This history began with a debt, that is mine to repay. It is the dept of a pish, a fish, and not just any pish but a chikamin pish, a bright silver salmon, as we would put it if we were speaking in Chinook Wawa, the language that ushered in the modern age on the Northeast Pacific shore and the Intermountain West.
If you’re just joining this history now, why not catch up with the debt here:
Here’s my mother (in the cart) and her brother, 3 years before she incurred the debt.
This debt did not start with my family’s poverty. Its roots were already present in 1835, when American industrial farmers living in Texas on the invitation of the Mexican government declared independence — basically because they wanted to keep slaves. Mexico, newly liberated from Spain, prided herself on the universal equality of her citizens and sent in her army under President Antonio López de Santa Anna …
…and General Martin Perfecto de Cós…
…to enforce the law.They didn’t have truck-mounted, mechanized 50-calibre guns, so as a strategy it wasn’t terribly well thought-out. The Texans were pretty angry at the governmental intrusion, too, and not without some justification, however unethical it may have been. Industrial farming in the 1830’s was powered by slavery. A declaration that slavery was illegal was tantamount to a declaration that industrial farming was illegal. Those were fighting words. If you tell slave-owners operating in your country that they can’t keep their slaves, that’s much the same as declaring that they are slaves, on this definition from Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:
As he put it:
Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828
- A person who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who has no will of his own, but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another.
Because in New Spain and Louisiana, the French-then-Spanish-then-French-then-American frontier to Mexico in 1828, slavery was also illegal, except for prisoners of war, who were fair game, Webster added:
In the early state of the world, and to this day among some barbarous nations, prisoners of war are considered and treated as slaves.
As this history progresses, we will follow the process by which the circumstances for that were set up and exploited. As a preliminary hint, the Spanish expansion north of Mexico City was financed in this way. Much of the history of the entire North American West was financed and blocked out in this way. It was easy to arrange an attack, too. Any defensive response was called a “war”, which freed up the slave-taking clause. Webster, however, tries to keep things on a steadier keel:
The slaves of modern times are more generally purchased, like horses and oxen.
That’s hardly the whole story, given that once a person was made a slave by war (resisting attack would do), they were a slave forever and could be legally bought and sold. Now, we no longer do this kind of stuff today, not legally at any rate, but we still do so to the land, or in the case of one’s territory, one’s illahie, even one’s ties to it, and one’s stories. To settler culture, stories and land can’t be the same, because settlers just showed up now. That’s all they have. Nothing. That’s not the same as saying there is nothing there.
An intricate system of law in place here since the Ice Age has been replaced with the freedom of river boats. My jet boat pilot meant no harm when he told me that no Native Americans had ever been in this canyon. The Nimíipu’u had been, though, for over 16,000 years. Words do matter. This river isn’t “The Snake,” for one thing. It’s the Pik’dunin. I think we can start there.
These changes of identity were so commonplace in the Euroamerican colonization of the West that they continue to derail North American politics today.
Amazing, isn’t it! Webster follows up by tracking the term “slave” through White culture, explaining exactly who can be called a “slave”:
- One who has lost the power of resistance; or one who surrenders himself to any power whatever; as a slave to passion, to lust, to ambition.
Apparently, “lost the power of resistance” means one must “live free or die trying.” Such militarized definitions are so empty of specificity they could describe anyone who is a slave to, say, the Mexican government. Or to human decency. Or to law. Or to any power whatsoever. Even to the U.S. Government. That one is possibly why a group of American independents were farming on land in the remote Mexican state of Texas in the first place. For context, this particular sense of liberty looks a bit like this today:
So, following along, by Webster’s definition:
- Paul Terbasket is a slave to Canadian law.
- Harold Rhenisch is a slave to the Similkameen Valley and a fish.
- Charles Pandosy, the so-called “founding father” of the Okanagan, is a slave to the Kittitas Chief Owhi, a fish, and the Catholic Church. (We’ll meet Owhi soon. You’ll like him, I think. He had spirit.)
- Syilx Children were slaves to Pandosy’s residential school in Penticton, where many died.
And, of course:
- Truckers are slaves to vaccine mandates.
These might all be true. It could also be that the definition is a little broad. Perhaps even contradictory:
No. They’re asking that government use its powers to eliminate all restrictions on personal behaviour. They are saying that anything else constitutes slavery. They are saying that they are doing this for everyone, including the 85% of the population that doesn’t want anything to do with it. In other words, they are mandating freedom, as if they were already the government. But, f they are the government, isn’t the 85% the government as well? Looks like history isn’t done with us yet.
“Slavery” is such a powerful word! It’s like it enslaves conversations all on its own. In its place, I offer this:
You need to talk to my Mom, Theresa Ann. She knows where all the old people used to live. She will remember all this stuff. Bring something. It doesn’t matter what. A sack of flour. That’s how the old people do it. You bring something. She believes that everyone who comes to the valley should be fed. There were people who just turned their back on her and wouldn’t talk to her at all. That hurt her a lot.Dixon Terbasket
I brought apple pie: flour and apples together. If the river outside her window were recording us in memory that day, this is what they would have caught through the cottonwoods sheltering her house from the wind:
Theresa Ann: I went to visit Cawston. ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘You know who I am,’ I said. ‘You and my Dad used to go hunting together. You stayed at our place.’ (She turned to me.) It was during the time when no-one had anything to eat.
Harold: The Depression?
Theresa Ann: The Thirties. When I was a girl. It was a hard time, so Dad went out hunting in the mountains. He brought back game, cut it up, and took it into town, for the town people. Then he went back. He saved them that way. It was hard work. ‘I don’t remember that,’ said Cawston. ‘Well, I remember that,’ I told him.
Harold: I remember bear meat at my grandparents, Bruno and Martha. They lived down on Ritchie Road.
Theresa Ann: (Nodding.) Everyone traded stuff like that. Paul traded the fruit from his orchard. No-one had any money.
Harold: Did he take it to Fairview? There were lots of miners up there.”
Theresa Ann: Maybe. I think he took it as far as Hedley. You traded for what you needed. Cawston just said he didn’t know me. That’s the kind of thing I have had to put up with in my life.”
By Webster’s definition, Theresa Ann Terbasket is a slave to the past, but Webster is dead. Here’s Theresa Ann.
She is neither dead nor a slave, yet the questions raised by this American understanding of the concept of slavery do circumscribe her life, and mine, and if you live anywhere in the West, yours too. In part, that’s because the Texan method of industrial farming replaced a debt to the land and the water and the people who held their stories, with the freedom to remove the freedom of other people in order to build wealth. And nuclear reactors. Let’s not forget that.
The plutonium for the Nagasaki Bomb was manufactured here at an old Yakama and Sinkiuse camp on the N’chi’wan’a (Columbia River). This is in our homeland. This inhumanity is on us.
This method of industrialization of human-earth relationships and their transformation into “land” lived on to turn Theresa Ann’s family’s ancestors into “natural resources” and “wild species” and “landscapes” and family stories into farms, as if that kind of freedom were inevitable or the best of all options. It’s so 19th Century! Can’t we move on?
Sure we can. Settler culture is made out of such narrowing of definitions. The ones that were chosen 160 years ago were not, and are not, inevitable.
In the posts to come, we will work out just how this enslavement of land and people came to be, piece by piece, so we can pass on a better story, because there is one. Until then, an ancestor for you, from my neighbourhood: