This weekend marks the 2022 Historic O’Keefe Ranch’s Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.
Considering that the first non-Indigenous settlements to emerge in the Okanagan Valley were cowtowns—communities that appeared at the junction of railroads and livestock trails—Vernon has long boasted a healthy population of cowboys.
Men like Cornelius O’Keefe are often remembered for participating in the Okanagan Valley cattle drives of the 1860s, but even during their time, it was known that the best ropers and riders belonged to the Okanagan Nation. For instance, the Gregoire Family alone included several generations of talented equestrians.
As told in the book Q’Sapi: A History of Okanagan People as told by Okanagan Families, Francois Gregoire (1865-1944) was a successful rancher who owned a large herd of horses, some of which were used for racing and others for farming. By 1915, he owned a threshing wheat separator which he rented out to other ranchers.
Francois’ son Tommy (1901-2000) also went on to become a well-known rodeo rider. A celebrated Traditional Knowledge Keeper, Tommy was an adamant advocate for Indigenous rights and freedoms, who, along with his wife Mary, ensured that his children learned nsyilxcən.
Tommy’s son Leonard (1929-2013) was a self-proclaimed cowboy from the start who began exercising his grandfather Francois’ horses at only eight years old. He later worked as a rodeo contractor with his father, and learned to ride broncos and bulls. He even went on to earn six track records in Canada and the U.S. racing quarter horses and thoroughbreds.
Like his father and grandfather, Tommy was proud to be fluent in nsyilxcən, and passed along his teaching to his own grandchildren and other little ones at the Okanagan Language Nest.
To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!
Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator