stories and generations of respected ancestors who worked these Okanagan lands.

The earliest inhabitants came around 1100 AD, sharing their design language and cultural beliefs on ancient petroglyphs and mountain cave walls.  The beauty of this Indigenous heritage is woven throughout the entire Nk’Mip experience: from wine names, bottle art and package design to restaurant cuisine, vineyard sculptures and production team clothing. Employees and guests are inspired by the tribal legacy, spiritual symbolism and this truly unique sense of ‘place’, at every turn.

Bottle of wine -red meritage - with picture of raven on label
Linda Anderson is an artist and member of the Osoyoos Indian Band. Her Raven paintings adorn the bottles of Nk’Mip Cellars’ Mer’r’iym tier wines (translation: marriage). Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

The Osoyoos people are members of the Syilx Okanagan Nation, a seven-member tribal community in the central and southern interior of British Columbia that includes northern Washington State (Colville Reservation).

When I spoke to Chief Clarence Louie about his Rez Rules magnum opus – and his decision to focus on the vast North American ‘catalogue’ of aboriginal injustices in his book, he reminded me of his territory’s history. “The Okanagan people – my ancestors – didn’t have borders when they lived on these lands. Borders are a colonial invention. When they decided to put the border along the 49th parallel between Canada and the United States, they divided my people in half.”

Same with the reserve borders, he says. “Our traditional lands were occupied by the Okanagan Nation for many many generations, long before reserve borders were imposed by the Indian Act.”

My people were known as “The Indian Problem”

Chief Clarence Louie has lived on the Osoyoos “Rez” his entire life. First elected Chief in December, 1984 at the tender age of 24, he’s been re-elected a further 18 times, leading the Osoyoos Peoples for almost four decades.

Chief Louie has an intense love for his people and is incredibly proud to be Indian (his preferred word), a point he makes over and over in his book. He is a man of great compassion and empathy, but believes Canadians and Americans need to educate themselves on Indian history so we can get busy with real Truth and Reconciliation and build a nation-to-nation relationship. (Good luck not weeping when you read the final chapter of his book!)

Chief Louie is also a blunt, tell-it-like-it-is, “angry” and occasionally “hostile” 63-year-old. He chronicles his Rez journey and the Indian experience – the good, the bad and the ugly – in the book, crediting the OIB’s wine business and wine industry partnerships for reversing his Rez’s poverty pathology and kickstarting the band’s economic success.

He also has a love/hate relationship with Canada and the United States. His people’s suffering and the appalling, shameful reality of hundreds of years of government oppression, racism,  forced assimilation, settler abuse, land theft, discrimination, residential schools – “the Catholic Church should be crawling on their hands and knees to apologize to us, begging for my people’s forgiveness” – chronic under-funding, poverty, boil water requirements, orchestrated starvation, the stripping of his people’s language, cultural and spiritual identity …. all stoke Chief Louie’ anger and fuel his Osoyoos Indian Band agenda.

hundreds of thousands of buffalo skulls culled from bison hunt in 1890s
The massive, horrendous slaughter of bison in 1890, a staple food for the Blackfeet people in Canada and the US. The only way settlers could expand across the west of the United States was to eliminate Native Americans’ food source. US Army commander: “Kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” Photo credit: Detroit Public Library via Wikimedia Foundation

“In order to go forward, we must clean up the historical injustices and reconcile the racist past with settlement money and land, not just apologies,” he writes.

Were you conflicted, when you accepted the Order of Canada – Canada’s highest civilian honour, I asked him?  “A little,” he answered honestly. But in the end, he says, he saw it as an opportunity to profile the OIB’s economic wins and generate “Rez pride”, the real foundation for the OIB’s success.

Other honours and recognition?  In 2013, Maclean’s named Chief Louie one of the “Top 50 Canadians to Watch.” In 2003, he was one of six First Nations leaders chosen by the U.S. Department of State to review economic development in American Indian communities. In 2008, he received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He is a member of the Order of British Columbia, the Order of Canada, and in 2021, he donned the robes, receiving an honourary doctorate from the University of British Columbia.

It’s really quite a CV. And that list represents a fraction of the honours he’s received. But the award he’s most proud of? In 2019, Chief Louie was the first-ever, First Nations person to be inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame. As far as he’s concerned, that’s the rubber hitting the road.

Chief Louis with his family celebrating his award and Canadian Business Hall of Fame recognition
Chief Clarence Louie was the first-ever, First Nations leader to be inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame. Photo credit: Canadian Business Hall of Fame

There can be no Reconciliation without Strong Indigenous Economies

In Rez Rules, Chief Louie clearly outlines the Osoyoos Indian Band’s guiding principles: to be self-reliant, self-supporting and socially and economically independent. It’s fair to say Chief Louie can check all those boxes. Today, the OIB is the most prosperous First Nation in Canada.

Chief Louie and the OIB band council determined early on that locally-managed economic development and building band-controlled businesses were key to funding essential services like schools, education, healthcare, infrastructure development and importantly, preservation of culture, language and the environment. Those businesses, in turn, would result in job creation, job pride and guaranteed pensions for band employees.

For Chief Louie, that’s always been the bottom line. All projects must deliver jobs, jobs, jobs (stupid).

Too many First Nations communities bypass jobs in favour of government grants, federal transfer dollars and “per capita” handouts for band members, he argues in the book. “If you want to call yourself sovereign, you’d better be economically and financially strong. Operating year to year on grants won’t cut it and Indians have gotta stop looking for that free lunch. There’s far more Rez pride in running your own operations and making your own money, than operating and running government funded programs,” he insists.

That grit and steely determination have made the OIB an international case study in Indigenous entrepreneurship. According to Chief Louie, the Osoyoos Indian Band has more businesses and joint ventures on a per capita basis than any other First Nation in Canada. The band’s businesses have collectively generated $120.1 million in revenue in the last five years with revenues projected at $36.1 million in 2022.

Even more impressive? The OIB has virtually no unemployment among the band’s 540 members. In fact, the reserve has more jobs than band members. To keep businesses humming, many employees are imported from neighbouring reserves in British Columbia and western Canada (he estimates 35 reserves are represented). Chief Louie loves to point out that half the OIB’s employees are non-native, a rare reversal of the non-native/Indigenous employment paradigm. In fact, he adds, employees working at the many OIB businesses often buy homes and live on the Osoyoos Rez…. “betcha none of them ever saw that happening!!” he says in the book.

view of nk'Mip winery with vineayrds in front and hills behind
Nk’Mip (Inkameep) Cellars patio framed by the Anarchist Mountain foothills. Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars
grapes hanging on the vine
Fruit of the earth! Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

Vineyards: the Original Blueprint for Success

So how does wine factor into the equation?

Vineyards, vineyard leases and wine-making joint partnerships were the original source of economic success for the Osoyoos Indian Band.

Early naysayers in the seventies and eighties warned this formula would be a recipe for disaster given the history of alcoholism associated with Indigenous people.

“Like most reserves, Osoyoos didn’t have much when I was growing up,” Chief Louie acknowledges. Alcohol was a big problem in most families and many children witnessed alcohol abuse at early ages … the lingering, multi-generational effect of residential schools, he suggests. 

“You don’t hear that anymore,” he says. “Today we have one of the best, economically strong Rezs in North America. Alcoholism isn’t a problem because my people have jobs and job pride. They have real career opportunities right on their own turf. They don’t have to leave the reserve and they don’t have to depend on underfunded Indian Affairs jobs.”

beautiful view of vineyards reaching down to Lake Osoyoos
Nk’Mip Vineyard’s gentle descent to Lake Osoyoos. Photo credit: @d.lirette Nk’Mip Instagram

Wine Grapes = Economic Self Reliance

In 1968, the very prescient Osoyoos Indian Band council understood that wine grapes were the future. 

Sitting on 32,000 acres of bench land in the southern Okanagan region (another 4,000 acres were stolen by a “racist rancher” and “dishonest Judge” in 1936) the Osoyoos Indian Band decided to allocate ~260 reserve acres to growing grapes. At the time, only 2,300 acres were planted to vitis vinifera grapes in the entire province of British Columbia. Further north in the lush, cooler part of the valley, peaches, cherries and apples were planted and fruit orchards were seen everywhere.

But the southern Okanagan was a decidedly different ‘place’.

The temperatures were hotter, the climate drier and the land was pure desert – scruff-land they called it – perfect, for growing European vinifera wine grapes.

The first grapes harvested were sold to Andrés Wines – now Peller Estates – as part of a ten-year contract.  Initial vineyard plantings were for Riesling and Ehrenfelser (a German crossing of Riesling and Sylvaner), part of the Liebfraumilch, semi-sweet wine celebration gripping North America.

Clarence Louie was 18 when he worked his first summer in the Osoyoos vineyards. It was hard work – and the desert heat meant the viticulture team could only work until noon, or risk heat stroke. Clarence’s ‘mean rez mom’ (Lucy) was all too familiar with the colonially popular, ‘lazy Indian’ tropes. There was no-way those tiresome stereotypes would be used to describe her son.

Lucy instilled a serious work ethic in her children. For Clarence, that meant hauling his butt out of bed at 4 AM for a job that mostly included hauling rocks out of the vineyard (for $2/hr). Hard as that was, being part of a growing wine enterprise that was 100 percent band-owned, was exciting stuff.  Clarence and his OIB rez pals could walk a little taller.

With two Native Studies university degrees, a solid work ethic and six summer jobs – aka vintages – under his belt, Clarence was encouraged to run for Chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band. Not surprisingly, he won. Wine growing was clearly a profitable venture and now the band had their first ‘economic development’ case study. The new Chief was hell-bent on opening the Rez for more business.

The first suitor to come calling was Don Triggs, the CEO of Canada’s largest domestic wine producer and North America’s fourth largest winery, Vincor International. Vincor owned a stable of Okanagan wineries, including Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs in Oliver, Sumac Ridge in Summerland, and Hawthorne Mountain in Okanagan Falls.

According to Chief Louie, in 1995 Don came to council to pitch “the big idea”. Vincor’s largest wine brand Inniskillin had already taken over the 1968 plantings of Nk’Mip vineyards and in 1981 the band partnered with Brights & Co. (which became Vincor in 1994) to build the Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estates Winery.  But now the company wanted to lease ~900 acres of virgin reserve land to grow wine grapes. Vincor would have to spend many millions to plant vineyards and install drip irrigation infrastructure, and the entrepreneurial Chief saw jobs, jobs, jobs.

In 1996, the 30-year lease was formalized, and the first Vincor vines were planted.

When Chief Louie saw Vincor wineries winning awards for wines made with premium grapes from the original Nk’Mip vineyards (250 acres), he decided the band could/should do the same!

“We said, okay Don. If you want to lease our lands, we’d like a joint venture with you. We want our own vineyards and winery. Vincor can control the product, but we’ll own 51% of the business and we’d like you to help educate and employ our band members.”

Five years later, on Sept 13, 2002, Nk’Mip Cellars winery opened its doors, with proud partners Vincor at the team’s side. Even more exciting, Nk’Mip would be the cornerstone for a much larger, more ambitious $25 million ecotourism project on 1,200 acres of the band’s lands near Osoyoos Lake. The finished Nk’Mip branded project would see the creation of an Indigenous led, southern Okanagan tourist destination, complete with a Native cultural centre, 120-room hotel, 18-hole golf course, marina, year-round RV park, store and more.

