Indigenous Creativity in the Pacific Northwest

Some cultures are so ancient that they watched the glaciers come and go 10,000 years ago. So it is with the Syilx culture of today’s Colville Confederated Tribes. Once the ice melted and the post-glacial floods abated and the people climbed down from the high country or pushed through from the south and east, the first person sniffing his way was the ancestor Sen’klip, who the Yakimas to the south called Spillyay and the Nez Perce to the east called Itseyéyeh and most people just call Coyote now, and when he needed someone to talk to, to mull his thoughts over with, he shat, or farted, depending on the severity of the conversation, and talked to the smell on the wind. Well, his conversations are still here, on the road between Nespelem and Coulee Dam, above the river. Look, you can even see the hole made by the conversation, in the middle of the pile.coyoteSen’klip left hundreds of piles like this in this stretch of the Columbia (in the gorge cutting across the middle of the image). Not to be missed for the world! They will outlive the Grand Coulee dam, just upriver. Stories like this form one of the threads of Indigenous creativity on the Columbia Plateau. In other cultures, creativity might come from certain intersections of forces within a person, what is currently called emotion or identity or self or self-actualization. That is not the case here. Here the same intersections happen in the land. It is a permanent and timeless intersection of forces. People move through it, in its own patterns.

Not Gravity Gradients But Bodily Shapes in Bodies That Are Not Human

One of the important components of this kind of creativity is that it relates to two lands at the same time: a timeless one, in which all beings are equal and speaking to each other, and one created by them, in which coyotes are wild dogs, deer are four-legged grazing animals, and “the real people” (to distinguish them from the coyotes and deer and so on, who are also people) are humans. These worlds were once one, but are now divided between a world of spirit and the earth, where spirit makes itself manifest as plants, animals, wind, rain, rivers, mountains and so on, which effect human behaviour. Creativity rises from this relationship. A song in Spokane culture, for example, is created by spirits, in their world, and passed to humans, in theirs; when humans sing the song, they gain access to the spiritual world, and spirits gain access to theirs. Nonetheless, the song does not come from human invention; it is received. This is an intricately woven conception of an intricately woven world, in which the grassland hills provide a bounty of food across a wide range of seasons if they are cared for by a principle called Yil. To speak about Yil, let me introduce you to one of the problem deer of Bella Vista.popup By problem deer, we mean that she comes down at night and nibbles shrubberies planted in the front yards of people who keep houses for the summer and, strangely, go away to some place warm for the winter, when the land looks like this:

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They are missing so much! In the summer, people call for the deer above and her sisters to be shot. You might see what the deer think about that below…

eye The eye tells all. Here, let me show you:


You see that? Not very trusting is she. And what was she doing anyway? Well, mid-afternoon snack!


The only edible thing on the hill is this saskatoon bush. That makes for a lot of wandering, back and forth, from one bush to the next, and, here’s the thing. The grassland didn’t evolve for this, and it’s destroying it. Hence the descent to the shrubberies.

hillDeer trails. It’s like a lion pacing in a cage at a zoo. This is not the weaving of Yil, but it is the weaving Yil makes when its threads are broken. More on that in a sec. First, let’s look up on the hill, where the aspen saplings in the wetlands that one might graze if one were a doe with a bright eye are dead, because someone misunderstood just a few things, there’s nothing to eat here anymore. The wetland is no longer part of the weave of the land.

drywetThis is a Wetland No More

One error here was long-term cattle grazing and the over-concentration of deer caused by improperly designed human housing estates. Another is that this is a pond. Hardly. It is the heart of a body that includes deer, ravens, flickers, foxes, coyotes, dogwoods, hawthorns, firs, aspens, alders, mice, ducks and so much more.


Haws: Part of the Body that is Otherwise Called a Pond

(In this case, a kilometre away. Psshaw, that’s nothing.)

Another error made here is that deer eat grass. Yeah, some deer, and some grass only. They prefer succulent plants, especially flowers, big buds and seed heads.. Another error is that aspens are trees. After all, aspens have trunks and leaves and branches, right?

aspensThese Are Not Trees

This is one organism, that grows underground and sends up vertical trunks. It is preyed upon by more fungi and bacteria and viruses than anything else going and dies like the dickens, hence it is important that it continually throw up a huge number of new, sapling trunks. The oldest organism of this kind is 70,000 years old, the oldest living thing on earth. The organism above is dying. Most of the aspen creatures in my grassland are dying, because of cattle, irrigation and housing development. That is the seventh dimension: beyond the grass getting up and moving in the form of a deer or a human, which is the sixth dimension, all living creatures are one creature; what one does affects all the others as if it were done to themselves. This dimension has a name. It is Yilx. More on that in a sec.

nestDeer Nest Among the Coyote Rocks

(Click it for a better view.)

