Decolonizing the “Rivers” of Cascadia

This flow…

… is mapped as “The Okanogan River.” It is a colonial term, yet certainly not the most egregious. I live near the top of its headwaters.

Head of the Lake Pow-Wow Grounds

Here it begins:

The Water Comes From the Sky. That is part of the “river”.

I say that calling this flow “the Okanagan River” is colonial, because it limits human ability to imagine, speak of and inhabit the flow as anything other than an artifact of the English language. That’s how colonialism works, and sometimes as innocently as this.

All of us who use the term “The Okanagan River” are complicit in colonialism. It seems so innocent, really, to name a flow carrying water a “river.”


After all, “river” is the word for “a flow of water” in the English language. English speakers can’t reasonably be expected to speak anything else. Yet, not so fast. “River” is, in itself, a French word, rivière, brought by colonizers to England. “Rivière” is originally a latin word, riparia, or “bank”, brought to Gaul by roman colonizers. “River”, in other words, was never, at any time, other than a colonial term. In Germany and Switzerland, a “run”, such as the “Rhine” or the “Rhône” were terms colonized down to riparia. We could just set “river” aside and use the word “run” honourably.

The Washaptum Run

But that’s too neat a trick, because English has already colonized that word as well. Simply, English doesn’t allow for it. It allows for “The Washaptum running” or better “running the Washaptum on a river raft”, but it reserves “river” for the phenomena itself. What’s more, if we look closely at it …

The Washaptum Up Close and Personal

… the language allows us to see not the “river” but only “water”, which is “flowing.” Everything is strangely subordinated in a relational way. What’s more, anything within this flow, such as these Chinook salmon on the great Cascadia salmon stream, the Stamp River …

… are not part of the flow, but are said to “swim” in the river. That’s fine enough, but, seriously, they are swimming up the energy flow as much as the water is descending it. In other words, to a person of this place, they are as much the “river” as the “river.” That English can scarcely contain the concept is an example of what happens to a language when placed under colonial stress for a long, long time, until it becomes an empty repository for code and lived experience — a kind of gesturing towards where meaning and the Earth are but not mind or body themselves. Eventually it becomes the kind of language of displacement. There are historical reasons for this. At some point along the bleak history of the English language, or British women, rather, their daughters and their sons, under generation upon generation of invasion and accomodation, the term for “banks” became the term for “what flowed between them” — also a colonial word, the Old English bakki or “bank of a flow of water” or “cloud bank” or “mound of earth”. Its origin is Norwegian: another colonization. Layer upon layer of such colonization has given us a language eminently suited for colonial work and carrying the record of its colonial periods and its class-based land knowledge with it.

Box Canyon Dam on the Pend D’oreille River

Note how the bank has invaded the river itself, in order to tame native space for colonial development. This is an old, old struggle.

As a French word, “river” is a description used by an administration class for the word of the people, an old Gothic ea (or á, as it is still spoken in Iceland, or eau in Quebec) and which is still carried in English in its proto-indo-european form of “flow” or pleu-. That is a truly indigenous word at last, that covers a wide range of moving objects and movements, from “fly” to “flutter” to “flee” to “fluster” to “fletch” and “float” and “flood,” just to name a few, all of which are variants of its energy. The scene below is such a fluster.

The Okanagan Flow

You can see some sand bakki in the middle of the river, and some cloud bakki above.

However, an administrative “river” is not named by its “flow”. That is a descriptive term in English for what the “river” does, which remains dominant. After all, one doesn’t say “the flow is rivered”, although that is fairly accurate, but “the river flows,” which is a contradiction in terms. It tightens flow, certainly, but that’s not quite the same. You can see this tightening as the flow passes through its banks at the heart of the Pacific Northwest, Palouse Falls.

After all, an English “river” is really a description of its shore, which contain its flow. To put it bluntly, it is a word for colonial administrators containing or channelling the people under their administration, people who, nonetheless, call the shore they live on a “bakki” or “bank”. That’s a clever shift of power. It reverses the administrative conception. To the people of the banks, the river (the power of the state) is contained by them. This is a beautiful piece of resistance. However, we’re stuck with it, a long way from England.

Pebbles in the Asotin Bar, at Looking Glass’s Camp on the Pik’dunin

Not England.

By containing the administrative class within the will of the people, the English colonizers of my country also set the ground for the strangeness by which one of the Okanagan’s sister flows, the Chelan…

Chelan River, Washington

… contains the old class relationships, as if those banks could separate it from the sky anymore than can defining this broad flow within the narrow confines of “river.” It is also the relationship by which gold miners along all the flows of my country, including the Washaptum…


… and the Fraser…

Chapman’s Bar

Note that the “bank” in the foreground is a railroad footing blasted into an ancient Nlaka’pamux fishery.

