Repaired post! Towards a New Cartography: Part 3, The Strength of Oral Story-Telling

A map is a device for locating oneself in space. Here’s an old map of early Okanogan County. Obviously, a map also orients one in time.

Note as well, that the map has limitations. For instance, Okanogan County is a political entity. The land stretches seamlessly beyond the county’s boundaries, into Lake Chelan at southwest, deep into Colville lands to the East, into the Columbia Basin to the south and into Canada to the North, where it’s clear that maps have a message, indeed. This one (below) doesn’t even represent space accurately, and all that white snow on the horizon? Good grief. You’d think Frankenstein was wandering around out there with Franklin, or something.

Obviously, these maps are stories, little different than the other stories of the culture they represent: novels, films, cartoons, that kind of thing. In truth, these cartographic representations are what novels, films and cartoons look like when laid over the land. But take another look at the images above. They don’t represent indigenous space, even though this is unceded indigenous space, even though the culture they represent is an interloper here. A map of indigenous space might look like this:

She Who Watches, on the Temani Pesh-wa Trail, Columbia Hills State Park

Do note in the image above that the main figure is complemented by many stone figures, either natural or partially-worked. Take the time to find them. That’s the point. If she looks more like a spiritual figure than a map, that’s an indication of how far colonial map-making is from the maps made by the people of this land. Here’s another map from the Columbia. Call it a story, call it a spiritual incantation, call it what you like. Those are all interpretations. Just look at it. It shows you the way. It is, however, not directional.

But that’s kind of the point. When you live here, when you are not part of the culture that has turned life in this place into property, to be dispensed with at will…

… there is no directionality, because wherever you are you are already there. For instance, I can look across the water from the lower slopes of Terrace Mountain at Fintry (the clever reader can spot my house on that sunny slope by combing a couple thousand posts on this blog and cross-referencing, but, whoa, have a cup of tea instead, eh) to Turtle Point…

… and from that sunny slope to Turtle Point, and Terrace Mountain getting a whack of snow…

… or I can turn and look to Turtle Mountain …

… or I can stand on Turtle Mountain and look towards where I stood before and looked both ways.

I haven’t moved. A map might show me where to find these spots in multi-relational distance, but it won’t guide me to either the story or the unity. Neither will it guide me to the power of change within this unified space…

Snow Washing Over Turtle Point

… which I will feel within myself. That’s not what maps are for, but an indigenous map would show that. Here are a few images to try to open this story. The images are not the story. Perhaps, though, they can show some correspondences. We can start out this cob (bare skull) out in Coldstream.

And move to this cob above the old syilx village on Kalamalka Lake. Consider them the same cob, transformed by location.

Shifting long shore from the village, we come to this cob, called Cougar Point.

Looking back, the cob changes form again, as it is in a different perspective. Are you beginning to see a story unfold?

Shifting further along the shore, the next cob is low to the lake. Rattlesnake Point, understandably enough.

The lake is now narrow enough to cross. Crossing it, we are guided uphill to the same cob, but in a totally different aspect. Up we go.

We can either continue to the next cob, Terrace Mountain, across Okanagan Lake towards the setting sun, and onto into the Nicola Valley …

… or turn on our right hand to the cob you see in the distance above the village at the head of Kalamalka Lake.
And why not. The cob takes on impressive story in this location. Notice that the location is not in space.

Here it is from the path down to the village site on the lake. It’s really two cobs!

We can continue on to Turtle Mountain, the next cob…

… and back to Okanagan Lake, and Terrace Mountain, from there.

It is all the same cob. The changes, which colonial mapping represent in space, occur in something other than space or time. It is seamless and whole, the way rock is whole, or, well, turtles.

Western Painted Turtle, Conconully, Sinlahekin Valley

That being said, here’s another map, along the same lines.

Note that it is not a map of ducks. They’re in it, but it’s not set up to locate them.

Nonetheless, it does show where in “flow” a duck will settle out.

In the same way, without distinction, it maps the age of the willow, its predations by generations of beavers, the beaver drift at the right, the drift of road sand the ducks are sitting on, ducks, and water, at points of intersection with the planet and the sun, all at once. They all sit within the relational index of the cob, as its story deepens, shifts, and remains whole.

Volcanic Glass, aka the Turtle Eggs of Turtle Mountain. Yes, it is the same cob.

