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Friday, September 18, 2015

Kalamalka: A Look At the Mysterious Origins of the Name

When I moved to Vernon 11 years ago I was soon struck by the ubiquitous presence of the name “Kalamalka” or simply “Kal”. It was, of course, the name of one of the most beautiful lakes I had ever seen but also lent its name to a provincial park, a historic hotel, a high school, various neighbourhoods, the nationwide chain of Kal Tire and many other local businesses and places. 

Many years later my interest in local history surfaced and I started learning more about Kalamalka Lake (See 5 Fascinating Facts About Kalamalka Lake for that information). However, the more I learned about the name Kalamalka, and the Indian Chief who bore the name, the more curious I became. After much exploration of the Internet, reading of some good books, the reports of the Okanagan Historical Society and a visit to the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives I thought I would compile what I have so far on the mystery of the name Kalamalka. There is also a great article by Dr. Duane Thompson of the Lake Country Museum on the topic Here . 

What We Know For Sure:

First of all here’s what we know with reasonable certainty: a popular Indian Chief named Kalamalka lived at the head of that lake (what is now Kal Beach). He was known as a great hunter, fisherman and a man that went to great lengths to be baptized as a Christian. Then in 1892 one of the first large hotels was built in Vernon and named after the Indian chief. He must indeed have been popular.  

Now at this time Kalamalka Lake was known as Long Lake or by the Indian name for it, Chilutsus (Chelootsoos), meaning “long lake cut in the middle” (This name referred to Kal Lake and Wood lake as one lake). The name Long Lake was even made official in 1922 but local Vernonites soon began referring to it as Kalamalka Lake as the local radio station was doing. Although it may have been more for marketing purposes for the local hotel, the lake was officially renamed Kalamalka in 1951. However it was brought about, it was a fantastic name for the lake and honouring of the old chief. 

We also know that Chief Kalamalka had a son name Goestamana or "Chief Quo-hast-a-mayna" (who is pictured below) and a granddaughter named Kate Beircer aka "Coldstream Kate" (*The Feb 25th edition of the 1926 Vernon News). According to an article by F.M. Buckland, he also had another son named Paul Kalamalka of Shingle Creek. When asked about the meaning of his last name in 1916, Paul replied that he knew nothing except that it was his father’s name. 

Goastamana, son of Chief Kalamalka, with Ellen Ellison. Photo Credit

An Okanagan Indian Word? 

There are two main theories on the origins of the name Kalamalka: the first is that it is an Okanagan Indian word and the second is that it may have links to Hawaii. 
According to the book B.C. Place Names by Akrigg and Akrigg, “The word Kalamalka can be identified as an Okanagan Indian man’s name, making very suspect a theory that it is a Hawaiian name…”. 

In a 1928 letter a local named L. Norris says “Isaac Harris of Armstrong says this word Kalamalka is composed of two words - one a Shuswap Indian word and one an Okanagan Indian word and that one word means water and the other means soothing or healing.” Other apparent variants of the word Kalamalka that we read of in the historical records include “Tanamalka” and “Kenemaska”.  

However, to quote Dr. Thomson, "One problem with the name Kalamalka is that it has no known or remembered n’syilxcen meaning.".There is neither, by the way, any evidence to support the common notion that Kalamalka means “lake of many colours”. 

A Hawaiian Word?

During the fur trade years it was a common practice for the Hudson’s Bay Company and other fur companies to bring over native Hawaiians from their island paradise to work in the Pacific Northwest. These Hawaiians called themselves “Kanakas” which meant human being or person in their native tongue. 

It is through this Kanaka connection that the Indian chief and our beautiful Kal Lake may have been honoured with a Hawaiian name that is said to mean “Sun of the Americas”. This translation is from a 1949 letter from Margaret Titcomb, Librarian at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii with assistance from a translator named Mrs. K. Pukui. F.M. Buckland, in a very informative article in the 1950 Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, says Mrs. Titcomb thinks: 

“our Kalamalka is probably "Kalamaleka", the Sun of America”. He then quotes her as saying: "Perhaps some Hawaiian liked a family there so well that he called them 'Kalamaleka'—Ka (the) la (sun) Meleka (America)."  (OHSR Vol 14: 35-43)

In regards to the lake name having a Hawaiian connection, Dr. Thomson states: "...that is also possible because Hawaiians were present in the interior of BC in the fur trade era and could easily have married into the Indian population."

Kanaka Family in British Columbia 

Chief Kalamalka:

So how did Chief Kalamalka come upon his name? As was mentioned several Kanakas came over from Hawaii and worked throughout what is now Oregon State, Washington State and British Columbia. It was common practice for them to take a native wife and raise a family with her thus having children who were part First Nations and part Hawaiian. They have left several Hawaiian place and personal names throughout this vast territory. 

The main theory regarding a Kanaka connection to Kalamalka is through a man named Louis Peon ( Pion). Peon is recorded as a French Canadian in the HBC records, however  F.M. Buckland records “But the family say, "No". The first Peon, a man of some distinction, came to the Okanagan from a tropical country.” It is widely believed he came from Hawaii and there is also another famous Kanaka that we know for sure of who was called Peon Peon (Peeohpeeoh) at Ft. Langley. 

Louis Peon was in Fort Astoria ( in Oregon) around 1811 and is then reported to have wintered at the Head of Okanagan Lake, befriending the Okanagan Indian Chief Huistesmetxe, about 1814. Buckland tells us that one of his daughters, Mary “Sukomelk”, married a man named Peon, most likely Louis Peon. Buckland further asserts:

“In our opinion we can hold Louis Pion responsible for the introduction of Kanaka words from his island home, and for applying to one of his children or his family the name Kalamalka (a name the next generation carried as a surname)…” (OHSR Vol 14:38)

If accurate, this would put the birth of Chief Kalamalka sometime after Louis Peon met and married Mary Sukomelk ( c 1815-1820?). This time frame coincides well with the lifetimes of his two sons and granddaughter as mentioned above. 


One other option to note is that of another Kanaka named Kalemaku who arrived from O’ahu on May 7th, 1845 at Ft. Vancouver (Washington State) and later worked in New Caledonia (Northern BC). It is quite possible his travels took him through the Okanagan and  it is not impossible that he fathered a child with a native woman in the Okanagan and passed on a version of his name. 


When I first heard of the Hawaiian name origin theory I was quite skeptical. I thought it made for a great story but was highly unlikely. Now, the more information I have found on the topic, the more convinced I am that there is indeed a Hawaiian connection through the Kanakas of the HBC.  Perhaps the story is too good not to be true? I’ll leave that up to you. We can all certainly agree on the beauty of the lake we know as Kalamalka. 

As always if anyone has any further information or thoughts I would be pleased to hear them. 

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine..." Isaiah 43:1

Sources & Further Reading: 

Blog by Dr. Duane Thompson for the Lake Country Museum:

"Peon" by F.M. Buckland in the 17th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society. It can be read online Here

Akrigg, Helen B. and Akrigg, G.P.V; British Columbia Place Names; Sono Nis Press, Victoria 1986 /or University of British Columbia Press 1997

Greater Vernon Museum and Archives

Jean Barman and Bruce Watson; Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest, 1787-1898  (University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2006). 

Tom Koppel; Kanaka: The Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest; Whitecap Books 1995


  1. Thanks for sharing the history of kamalka lake. I enjoy reading this piece so i followed you on google+ to be updated.
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