… laid claim to the wealth (gold) of the flow by claiming land on its “bank,” a wealth which would enable “miners” to purchase power within society. This act of claiming continues to this day, in land and water administration law and in relationships between people and government. It is even in the very words we speak. It has nothing to do with the flow below (or any other flow in this country):

Asotin Creek, Washington

Formerly, the primary eel fishery of Northwestern North America, with a heron, just before it enters the Pik’dunin.

None of us intend this degree of oppression. We just want to talk about the flowing water. Here’s some just below Stamp Falls.

However, even that impulse is colonial. In Indigenous terms, it is not so much a flow of water as a flow of a people, who are the water.

Salmon are People, Too

That’s how a flow works.


It doesn’t have an administrated-administrated relationship, or the resistance of the administrated that sees them use the water as a source of power through resistance and claiming. For all these reasons and more, “river” is troublesome. But what if it were represented in language as a “flow” and not a “river,” a “watering” and not “water”,  or as a “wet”, a “wash”, or even a “body?” Not a “body of water,” but a “body,” in the sense of a tree, the first body, or a beam. Let’s look at the Washaptum again, at Owhi’s old fish camp.

Note the ancient fishing rock (the present river is a controlled stream, released by an upstream dam) and the bodies of trees, which can be felled to create beams, streams of energy that can span space and build a house. As a body, the river is a beam as well. As the fishing rock shows, it can be used (and has been) to create streams of social energy. These streams or bonds (boards) are not stand-ins for negotiations with a distant administrative class and the power it can dispense (although this flow was certainly used for that purpose historically, as a main centre of the American colonist maneuver of invading indigenous space, then calling for the US Government to put down the so-called “rogue” natives who resisted violent invasion, including rape. The ruse was that the US Government usually funded the colonists to conduct the violence on its behalf — funding which enabled the colonists to survive in a territory without any real functioning economy, and to do so in a way that subverted central Government and its stated peaceable goals (non-peaceable members of Government were often willing to go along with the ruse.) Just to put this stuff in perspective, it’s the kind of pressure currently being put on Iran.

That’s how you channel a flow. Let’s look at the Okanagan Flow again:

The Okanogan Beam

It has trees, and is a beam too. By reclaiming a pre-colonial word and calling this a flow, the trees are part of it, as are the sculpted hills behind and the river channel, both partially formed by a flow of water (not the water itself; it just sits there). They are as much the river as the ‘water’. The trees are not on a shore. They are within the flow. The flow is hundreds of metres deep in the air and hundreds if not thousands of kilometres deep below, and stretches both forward and back in time. What you see in the image above is what it speaks or expresses. It is active, not passive. And because it is visible, it is all present now. That is not an English understanding. It is an Indigenous one, that the ancestors of the English would have understood well. In this conception, the trees are people. A beam from them is something that can be built with, a house, perhaps, and populated by people. It is social. So can a world be built up from the Okanogan Beam. Being a person moving among the trees is to be a person moving among the people, with space for them, because the concept of property is ludicrous in such a conception of power freed from its colonial restraints. One must talk of relationships instead. One could walk to the highest peak in the distance and still be in the flow, but one’s relationships would have changed. These silt bluffs just north of the origin of the Okanagan Flow are part of its flow.

They are not, however, part of the “river.” In “English” they are a “draw”, part of a “watershed.” Those are colonial administrative terms. They separate cause and effect, so they can be used against each other to build wealth through administration. The water, the land and the air, however, continually bring these energies back together.

Vernon Creek Bar in Okanagan Lake

They are calling us.

2 replies »

  1. Evocative journey, Harold, one that inspires revisiting, rediscovery, resisting. The river without flow, to be harnessed, controlled, utilized, administered, colonized. For wealth. As territory, commodity. Devoid of its “peoples”. Defined by its banks. Or as boundary. The Washington-Oregon Salmon Wars. Crossing the “Rubicon”… the name derived from the reddish soils of its shores.

    I like that Rhone-Rhine-Run connection…

    Unless I missed something:

    “As a French word, “river” is a description used by an administration class for the word of the people, an old Gothic ea (or á, as it is still spoken in Iceland, or eau in Quebec) and which is still carried in English in its proto-indo-european form of “flow” or pleu-.”

    Or was this what you were referencing:

    The French word for “river” is not only “riviere” but also “fleuve” which derives from the PIE for “flow”, as you say, and is related to “pluit” ( rain ), “il pleut” ( it is raining ), “la pluie” ( the rain ).

    Thanks. And do carry on…


    • Hi, Lloyd,

      Glad to hear from you.

      Iindeed, Rhone-Rhine-Run (rapid, rill, roar, race and so on), very powerful stuff (there’s the Mosel, too, which is a snake)…

      and then pleu, flow, Eau, á, and Pluit+pleut+pluie. I missed that last one. It is, seemingly, part of the pleu- form, all things a-flowing.

      What I meant was that in English, the French came through colonization, and its use (and the replacement of the indigenous words) is almost certainly on class and power grounds, as that’s soooo English.

      Thanks for the encouragement!




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