Teaching Gravity in a 21st Century Classroom

First, two pictures of gravity. I don’t mean the effects of gravity. I mean gravity.

P2110722 Gravity is not mathematics.  It’s either here in these pine cones or it doesn’t exist.P2110571 Water carries heat and cold. Heat operates steam heating systems, and energizes clouds and ocean currents. Cold provides water for salmon, through the midst of hot grasslands. It also carries gravity.

P2110095Notice how it stills it. Notice how differently rock embodies it. Notice how differently you, as a human, read that. Gravity they are. Gravity is also linked to time. Here’s a pool of it. Gravity, I mean, but also time.P2110650 Light travels in straight lines, says physics, but then that means everything else doesn’t. These mosses on Turtle Mountain, for example. Look at them bend, where the light is not.P2110697 They, too, are pools of gravity.P2110698 Physical science has worked out theories of how gravity bends space and thus light, although travelling in straight lines, bends, to follow space. The math works, but, come on, isn’t that overly complicated?P2110702 What is that space? Look at it below. The answer is right there.P2110711 The answer is here.P2100946 Ah, life, yes, that’s a different thing than gravity. It’s a different thing than steam rising, rain precipitating, or stone eroding, and far different than space bending around a star. We have the math to prove it. But look. Here’s a pool of gravity. Look how it turned red, and now is filled to the brim with time.P2100972 Here’s a pool below it, closer to Okanagan Lake, in which time is still held by water.P2100975 Look at this trunk of time, powered by gravity. Remember: gravity doesn’t “fall”. It’s “there.” P2110284 It’s here. Look how now it is contained by the molecular forces of water molecules. That’s how weak it is.


Weak it may be, but look how it pools in this bunchgrass, in these amplified water droplets, these extensions of molecular water tension in time, powered by gravity.


Is that not bending light? And look below: is light not always stopping, because that’s what happens when it hits the earth? Are these not the flashes as it meets gravity?

P2110814Does not water, the core of life, carry them? Is that not time? Look at the grapes below, from a bunch too immature two months ago for the birds, a bunch at the end of the vine that bloomed late, with every flower on the cluster blooming separately.  That is many times at once, each in its surface tension, and all there, or, rather, all here now.


I have learned not to be diverted by usefulness. Usefulness is a powerful social force, but presence is stronger.


It might be as weak as gravity, but look at it at work:


Can you read that? Well, your body can. It knows where food is in the spring. It knows where power is, and differing intensities and combinations of light and gravity and all the other forces of the earth. Scientific theory puts it like this:

periodicThat’s beautiful and real and powerful and socially useful, but it’s not this:


And until it is that, or this …


… (for example), then it is not this.  This is gravity:


Humans live in it. Ideas of God bound within alchemical machines live here:

P2000675 P1930714 P1920539 P1820802 Look at this piece of time trying to get through that mess.P1830404

Scientific thought is an incomplete project. If you are a teacher of science, I urge you towards bringing it back to the world. Here’s the first step. Here’s your new classroom, your new black board, smart board, white board, projector, chatroom and smartphone app:


A Chemistry Teacher Climbs the Farwell Dune, Cariboo Chilcotin Grasslands

Please. Your life depends on it.

It’s Mango Time!

We love you, stag horn sumac.



But we love you, smooth sumac more.



Oh, Staghorn, you come from Virginia. You knew Hiawatha in your youth.



But smooth sumac, daughter of this land, we love you more.



Staghorn, you are the spirit of the eastern forests in the Autumn: the sun transendent!



We love you, but your sister’s light is our light.



Her darkness is our darkness, on the scree slopes of our volcanic hills.



Staghorn, we welcome you and celebrate that you live among us, and bring us your light. We rejoice with you. We raise our arms up with you and dance!



But we are the smooth sumac people. Let us be brothers and sisters, for we are all mangoes, yes we are.



And let us love our sisters the poison ivy that is no ivy but is a mango too, for she too is beautiful.



We are all living in the sun.


To be praise is to be praise. How could that not be enough?

When Trees are Weeds

This is an old growth forest full of weeds.P2100441

The sage brush is the weed …


… not the bunch grass. Sagebrush is an indigenous plant, but it comes in a bit thickly when the grass has been overgrazed. Traditionally these weeds were kept down by a) not overgrazing and b) fire. The weeds below were kept down by fire, too.


Look at them now, messing with the grass’s head.


This is called a forest, but it’s not. It’s a grassland, with weeds. Now, there’s an interesting cycle in the grass, in which short-lived pines burn off, the grass comes back, the pines come back, the grass comes back, the pines come back, the grass comes back and before you know it 10,000 years have passed in the sun. This isn’t like that. These trees are sick.


See that? Their only life is in their top two or three metres. That’s where the forest is… scarcely higher than sagebrush. Everything else down below is just shade.


This is the great shade desert created by trees. All it is is fuel. All it is is fire. And billions of dollars are spent every summer in preventing that fire, with very few results, while all we have to do is cut the trees down and take them away, like we would to any weeds. We can throw a few into ponds, for the fish to shelter under, of course.


And leave some for the eagle. She needs them, the deader the better.


Eagles can’t use crowded trees, either, and people belong on the grass. You can see yourself in the grass, right?

We should go sometime together.  Summer, winter, pshaw, it’s all good.

Better than this, for sure.


Nothing on earth can live there. For forests, the following will do. A few trees in the drainage of a cliff. Great spot for bears and flickers and deer.P2110471

And we like to live with bears, right?

What We Need to Talk About, Darling

The land I live on was an island that crashed into a continent. It buckled and smashed and was pushed up into the air by the collision.


The old seabeds of its foreshore we dragged under the ground, pressurized, and their water, turned to steam, turned them to lava, and they rose and splashed over top of the ruins.




These landscapes were broken by glaciers, which lie now in long inland freshwater fjords in beds that sink far below the surface of the offshore seas.


There are many of these islands.


They stretch from Oregon to Alaska, all broken up…

P2100867 …, all welded together with old volcanoes from their deep stone seabeds.P2100825

Many are stilled rimmed by water. Many are still seabeds.


Many still have tide pools.


Many are still given to shoreline grasses…




… even though the skies, torn by newer uplifted islands to the west, are the reverse of ocean air.


We are still at sea. Storm still drains off of the rock.


Generation after generation …


… the creatures of the water have adapted to living in the air and making a living from the cracks in stone …


… that catch the sea the mountains, the old islands, strip from the sky and give back to them. Even a stone can be a tide pool in this ocean.


Our birds are sea eagles …


… that come from India.


But so do many of us. My ancestors did, long after the ice melted here.  We are travelling, among islands.

starlings We are gathering and giving away.P2100521 We are falling and rising up.P2060603

As humans, it is our gift to see all these things as one. All creatures have this gift. It is called being present.


Humans have developed a science that takes apart this natural ability to see, in order to create stories of causality. It is a positive and powerful tool, as are one of its products, photographs such as these.


This is not the human faculty, this science. The human faculty is to see all these images as one, as physical things in the world, and simultaneously as spiritual forces and as forces of energy deep in time, and to experience in something as simple as a breath of air or the movement of an arm, or a moment that humans call beautiful …


… because it too is profoundly present, which is to say, all its energies are combined at once. Awareness is a word, not a human faculty. The faculty belongs to the earth. The word is us. This is awareness:


The photograph is the word.


Humility is the gesture. Again, it is a faculty of the world, not of humans themselves.


We are given this gift of putting things together. Don’t accept it that science must take them apart.


Our bodies know more than that. Of course they do, they are of the earth.


And she is of us.


This is a different thing altogether:


The people who build a golf course like that, on a rich, living grassland, are not of this earth. This is their habitat.


They are now dreaming of going to Mars. They are practicing.


They are building their space ships.


In many ways, they have already left.


They are almost wordless now.

P2000484 They have become their words.P2000542 When someone becomes a word, and writes it in the world of manifested words …P2000506

… they erase it.


The world is a weed to them.  The people of the world are weeds to them.


They are shadows.



They are grand romantic shadows, physical spirits who use their bodies as puppets, cars, and other machinery of transportation and communication.


Their ancestors were trees…


…  living on islands on the sea.


These islands are still here.


We are still here.


Our bodies, which are of this earth are still here.


We need to speak of this.


Oh, Canada, How About a New Flag for Everyone?

Here’s Canada’s tree, thriving in Germany. Acer Rubrum herself.acerrubrum

Here she is, flappable.


Here’s our maple leaves in the  mountains of the West. This is the Rocky Mountain Maple. Acer Glabrun.

P2110476 Sometimes she’s sorta red.P2110477As I see it, we have options. Here’s option 1. Go Greeny Yellow.


Option 2. Go purply.



They look pretty awful, I must say. I wonder why people think the red one looks any better a continent away from Ms. Acer Rubrum?

Canada Comes to Vernon, British Columbia

This is the new version of the Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post.

A change of colour won’t help. We have to think big. Remember that Pride Parade we all had? We need pride. We’re all in this together, too. How about this?


That’s a non-gendered, non-coloured, non-colonial, politically transparent maple leaf in the middle, right? But, really, this is a great choice, too:

 [Two spirited people flag]

image by Tomislav Todorovic, 27 August 2014. Source.

The four cardinal directions of indigenous North American culture, and everything? How could we go wrong with that? If you like it, too, tell Justin. Click.

Who is a Person?

Oh, here’s a person:

Photo on 12-11-05 at 4.19 PM

Your writer says hi.

When you get a whole bunch of persons together you get people. Like this:


Plateau Men Fishing, Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, c.1950 Source

So, that’s a group of persons, and when they get together their interactions are called social. I talked about s’lahal, the bone game, the other day. That’s social:


Lummi Men Hard at a Game of S’lahal, c. 1930

But, wait. The story of S’lahal is told in this amazing book…


You can read about it. It has its own very beautiful website here: songsofpowerandprayer.com. It’s outwardly about a shaman and a priest who learn to blend their faiths in the Plateau, through song, but it’s also about social groups. In short, every person in the Plateau is a member of a social group which includes not only his or her guardian spirit but the entire world of spirits that manifest themselves as the animals and plants of the earth.


Bald Eagle Above Okanagan Lake

Look at all those spirit creatures on the far valley wall, too, eh.

Humans are one of these forms of materially present spirits.

One Young Woman from Every State of the USA Pours a Jug of Water Over the Grand Coulee Dam

And this is how the world ended. I didn’t say spirit was all sweetness and light.

Here’s, I guess, the other side of this s’lahal game called Damming the Great River of the West:


Colville Women Gathered for the Ceremony of Tears, to Commemorate the End of the World, 1940

Every game needs two teams.

Thing is, there were other teams.

Nkmp Sockeye, Okanagan Falls

Luckily for them, the Okanogan River joins the Columbia below Grand Coulee Dam.  The Skoelpi salmon of Kettle Falls were not so lucky.

The game of S’lahal is played with these spirits, with songs that are often created by these spirits. In short, every S’lahal player had a social group that included family, tribe, nation, and all the animals and plants and rivers and mountains of the world. Even pine pitch and stumps. And this bunch:

Buck and Canada Geese on the Impounded Columbia West of Kettle Falls

There’s no need to get all romantic about this and abandon all Western knowledge to imitate an old culture of nature spirits (it would not, however, be dishonourable, either, in any way, short of the romanticizing, but that’s easy to peel away), but there’s a beautiful point here. In the Plateau cultures, it was not that human social culture arose from the gathering of people and their interactions, or communications. That is a Western cultural idea. In its place, what the people learned on the Grasslands was to survive by paying very close attention to the world and working within its forms. The primary social relationship was dual: with the creatures and forces of the world, on the one hand, and with family and other people on the other. Communication was a unifying force that brought these two human orientations together. Song was one way. This was another:

Mara Lake

These words are another. And these:

Raven at Lolo Lake

The old mammoth hunting ground and bulb gathering ground on the Camas Prairie between the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon Rivers.

Even in Western thought, before humans became specialized at living in concrete, asphalt, steel, plastic, brick and glass environments punctuated with slave groupings of plants and rogue invaders called weeds or graffiti artists, humans derived their languages from observations of the world, because they lived and worked in the world and had to understand it well. The language I am writing in here, and which you are reading, English, has its roots in that mode of being, and didn’t start catastrophically deviating from it until a couple decades ago. This is the language of goose girls and cowherds, fishers, crofters, charcoal burners, salmon poachers, beechnut gatherers and kids herding pigs with a stick and sheep with a crook. I’m proud of that.


Mallards Leaving Town

Some kid still thrashing through a swamp after duck down is glad to see them.

Not just that, I’m glad. It means that the separation of people from the world is not a Western cultural thing. It is a consequence of environments, continually at war with the social knowledge living energetically within language, trying to be born with every sentence, like this, perhaps:

It spells that the cutting of men and women from their home is not a bond knotted around all people of the West. It is a town warring with the bonds within its words and the spells between them, birthing anew with every knot in every telling.

Pregnant Whale, Wedding Rocks, Makah Illahie

Think of it. You create a whale by slowly wearing away the rock with the action of your own hand until the whale is there, and then you let the sea wear it away over centuries, taking that attention away and dissolving it into the water, to insure that whales will come, rich and pregnant with calves, for hundreds of years. When the art is gone? It’s never gone. It’s in the sea. It’s in the whales.

Today, many academics work hard and brilliantly at deconstructing the tendency of language to become ordinary, by dispelling the ordinariness of words. Deconstruction, though, is a French philosophical enterprise, and this is English we’re talking about here. Next time, I’ll illustrate the power of construction and reconstruction that is within English: a magical language, a language of practical application of materialized spirits, an Indigenous language a lot like the Sahaptin and Salishan of the Plateau, that, too, can reclaim its ancestral strength in a modern world. Anything less is an abandonment of ethics. We’ll be chatting about that soon, too. Until then, here’s some people to hang out with, without all this chatter!P2100892And these mergansers, too!

P2100734 And, yeah, I missed the shot of the eagle careening around this tree, as surprised to see me as I was to see her.P2110011

But the tree is just as fine a person to meet as the sun comes late over the hill.

Creating a Science That Includes the Earth

Science is a powerful tool. It’s built on a couple of foundational principles:

1. there is someone watching,

2. only what that person sees can be studied, and

3. only what is analyzed in a structured way is real.


Everything else is emotion (this discussion is punctuated with images from Yellowstone, for you to respond to emotionally and contemplate as we go along)…

P2050197…until it’s studied in a structured way, which might be through fields such as chemistry, biology or physics. Then it is understood.


By “understood” is meant that the emotion is explained away, the weakness of bodily experience is dispelled as an error, and the observer is reunited with his or her true self, a kind of mathematical intelligence, or God. It’s a beautiful conception.


Those are the foundations. Scientists today are often a very secular group, of course, with little interest in God, working to find practical applications of natural processes, which can be used industrially. Sometimes, they work to expand the body of their type of knowledge.


The rules of the process, however, remain, secular or not. There is, however, a bit of a glitch in this system. It is the act of observation.


Simply, what is observed is not necessarily emotional, and the observer is not necessarily separate from what is being observed. Those are just basic foundational blocks for this system, but, truthfully, this system can say nothing about those things, because they have been removed from it right from the beginning.


Here’s one example. Yellowstone’s Back Norris Geyser Basin (below) can be viewed emotionally by this system, but can only be understood once it is analyzed.



There are some difficulties with this approach. First, watching is participatory. I am the tree I observe above. This puts a bit of a snag into the first rule, that there is someone watching.  There is someone ‘being’ present, that’s for sure, but not separate from what’s observed.  It follows that the observer is also the observed object — not in the measurable technical ways demanded by scientific knowledge, for sure, but in a real enough way, in which the measurable technical ways are actually merely the expression of the separation of the observer and the observed. That’s a foundational bias. It’s based on the assumption that humans, the observer, and the world are separate, and that tool making is a higher order of intelligence than body imaging. It’s militarily true, certainly, but it’s not entirely true. If you doubt it, please look at the image below.


Look, Ma! No Tree!

A little rough-and-ready fun with Photoshop, sure, but that’s not my point. The absence of the tree changes the scene. That difference in balance, and even in presence, is a reading of the your self, the observer in this instance. If the tree had not been here I would have made a different image, as I scanned the basin, waiting for my mind to come to focus within it, as it did with the tree.


This effect is definitely what scientific thought wants to dispel. The problem is that by dispelling this effect, the subtlety of the viewer, and the connection between viewer and earth, are broken. This is marginally OK if you’re hoping to survive this Vale of Tears in order to have a better life in Heaven, but otherwise it leads to illness. Another weakness of the scientific method is that understanding is not the only goal. If understanding blocks other goals, it is not, actually, understanding. For example, a portable, disassociated intelligence such as most people are trained in in the West today, can view this scene in the Norris Back Basin …


… but the actual experience of observation can’t be observed with this tool. Does that matter? Yes, because in the scientific paradigm only what is analyzed an “understood” is real, which is to say that a response to the above scene as a moment of beauty is going to be read as an emotional response, leading to other emotional responses, leading, eventually to a vast network of social responses, and the contemporary state of affairs, in which the world is viewed as a human social construct, in direct opposition to the state goals of science for objective, non-humanized knowledge.


Don’t get me wrong. Those are all good things. It’s just that this system has forgotten that it is embedded in context, and immediate consequences are not necessarily the same as long-term ones, on the same principle that subatomic physical processes are not the same as ones at the level of peanut butter sandwiches. On a day to day level, I heard many people at the Mammoth Hot Springs and at the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone explain the colours in hot springs …


… as the result of various communities of microorganisms living in matted communities in the hot, mineral rich water. “Look at the mats!” they kept saying, already separating their bodily and emotional responses from learned ones from the biological sciences right at the beginning of their explanations— already separating them from the scene, even though it was their bodies, and how they were reading them in the landscape, that was the actual attraction.


This continual sacrifice of bodies and what bodies know and how, in the natural world, they unite with the mind (which is a bodily organ as well), is unhealthy. It leaves bodies with nothing to do, except to keep moving, in the hope that something observable will turn up, even though the refinements to identity created by the biases within scientific thinking pretty much ensure that nothing is going to show up. Here is a selection of a crowd of many hundreds of people at the Grand Prismatic Spring, the eye of the earth herself, walking, walking, walking right past because they did not do the single most important thing.

P2070199 They did not stop.P2050641 Seeing is stopping.pool

It is “being present”.



It is being there. It is “being there.”


Our ancestors called us “human beings” not “human thinkings” for a reason.

P2070167 A renewed science would do well to reconsider its Descartian foundation (I think therefore I am) with one from Indigenous experience, which would be more like (I am part of this therefore I am.)P2050541

Understanding that intellectually, however, would only be an initial, first step. This science would have to go further than understanding. Without dispelling it, because understanding is important. It would go further, though.


spring Human capacities would be returned to us, and strengthened.P2040490

And the earth at the same time.




Next: expanding the social group to include non-humans.

Of Universities and Love

Universities are  the place in which Western societies educate their youth, create knowledge, and pass on social values. I wonder why that doesn’t happen here:

SALMONThe Salmon River Enters the Snake

It used to. This is an old Nimîipuu village site. Increasingly now, the  model of the university is replacing other social structures with a particular kind of  knowledge arranged in  branches of learning,  organized in faculties, such “Arts”, which might include “Theatre” or “Germanic Studies” and “Science”, which might include “Biology” and “Physics”. The image below is not physics, or biology, or theatre or Germanic studies, and it’s not art, and it’s not science:

P1010543 It’s three horses of the Deadman Band of the Secwepemc Nation in a field of weeds. The only indigenous plant there is the sagebrush, and it’s a weed, too.  What is it, then? History? Reality? The world? There’s no name for it, because it’s not part of the scheme, nor is this …IMG_0734Chopping my Beetle-Killed Pines into Firewood

… nor this …P2000855High Density Apple Orchard in the Summer Fires

These are the things that a university might study, but the categories in which they would be studied do not rise from them. This system creates a particular type of technical knowledge. There are assumptions behind that choice, which is problematic in the grasslands of the Northwest, my country.

P2050745Yelllowstone Grasslands

The eastern rim of the North West. The other rim is the Pacific.

Notice the image above: it is not science, not art, not theology, and yet study of the place illustrated above, in Western culture, requires the application of training in at least one of those fields, which will create knowledge, within the hierarchical system of one of those fields. You can’t escape it. Even my photograph belongs to one of those systems: technical science. If it could be called “art”, then it would be a consequence of a human creating a bodily space within that technical field. This humanization is what humans do. It’s very urbane social behaviour, which universities attempt to train in particular directions for particular ends, yet let’s not forget that there is a Yellowstone, and there is a grassland, and none of the fields of organized study say very much about it as it is, or interface with it except through the hierarchical systems of their disciplines. Why is that? Is it something to do with the act recorded in the image below, in which a grassland hill, again in Yellowstone, is turned into a particular social space by placing a cairn of stones at its crest?

P2050646It changes the hill, for sure, yet before that change any human perception of that hill was also a perception of human space. Even the pine below, at the Norris Geyser Field deeper into Yellowstone, is a perception of human bodily space, despite its great foreignness to what has come to be called “human”.P2060045That means that that tree is human, but not necessarily socialized; its pine-ness, its foreigness, its mystery, is, in this conception, as much human as is, say, this …

P2000683Messing Around at Chukuaskin’s Grave While the World Burns, Keremeos

… and this …

P2070327Fishing in the Firehole River, Yellowstone

… and even this …

P2080007Young Black Bear Chawing Down, Kaslo

That is all self evident. The system of thought dominant at today’s universities would point out its irrelevence: it’s just observation. It hasn’t been organized. Well, that’s speaking from within the paradigm. From outside it, this linkage, this extension of the human beyond the human body and its structured, cognitive social expressions also expands the range of human experience to include the earth, and to respect the importance it has in human affairs. That bear is not important because it is a creature representing diversity, or because is integrated into an ecosystem, or because it is beautiful. Those are all expressions of minds culturally divided into categories. That bear is us. It is, of course, a bear — not because it’s also a bear, or because there are two ways of looking at it, but because We and Bear are the same thing and different. Sure, it’s a paradox, but paradoxes are real. Similarly, the following three images from Big Bar Lake capture light from the same being:

P2020866 berry3 P1970786 Yes, they’re taken at the same place, with the same apparatus, by the same person, on the same day, but beyond that commonality, those three things are also the wealth of difference within the beings and objects within the images, and that difference adds up to unity: not as 1+1+1 sequence, but opening out of each other all at the same time. It is not the job of universities to teach this process, but here’s the thing: this unity is the conception of land of this country’s indigenous peoples. Dismissing it is the same as dismissing them. It is profoundly disrespectful. So’s this, actually:

P1870928That’s an image of Yellow Jacket and Wasp, above the Clearwater (Kooskookie) River at Lapwai. There’s a highway pullout so you can admire this ancient Nimíipuu story of a yellow jacket and an ant fighting and refusing to stop until Itseyéyeh, the Trickster (aka Coyote) turned them into stone. It has been afforded some respect, for which I am grateful, but what’s not respectful is that this story is presented as a belief, and the rocks as  eroded basalt. No, respect allows them to be both: not to be studied, or analyzed, but to be entered into in all their dimensions at once.

P1870919There’s a second silence here: the old village site now at Lapwai, five miles up the valley, and fifty years ago at the Spalding Mission, a mile up the river, was actually here, but is now buried under that highway, and the parking lot you stand on to view this story from the beginning of the world. Until these things, story and understanding arrived at by science, are one, our universities are not a part this land. This hill in the Snake River could easily be the focal point of a school of Social Work.

P1880636 The walls of the Canyon are far back. Above them are the Camas Prairie. The centre of women’s power. Under dominant contemporary culture, and the systems of its schools of learning, it is “nature”. P1880577This silencing and silencing through abstraction has a long history.

mosesMoses Coulee

Just a glimpse from the road today, without a marker that this was the winter village of the Sinkuse people for many thousands of years, or that here, beneath these cliffs, was the ancient road from the north of the world to the south, which had been there since the glaciers melted and the vast river that cut this channel had flowed to sea. It was also the old Hudson’s Bay Company Road, and the road 10,000 genocidal miners took to the gold fields at Fountain, on the Fraser River, shooting Syilx people as they went. If this was Europe, the road would be celebrated and honoured. It is likely older than the Silk Road, after all.  Here, it has been “returned to nature”, although “nature” is one of the classification terms of university science and doesn’t exist in the world. This is a form of racism. Racism is not just a social problem, not for people who live as the land. This is one face of racism, or at the least profound disrespect:

P1860349This the Camas Prairie. This is the food basket of the Nimíipuu, before it was wrested from them through manipulating their treaty, plowed, and sown into wheat. The one good thing, is that the people are no longer in the cross hairs of rifles, although road signs have taken their place, as a kind of symbolic reminder of the power inherent in the scene. One way of eliminating camas was to remove the people, but another was just to plow it under. In order for all that to be possible, people were categorized, along with their ways of viewing their land, on racial terms: the Skoeilpi, the Palu’us, the Syilx, the Smlqmx, the Sinkuse, the Kittitas, the Nimíipuu, the Wanapum, the Klickitas, and all the other peoples of the grass, became “Indians”. The people who had been there for decades trading with them, who were the sons of native women (usually Cree or Iroquois) and Quebec or Louisiana Canadians, and who married local Cayuse, Couer d’Alene or Umatilla women, and raised families with them, were suddenly politicized as Canadians (a bad thing, when the land had just been whisked away from Britain by illegal settlement), and racialized as métis. Their futures were limitted by these categories, while the newcomers, a collection of Americans, Brits, Scots, Germans, Finns, Norwegians, Poles, Bohemians, French, Danes, Italians and many others, became “Americans” and “Whites” due to the categories allotted to them by what was, at that time in the United States, a slave culture. Black people were blacks and Chinese were Chinese and both suffered the categorization that came with that. Chinese and Indians were particularly vulnerable to torture and murder, for sport. I’ll spare you the horrible details. The land, though, and this is my point today, suffered  segregation and dehumanization along with the people. After all, it was the people. White, Brown, Black, or Red, as they were called, it didn’t matter, each one of these designations removed people from the land that was there and which was there to experience in its wholeness. It was all consciously done, by followers of a Methodist Christian system, who believed that the path to God was through American-style civil works: land ownership, work within approved social norms, courts, a system of government and education, military obedience, and so on: only that way could a body be purified of nature and made ready to receive the graceful inhabitation of God. Beauty, or a belief in the physical world and its spiritual presence, were strictly scoffed at as being womanly and weak. I have the texts here. I won’t burden you with them, except to point out that following the belief system that broke the connection between people and earth here, the following was not considered a right point for spiritual contemplation or illumination:

P2040358Mammoth Hot Springs

This would have been:

P1820720CN Rail Line, Vernon

A shack like the one below was more than sufficient to remove a piece of land from indigenous inhabitation and transform it into private property. Now that the land serves no purpose but to be weedsprayed in the spring so nothing will grow there at all, it does not revert to indigenous use. It remains forever alienated.


Priest Valley

Take a look at it. It was originally meant to be a Syilx Reserve, but that got manipulated. Look at it again. That’s much like this image below of a bunch of men hauling red listed sturgeon off of the isotope-poisoned bottom of the Columbia River in the shadow of two military grade plutonium reactors at Hanford while the Yakama grasslands, removed from the Yakama people dishonourably in the Yakama War, fill the air with smoke. Then the men drop the poor ancient fish down again and then haul it back up. This is called sport.

sturgeon This is the replacement for living as land. This madness is nature. Take a look. That’s what she looks like. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like this, and universities don’t have to play this game. Here’s one that doesn’t:

n’awqen” ~ En’owkin

The word En’owkin is an Okanagan conceptual metaphor which describes a process of clarification, conflict resolution and group commitment. With a focus on coming to the best solutions possible through respectful dialogue, literally through consensus.

En’owkin Centre

The En’owkin is a dynamic institution, which puts into practice the principles of self-determination and the validation of cultural aspirations and identity.

This institution is in Penticton, British Columbia, in the Syilx Illahie. It could as well be in the land forms below, in the midst of the village complexes at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers in Idaho. Under a hierarchal scientific system, they became “cliffs” and “basalt columns” and “part of the Columbia Basin flood basalts”. They were once as much story as wasp and ant at Lapwai. The fear of the “other” remains latent. I walked out there in June of this year, on a day of 105 degree Fahrenheit heat, a woman called out to me by a boat in the river, about where I took this image the next day, “Aren’t you afraid of snakes?” Why would I be afraid of snakes? I grew up with rattlers, for god’s sake, and that river trail was no place for rattlers, and they knew it and I knew it, too.

P1900245I long for universities, beyond the En’owkin Centre, that actually live in this place, and rights these divisions, brings ancient knowledge, and the languages that support it, forward, and build a right relationship with the earth through alignments of structure and logic that come from the process of the grasslands themselves. I long for a university that does not ultimately discredit the very information contained in an image like this…

blueBowron Lake at Dusk

…by describing it as beauty, an historical artifact, or abstracting it as “a human projection” without also embedding it in the earth, or one which describes the information contained in this image…

P1870284Heart of the Monster, Kamiah, Idaho

… as a rock onto which ignorant people projected comforting stories. This is the  centre of the world! I find it profoundly disrespectful that the centre of knowledge of greater than 12,000 years is dismissed by a system a couple hundred years old. Look at it. This is the cut up remains of a monster that swallowed all the Nimíipuu people at the beginning of time. The people came from here. It is described in university culture as a volcanic plug, onto which a people have projected their creation story as a social act. Well, no wonder, that’s the society that dominates today, but, you know, the En’owkin Centre doesn’t play this game. The students come because they need that program, because it is anchored in their lives, and because it is embedded in their land and culture. It doesn’t work against those, to embed them into a system of abstractions anchored elsewhere and which are ultimately placeless and, placeless, ultimately destructive of the earth. It doesn’t matter how you apologize for it or how much good you do within your discipline. At some point, it must touch the world and abandon all it knows for all it can be. Many scientists and artists work to that end, but they do so against the system that is always biasing them against it. You can’t get to the earth by going away from it.


You can’t keep yourself alive in the broadest sense without keeping the earth alive in that sense, too.wings3It’s a paradox, but paradoxes are real. It’s time to stop teaching racialized knowledge. It is time for brilliant university educated people to stop attempting to solve vital environmental problems solely with the tools that created them, as if you could just go further and further and further into technology and come out into unity at the other end. Unity is not something to observe, dissect, analyze or critique to excess. It is something to embody.  In the world of Charles Marie Pandosy, Oblate Missionary to the Yakama during and before the Yakima War: “We have to love them enough.”


The Illahie: the Braided Country

Here’s an old word: illahie. Here’s what it looks like to me today:


Well, that’s a teeny tiny bit of it. If you look it up in a Chinook Wawa dictionary…

45667_1…the trade language of Cascadia …


… on the North Pacific Coast of North America, you’ll find it defined as: “country, land.” Ya, well, it’s also this…


Mammoth Hot Springs in the September Rain, Yellowstone

… and it’s not a claim to legal land title. It’s a person’s illahie. It’s the land that one is. It has an interesting story, too. All words in Chinook Wawa, or Chinook Talk have an origin. Some come from Tsinuk, the language of the old traders at the mouth of the Columbia River. Some are from other indigenous languages, in this illahie rich with them. After all, the Tsinuk (Chinook) were trading in Wawa long before Europeans lugged themselves out this way. Some are from French, like leman, for “hand” or lapote, for “door.” Some are from English, like sugar for “sugar.” Some come from playful echoes of sound. Wawa (language or talk) is one of those. It’s the sound a baby makes (wa wa), and the sound a person makes when no one understands him (blah blah, for instance), and that’s kind of the way traders were, and kind of the way of pidgin language that lacks a certain amount of subtlety, shall we say. Illahie, though, oh, that’s an interesting one. Here’s my guess: it’s French, from the métis traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who came overland from Canada, or perhaps the French-speaking Iroquois traders who came before them, before history, and are only recorded in Skoeilpi legend, but are no less real for that. You could have Scots ancestry, too. That worked.

05 Angus MacDonald

The Great Coming Together

If I’m right, the word is “la hai”, a hedge of sticks (it’s how you planted one), even a fence (they were often woven from willows) [note: the spelling change is because the recorders were English and spelled “hai” the English way, as “hie”]…


A Stick Fence from the Day. Source

…and the prefix “il”, which makes it “il-lahie”. Does that come from the French pronoun “il” for “he”? Or does it come, perhaps, from the nsyilxcen word, “yil”, for a braid. If it’s French, it would mean “his fence”, but the French would be poor, pidgin even, so perhaps Iroquois, and perhaps Sahaptin or Salishan, spoken by someone just learning the language and poking fun. That works. If it’s “yil” it would mean, “the hedge of sticks that is braided together.” That would work, too, because the hedge of sticks in Cascadia is a game, called s’lahal. It’s an ancient game. It goes back nearly 14,000 years in this illahie.  We know, because it’s called “the stick game”, the “sticks” are made of bones, and the oldest set of s’lahal bones we have are nearly 14,000 years old.


S’lahal played in Vancouver, in 2011  Source

It’s played today with sticks, lengths of wood, because no one has much of a source of mammoth bones anymore. It’s a game played with drumming and songs, as you can see above. One old s’lahal song sings that in the early gambling to see who was going to be the hunted in the future, after the people were separated into people and animals, it wasn’t looking so good for humans. This hairless and sickly lot were down to one s’lahal bone and it looked like the soup pot for them, but then one of the spirits of one of the animals took pity on these weak mewling, naked, clawless and toothless things and gave them a song. That made the difference. Life came to humans from the song’s ability to change the mood of the game in their favour. Ever since, s’lahal has been played with songs, drumming, polyphony, antiphony, swagger, bluff and laughter. If you’re thinking, hey, that sounds like coyotes teaching their kits to howl outside their dens under the warm August moon, you’ve got it about right.

Too Young to Play S’lahal (May)

Sometimes, s’lahal can be bad for your health, though. That’s because it’s played with mammoth bones, or with arrow shafts tipped with them, signifying men. Each arrow is a song. Each song is a wager. And…when French métis traders (typically the dark-skinned sons of Quebec French men and native women) arrived it became a splendid cross-cultural joke: in French “la hal,” or “la haie,” is a pun between “a hedge of sticks” and “a suntan” — in other words, “lahal” is the stick game of the people with dark skins, or “the forest people,” because the French word “La Tenne” has always meant the celts, the forest people who painted their skins dark with walnut or fir sap (Tanne, or Tannenbaum in German), just as the English word “tan” has always meant exactly the same thing: to get a tanning, in other words, is to get whipped, which colours the skin bright red; to get a tan, in other words, means to have children with the people of the forest, and to bring their darker skin colour into your family line — a fine métis bit of wit. And maybe you’re going to get whipped, or beaten, in that game of s’lahal, eh?


E.J. Kipp, 26, (left) and his brother Andre Picard Jr., 33, of the Nez Perce Nation in Lapwai, Idaho, demonstrate how a game of Sticks and Bones might go. Source

Hey, if you can’t laugh at yourself, what’ve you got? Laughter aside, though, there’s deep, ancient wisdom here: humans and spirits and animals are all woven together in s’lahal, and they are woven together in the land that s’lahal made: the illahie. The earth, and all its interwoven creatures, the illahie, is the game. It’s s’lahal. It’s the play. It’s the weave we are.


A Bunch of Bison After Losing the Stick Game

By the way, in Wawa, “sticks” are what English speakers call trees and French speakers call des arbres and Germans see as Bäume.  The bison know them differently.  Look at them there in Yellowstone with their game pieces! And that’s the illahie, the land that is all woven together, with the spiritual foundation, woven together from the beginning of the world, and keeping that beginning alive, and woven with all the rich diversity of the land bound together in a game of mutual communication and respect. Today, we have much to integrate into the illahie, after a century and a half of trying to cheat the game.


It’s going to take quite some singing. Let’s begin!

Why stop there?


The Music of Bunch Grass

These are our old growth forests in the Syilx Illahie.
p1960872Our sequoias, redwoods, Douglas firs, sitka spruce and western red cedars are blue-bunched wheat grass here. Forget the blue blades at the core of the rain-gathering stalks for a moment. Look at her in the fullness of her season.P2100387No seeds left in the image above, and a few left below, each with its awn.
P2100379The awns are not to catch in your fur or your hands, but to be brushed against, and to fall.P2100377 Sure, blue-bunched wheatgrass spends her spring growing up into the sky, but in Autumn, she drops to the earth and enters it and lies there and slowly swells.P2100383

Going through this grass in October is to go through music. It’s not just the music of space, but of sound, too. Listen to her name: st’iyi7. So much stronger than hay grass, which is swupúla7xw (and also beautiful.)P2100385

Her music is a series of patterned interruptions of silence. By passing through them, we whisper — sw`-uncut — and drop her seeds, and baby pheasants —sw`-sw`¿as —pick them up. The words are based on sound, but the observation is precise: we make the sound. We plant the seed. We are the grass, but not just the grass.


Umtanum, Yakama Illahie

I was asked this September, why Indigenous languages matter. That’s easy. The land can’t be described without them, and with them the most difficult things are simple and self evident. Now, look at her blue heart after a year of snow and sun.


Big Bar Esker, Secwepemc Illahie

This too is st’iyi7. This curl is an embodiment of that music and that sound.


You too can be st’iyi7. First you have to forget who you are. Then you have to remember. But you can also do it the other way around.


Note: Illahie is a Chinook jargon word for “land”, but it’s a lot more than that. Tomorrow, I will tell you that story.