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.

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.

The Spirit Whale of the Okanagan

Here’s what might sound at first like a fantastical story, but it does end with a deeply practical point. I hope you enjoy it! To start, look at the spirit whale of the Okanagan at the end of a winter day. The first people who came through here 12,000 years ago were ice-edge hunters from the ocean to the West. They would have known about whales moving through leads in the ice. The trees in the foreground would have been underwater then.p1480903

Look at the big fin of the whale’s tale to the south. That’s quite the whale.p1480921

Over time, she has risen from the water. The purple line below was the lake shore 12,000 years ago. The red one, 10,000 or so. The drop was rapid in each case.

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As you might just be able to make out above, when the tide was in (so to speak), the whale’s tail would have had three heads. Its fin would have been hidden. Swinging to the left, her head would have looked like this:

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She was underwater, that’s what she was. Her body was a canoe full of animals. That would have been intimate knowledge to oceanic ice-edge hunters, and common to a number of indigenous flood stories. Look below for a closer look of the prow. The whale’s head is just a tiny island, leading the way like a porpoise. In this image, the ancestral animals who are the cargo are more clear.

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The image below shows the stern of the canoe again, as it would have appeared above the lake, blunt-nosed as we would expect, with two trails of froth. The stern itself is a clown’s head, a motif we see on hundreds of sacred rocks in the Pacific Northwest. Whatever the reasons are is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s just be present on this ancient shore.

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There’s no way of knowing if people viewed the whale this way or not 12,000 years ago, but one thing is certain: over the course of half a day she lifted out of the water and left behind a lake in the shape of a snake. Two thousand years later, she did it again. Today, that snake is called, derisively, Ogopogo. With more respect, but in equally colonial terms, she is called a lake. That discrepancy between spiritual and European knowledge is worth keeping in mind, when assessing my story of the mountain that is a whale: whether they are indigenous or scientific, story-tellers bring their knowledge and see it reflected in conversation with the forms of the land. People who come from that land, however, see the spirit first.

p1480907As a man, if that’s what I am and not “tree walking” or something like that, what I see in the image above is my self. I can’t say I understand this, or do not. “Understanding” is the wrong concept to apply to that presence, and can only access deep threads of European knowledge and explanation. Like “lake” or “mountain”, however, such activity comes from somewhere else and does not describe the bond between my body, spirit and mind and those of the land. Even “land” is the wrong word for this stuff. I seem to be evolving past words. What’s next, I wonder.

Poets, It is Time for the Real Work Now

Here’s Okanagan Lake, an over-deepened fjord lake full of fossil water just down from my house. It’s the remnant of a much deeper lake, called Glacial Lake Penticton. The top of the green fields at the left were the shore of this lake. My house is in the shallows of this ghost lake, 135 metres above lake level.

Just below I’m going to show you an image from the shallows on the right of this image, about 135 metres above lake level, straight above the mid-point between the two buoys on the right (about halfway along the Head-of-the-Lake Ridge on the right and a little more than halfway up the slope.) If you walked along that ancient lakeshore, you would have met the rock below. It would have lain just below the shore 10,000 years ago. Six months or a year later it would have risen out of the water as the water level sank. Just a rock. Nothing more.

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Or is it? I see bear and fish shapes living in one twinned creature, moving into and out of each other, and at the lower left a trickster, a coyote. There’s even a bear paw print in the centre of the image. When I consider that the fish rise out of the water, as this rock would have done, and the first humans through this way after the ice left 10,000 years ago likely walked along that shore, and that their stories have Coyote bringing salmon to the country, I wonder which came first, the imaginative reading, the story or the rock. It is a question answerable only by story, communal memory and experience (poetry, in other words), but is well worth posing. What I find even more interesting today, though, is this bluebird I met in a Siya? bush up on the edge of this summer’s fire.p1260801

Are they not the same, the bird and the rock, only expressed in different languages? The rock is expressed in a language of body shapes, animals and stories. If you know the stories, or even the animals alone, you can draw conclusions from what you see about ecological and spiritual connectivity: the bear that eats the salmon is the salmon, for instance, and both are brought to you by the land. Western thought draws a line between natural history and this kind of knowledge, and calls the first science and the second poetry, but that is not a universal line. The bird, for example, is expressed in a similar bodily language: beak, eye, head, feather, foot, claw, wing and so on — all with similarities to human body images. (Sometimes human body images imitate birds; sometimes human images of birds imitate human bodies; sometimes human dress in feathers; sometimes they make language out of bird tracks on paper or a screen; sometimes they sing, like birds. It’s all great stuff.) The line can’t be drawn that truly separates them — only for a purpose. What’s more…

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… if one knows the language of science and evolution, one can read a deep history of time, and species connectivity, by looking at the bird. A skilled ornithologist can read the evolutionary lineage of this bluebird back something like 100,000,000 years, with one glance, instantly observing deep time, living on in this bird today. Is my reading of the rock I found on the ancient lakeshore (and possible much earlier readings, perhaps not too dissimilar) very much different?