First, some weaving, or Yil. It goes like this: if cattle graze the wetland, the aspens die and deer must eat saskatoons. If deer overgraze the saskatoons, there are few berries for birds, coyotes, bears and humans. With little to graze, because saskatoons grow slowly when deer chew on them, the deer pace back and forth across the hill, eroding the microbial crust of the earth and breaking up the grass and balsam root communities, with a detrimental effect on mouse and marmot populations, coyotes, foxes, badgers and hawks. And why does it matter, if you have cattle, you might ask? It matters because the resilience is gone from the land and what was able to feed all the people, including deer and humans, now feeds only cattle, who are incredibly inefficient at converting grass to protein (and, besides, there isn’t much edible grass up there on the hill for them.) The land ends up producing less, which means it lives less, and since you are in the seventh dimension, and thus part of this life form, you live less, too. After enough time at this game, the land doesn’t even support cattle anymore. Just sagebrush, which is only good for burning up. The image below shows a grassland converted into a field, across the valley, and a wetland clogged with houses and roads in the valley bottom, where the deer should be hanging out and which should be feeding thirty kilometres of 135-kilometre-long Okanagan Lake, but is not any more.

P1060826Since we are the same organism, if the deer are blocked from access to the valley bottom and the life that should be produced there out of the flows of rain, gravity and sunlight out of the world of spirit, so are we, the humans. We are the prisoners just as much as the deer, and creativity is lost to us as much as it is to the land.


There is a name for this entire organism, by the way. It’s called Syilx, which is the name for the indigenous people of this place. It doesn’t really mean “the people” or anything like that. It is a way, a relationship, a form of inclusion and respect. The people gained this understanding from living on the grassland and watching it. I know this, because this is how I gained my own. Here’s what the Okanagan Indian Band has to say about Syilx:

The word “Syilx” takes its meaning from several different images. The root word “Yil” refers to the action of taking any kind of many-stranded fiber, like hemp, and rolling it and twisting it together to make one unit, or one rope. It is a process of making many into one. “Yil” is a root word which forms the basis of many of our words for leadership positions, as well. Syilx contains a command for every individual to continuously bind and unify with the rest. This command goes beyond only humans and encompasses all stands of life that make up our land. The word Syilx contains the image of rolling or unifying into one, as well as the individual command which is indicated by the “x” at the end of the word which indicates that it is a command directed at the individual level. The command is for every individual to be part of that stranded unified group, and to continue that twisting and unification on a continuous basis. It is an important concept which underlies our consideration of the meanings of aboriginal title and rights.

You can read more by clicking here. Or by going up the hill.

P1040828This is you.

A fascinating place in this braided world is the village. I was paddling around on the old molten glacier of Vaseaux Lake (below), when I realized that the traditional Syilx village on this site was not just the flat along the Vaseaux Lake shore at the right of the image …P1960297… but also the lake itself. A village is for people. Seen spiritually, water is people. So is this:


In this case, the house at the centre of this image has been built around the pictograph on the north-facing slope of the boulder between it and Vaseaux Lake — a remnant from when this area was a German colony in the sun, between and immediately after the world wars. In this case, it is a piece of land set aside for village memory and renewal, although removed now from its role. This, too, is part of the village …


Humans and people are the same, but not always the same. Sometimes people are Nodding Onion, such as here at Tepahlewam, on the Camas Prairie south of Lapwai, in Nimíipuu Country.


This site has been a summer village since before Nodding Onion was admitted into the village, with full privileges as an honoured person and elder. At that time, this was a Mastodon hunting ground.


One person is still remembering the good bones!

I’m not jesting here. I think it’s vital. If a relationship to the earth is going to be built that will allow it to thrive in the Syilx way, it must be admitted into human social circles, not as humans, but on its own terms. The cliff below, above the ancient village of the lower Kooskooske, at the mouth of Lapwai Creek which drains the Camas Prairie to the north, is not human, but it is part of the village. It is a person.


The grizzly bear that left these tracks does not have to be physically manifest to be a person, either, or to be a part of the village. It exists in the spirit world. Without that knowledge, there is no renewal of the earth. The earth is us. The task of humans is to rebuild the village, and welcome their relations back home. Even Paper Wasp, nesting here in a gas bubble in an old basalt flow above the Salmon River.


The village is Yil, and makes the command of Yilx to its people, the Syilx. When they hang out with paper wasp, when they allow Wasp into their village, that spirit world is within the village. It is able, within those bounds, to create. Outside of the village, it just buzzes around. At the moment, though, society is here:


That’s not how to treat a sister. That’s how to colonize an alien planet. It’s time to put such fantasies behind us.p1470539

It’s time to come home. There’s one more dimension to this spiritual-physical relationship that is embodied first in the land, then in the people, and then in the village. This is the tradition of song and gambling (it is a form of spiritual gambling, with profound stakes) called S’lahal, or The Bone Game, or The Stick Game. First, you start with 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 — a village, shall we say. 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. S’lahal, the bone game, is 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: 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.

Nk’mp 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 and were lost to the dam.

The game of S’lahal is played with these spirits, with songs that are often created by them. 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

Communication was a unifying force that brought these 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 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

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.

