Penticton local historian Randy Manuel with a provincial map that has the original name of a mountain between Summerland and Penticton near where two men perished in 1908. (Mark Brett - Western News)

South Okanagan mountain bore racist name for a half century

Nkawala Mountain was initially named in connection with the deaths of two black men.

(Editor’s note: Original language and quotes from 1909, including the original name of Nkwala Mountain, have been included in this series for historical accuracy.)

In years past it was not uncommon for geographical names to commemorate unusual or unique events or persons.

Such was the case with a small mountain just northwest of Penticton, overlooking Okanagan Lake in the early 1900s.

Sadly and tragically, this 3,300-foot peak’s initial branding came as a result of the death of two black men who perished from exposure near the base of the mountain, according to historians.

Read part one of this series: The tragic tale of two Summerland men who perished on Christmas Day 1908

“They found Arthur Chapman and Charles Blair in two different places. One of them was in a gulch and the fellow’s foot was sticking out of the snow. That’s how the mountain got its name, Niggertoe Mountain, and that actually appears on a map,” said longtime Penticton historian Randy Manuel, a member of the Okanagan Historical Society.

“Certainly in 1909, that era was definitely a time of ‘us and them’ (visible minorities). That’s just the way it was.”

He still has a copy of the topographical map with the name, the first status edition compiled and produced by the Geographic Division and Mapping Branch of the Department of Lands and Forests (provincial government) in 1954-55 and the revised version from 1960.

That name remained in place for over a half-century, until October 1965, when the Canadian Permanent Committee on geographical names reached a unanimous decision that objectionable place names in Canada should be replaced on maps.

According to Manuel, before that happened Dennis McDonald was charged with mapping the mountains of the region for the forest service to find locations for fire lookout stations.

“So he decides to call it Gerry Mountain after his wife Geraldine and it was called Gerry Mountain for the longest time,” said Manuel.

According to records, an observation platform was operated on the mountain until 1969 and was called Gerry Look-Out.

Shortly after the decision to remove the objectionable name, there was a proposal to name it Jamboree Mountain to commemorate an upcoming scouting event.

While that was supposedly endorsed by the Penticton and Summerland chambers of commerce, the historical society did not, saying the name had “no weight, dignity or lasting worth,” according to a report.

The Penticton branch of the historical society countered with the name Nkwala Mountain, being the name of several important ancestral Okanagan Indigenous chiefs as well as the title of an award-winning book by Penticton author Edith Lambert Sharp.

The semi-fictional novel was about a Salish boy whose band moved to the foot of Okanagan Lake, settling first where the Penticton Marina is now located.

It traces his life from a young boy to a great chief. A large, rust-coloured, granite headstone (although the name is spelled Inquala) stands in the First Nations cemetery at the head of the lake near Vernon.

The book won the Governor General’s Medal and the Hans Christian Anderson Diploma of Merit. Sharp died on July 2, 1974, at the age of 63.

The name Nkwala Mountain became official on April 29, 1966.

READ MORE: Black History Month stamp leaves Summerland mayor concerned


 

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