How to Make a City Indigenous, Even if You’re Lazy, Eh

Let’s go downtown as if we lived here. Let’s look at Canada through the lens of the story it tells in the Syilx illahie (illahie is Pacific Slope trade jargon for “story” or “hedgerow”).

Snya¿stan Shopping Centre, West Kelowna

The sculpture is by Smoker Marchand, from Inchelium, on the Colville Indian Administration Lands in Washington. Not exactly Canada.

Ready? Here goes. Downtown Vernon, Canada.

You can choose your drug here. Jazz (above) and pot (below) are two of your choices.

However, if you really live here, you are indigenous, and if you are indigenous you are a story that is a space, and not a drug. Note, it’s not a “place.” A “place” is something you set down or otherwise define. This is a place, for instance.

Everything Was Placed Here by Design and at Great Expense

A place for sure

You are looking at a street beautification project that has created unused benches, calmed traffic, and added a touch of greenery to a paved space reserved for cars. The cars don’t care, but we humans all love it. It’s very beautiful.

Yeah, sure, it doesn’t create human space, but it presents the visual equivalent of it, which calms us poor domesticated creatures so we don’t bolt. For a purer image of how this “place”-ment of living creatures, this “plant”-ing of them, works, just look around the corner.

Beautiful seductive imagery at the beer and wine store, complete with chairs no one has used yet. That’s simple. They’re not meant to be used. Everything here is meant to create the image of use, specifically unused-use. We want to fill it. Just as we are seduced by the ganache. Maybe it will fill us and make us into, well, a purple flower. Or we can get inside that airbrushed model. But don’t say Canadians don’t have a sense of humour. Look to the right (above and below).

That’s pretty great. In Canada.  Free ice. Six months of the year it falls from the sky! Canadians, I tell you. We could sell… well, ice to Canadians! You gotta love it. There is a price, though, for this artwork meant only to be seen at speed from a car, and to lure you to stop, step out of the car, and… well, shop, really. One more example, from a jewelry shop at the main intersection in town. A jewelry shop at the main intersection in town, right on the highway between Alaska and Patagonia? Why, yes. It has to be.

The point is that the images, the windows, and, especially, the shrubs and trees, are all jewelry. You decorate yourself with them, which is, well, inside out. They are not here in and of themselves. They are planted, for an effect. That is very Canadian and, frankly, it’s not indigenous. Now, in my valley, which is unceded indigenous space, with an indigenous culture at least 6,000 years old, that’s a problem. No, it’s not a problem that the city is here. The city is useful and brings people together to share the valley. No, the problem is, if we turn 90 degrees to the left and look south, this, in front of a real estate office:

What I hope to show you with the above image is space. The sidewalk for instance. It has been invaded, blocked even, by the advertising images of place. Specifically, plants placed in concrete tubs. Nice tropical looking plants, advertising the valley as a warm escape in the sun. No one walking here is fooled (in fact, you have to trip around the darn things), but then almost no-one walks here. These are images meant to be seen from cars, to trick the drivers into stopping and, well, buying a place.

Of course, it will take up space. And why is that a problem, you may ask?  Well, if a city is to be “here”, then it needs to follow an indigenous model. Otherwise, it’s just somewhere else. Eden, perhaps. Paradise. Watch out for cars.

Let’s keep it simple. Either a city takes up space by being a place, and is constructed out of a tapestry of neighbouring places…

… including the uses that are also places…

… or it is embedded in the space and makes space for life. That’s the Earth’s way. One might place some concrete and bricks down, pave things real nice, but before you know it…

…you no longer have a street. You have a wetland. You might plant some lava rock to give the illusion of a garden…

… not food “plants”, though, because someone might take them…

(Note the chain… and the inedible sedums.)

…and before you know it, you have a garden of wild chickweed…

… or you might plant some bark chips and ground up tree trunks and stuff you hauled down from the dump, to give the illusion of rich, productive soil, in some artful trees made to give the illusion of a forest along the street…

… and, dang it…

… before you know it, you have a crop of wild lettuce.

So do artworks fail. Their sterile “nothing grows here but it could” look…

… is absolutely ruined by wild lettuce. Not to mention the infuriating mallow in your parking spot. Drive over that stuff.

But that, you see, is not the indigenous way. When you actually live on the earth, art means you make space within it for it to move into. Illusions won’t do. And the Earth moves in readily.

In one sense, she is showing us where we can plant gardens without expensive irrigation, or, well, anything. Gardens that have no owners and which thus bring people together and make the streets a home.

Kind of like the gully I showed you yesterday.

The earth uses space to intensify the flow of life.

This is very aggravating for the place-based planners of colonial cities. Yes, colonial cities. If we’re going to be of this place, we have to accept that. But there’s an up side to this. The city has been repurposed again and again and again. The loading bay below, for instance…

… is now a cement wall (yet lovingly maintains a few loading palettes out of, what? nostalgia?) And the downtown residential alley parking space below, with its house plants tipped out just in the middle of the alley, making good soil…

(The tipped out plants are to the right of the red vine, at the corner of the concrete block wall.)

… are examples of the human laziness that is the Earth’s best friend in these cold, foreign environments. Whether it’s some good composting resulting from a complete failure to give a damn about either the building or the earth…

… or the town theatre returning to the elements…

… poverty, or at least the struggle to keep focussing on making a profit in expensive colonial place-based social space, is the Earth’s friend. That she wants to take these buildings down (and has the power to do so), should be no surprise. What astonishes me is that we don’t work with this power, but, instead, seek to remove it. Here’s a storm drain that not only takes living water out of space (because indigenous water is really a problem to place-based cities) but collects leaves and quickly turns them into soil, too. Nope, there are workers to take all that life energy away.

What an expensive thing it is to maintain the colonial city! Everywhere, she wants to turn space deadened by place into life…

We could grow food here. We could follow her and make this purposefully empty city…

… live.

In fact, it’s not really that hard. In the midst of this imported place …

… a little bit of wild, lichen-crusted volcanic hillside …

… remains. So too does the syilx creek that gave this space it’s first name, not Vernon but “the place of jumping over.” Jumping over? Why yes. Come along.



There’s she is. Don’t slip.

The creek creates leaves that drift into the empty space that is the street.  Talk about a clear message.

It goes underground through a culvert and comes up again behind the “Bonk” sign at the back of the supermarket.

Eventually it finds the lake at Okanagan Indian Band lands.

Note the Beaver Activity at Lower Right

Now, of course, it would be desirable to turn the streets and alleys …

… into the wetlands they were (and are trying to be again) before we dumped gravel into them, but it’s not likely to happen. Still, understanding a city as earth-space, that can be filled with life, rather than protected places…

… that must be socially divided (at great expense) so homeless people don’t sleep there, is a powerful tool for understanding just how invasive and destructive of the Earth’s energies these places are, and just how much potential there is for improvement. And with that, here’s a post from five years ago on this blog, that addresses just how much we can do…

… right now, while we work on indigenous models of civic planning and models of planting that are productive rather than illusional and decorative. Do click the link. You’ll find out about this retaining wall, for one.

Thanks for visiting my city with me today and joining in my stories of how she could, in time, become an Earth city. I bet your city could use a similar makeover. Exciting stuff.

8 replies »

    • I still think Kelowna’s downtown remake should have been a golf course right through the downtown. As it is, it’s still a bit of a wasteland. And people still go there for golf. Seemed like a no-brainer to me.



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