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.

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.

Bringing the Salmon Home to sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ

It is the time of the year when the sun ripens.

Whether it is smooth sumac…

… sedums storing sunlight during the day to eat it at night …p1230343

… wild gooseberry ripening its leaves with the same energy that only weeks ago ripened its berries…p1230646

… or the Nk’mp salmon coming home to sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ …salmon2sm… and asking and asking to get past the dam there, it is the time of ripening. I give thanks today to the people of the Okanagan Nation Alliance and their families among the Colville Federated Tribes for bringing our ancestors home at the same time we go down to the river to greet them. Today was the annual salmon festival at sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ. I was proud to be among these people. Some day all this land will ripen into the salmon again. Some day all people will ripen to welcome them.

I live for that day.

Where the Heart is Home: A Celebration

I love this land. I guess you know that. I am this land. Other writers might talk about identity and ego and alter ego and personality, but I just want to take you out to the bitterroot, to the old ones, and help you to see what I have learned to see. Look!

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Straight out of volcanic ash 55,000,000 years old, way down south in the John Day Hills. This is the land itself. Look at her. I don’t expect you to understand. How could you? But if you want to know why I keep at this, look.

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Isn’t my country beautiful? Aren’t I blessed to be a part of her? Isn’t this a great responsibility? I used to think my country was the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada. Now I know it is a collection of tropical volcanic islands that are continuing to collide with North America, stretching from Yellowstone and the Giant Redwoods, north to Alaska. I live in the middle of all that, but way in the south, ah, my heart is there as much as it is here. Others who live in my country, who call themselves Canadians and Americans, as I did before I began these journeys of close attention to the red earth, have their universities and their literatures, their psychologies, their economies, their arts councils and business investment banks. I just have the land now.

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Ah, but look at her!  Today, it has been 1000 journeys into the grass for us here on Okanaganokanogan. I have learned to read the land’s stories. Look.

turtle3That’s an ancient story, in the bed of Dry Falls. Most of the fresh water of the world, when the world still had fresh water, flowed over this stone turtle, and made it in its shape, out of basalt cliffs like the one you can see in behind. Now I get to walk through it at 45 degrees Celsius, which is about the right temperature, if you ask me. I’ve learned to see gravity, too.

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And good friends have battled up against it with me, in a kind of dry land surfing. Oh my. I’m still the farmer, though, although I’ll never have a farm. I’m the man with his roots in 10,000 years of a conversation with the land, or is it 20,000 years, or 50,000? Look below. This is the place. It’s on the John Day River. It’s seen better days, sure, and has been replaced now by the industrial farms of the Columbia Basin, but look at her. I could live there, if borders didn’t cut my country into bits. The junipers on the hills, with my grandfather’s spirit in them. The volcanic rock, the only rock for me. The bunchgrass, that drinks the sun and the rain. The willows on the river, that speak the wind, the river running over tumbled stones, that sing, the sagebrush that drinks the heat, the heat, the mountain’s shadow, that is always moving, and the trees, with their peaches and cherries for Portland, all grown in conversation with the land. It could be ancient Persia. It could be Afghanistan. It could be Iceland, but it is here. This is my rock. The reward for working here is just the chance to be here, talking to the earth with my hands and my eyes and the heart in my chest. Go ahead, click on the picture. It’s wide. It might not speak to you of the coming together of forces it speaks of to me, but then, perhaps, you didn’t learn the world first from peach trees, as I did, and only then from books and people, in that order. These are my people. Look at them, thriving there in the sun! Look at them catching it in their arms.

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A thousand posts! Look at my people, soaring above Umatilla Ridge.

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So what now, eh? Well, there have been efforts to turn me into a salesman, to sell this story. There have been efforts, to take the vision out of me and replace it with arguments of utility, for the building of new agricultural technologies, but, come on. This is my real story. This is why I’m here. This stone raven at Peshastin. Click on it. Look at the head that’s in its eye.  Someone has to tell the story of how to live on the land, and how to be it.  Someone has to say, we can do this. It’s easy. You just have to give yourself away with a full and open heart.

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Oh, I have new crops and new technologies here. I have a history, that starts here, not in London or New York. I have a book about the sun, and about rethinking nuclear fission, using this land and its sun. I have all that, and you soon will, too. The books are in the works, but it’s a huge job. After all, I don’t have the university to do this work, and my brothers and sisters, the writers of this country, they’re largely writing for Canada and the United States.They might not want to be, but we have to walk this path together, step by step, with the bunchgrass brushing at our thighs. We’re getting there. By the end of the year, things should look pretty grand. Look at what I’m working on now…

When I raise my arm to point out a hawk diving on a quail in a field of wild grass, I am plunging my arm into the sun. It’s all sunlight, right down to the surface of the soil. I walk through it. It flows over my skin.