If maps are stories, then this is a story that goes in no direction but deepens, or intensifies, or focusses. A traditional map would represent all these forces in a connected narrative of lines, because that’s what 2-Dimensional space can do. This is, however 5-Dimensional space. Photographs are better at that, although still not as good as the human eye. Story is a better way of doing that, but not, sadly, novels. Novels are stories of travel. What I’d like to explore here, though, are stories of staying: stories in which travel is made through transformations, in the way the cobs above are one cob that changes shape when placed in relationship to different environments, and in the sense in which no matter where I am in that space…

High above my house, you can look out and see three of the cobs in the distance, plus a fourth I didn’t mention. Turtle Mountain is to the left. Turtle Point is to the right. The deer, as you can see, have been golfing.

… I haven’t moved. I’m still in that space, looking across to where I also am. Yes, from a Western point of view, and from the point of view of regular map-making, and the point of view of novels, that is absurd, but that’s kind of my point: it’s not absurd, just different. From a syilx point of view, an indigenous point of view in this region, the real map is a series of oral stories, linked to a language that sets each object and living thing in the region into relations context through an elegant series of onomatopoeic words given changing context through relational prefixes and suffixes, linked to cultural practices, and linked to the land. I tried to describe this once before in an earlier post,, in which I showed a number of maps, including this one, attempting to lay this story out on a normal contour map.

I would now like to go further. From a non-indigenous point of view, short of learning nsyilxcen, the language of this place, there are things that can be done that will bring us along into this storied world in meaningful ways and, I hope, free us from the colonial biases of maps like the ones above, however useful they are for getting around in physical space. There is knowledge of shape-shifting and shifting points of view here that poets know very well. I think it’s time to see what we can find in the land by approaching it as a different kind of story, on different foundations, one closer to indigenous narrative. Below, for example, is a poem by the Canadian poet Penn Kemp. She is not of this place, but she has an understanding of language that very well could be, and I took her out last fall to listen to Giant Rye Grass singing, and she ran her fingers through the chiming stalks and laughed, so that’s all good:

It’s a poem drawing on ancient spell-crafting traditions that predate book culture. It proceeds as one would expect language to do in a novel-based, linear-narrative society, step-by-step and line-by-line, but not to create a path. It works by opening more-and-more-deeply as it progresses, creating a kind of hum, a kind of field, in which consciousness is multi-dimensional and energies can shift across modes of consciousness and understanding. It is a bee. Here’s a syilx bee:

One interesting characteristic of Penn’s poem in this context is that the fifth line, her eyes and ears, are also all the lines that follow, similarly to the cob(s) I showed you earlier. For example, this correspondence holds: Eyes and Ears = bee shut. That is a new name for them. Similarly, Eyes and Ears as bee shut = alert to light foot stroke. That is a new name for them. Similarly, Eyes and Ears alert to light foot stroke = a delicate telling-intricacy that dances out hymns to hum. That is a new name for them. And so on, until the consciousness is the meadow that sends all these things out. If we were to map that, with the eye in mind that floods open throughout the whole poem, or the meadow that is the eye, we might get something like this:

We could map the cobs in a similar way, not in measured space but in terms of the cob transforming itself. For example, the cob at Cougar Point could be in the central sphere, and, depending on which part of the story we enter next, the next cob could either be Rattlesnake Point or the Cob in the other direction (East). If one cob were a good place to pick berries, then to place ourselves in the story of berries we would place ourselves in the realm of that cob. They do not lie in linear distance from each other, but in a series of openings. I’d like to make another observation here: Penn has managed to create a poem which incorporates a non-linear intelligence and many of the modes of oral story-telling within a linear form demanded by the two-dimensional form of the book. Playing with that to create the image above instead, which has to be read differently, opens up different dimensions of the poem (and of course closes of others.) It also makes a model for a map as a form of oral-story-telling centred around bodily knowledge. That’s not so far from this land, actually. Look at what bunchgrass does in the snow:

That’s a pretty close correspondence to the shape of the visual poem above. We could go a long way into making maps of this land which operate in multiple dimensions, tying into many other forms of understanding, in which the land itself becomes the map. That’s what it’s like to be indigenous, and it is in our grasp. Of course, the visual poem of the meadow-eye I showed you above is only one approach. The land is complex, as are we, and many other approaches are possible. It’s likely that each will reveal something different, yet connected to the others. It is time to do this work. It lies within our grasp, we have the skills and tools, and we have a great and pressing need to do so. Tomorrow I’ll show you a different approach, one more narrative, drawn from Nigeria. Until then, consider the map that brown-eyed Susan makes in the snow.


Another fine model. Hopefully we’ll come back to it by the end of the week!

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