A Gift of Berries

Changes in language are created by girls as they pass through puberty. Who better to names these berries than the syilx girls who traditionally picked them, between the birds, and the deer?
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siyaʔ

I went picking up on the hill today, along with magpies, robins, an indigo bunting (I think he was just keeping an eye on things), an oriole (ditto), a bohemian waxwing, a western tanager (no idea what he was doing), sparrows and a red-tailed hawk using a siya? bush as a preening perch. I learned stuff. For example, in English, a language not well suited to the western North American grasslands, these berries are called saskatoons, or perhaps service berries, after the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were a staple for the early fur trade. In nysyilxcen, the language of this place, they are called siya? because, and this is just a guess but I think it’s a good one, the bush makes a sound when you pick these berries, and that sound is siya?.

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What’s more, when you bend the branches down (they are extraordinarily flexible), not only does the sparse fruit suddenly concentrate, in multiplication of the act of drawing them to you, which is a reaction to seeing them up high there in the sun, but the branches make a related but different sound: siʔiłp. And that’s the name of the bush.

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siʔiłp

Let’s face it. I don’t know nysyilxcen, but those are the sounds, and if I know young women, and language, I’m putting my money on a direct correspondence. I learned a few other things. I already knew that the berries don’t ripen all at once, but I interpreted that in an English way, as an adaptation to a variable climate, ensuring a crop of seeds no matter how odd the season became. It’s a good interpretation, but there’s another.

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If you draw your fingers downward over a cluster of these perfumed berries, the ripe ones release themselves into your fingers, leaving the others behind. They literally give themselves to you. I would be surprised if there was not a direct connection between this giving and the general plateau cultural belief that humans are weak and pitiable creatures, which the earth, and the spirits that are its substance, support with gifts, including this most important food source. This giving, and its connections, go deep.

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Not only does the bush grow high enough for birds to eat safely in it, they continue to do so while a human (me!) grazes in the lower branches. Except the magpies. They just swear. I love those guys. But the swearing is a constant reminder not to take too many, that one is being watched.

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Quail Watch, Too.

Every branch that gives itself to bend low to a human hand is taken from the birds. It is given willingly, but the relationship is clear and profoundly humbling. The bush put out its blooms, and then its fruit, to attract insects, birds and animals.

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Calling the Bees!

This giving is real. The sharing is real.

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The sharing is profound. Magpies steal the berries away one at a time, like the treasures they are. Small birds, and young robins, that haven’t figured out yet how to hunt anything more substantial and need shelter after outgrowing their nests and falling to the ground and finishing off my strawberry patch, sigh, peck at the berries, one peck each, and then they move on. The siya? are a moving target in the wind, after all. With those lithe twigs, heck, they’re a moving target when a bird lands on them. A waste? No, not at all. Those pecked berries dry complete in a few hours (siya? contains very little water), and hangs on the limb through all the storms of summer, fall and winter, until the small birds of winter and the waxwings of early spring come and feast on them in the cold.

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The connectivity across the seasons is profound. In turn, the birds, and people, and bears, seed the bushes. This one on Turtle Mountain, for example, at the heart of feminine sylix life in the Okanagan…

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… was probably seeded on the cliff by either a bird or a human hand, dropping a berry high above as the bush released it. They come so easily a few tend to drop out from time to time. Well, a lot actually.

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They sure grow profusely. Imagine: siʔiłp is so well-suited to this environment, and so intimately connected to human culture, that its cultivation requires no direct planting and no fields or orchards. Just the act of a girl picking the crop and dropping a few berries, as children will, seeds the crop for her children’s generation, right where they need to be (mostly). The grove below in the Mid-Thompson, would have supported the Syilx village across the river in any good year.

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And they taste so fine.

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What a gift!

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Thank you, Siya?.

 

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