I have introduced the concept of Yil, however, to get at the idea of environment, as well as environmental sustainability and renewal. There’s an old word from this place which expresses this concept well: illahie. Here’s what it looks like here when the snow is gone:


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

And here we are, back in song and in the power of creativity itself. If I’m right, the word is originally “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”, the braid I’ve been discussing here all this time? 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 the game of s’lahal. 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 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, 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. Here are some ravens playing s’lahal with me above Kalamalka Lake:P1690042After the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago, the region’s nomadic hunters gradually developed the technologies to survive year long in this land, at the same rate at which salmon recolonized it after their glacial refuges in Mexico and its signature grassland biomes took shape, with human intervention. The land and the people became one at the same rate and often in response to each other. They accorded the same dignity to the other inhabitants of the land, because the land was identity and larger than them all. It did not belong to them as much as they belonged to it.


It’s logical. Before the land took its present shape, it was a different land. Before the Syilx became the keepers of that land (for such is the meaning of “Syilx”), they were a different people. In terms of the land, and a consciousness based on the land, they have, in fact, been here forever. In Western terms, that’s like the discussion about the Big Bang. It’s not possible to posit a universe before the Big Bang, because the universe is the expression of the Big Bang. So is it with the Okanagan, and the Syilx.


The Big Bang is Watching You

That the people and the land are one also means that human consciousness and the land are one. In Western terms, this is an emotional statement. In Syilx terms, it isn’t. (Remember: Syilx is not precisely a race; it’s a way of thinking.) The eagle’s face the sun carves out of the cliff below and the bald eagle above it are one. It is nonsense in terms of science. It means something in terms of a land-based consciousness.


Nonetheless, Western thought recently was the same. The following image, for example, shows the Bockstein, the Goat’s Rock across the German Rhine from the holy city of Bingen, complete with a bit of Christian iconography speared into its heart and an elderberry bush to keep witches away. A bit more than a century ago this outcropping of devil was dynamited, to keep it from dropping rocks onto the rail line far below. As you can see from the carefully-tended spear and the surviving elder, the old beliefs haven’t exactly died out.


They didn’t die out in Christian tradition either. Here’s a kind of accommodation in Rüdesheim itself. Christ as a sun, at the intersection of heaven and earth, and, look, he’s really a wine cork, and the cross is really a grape plant, here where wine-making began as an act of  Christian devotion and commerce. Christ as a sun god? That’s not really Christ, is it, and those vines? Pure celtic.


Here’s one Okanagan equivalent.


Cougar Above the Old Syilx Village on Kalamalka Lake

 This kind of view of the land didn’t start here in the land currently occupied by my city, Vernon, however. This was never the heart of Syilx territory, only one of its major extensions. The heart was here…


Lake Lenore, Grand Coulee, Washington

The cave complex that looks out on this view here has been used by the Syilx for 8,000 years. It’s from here that they moved north, and here they learned to read spirits in the land, such as the human-faced mountain sheep above. It’s here that they hunted rhinos before they became the Syilx. Lake Lenore is about six driving hours south of Vernon, British Columbia. 

 When people came north, following the retreating ice, they found their stories from Lake Lenore written out on the land, with new variations, and they read them, and they settled where they were strongest. Yes, they were looking into their own minds, minds created by story which was created by land which was created by story, which was all, ultimately, created by ice and rock.


It’s such a powerful and popular idea to call today’s age of the world the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, in which it is human activity which dominates the world, often badly. That’s a culturally-loaded assessment, however, because in the Syilx world, human activity had the same power with the world, but chose to use it for different ends, ends like this:

yellow-1Arrow-leafed Balsam Root

It’s not a pretty flower. It’s food. 

We’re not talking ancient history here. The takeover only began in earnest 150 years ago, when men were hammering the spike into the heart of the Bockstein. The cougar and the ancestral figures I showed you above, are from this complex cliff complex of two separate geologies in collision.


They rise above this lake.


The story was once continuous. It led from the watching cougar, to cougars and turtles across the lake, in what is now Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park, and Cougar Canyon to the  south. This illahie — this story or song in chorus — has been the subject of a land claim by the Syilx since 1895. 120 years of stalling followed. The only value left in the land is the visual, romantic value of ‘the view’.


It’s Not a View. It’s Spiritual Food. It’s a Song.

This is what songs look like in physical form. In Western tradition, they might look like a group of human people. In Indigenous tradition on the plateau, all people join in. The “real people” are tasked with keeping the song going.

The song responds by giving them new songs.


Apostemon Bee on a Mariposa Lily (an important food plant.)

What a song!

Let me make a suggestion: aboriginal perspectives are understandable because they are familiar. All humans have aboriginal cultural roots. If it were otherwise, speaking with the Syilx would be like attempting to speak to whales or sea stars. It isn’t. It is as simple as …


Dismantled Fence

Colville Indian Reservation

… taking down the barbed wire and walking out into grass that belongs to the grass. Indigenous creativity comes from that simple act, and from the staying there.


Next: Sufic and Byzantine Creativity!

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