Arts

39. The Beginnings and Ends of History

Euroamerican histories do not tell the story of the Pacific Northwest. Not really.

A story of colonial cultures set in native space.

This is the story of the Canadian province called British Columbia. In form, it is the kind of map of distant realms that one would set before a king, for him to peruse before breakfast.

Histories like that do not display the foundation of Cascadian culture. Instead, they are powerful tools for building a different culture in its place. That has been a fairly successful project, although its fictional roots show.

Again, the story of a Canadian province.

Even Barman, or her publisher, makes this observation. Look at her The West Beyond the West explain itself:

If your interest goes beyond the “west coast province” into the land itself, the land out of which you are formed, then what? Heck, even if you live outside of British Columbia and are meeting it for the first time, by reading Barman’s book you will miss this:

The St. Elias Mountains

Where the rainforest meets the Arctic. Historically, this spiritual space is a series of physical resources, just as “nature” and “wilderness” are. What it is without the terms “physical resources”, “nature” or “wilderness” is another matter.

Simply, the history of this place, it’s “natural history”, including its “human history” and including you, should you be there, is not the topic of any book of history of this place. What that means is that this history might not have been written for you, even though you live in the space claimed by British Columbia and have an independent relationship to it. Instead, it’s a primer on a political state, very useful to newcomers to the political situation. If you’re looking for something that actually rises from this geography, though, then this history might help:

Here’s what the publisher says about it, at any rate:

By 1776, various colonial powers claimed nearly all of the continent, but Indigenous peoples still controlled it—as Hämäläinen points out, the maps in modern textbooks that paint much of North America in neat, color-coded blocks confuse outlandish imperial boasts for actual holdings.

An Exercise in Wishful Thinking

Finley’s Map of North America, 1826

Hämäläinen’s publisher goes further:

In fact, Native power peaked in the late nineteenth century, with the Lakota victory in 1876 at Little Big Horn, which was not an American blunder, but an all-too-expected outcome.

It transformed, in other words, this…

Custer’s Army in 1874

… to this…

Custer’s Last Stand

Graveyard at the Battle Site

The point is not to look at the battle as either an American military failure or a Lakota success. Rather, it is an image of the failure of a particular social confrontation with the land. Even though the US Army was eventually victorious, and the land came under American administration, the graveyard itself tears attention away from that land. It’s a fence. With that challenge in mind, let’s explore geographical space as a political narrative, to see what we can see. In my part of Cascadia, for example, it might be this:

Okanagan Falls Road Cut, or Antelope Brush Shrub Steppe?

Both. Neither. It’s a new environment: Antelope Brush Road Cut

I chose the image to illustrate that the political borders of Cascadia (including Barman’s British Columbia) that determine the narratives of history are not aligned with the borders of the land itself, which are the borders between geographical locations and biology.

Horsethief Butte

Lizards are people, too.

Where geography, a sum of water, air, sun and rock, meets life, relationships emerge, shaped by the opportunities that particular interfaces allow. In these terms, Cascadia is a bioregion that grew up and was partially shaped by its creatures, including humans, which it shaped in turn.

Two Pines, Blue Lake, Sinlahekin Valley

Location, Location, Location

This human space came eventually to be used as a staging ground for social aspirations originating elsewhere instead. Think of it as a global world coming against a world outside of global conceptions, yet with enough commonality that the pines in the image above look like pines, instead of like spiritual beings. It is such social aspirations from elsewhere, and their collision with geographical location, which Barman documents.

British Columbian, but Not Cascadian

Okanagan Falls

If we were to consider Cascadia in human terms, in a Cascadian history, it might better appear as a boundary between story, spiritual narratives, and lived experience. In the sense of that narrative, those would be its edges. Instead of its borders being between Canada and the United States, for instance, they might be between story and spiritual narrative, between story and lived experience, between lived experience and spiritual narrative, and between all three together.

Sometime it looks like this image at Buffalo Eddy.

Sometimes it looks like you standing with this image in the roar of the river, and the presence of at least 6,000 years of people with you, and not. Euroamerican culture calls that art.

Sometimes, of course, geographical boundaries are very real. We’ll get there, but first, let’s linger for a moment in a Nespelem story of the creation of the world by “The Old One,” who is also called “Old Man” and “The Creator” in these parts.

Old Man’s Whiskers

Tolo Lake

The story records the Creator’s spirit in terms of divine inspiration, Marian grace and Christian resurrection, without losing its Indigenous identity. In other words, it has taken on material without being replaced by it. It goes like this:

I will send messages to earth by the souls of people that reach me, but whose time to die has not yet come. They will carry messages to you from time to time; and when their souls return to their bodies, they will revive, and tell you their experiences.

A fine description of shamanic practice.

Chief Jim Chilliwitsa, Shaman

Coyote and myself will not be seen again until the Earth-Woman is very old. Then we shall return to earth, for it will require a new change by that time. Coyote will precede me by some little time; and when you see him, you will know that the time is at hand.

Coyote here is not a wild dog, but an ancestor from the time of story. In the time of humans, his spiritual essence takes on the form of a wild dog, just as trees take on the forms of trees and elk the forms of elk. We are all still the story.

Spirit Dog on the Tracks, near Chewilken Creek, Okanogan County

We are still the spirit. But not forever. The Old One explains:

When I return all the spirits of the dead will accompany me, and after that there will be no spirit-land. All the people will live together.

In effect, this is the original world, one in which all living things were people together, with the exception of humans, who had not yet come to be.

The World Before Humans Living On

Wasp and Ant above the Kooskoosie River

The change is that, this time, humans are part of that original world, not the creatures of a world that followed it. In Christian terms, it is a return to Eden. In Indigenous terms, it is an integration of the new settler world into story.

Then will the Earth-Woman revert to her natural shape, and live as a mother among her children. The things will be made right, and there will be much happiness.

Humans will be spiritual creatures, kind of like their aesthetic creations are in settler culture.

Qamas Prairie

The brilliance of this union of faiths can perhaps be seen in comparison to a less optimistic story, which Spokan chief Cornelius told Charles Wilkes, an American Pacific naval commander whose liberal use of the whip on the bare backs of his men was the model for Herman Meliville’s Captain Ahab.

Charles Wilkes

Wilkes also maintained discipline among his men by telling them that the people of Oregon were “savage and treacherous” and ordering his men to use no force except in self defence, lest they suffer the fate of previous explorers to the region. He could only have meant the Pacific Fur Company ship, the Tonquin, which was raided in Clayoquot Sound in 1811, then overwhelmed when Captain Jonathan Thorne…

…an even more brutal commander than Wilkes, dismissed a trading chief by slapping him in the face with a roll of furs he had brought to trade. 

The Tonquin, on that fateful day in Clayoquot Sound, before it was scuttled.

Perhaps it was in self-defense that Cornelius told Wilkes this story about the spring of the winter of dry snow (drift from the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1800). “Medicine-men arose,” he said, and added what was now a historical note about such men as Father de Smet, who we met in post 38: https://okanaganokanogan.com/2022/12/10/38-ravens-prophecies-the-war-of-1812-and-the-old-northwest/

Soon there were come from the rising sun a different kind of man from any you have yet seen, who will bring with them a book and will teach you everything, and after that the world will fall to pieces.

Chief Cornelius to Charles Wilkes, 1841

In this version, there is only Apocalypse— the end of the world. There will be nothing of the Cascadian world left, because you will live in a book instead.  With that in mind, let us proceed with caution, mindful to include the Earth and her stories.

Ingrowing Grasslands Near Lapwai

With Indigenous human care removed, the land turns to future fire for renewal.

Next, the long arm of the borders of the Old Northwest, still the borders of this country.

4 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.