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.”


5 replies »

  1. Hey Harold,

    I spend time with people who are doing the very thing of which you speak. Re-integrating practices which develop relationships with all livings things around us. Relationships simply grow from practices which develop connections to place, to all living things, to each other and to ourselves; which you already understand because you’re doing it yourself. Storytelling is one example of those practices. These things are holistic and healing. Connection drives everything else; it drives curiosity, creativity, knowledge and it drives culture. It’s far, far superior to intellectual learning in institutions. It develops complete human beings that aren’t subsumed by intellect and rational thought, that believe it’s the only way to know or understand something.

    Mentoring in traditional cultures is what happened before institutional learning. It was many people who were already fully connected watching those growing up and noticing where they lacked connection. It integrated practices of peacemaking, gratitude, storytelling, tracking, toolmaking, song, dance, caretaking, etc. How could you not help but cultivate fully alive and connected people in an environment like that? Academic institutions absolutely pale in comparison and we delude ourselves into thinking they’re “institutions of higher learning”. Hogwash. Our real university is the living world surrounding us at all times and our teachers are anything that we have enough curiosity to pay attention to and ask ourselves questions about.

    As always, I love your stories. Your art, your gift, is sorely needed in these times Harold.


    • Thanks, Kurt! I’d love to see a way to open the universities to this way of thinking, too. They have such a huge number of resources, and attract such intelligent people to their offerings, it’s a shame that they can’t adapt. One of the reasons might be that the people who could challenge the way things are tend to leave, leaving the institution, which is self regulating, to continue on. I see some hope, in that social change has become ubiquitous throughout university culture. Perhaps that’s a first step towards including the earth environment in the social community, at which point change might happen, but I agree with you fully: change comes form people doing the work, in place. Thanks.


  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ve read it twice, quietly out loud to myself so your words would sink in to this thick skull of mine. And poured over the beautiful photos. Then I slept on it, but not before watching a couple of university aged kids excitedly report on California’s water situation and the advances being made in water recycling. They talked about biodiversity and agribusiness, even laughingly mentioned Beavers. How fragile the aquifer is that a single beaver damn could flood fields and cause so much trouble. Right away it became clear what you’re talking about, the disconnect. I mean, there they are, standing alongside a man made river of water, most of which will be diverted to water fields growing single crops of gigantic tasteless strawberries and such, in a barren arid golden brown landscape, talking about biodiversity. The aquifer doesn’t even have a cover on it. Did they learn nothing from the Romans? Or any of the other ancient ones who have struggled with water?

    So after a good nights sleep, and a brief conversation about the foulness of Netanyahu’s latest statement, my next thought is highschool. Dropout rates in BC are a staggering 20-50% probably higher in some places . Holy crap. I dropped out back in the day because I didn’t fit in. I came to the conclusion that there was no room for or understanding of my own personal view. What started out as a little crack that could have been easily bridged in elementary school widened into a canyon by the time I was 14 or so. I loved studying science but each step along the way there were profound mysteries that we were actively discouraged from exploring in the classroom. Doors kept closing, not opening. The beautiful and mysterious language of mathematical relationships became only about dry and lifeless numbers completely distilled and isolated from the philosophical milieu from which they were born….great for the 1%ers who were/are smug in their ability to manipulate numbers, dollar signs bulging out their eyes balls as they dream about growing the economy. Not so great for people like me.

    Paradox. Figuring out how to then actually sending a remotely controlled robot to Mars who communicates to us across the vast distances of space about a few droplets of salt water weeping from a frozen inhospitable landscape when we can’t or won’t figure out how to provide clean drinking water and safe sewage disposal for people plants and animals here at home.

    My heart sank when I heard Justin Trudeau talk about “real change” and consulting with the “First Nations stakeholders”….


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