A Short History of Whiteness in Cascadia

It’s not a physical thing.

Apricot in Her White Gown

White is a tricky, racial word. Here’s a small piece of a meditation on it from my book in progress, Commonage: The War for the Okanagan.

In English in these parts between Northern Oregon and Alaska and Western Montana to Haida Gwaii, “White” applies to people of Caucasian background, as long as both of their parents are Caucasian; people whose parents might include a Scots Hudson’s Bay Company trapper and a Cree woman from Manitoba are deemed to have negated all “White” rights, or at least it started out that way. People such as Hudson Bay Company Factor Peter Skene Ogden’s wife Julia, whose parents were Sanpoil and Nez Perce yet who was raised by a French Canadian-Cree trapper after her mother’s second marriage, was accorded civilized rights by the British but not by the Americans. People such as the Oblate missionary Charles Pandosy, who came to love the Yakama and despise the Americans yet betrayed the Yakama to the US Army in 1855 to protect it from a war it could not win, was occasionally accorded “White” status, despite being Catholic, but Father Nobili, who built a mission at the Head of the Lake Village at a) Nk’mp, or Osoyoos Lake, b) Garnet Valley, or Summerland, or c) Head of the Lake on Okanagan Lake, in 1840, wasn’t, probably because he was Italian, and Italians weren’t “White” in those days, although they are now. It was all very complicated. From an indigenous perspective, “White” actually applies to the dried white salmon of Mnassatas Creek, where this story took the form of a fish and saved Pandosy from starvation brought on by his own ignorant notion that he was living in a wilderness. This salmon was white because sockeye salmon harvested far up in their watersheds, when they’ve gone into their red spawning colours and have devoured all the fat in their bodies after a long journey, develop a white crust over their red flesh when split the traditional Yakama way and dried in the wind. So, yeah, if the Yakama were calling a man a “White,” they probably meant the red sunburn he got out in the shrub steppe and the white, peeling scab that followed a few days later.
No doubt, the Yakama knew the Christian symbol, Ichthos the fish, and stories of Christ as the Fisher of Men in the “wilderness” of the desert of Galilee. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Swapping fish stories would be a good connection for any missionary trying to convert fishermen in the “wilderness” of the Columbia Plateau — a country in which salmon were people, in an age in which the children of salmon fishers were dressed in white to be baptised by priests. Some jokes are too good to pass up.

 

We Are Not At War

When you live on the earth, in the earth and with the earth, culture is shared between creatures, their spirits and their energies, in a relationship built of balancing energy flows, always to bring forces and creatures together into a mutually interactive patterns. In short, the cat tails below create a human culture …

… and humans who live with them and through them cultivate cat tails, in spirit, in ponds, lakes, marshes, rivers and ditches, and in words and concepts. When they don’t, you know they are not living in the earth, on the earth or with the earth but in one of the other layers of spirit built out of the complex environment of energies radiating from this planet.

 

Raven Thief

These relationships are universal. We are all on the path of the earth, as she seeks to find her way out of oppression and to flow, and to do so through us.

Earth is neither disprespected nor abandoned by those of her children who give themselves to her.

It is time to welcome all her children home. Only the cult of property stands in the way. Its dissolution is her claim on us. It is the claim we will learn to return.

She gives energy away, always. We must give it away, too.

We are not alone in this work.

A Summer Home for the Family, On Earth and in the Sky

Here we are in a community garden in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, an old roman fortress, and before that a 4000-year-old settlement where Lake Constance becomes the Rhine.

A shaded picnic bench for the parents, in the middle of the garden, and a magpie nest for the kids, up in the sky, where they like it.

Rome, and the old sub-alpine culture might be gone, but its shadow can be very fiine!

Post-Racial Geography, an Introduction

This is not indigenous land.
This is one of the main spiritual centres of my country, the Similkameen Valley. To call it indigenous, or native, land, is to adopt the words that make it into a silt bluff and Chopaka (below), another major spiritual story, into a mountain.

Land is a racial term. So is any separation between people and the stories it suppresses, including systems of law and governance.

Racism and Noise in Canada

My neighbours above eat sour weeds because of racism in Canada, which created weedlands for them at the same time it created Indian reserves for their people. Right now, the country’s writing community is tearing itself to pieces over racial issues, between loosely (and poorly)-defined indigenous and non-indigenous communities. It is even lecturing itself on the tragedy of indigenous voices being silenced by uproars about race. I don’t think voices like this are meant:

They should be. Other recent writings on race circulating in the writing community assume that earth experience is all about race, when humans get involved with it. That’s rather self-absorbed. It’s called looking into a mirror. It would be more helpful to say that human experience of a certain kind is that. It can also, however, be described as dehumanization, dispossession, silence, rape, enslavement, genocide, murder, love,

wariness, respect and noise. None of those are solely human. All are powerful. Let’s remember that in the indigenous game of s’lahal, noise is meant to distract players and their spirit guides from the game. Let’s remember the silent ones, the animal peoples, and that it’s not about us. The earth is dying. Let’s stop that form of human self-absorption, because that’s the critical outcome of this whole horrible story.

It’s caring for the other peoples of this earth, including but not limited to other great apes, including the mis-named homo sapiens, that makes us human, not some frightful story of skin colour, evolution and human brotherhood or the lack of it. That’s predator talk with an old patch that is just, simply, exhausted. Let’s make something better together.

 

The alternative is continued silence and noise.

Cowboys and Indians

In 1847, it was the Cayuse on the ridgeline, with the lightning flaring from their appaloosa’s eyes and their water monsters painted on their bodies, and early American settlers on the flats below.

These grazing patterns continue today in the Walla Walla Valley, where my country stepped into history with a rifle shot.

Placenta of The Earth

Every red osier dogwood is a placenta.

It streams with blood into the sky …

… or it catches the sky, and brings it to you.

Traditionally in this country it was used to control pregnancy and to stop bleeding after childbirth. That’s quite likely because it catches the seeds from these cattails, which are male (top) and female (below) flowers in one.

It holds them in the air for a later time, or dries them out, rather than allowing them to enter water …

… and carry the sun into it.

It stands apart from the two worlds.

It is at balance with earth and sky.

It is a screen of nerves, or blood, in the Earth’s mind, or body.

They are the same thing, and so are you: the one that is two, and still one, and still many.

This is the blood.

The red sea in your veins is no different. Rather than a metaphor, like this…

“The red of the dogwood is like the red of my blood, and the patterns of it are like the arteries in my eye.”

… there is this instead:

The complexities of the world are written here. We may read them, with minds built out of this same blood. If put in words, they might be reducible to something like this:

Blood flows through the dogwood and my eye, my heart, and my hand.

Ah, the heart, dear thing. Sure, it’s in the chest, but it’s also here, simultaneously:

Red Hill, John Day

It’s good to remember, of course, that this blood is also the screen of nerves in the mind. Perhaps you can see the thoughts collecting on neural points of gravity and tension below?

That is also blood. This is sacred medicine. It is not a metaphor, and it is not a unity broken apart into body and mind, earth and sky, thought and feeling, or anything else. It is as unified as light. Our ancestors didn’t learn to read the world by trial and error. They lived it.

Perhaps you see how words direct our thoughts away from our knowledge? It’s not that

it’s as unified as light.

Rather, dogwood and light are one.

More clearly: dogwood, light, blood, mind, water, heart, birth, water, conception and life are one.

In this form, in this holding up, the sun speaks. It becomes offering. Well, it was all along, but we reach out to it, we respond to the sun’s hand with our own.

There is no end to the listening, which is the mirror of the speech. Yes, the hand listens.

Yes, the hand teaches, and speaks. Yes, the mind is a hand.

Yes, the hand is a mind.

A Canadian Education

Canada is a big country. Here’s a tiny piece of it in the west.

What you’re looking at is a bit of a collision between a volcano and a seabed off the coast of North America, that became part of the land about 110,000,000 years ago, and then became a local landmark. Perhaps you can see the highway that cuts across the ancient trail it marked? (That’s our bluff again, in the middle of the image, which views it from the south, rather than the east, as we did in the preceding image.)

The first wave of colonization, the Hudson Bay Company’s pack horse trail, followed the old trail. The new trail, which follows the Hudson Bay Company’s route from the south (politely, we call it the United States of America now, for old times sake), is the result of imported technology (German freeways, Swedish dynamite, American earth-moving equipment, and so on) that came in on the trail until it became it. The old landmark still stands, though.

And it’s still doing its old work, of marking the paths of power. It’s just that now it is part of Canada, which has a culture with certain prerequisites. For one, it is a country imposed on an indigenous state, which means that indigenous landmarks must be translated into Canadian terms before they can be read. For Canada, these terms are displays of social power imposed on the landscape, such as the German architecture below.

Only the wealthy can play this game, but there are lots of them. Social power within Canadian society in this region — in other words, Canada in this region — is about extending these intrusions.

It is a complex game, and by making these images I have broken its rules, which are to look out at views of water, rather than looking back at Canada looking out. That is simply not done. It is breaking a social code.

These views, for instance are easily worth $1,000,000 each. As you can see in one below, they show the next in the series of indigenous landmarks, at a romantic distance, and the houses of other wealthy people along the lake, at an appropriate distance that allows them to be romantically embedded in nature, as befits an imperial British settlement.

Canada is a very romantic project. Thousands of people look out, at sufficient distance that a forest being trucked to a plywood plant disappears into landscape (look below.) Again, apologies, I have broken that taboo by making this image.

The next image breaks that taboo, too. Here you can see that one of these houses has constructed a garden, or perhaps a chicken run, from creosote-treated railway ties, covered with netting, to get past the ridiculous steepness of the land and its inappropriateness for chicken runs and gardens. It’s not pretty, but that’s because it is made from outside of Canada. The rule is, don’t take the picture until you’ve moved far enough to the right or left that the Canadian presence on the land disappear. Then make the image.

 

 

One of the reasons for the netting is that Canadians moving into landscapes like this situate cell phone towers and garbage dumps around areas of the greatest indigenous significance. It is a subconscious part of the process of subjugation, and it does have its ironies, because those areas are the best for display houses with the most romantic views, but the garbage does attract eagles, romantic birds for sure, and ravens and crows…

… which do interfere with the illusion that there is no garbage here. You simply can’t use the land as a canvas for the social display of an imported culture, which exists only in the display, when those pesky birds steal your chickens and strawberries. It can’t be done. Now, a Canadian, of course, has it hard, because Canadians are just people, after all, with the same desires as any others: family, shelter, a bit of love, lots of aggression, and strawberries, plus breakfast eggs, if they can get them. It’s not their fault that they have to acquire these essentials through a social grid laid out upon indigenous space that Canada bought for them 146 years ago (not from its owners but from the British, who gave themselves the right to trap furs here, on the strength of a navy no-one had the means to mess with) and they’re doing the best they can…

… continually rebuilding roads to get their social grid in the best shape possible, as far as such social grids go. Yes, the result is ugly, but you’re not supposed to see it. You’re supposed to live within it and look out. And when you do (below), please do yourself a favour, don’t look at the erosion caused by thousands of young people leaving the trail to go out-of-bounds down to the rocks to jump into the lake.

That’s deadly, and is to be overlooked. That’s the rule. The landscape is to be read as an archetype, as if you were the first person who was ever there. The irony of a country-as-a-social grid, such as Canada, is that when you turn around, from the land, and look at the grid …

… it looks improvised at best, and even a bit desperate and chintzy. The image above is a private road for wealthy land-owners to use to access their view property below the bluff I showed you above. The gap between its imposed, utilitarian ugliness and the romantic beauty and intense social power it grants, is why literature in this country is a social game, with landscape entering it through social avenues such as scientific tropes, academic understanding, queer readings of landscape, environmental activism, and so forth, but never on its own terms. Those are considered  romantic …

… not because the earth is romantic, but because that reading of romanticism is also deeply embedded within Canada, which is a romantic social product written on the land. It can’t escape itself. If you leave that romantic reading, you are no longer in Canada, but looking at it. That’s the rule. It is such a powerful  mechanism that the country’s literary artists, embedded in the social training system of its universities, are unable to break it: there is no audience out there, and no market, just a few weeds growing in the haphazard infrastructure created by the social application of powerful foreign technology.

Literary people would starve out there, and that’s really not good. I can afford to show you these images because I am what is called in Canadian social terms, a sub-class of Canada’s imperial homeland, the United States, White, Male, and Old, ie an Old White Man: an undesirable thing, anyway, with no social power in literary society. These are not the terms of the culture of the land, of course, but that’s a different thing; Canadians live in cities. They have the second largest country on earth but not to live on. It is to harvest industrially, in ways which minimize access to the scars of such harvest (swaths of uncut trees lining highways, to preserve romantic view lines, and so forth), in order to concentrate the wealth of the land within the social grid, which is reserved for people who are extending the networks of power laid across the land. Those networks are the only country there is. That an old man such as I am (I’m 59, not old perhaps by an objective standard, but old and unwanted in this culture), sees something other than the omnipresent beauty of the grid and the notions of identity it fosters, is, by definition, romantic, because in the definitions of the culture, all land (and hence all that is attached to the land) is romantic; the only exit from romance is through the social networks. I can laugh at that all I like.

I am only trespassing on the land reserved for the social power of wealthy men, which is how I took the image above. That I consider access to that land my human right is another indication of how non-Canadian I am. That image above is evidence of a crime. That I only stepped a few metres onto private land, unoccupied land being advertised for sale, does not erase that. The image is romantic. Neither you nor I were meant to see it, and that buck was being protected in order to be shot as a trophy. That is the rule. Perhaps, if you’ve read between the lines of this post, you might get a sense, or the beginnings of one, of why the indigenous villages, which are called “Indian Reserves” of this country are described in terms such as this:

There are no economic reasons for Attawapiskat to exist and it does so only because it is underwritten by the Canadian taxpayer. http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/john-ivison-the-rising-toll-of-canadas-failed-experiment-with-isolated-reserves

The statement is an offense to human dignity, but then, you see, so is the poverty in the image that accompanies it:

Villages such as this are not “isolated” in a passive sense, as the article suggests, in that they are “in the bush”, or “in the wilderness”, or “far from culture” but isolated in a far more active sense, in that culture (Toronto, Vancouver, or even my small city of Vernon, for example) have placed them in isolation, as the name for these spaces, “Indian Reserves”, makes abundantly clear. The space below is exactly the same kind of space.

Canadian culture — the survival of the social grid — demands that we look the other way.

Or at least maintain the respectful distance that preserves privacy (ie social privilege.)

Or the corollary distance that embeds social display within the landscape, to create the illusions of wealth, belonging, power, beauty and ease that are every human’s desire and are fulfilled in the Canadian overlay in precisely prescribed forms.

Your way to them is through the university and its botanical gardens.

But do ignore the banana peel. You will fail at your studies if you concentrate on that.

The Snake and Turtle Trail

There is an ancient trail that comes in from spaxmən (Douglas Lake), crosses kɬúsx̌nítkw (Okanagan Lake) below, on the lower left …

… and enters a tongue of land called “The Commonage”. The trail then climbs this tongue to root gathering grounds on its rolling crown, including precious springtime bitterroot grounds …

…then descends to sacred chilutsus, “twin lake”, the lake that is two lakes in one, now known as Kalamalka and Wood lakes. There are three possible routes of descent, limited by cliff structures along the chilutsus shore. I indicate these trails by arrows below. The lower one leads to a winter village. The upper one accesses a second winter village at the head of chilutsus.

They all skirt significant landmarks, too many to mention in a short post …

… but one series stands out: turtles. This is turtle country. I indicate a few turtles with yellow circles below:

 

The one in the centre left of the image is Turtle Point.

A little closer, with less light?

The one in the centre right of the image is, again, Turtle Point. (The turtle’s head is on the right below, white with snow.)

The one just touching the upper edge of the map above is Turtle Mountain, the anchor of a series of turtling lava extrusions stretching along the so-called Bella Vista Hills.

I have no idea what this trail was called before it became a leg of the Hudson’s Bay Company Brigade Trail 200 years ago, but it’s a logical place to cross the lake of the twins to Turtle Point, the seasonal village east of it, and the trail to the salmon grounds beyond, on the Shuswap River, far off the right side of the map below.

Without an ancient name, I suggest that, for now, we keep the trail’s history alive by describing it after its crossings, and its anchor, the marker at its lakeshore terminus…

The snake! I suggest it’s a big-eyed Western Yellow Bellied Racer.

Such as the one above, which I found along the trail on the eastern shore of chilutsus.

I think it’s fitting that the trail follows a snake-like route across a rise of grass, to a cross from snake to turtle, and that this rise of grass is  a snake-shaped tongue of land that keeps us alive with salmon-coloured flowers in the spring, on our way across water to the salmon that see us through the winter. My deeper hunch is that this land, called the Commonage, was always held in common between chilutsus and kɬúsx̌nítkw, and has always been a place of crossing, just as chilutsus is: one of the points in which Syilx territory meets on its north-south and east-west axes, in a territory that was always the road between the north and the south, the east and the west. Sure, it’s called The Commonage, after a ploy by White Ranchers to gain the last stretch of indigenous land for their cattle, close to 150 years ago, but it could well be that the idea was accepted partly because it had always been a place held in common.

The land tells us all we need.

Making Humans

On the shores of Kalamalka Lake there is an ancient village.

It’s so old it has been forgotten. The people who live there now don’t know that the land that called them, called others thousands of years ago. They don’t know the story of the giant wild rye along this old fence line.

They don’t know the stories in the stone of a people who drew their identity from the land, not from other people. They don’t know what the marmots who live in these cracked seabeds know, or why it might be important to live among them.

But this land, and these stories can still be read.

What is read in poetry and photography now, and conversations about nature, was once read as self, and I don’t mean the “I” of contemporary thought.

Some still read it that way. I do. I have learned that if it is possible to do so as a human, then definitions of humanity that do not accept the earth as part of the human social group, with humans being less than primary, are inhuman.

These are ancient stories. This does not mean they are obsolete.

They follow the only possible trail. Perhaps you see the stone fish below. Perhaps you see an escarpment.It means something when a pine enters a story like this and stays for a few hundred years, or humans enter it, as they once did, as we all do, and stay for thousands of years. The story is still there, whether it has human shape now, or not.

It matters that saskatoon bushes and oregon grape enter these stories and grow within them.

It matters that all of us have the same mind. That we are all in the same telling. It matters that this is not nature.

It matters that at heart we are not humans. “Human” is something different. That is a story we tell.

There are reasons to tell it. It is not, however, where we begin. And it is not where we end.

This is our archive. This is where we create ourselves again. This is rock.