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Is this story of deep time and connectivity not the same story of human bodies and their knowledge, when they find the world staring back (as bluebirds do) and have to navigate the difference between looking into themselves and being observed by something that is separate from them at the same time? This buzzard checking me out, perhaps?

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This stone?

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Contemporary Western thought sees a great difference here, but is not that merely a reflection of a line drawn between life and the earth, with living being declared independent and procreative (bluebird and buzzard), and the earth being named dead and an environment for independent life (rock)? That line is arbitrary. It could be drawn in many different places. I could, for instance, use the language of my ancestors, and speak about a bluebird (in its spring plumage below) in their language, the one that lies at the root of this whole discussion, because it was those ancestors who first started to draw these lines between categories of experience. To them, in the indo-european language that came before Sanskrit, German, Romanian, Italian and Greek, to name just a few, this bird was seen as golden…

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… and so was this sky, and this aspen.

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It was a spiritual colour: an intensity of visual experience that caught your eye at a distance and held it, like a flash of light off a wave. It described the flash, not the “gold” colour of the aspen, where we see it today. To these ancestors, a cloud…cloud

… was a clot, like a clod of earth, a clot of cheese or a clot of blood, a thickening in an energy field that swept around the earth.cloud

In this language of energy, the “things” of the earth are thickenings of energy, that are, in part, thickened by being given a name — by having their spirit (their energy) being given human bodily shape, in other words. In that sense, is the image below not an image of a thickening of energy? And is the photograph not a thickening of energy itself?

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Or this stone?

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Or these bluebirds coming in from the grassland to feed among the apple trees?

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Are they not all the same reading of human bodies and thought patterns on the world, concretized into language, a kind of magical amulet laid out in strings of beads on a necklace of time, which is concretized into scientific understanding, by the act of naming? That act of holding, as an anchor in the flow of energy through the world and through time, is the same, whether it is expressed in a language of stone, a language of energy, or a language of things. In the same way that a bluebird, the sky and the sun are so intertwined, in terms of energy, that they are all gold, and in the same way that a bluebird and a stone and a cloud are so intertwined in terms of human cognitive mapping that they are all alive, this stone …

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… and by extension the one below, worn smooth in a river that once flowed along the edge of the hill into the ancient, ghost lake …p1250424

… are this young bear.

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The word “indigenous” gets in the way of this knowledge. It says that there is one group of people at home on this land who know this, and another group (everyone else) who does not. Well, not entirely. At best, it says that there are people, around the world, who live on the land, within this kind of energy connection, bound to a place, and another group of people (almost everyone) which does not have access to this knowledge. It’s true, this business of certain groups of people being the land they’re on, and it’s also partly not true, because we all have access to this knowledge, and all have access to the ability to speak to each other in this earth-based and body-based spiritual language. That we don’t is a failure of language, of poets, and of society. And it is a failure of love and respect. Our ancestors drew lines between things, for real and pressing reasons. We can erase those lines, or draw different ones, for other real and pressing reasons. We can be together. It is not written in stone that we are apart. And it is for this reason that I believe it is time for poets to leave the universities and walk out into the world, and to bring back bears and bluebirds and gold.

*

Next, I will argue that it is time for critics at universities to stop playing the game they love to play, of holding critical thought and poetry in their minds at the same time, yet making critical thought primary. They stand on the edge of a new form of art, but prevent its evolution. It’s like saying time stops here now, and our knowledge is the deepest pool. Contemporary politics is demonstrating that this is not so. Let’s explore together what it might mean to take the next step.

Dawn on Earth

It is a wave breaking on a shore.P1240161
It is sifted by trees that hold the night within themselves.

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The sun enters the water, and shines from there. (In the image below, it catches a tree that fell here before I was born, and has raised generations of trout in its weave.)P1240181

As the sun is filtered by the living trees over the shoulder of the forest, it lifts the water and the land together.

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During the day that follows, it is a memory, written in light.

wet2 This is when the wind carries the wave forward, through all the dimensions.wet

The water and the light flow with it, right through you.

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Where they become one is where you are. Only there. In all this universe. Earth creature, this is what your thinking looks like.

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Right through dusk. Of the day and of the year.

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Into the night.

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Then it begins again.

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That is your mathematics, earth dweller.

P1230289That is your music.You who live where the sun and the water meet …

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… and become one.P1230277

If you understand that, or find yourself trying to understand that, or think that these words or this conception is poetry, or that these are images of nature or psychology, please go back …

P1240196 … and try again.P1240219

 

And again.

 

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And again.

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Please take your time.

 

 

Sustaining the Okanagan 18: Truth and Reconciliation Through Indigenous Selfhood

Five days ago, I found a psychological diagram attached to a dropped hand-out for the truth and reconciliation process for creating healthy selves in adults who had suffered personal or cultural violence during Canada’s residential school program, which was intended to erase indigenous political issues in Canada by removing indigenous languages and cultures, including attachment to land and place. The diagram was a black and white variation of this famous pyramid:_69571892_triangles_464

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

It works on this principle: you need to sustain your body; only then can you look after your security; only then can you love and build community; only then can you receive positive reinforcement and find pride; only then can you actualize a particular technology within your body, called a self, which directs this step-by-step program and internalizes exterior cultural and environmental forces. 

I was struck by how colonial this process is, and how it is, in itself, a form of de-indiginization. After all, it contains a hierarchy, in which having a “self” is given priority, on this hierarchy:

  1. Food and shelter. These are”resources” taken from the environment (which is not on the chart).
  2. Safety, security, and so forth. These are things separated from the environment and from the environment of other people competing, seemingly violently, for the same “resources”.
  3. Love, family and community. These are things built within safety, which is separated from the environment, which remains as a competitive, violent source of “resources.”
  4. Esteem, honour, praise, worth. These are things built out of family or social life, which is built within safety, which is separated from the environment, which remains as a competitive, violent source of “resources.”
  5. Self Actualization. This is a integrated, interiorized representation of the entire pyramid, which makes this ladder of competition and protection into a self-standing process, both supporting society and independent of it.

Nothing could be more “US American” in the world. In Indigenous identity, the very premise of this hierarchy is not present, because identity and environment are one. That means that there are no resources, that safety and food, or community and earth, or praise and shelter, and so on, are not separate as they are on this list, but are all present at once in a unity, which is not “the self,” actualized or otherwise. Sort of like this:

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Toad Hanging Out

… or this Native American image of all that:

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There is no hierarchy here. The diagram shows four different forms of the same energy, which is the energy at the centre of the wheel, or this (for example):

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Thule Reeds and Kayak Waves

Houses, mats, food, sources of feminine power, vital trade goods, and important energy for many other living forms of energy, such as loons and dragonflies and beavers and trout.

In comparison to that, all that this …

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… can do is to replace indigenous identity with a social code, for use in interacting with a non-indigenous culture that forms abstract patterns and divisions in place of unities. And that is the colonization project in a nutshell. It has some use in a power-oriented society based on certain classes of privilege, but at the very least the image could include a foundational step, called Earth Needs. At best, it should be a circle, with the understanding that humans are part of their environment, are formed in response to it, and that all points of self, from 1 to 5 on this chart, are always present, although always formed by what comes through from the “previous” level. If the levels are barriers, or doorways, then only what can pass through barriers or doorways can pass and be available for the next level. If the transfers are points of unity instead, then what can pass through unity will be available for the next energization. If all transfers transfer unity, then 5 won’t be self-actualization but world actualization, instead of the actualized self living inside a 5-walled fortress, in a world it has a part in only by “taking” and owning. I’m sorry, but we can do better, by giving not taking, along a unified flow between spirit, body, mind and emotion, from one to the next, within unity. Like our sister, Siya?

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Who gives. Who we know as the sound of children moving through her and accepting this gift, among birds and deer and bees. Who we care for so we can give her to them, and them to her, for their training. These children who bring us berries on her behalf. Berries which bring us into the afternoon summer sun:

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World actualization, earth actualization, valley actualization or indigenous actualization would all help sustain us in our earth. This…

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…does not. We should put it in a museum.

 

What it Means to Be Indigenous

It means: to be from a place. It doesn’t mean simply that you live there. It means that you and the place are one thing. For historical reasons, most Canadians and Americans give this power to aboriginal peoples, while claiming cities for themselves, yet without relinquishing domination of the land just given to First Nations peoples. It makes the mind spin. This is saner: certain behaviours are common to all people. We are all brothers and sisters. In European traditions, as well as in aboriginal ones, it used to be that people took pleasure in noticing shapes of animals among the clouds. The contemporary version of those traditions dispel such thought to childhood. Well, in that sense, then, this is childish:P1170366

Hummingbird Feeding on a Flower in the Low Winter Light

Bilbo’s Bog, Larch Hills

Childish is just a name given by people who are not indigenous, to those who are. Entire relationships between people and the world are set by the human ability to make patterns like this. Without it, we are machines.