Photo of 7 men and one woman who helped support the growth of Nk'Mip vineyards on their 50th anniversary
Canadian Wine Legends, indeed!!! Photo credit: Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation (OIBDC) Facebook

photo of winemaker Justin Hall in barrel room
Nk’Mip (Inkameep) Cellars head winemaker and member of the Osoyoos Indian Band: Justin Hall. Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

Nk’Mip – Rooted in Success

Twenty years later, the results of the original Vincor/Nk’Mip vision and wine partnership are beyond impressive!

Hundreds of band members have been employed at Nk’Mip working in the vineyards, the winery and operationalizing the business. The head winemaker today is Justin Hall, a member of the OIB who started as a ‘cellar rat’ at Nk’Mip when he was 21 (stay tuned: my next blog post will feature Justin and the wines of Nk’Mip).

And importantly, the winery embodies the Okanagan origin story and cultural hallmarks of ‘place’: a unique Indigenous wine experience rooted in the heritage of the Osoyoos Peoples.

seven bottles of wine on table representing the Qwam Qwmt line of wines
Nk’Mip’s award-winning Qwam Qwmt (pronounced kw-em kw-empt ) product line-up. The Okanagan word Qwam Qwmt translates to “excellence” and the list of accolades runs deep (see below). Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

And the Wine, you might ask?

Nk’Mip consistently racks up domestic and international awards and honours for its impressive collection of premium wines. In 2004, led by original head winemaker Randy Picton and General Manager (and former Chief and lead viticulturist) Sam Baptiste, Nk’Mip Cellars, picked up its first award, a gold medal for its 2002 Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay at the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival.

At the prestigious 2012 Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), the 2010 Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine captured the Regional Trophy and Gold medal along with the gold medal for the 2008 Qwam Qwmt Syrah (which has won too many awards to list).

Perhaps the proudest moment came in 2016 when – almost 50 years after those first vines were planted – Nk’Mip was awarded ‘Canadian Winery of the Year’ at the InterVin International Wine Awards. Their haul this past summer at the 2021 Wine Align Awards – as BC’s #6 winery with 5 Gold, 4 Silver, 8 Bronze – was also a proud moment.

In 2012, the OIB’s long-standing business partner Vincor was sold to New York based Constellation Brands for $1.3 billion. Four years later, in 2016, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) purchased Constellation’s Canadian wine assets.

Arterra Wines Canada, was subsequently launched by the OTPP and is now Canada’s largest domestic wine producer with eight of the top 20 brands in the Canadian market. They are the Osoyoos Indian Band’s Nk’Mip partner today and continue to lease hundreds of acres of vineyards.

“We also have vineyard leases with Burrowing Owl and Anthony von Mandl of Mission Hill,” Chief Louie shared at the 2021 York University Settler Vines presentation. “I expect when Arterra’s 1,000 acre lease expires, Anthony von Mandl will be knocking on our door,” laughed the Chief.

Chief Louis in his office surrounded by Indigenous and sports memorabilia
Chief Clarence Louie – Chief Joseph, Habs, Washington Redskins/Commanders, Seattle Seahawks fan – presenting from his OIB band office as part of York University’s ‘Settler Vines’ conference in 2021. A must-watch! Photo credit: Avie Bennett Lecture – Settler Vines
Chief Louis outside of hotel framed by Chief metal sculpture
Chief Louie at Spirit Ridge Hotel surrounded by Virgil Smoker Marchand’s ‘Chief’ metal sculpture. Owned by the Hyatt chain, the resort celebrates Okanagan Indigenous culture and is next door to Nk’Mip Cellars. Photo credit: Nk’Mip Cellars

OIB – Nothing but Potential

The more you learn about North America’s colonialism history – the forced assimilation, the systemic racism, the cultural genocide – the more you appreciate what the Osoyoos Indian Band and Chief Clarence Louie have accomplished.

Today, the OIB is much more than wine. They are an economic powerhouse. In 2000, they very strategically reframed their development structure, moving all business investments to a separate economic development arm – the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation (OIBDC).

According to former COO, Chris Scott, Chief Louie was inundated with band member requests for money. This structure took economic development initiatives and financial decision-making out of the Chief’s hands and made all investment decisions the responsibility of the holding company.

As Chief Louie outlines in Rez Rules, the OIB’s biggest source of revenue now comes from band-own land leases: commercial, industrial, residential and agricultural.

These include 1,100 acres of premium vineyards, the championship Sonora Dunes golf course, Area 27 – a Jacques Villeneuve signature racetrack, Spirit Ridge – a four-star Hyatt resort, the newly completed District Wine Village, a provincial prison, residential units, a Tim Horton’s gas bar, and more. Businesses they own include an incredible cultural centre, a cement/gravel company, an RV Park and campground, two gas stations/convenience stores, cannabis stores (joint venture, sewage and water utilities, a forestry operation, a daycare and others.

At the end of the day, it’s the proud history of hard work and the need to showcase the entrepreneurial spirit of his people, that drives Chief Louie forward.

For as long as he’s in the Chief’s chair, his plan is to be a beacon of hope and an example of economic sovereignty for the 1,600 First Nation communities* across Canada and the 326 reservations in the United States.

So yeah, if you’re looking for wine and a winery with a strong backbone, rich Indigenous culture and a distinct ‘sense of place’, then Nk’Mip Cellars is definitely your destination of choice! And if you want some Truth with your wine, ask to meet Chief Louie.

Nk’Mip Cellars – 1400 Rancher Creek Road – Osoyoos BC – Ph: 250-495-2985 

*Not to diminish the accomplishments of OIB – but it’s worth acknowledging the Osoyoos Indian Band’s valuable tourism and agricultural Okanagan land. Chief Louie agrees it’s a harder road forward for small, isolated bands in the remote north of Canada. He regularly meets with tribal nations and invites them to visit the OIB to help brainstorm on economic development.

Further Reading/Viewing

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/rez-rules-my-indictment-of/9780771048333-item.html Rez Rules : My Indictment Of Canada’s And America’s Systemic Racism Against Indigenous Peoples, Book by Chief Clarence Louie (Hardcover)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPijNFcXkNM – Avie Bennett Lectures – Settler Vines – Guest Speaker – Chief Clarence Louie, September, 2021 @ York University

https://www.facebook.com/OIBDC/ Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation

https://native-land.ca shows First Nations across Canada

https://caid.ca/TRCFinCal2015.pdf Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action 2015

https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Executive_Summary.pdf Executive Summary of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

https://caid.ca/UNIndDec010208.pdf United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – October 2, 2007

https://caid.ca/Ddoc_dom.html     The Doctrine of Discovery: The Doctine of Terra Nullius  – The Papal authorization and directives used to justify the right to colonize Indigenous Peoples and their lands from the 16th to the 20th centuries. This is critical reading to understanding European colonial attitudes and Crown’s relationship with Catholic Church in managing residential schools in Canada and boarding schools in US (https://doctrineofdiscovery.org)

Dr. John Borrows – Canada Research Chair, Indigenous Law – https://conservation-reconciliation.ca/virtual-campfire-series-recordings/demystifying-the-doctrine-of-discovery

https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/     First passed in 1876, The Indian Act is administered by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The Indian Act is a part of a long history of assimilation policies that intended to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Aboriginal peoples by absorbing them into mainstream Canadian life and values.

https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/21-things-you-may-not-have-known-about-the-indian-act- 21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act – by Bob Joseph. Important, succinct summary of all that’s wrong with the Indian Act

https://conservation-reconciliation.ca The Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership is an initiative that aims to critically investigate the state of conservation practice in Canada and support efforts to advance Indigenous-led conservation in the spirit of Reconciliation and decolonization.

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