White Washing Water

Talk about water, which is a large part of the talk in a near-desert environment, is also talk about people and grass. Here’s a story about that.

Last of Washington’s Grass

The Horse Heaven Hills

Just to the south of the Okanogan, the horses of these hills were the wealth of the Yakima People. American settlers thought the horses were wild, because they were not fenced, so they herded them up, and took them. Here’s what the Horse Heaven Hills look like now, once you get above the slopes and the vineyards and towns and fruit farms in the Yakima Valley:

Wheat Fields in the Horse Heaven

Wild land cleared. No Yakima People. No horses.

Do you think this is way off topic? Hang in there. Just a bit more background. For eleven years, an oblate priest by the name of Charles Pandosy tried to minister to the Yakimas at the mouth of the Yakima River. He did manage to become an able farmer and a friend to the Yakimas. Conversions? Zero. Still, he learned their language, and defused a possible massacre at the beginning of the Yakima War. He was also accused of being a spy by the US Military, had his crops burnt for his friendship with the Yakimas, and was escorted out of Yakima territory, as were all White settlers. Realizing that he was good at building relationships if not ministering, the Catholic Church sent him north to the Okanagan, where the Syilx lived, who he knew from their trade down the Columbia to Yakima Territory. Pandosy established a mission at Duck Lake, to be near the Syilx, and then in Kelowna, and spent the rest of his years establishing missions across British Columbia. He returned briefly to Kelowna between each one. Once a mission was established, priests more diligent at ministering were sent in to solidify the gains he had made. To mince no words, the technique approximated a concentration camp system, built around small subsistence land reservations, without water, and the removal of all children to residential schools, after 1876. Many Syilx children from the Okanagan were sent to the Kamloops Industrial School.

Kamloops Industrial School, 1890

At schools like this, religious education was synonymous with industrial training (with no Irish, colonial society needed an able work force), forcible indoctrination through outlawing native cultural practices, family bonding and language, as well as the retention of children past graduation age to bolster federal subsidies on a head count basis and to remove children of their right to Indian status.

And, yes, this is still about water. There’s a myth told by tourism organizations in the Okanagan. It holds that Father Pandosy started the first orchard and vineyard in the Okanagan Valley, and was a tireless advocate of the valley and its promise as an agricultural paradise. Incredibly, nobody mentions the Yakima War, nor the fact that in 1859 a fully commercial orchard was planted in the Okanagan, although five miles south of the new Canadian-US Border at Osoyoos, or that in 1859 a young Austrian by the name of Frank Richter was spying for the US Army against the Apaches, was wounded, captured, escaped, hopped from US Army post to US Army post, then in 1864 wound up here:

Richter Pass

The Okanagan is at our back here. The US Border is behind the hills to the right, and cuts across the feet of Chopaka Mountain and Hurley Peak in the distance. Frank Richter started cattle ranching here in 1864, where it was still possible to live a free life on the land, which was no longer possible in the overly-settled USA. He also planted a fully commercial orchard. What’s more, it appears that he had a son by a Similkameen woman just over the border.

Richter was a friend of Kamiakin, chief of the Yakimas, and often hosted him on his ranch. He has been called the greatest leader of the Indians of North America, and one of the greatest men the continent has ever brought forth. Even the US Army Generals said that. He was also Charles Pandosy’s friend, and trusted him above everything. But he didn’t give a damn about Pandosy’s vegetable gardens. If you want to know Pandosy’s context, it’s that: the Okanagan was settled out of an Indian-Settler partnership, mediated in part by a Great Chief and a priest who rejected authority, went native, so to speak, and sought to improve the lot of people, especially himself, by giving them something to eat and providing an economic basis by which the people, Indian and settler alike, could be physically sustained. That was enough faith for him, and a faith that Kamiakin respected and Frank Richter put into practice. Farming in the Okanagan is a dialogue with the Similkameen and the Syilx. It was coopted. And now, the water.

The Hanging Tree Dog Creek

In 1871, at the northern end of the Intermontane Grasslands (of which the Okanagan Okanogan is a part), six Secwepemc girls from one family were found hung dead from this tree, ostensibly in a suicide pact because they had all fallen in love with one French Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company trapper. As the story goes, rather than destroy their sisterly bonds by having to choose between themselves, they hung themselves from the tree instead. Hardly a traditional Secwepemc response. The story goes on, that their father cut them down in the morning, and buried them on the hill, here…

… or more likely here, just below that slope, where the stones of Secwepemc summer houses can still be seen:

A love story? Or white wash for a different crime? In 1871, the year British Columbia was incorporated into Canada and was given a new racist Indian act, Indian nations were stripped of their land and, especially, their water, by illegal acts of White ranchers in collusion with clerks of the provincial government. That’s why our water use is so screwed up. We’ve never settled our history. That’s why there are weeds out on the land. Here’s what Indian grass looked like:

Cariboo-Chilcotin Grassland

The Junction Sheep Range

The land was managed by fire to keep it in this state, for 4000 years. Here’s what White grass looks like, after 150 years of denial of that knowledge:

Sagebrush and Weeds

No grass.

There are no land claims without water. There is no land ownership without water. Without water, the land has no value. Without a story about land use, there is no claim to water. It all pieces together into this: there are no Okanagan people without a relationship with the land. Look to the land. It shows what these relationships look like. They are written there. This is what the white-washed myth of Father Pandosy the White Settler looks like now…

Spraying in Bella Vista

Seeing is believing. Men are growing things that don’t belong here, and have to spray them for pests that have followed them here, and then sell them as products of the land. They are not. They are products of Martian space stations in alien territory, by people who purchased land from other people who stole all the water and never had the decency to admit it or to share a glassful of it on a hot day. We’re living in a cheesy sci-fi novel. If it were only just a novel…

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.