I love that. I love living in the sun. It’s like that here. I can’t explain it. I’ve tried. But, hey … it’s a big job. Look, I can take you there, if you like.

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Yes, that’s right. The sun is the earth. The earth is the sun. They complete each other. They were never apart. That’s Mount Hood above there, to give her a traditional name, if that helps. Beautiful, isn’t she. In my country, the earth is within the sun. I can’t explain it. But I can take you there. That’s what I can do. Here’s where I found my heart in the land.

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That’s my self portrait. That’s Palouse Falls. Does it look like a man? Of course not. But it’s where I am now, after 1000 posts on Okanaganokanogan. We’re not done yet. We’re still walking. There’s still so much to love here. Thanks so much for walking with me in this grass, and through this rock. I could not have done it without  your encouragement. A thousand posts. 30,000 photos. 20,000 hours.That’s just amazing. This, though, just below, is what it’s all about. Look at the goddess of this land, the cicada, shedding her skin.

Isn’t she beautiful? Isn’t she worth living for? Isn’t she worth great praise?

 

Land Claims in the Okanagan

To say that a land and its people are one, as the first people of my land, the Syilx, say, is to say that the following image is an image of the people. It defies Western logic, but that’s what it says, ravens and everything.P1690042 After the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago, the region’s nomadic hunters gradually developed the technologies to survive year long in this land, at the same rate at which salmon recolonized it after their glacial refuges in Mexico and its signature grassland biomes took shape, with human intervention. The land and the people became one at the same rate and often in response to each other. They accorded the same dignity to the other inhabitants of the land, because the land was identity and larger than them all. It did not belong to them as much as they belonged to it.

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It’s logical. Before the land took its present shape, it was a different land. Before the Syilx became the keepers of that land (for such is the meaning of “Syilx”), they were a different people. In terms of the land, and a consciousness based on the land, they have, in fact, been here forever. In Western terms, that’s like the discussion about the Big Bang. It’s not possible to posit a universe before the Big Bang, because the universe is the expression of the Big Bang. So is it with the Okanagan, and the Syilx.

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The Big Bang is Watching You

That the people and the land are one also means that human consciousness and the land are one. In Western terms, this is an emotional statement. In Syilx terms, it isn’t. (Remember: Syilx is not precisely a race; it’s a way of thinking.) The eagle’s face the sun carves out of the cliff below and the bald eagle above it are one. It is nonsense in terms of science. It means something in terms of a land-based consciousness.

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Nonetheless, Western thought recently was the same. The following image, for example, shows the Bockstein, the Goat’s Rock across the German Rhine from the holy city of Bingen, complete with a bit of Christian iconography speared into its heart and an elderberry bush to keep witches away (a remnant of an ancient believe in elves and animal spirits was interpreted in oh-so-Catholic Rüdesheim, to which the vineyards in the image belong, as a haunt of the Devil). A bit more than a century ago it was dynamited, to keep it from dropping rocks onto the rail line far below. As you can see from the carefully-tended spear and the surviving elder, the old beliefs haven’t exactly died out.

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They didn’t die out in Christian tradition either. Here’s a kind of accommodation in Rüdesheim itself. Christ as a sun, at the intersection of heaven and earth, and, look, he’s really a wine cork, and the cross is really a grape plant, here where wine-making began as an act of  Christian devotion and commerce. Christ as a sun god? That’s not really Christ, is it, and those vines? Pure celtic.

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Here’s one Okanagan equivalent.

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Cougar Above the Old Syilx Village on Kalamalka Lake

 This kind of view of the land didn’t start here in the land currently occupied by my city, Vernon, however. This was never the heart of Syilx territory, only one of its major extensions. The heart was here…

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Lake Lenore, Grand Coulee, Washington

The cave complex that looks out on this view here has been used by the Syilx for 8,000 years. It’s from here that they moved north, and here they learned to read spirits in the land, such as the human-faced mountain sheep above. It’s here that they hunted rhinos before they became the Syilx. Lake Lenore is about six driving hours south of Vernon, British Columbia. 

 When people came north, following the retreating ice, they found their stories from Lake Lenore written out on the land, with new variations, and they read them, and they settled where they were strongest. Yes, they were looking into their own minds, minds created by story which was created by land which was created by story, which was all, ultimately, created by ice and rock.

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It’s such a powerful and popular idea to call today’s age of the world the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, in which it is human activity which dominates the world, often badly. That’s a culturally-loaded assessment, however, because in the Syilx world, human activity had the same power with the world, but chose to use it for different ends, ends like this:

yellow-1Arrow-leafed Balsam Root

It’s not a pretty flower. It’s food. 

We’re not talking ancient history here. The takeover only began in earnest 150 years ago, when men were hammering the spike into the heart of the Bockstein. The cougar and the ancestral figures I showed you above, are from this complex cliff complex of two separate geologies in collision.

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They rise above this lake.

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The story was once continuous. It led from the watching cougar, to cougars and turtles across the lake, in what is now Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park, and Cougar Canyon to the  south, but invasion came with a price. Men constructing Highway 97 to move traffic north from Mexico have blasted away the story, and the connections between the bluff and the lake and its own stories.

P1690411 The story now is Highway 97.P1690240

A Forest on the Way to the Plywood Plant

Or, rather, Highway 97 has highly edited the story. Here’s the old highway and the new one, together, looking north. That’s the city of Coldstream, a colonial outpost of north-eastern Scotland, on the middle right.

P1690362 Any story of being-the-land has to contend now with dynamite, hydroelectric power transmission, the petro state, and industrialization of the mind.P1680902 The culvert in the image below, for instance, is now part of the sacred story. There’s no way around it. You can’t make the road go away now.P1680901 What would you replace it with? The story is lost. P1680816 It took a lot of effort, as the bore holes for dynamite charges show below. Note the pink granite. That’s a more accurate colour for the rock (I tweaked for a long time to get it) than the yellow-white above, which is a function of camera processing and early morning sun.P1680797

It’s not just the road. It comes with other stuff.

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And it brings stuff.

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Lots of different stuff.

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The men and women who drive these trucks are just doing a job. They live within a complex net of relationships, which they have devoted their lives to further. It’s what’s called “Free Labour”. It means that a free man can freely give his body to economic and political structures, support and strengthen them, to be supported and strengthened by them in return. It was the ticket on which Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States (It’s important to this land, because our culture comes out of that election. It’s complicated.) in 1862, and was one of the pressure points that led to the American Civil War. It is as complex a series of relationships as the land-identity of the Syilx, but it comes at a certain cost. For one, it’s wasteful of land and disrespectful of it, because it treats it as a commodity and not life itself. Here’s the stretch of waste rock between the old and new highways, with the Syilx collective unconscious isolated in behind.

P1680882 It also make a lot of noise (all that traffic), yet leads to a profound silence. Because of the dominance of this wasteful highway construction on the land, it’s awfully hard to read even those parts of the Syilx story that remain, not to mention impossible to hear anything of the parts blasted away except for their profound ghost presence. Perhaps you can sense it in the following images of a much-simplified landscape, gone from hundreds of thriving species, to a few struggling weeds.P1680809

P1680881 P1690078 P1690113 One of the consequences of this kind of split between self and earth is disrespect based on blunt ignorance The image below, is what tourism pictures as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Here’s an adventure tourism guide featuring our blasted sacred bluff covered by text and an image of sacred Turtle Point, separated from it as much by the advertisement for adventure tourism as by the dynamite itself.

kalamalkaclassic Sometimes, it helps to move the photoshop sliders so far to the right that the lake looks like an acid trip, as it does in the official Vernon tourism photograph below. This image was taken below the blasted bluff. I took most of my photographs from the same place. Note that the image below doesn’t mention the Syilx connection. Neither does the one above, although its background does show the Syilx village site now filled with colonial infill housing.kalmalka

Another consequence is insanity. Here’s what the place looks like, outside of the need to manipulate the subconsciousness of potential tourists, to entice them, perhaps unknowingly, to spend their money in this rather butchered place. P1680955

See that? The excess sagebrush from overgrazing? The road fill in the foreground? The old highway, and… what’s that? Ah, look…

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Somebody has dropped off their household garbage here, and lots of it, to avoid paying the, oh, I dunno, $10 fee to move it 3 minutes away to the local landfill, which just happens to be straight up the hill, above the new highway. That’s where these ravens are going.

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That’s where these ones came from.

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Some background: this land has been the subject of a land claim by the Syilx since around 1895.  Since that time, the Canadian government has told the British Columbia provincial government, here far in the West, to take care of land claims and actually acquire legal title to its land. It has been 120 years of stalling, and it appears that the greatest degree of settlement of this outstanding issue of the legal underpinning of a state has been this:

P1690459Access Road to a Private Community for the Rich

As for ethical underpinnings, there aren’t any. That is part of the story now. Above my house, where the turtle story spills down to Okanagan Lake in the west, it looks like this:

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We don’t sit on this land lightly. The hurt that has been done to the land is the hurt that has been done to the Syilx, and the hurt that has been done to the Syilx has been done to the land, and through the land to all of us. That barrier is there to keep us out … from what? Well, from this.

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Coyote Rock Yesterday Afternoon

(Coyote rocks are petrified Coyote dung, which the trickster and cultural ancestor of the Syilx dropped behind him on his trails in order to have someone to talk to and to get advice from. This one houses marmots, which come out in late April, perch on the tip, and disappear again mid-August, to sleep the winter away.)

Is it a $750,000 building lot with the best view in Vernon? Yes. Is it a deep expression of human and ecological identity that can, in and of itself, lead us to a sustainable and ethical future? Yes. Can we really have both at once? Here’s an elf, part of the Coyote Rock complex, which my European subconscious sees mirrored in the land.

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Yes, we can have them both at once, right now. But the erosion continues, and the struggle for power, and in it diversity, resilience, history and sustainability lose their independence. In the image below, the road leading up to this subdivision for wealthy retirees from the petro state to the east, the missing cliff contains not only lost sagebrush buttercup habitat, but an 8,000-year-old rattlesnake den.

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8,000 years! Destroyed to bring an image of Provence to people from Northern Alberta. Sure, we can create a future out of our imaginations, but destroying our deeper imaginations and capacities to do so, on land that is not even ours, well, that’s not a story that is going particularly well. It can’t be sustained. Note again, the overgrazed bunchgrass in the image above, and its replacement by green cheatgrass, which is of no value to anyone and destroys most values in the land. The only value left in the land, as this road and the culture that created it, imagine, is the visual, romantic value of ‘the view’.

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You just have to ignore the clearcut forests in the background, the ingrown grasslands at lake level, the forest fire burn, the blasting for the road cut at the middle left, and the reformed hillside, to provide housing lots, to capture lake views, below it, but that’s easy. When people (new settlers, all of them) ask me, “What are you photographing here?”, I tell them about the Syilx food crops and ancient gardens, in just this spot, and the remaining remnants of them, and they look at me as if I’m from another planet. Maybe I am. I’m from here. If I tell them I’m photographing insects (such as the green sweat bee on the native food plant, the mariposa lily below), they laugh.

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No, I didn’t boost the colours with Photoshop.

That image of the bee is the same image as the one below.

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Just in reverse.  This story cannot be told separately. Only poverty and a loss of independence comes from that. All cultures that remain on either side of the reality of the contemporary story will erode. We have to work this out. Together. Now.

Land Crisis in Vernon

Yesterday I showed you an image of an apple crisis. Here it is again, from a different angle.

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People are so hungry to connect with a farmer over a supermarket that they will pay an industrial farmer as much for his cull apples as they would pay for his good ones at a produce store, and half what they’d pay in a supermarket itself. The only thing is, he’s an industrial farmer, and not, perhaps, the thing they wish to support. For instance, that fence? It prevents deer from migrating up and down the hills, as they need to do, and forces them to wander through neighbourhoods, where they get labelled “problem deer” and get shot. As for the land itself, look:

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Yes, mud. A tractor made that, hauling those apples out. This is what has been created out of this grassland soil after a hundred years: hard-packed, water repelling mud. 10,000 years of soil creation has been negated in 100 years. I don’t think that’s what people wish to pay for either. I think that an adjustment will come: either farmers will get the idea, or people will. That it all has to happen within an industrial metaphor makes it harder. Those are, however, only human issues. For the land, the issue is clear: stop this or the land will die.

Land Earth Horse Ice Star

The land is watching.

HesturSpring’s Horses, North of Hofsos, Iceland

If you stop beside the road, they will appear. And if you try to talk to that land in a foreign language?

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An Icelandic Horse Discovers Sugar

Hmmmm. In the end, one horse out of forty accepted a sugar cube. She had three. It might be better to speak to the land as the wind…

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Icelandic Horses Waiting for Me to Figure Out What They’re Waiting For

Hay, oats, and a bucket of water, I think. I think that’s all that the wind wants, except, of course, to play in my hair. And while the land is watching humans, what is the earth doing?

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Oxárarfoss, Iceland

While humans are talking with their art form, the land, the earth is making art among the stars.