Okanagan Woman and Magic

Strange, the things that come in the mail all on their own. There I was reading over coffee, looking over a manuscript about this valley, and thinking about the mail. So I got the mail. “Okanagan Woman” came in the mail. I think she was a message. But what?  Are there forces out there which wish to speak to us? Is this the only way they can speak? If so, what is she trying to say?

What about women who aren’t white ancestral figures? What do they make of approaches like this from the long pre-modern history of the Baltic? I don’t know. What about the real power of spirits like that — Hans Anderson’s 1844 “The Snow Queen” is mentioned in the magazine — who froze children’s hearts? She is a combination of ancient gnostic religion, the Lady of the Lake, the well at the root of the Tree of the World, from which the god Oðin received blindness and sight (in the form of two ravens) and a Christian sermon. There is also a troll, who creates suffering, in place of Eden’s more familiar snake. Is she telling me to stop reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which neatly dissects the class conflicts that created White culture in these grasslands, by showing their long, long roots in elite culture and its relationship to slavery, and worse? I don’t know. I am deeply troubled though. Perhaps, though, this is not what the reference is. It’s about beauty, certainly. Perhaps this is what this creature from deep in the ancestral past has become now, courtesy of the robots in Seattle (see below). Friendly stuff. But is it friendly? And Is it beautiful? What do I know. I’m not a good commentator, because I do take ancestral memory seriously, and I don’t jest about spiritual power and I don’t find class behaviour particularly beautiful. Many, however do. Look below.

Thanks, Robots of Google

So much devotion and labour has gone into all of these images, I don’t think they have anything to do with the Snow Queen at all. Still, it troubles me. Should these ancient powers of darkness — a Wicked Witch of the West who melts to water at the touch of a pure heart — be called forth so casually? Is this what an Okanagan woman is now? Why? Who hurt her that much? What is she afraid of? Yes, fear. Look.


But not just fear. It opens into desire. Look. Inside, she opens up. She melts!



And why does she look so bruised? I’m sure she speaks to a lot of women and a lot of hurt (and there’s more than enough to go around), but what I’m puzzled by is how a group of people could live in an indigenous valley, apply a European concept of winter to a complicated set of interwoven grassland seasons, pull in an image from Northern Europe, of a white woman laboriously turned into an image of pure Whiteness (whatever that is), couple it with aristocratic flourishes circa 1790 and a dangerous dressing in elven motifs (surely trouble) and then ship it all out as a message — and, if the cover means anything, a celebration of holiday. In my experience, you don’t take such liberties with the gods. Do the editors of this magazine feel they are immune? I feel like they are playing with plutonium. But what do I know. I am 59 years old, male, and my hair looks like hers above without the hours of makeup work. Not much of the golden colour anymore, either. Death has me in her sights. Is that who created this magazine and shipped it out?  Is that who is staring out laughing through those eyes? Ah, but the editors were thoughtful. They put a magic carpet on the back of the magazine to whip us away to safety.

Is buying a magic carpet the way to save oneself from peril? Might one want to try some real magic? Might one just walk?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But now I’m wondering: what kind of spiritual message was the last white thing that came unexpectedly in the mail?

It’s starting to become a thing.

The Secrets of Dawn

The blue of the sky divides into darkness and light.


Then the sky separates. The light falls, then rises again from the Earth.
P2250624There are glimpses to the world within the clouds — now that light no longer obscures it.
P2250687Worlds blend with worlds.

All this happens under a blue sun.P2250626

Then it is day. This is not day.


Who is a Person?

Oh, here’s a person:

Photo on 12-11-05 at 4.19 PM

Your writer says hi.

When you get a whole bunch of persons together you get people. Like this:


Plateau Men Fishing, Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, c.1950 Source

So, that’s a group of persons, and when they get together their interactions are called social. I talked about s’lahal, the bone game, the other day. That’s social:


Lummi Men Hard at a Game of S’lahal, c. 1930

But, wait. The story of S’lahal is told in this amazing book…


You can read about it. It has its own very beautiful website here: songsofpowerandprayer.com. It’s outwardly about a shaman and a priest who learn to blend their faiths in the Plateau, through song, but it’s also about social groups. In short, every person in the Plateau is a member of a social group which includes not only his or her guardian spirit but the entire world of spirits that manifest themselves as the animals and plants of the earth.


Bald Eagle Above Okanagan Lake

Look at all those spirit creatures on the far valley wall, too, eh.

Humans are one of these forms of materially present spirits.

One Young Woman from Every State of the USA Pours a Jug of Water Over the Grand Coulee Dam

And this is how the world ended. I didn’t say spirit was all sweetness and light.

Here’s, I guess, the other side of this s’lahal game called Damming the Great River of the West:


Colville Women Gathered for the Ceremony of Tears, to Commemorate the End of the World, 1940

Every game needs two teams.

Thing is, there were other teams.

Nkmp Sockeye, Okanagan Falls

Luckily for them, the Okanogan River joins the Columbia below Grand Coulee Dam.  The Skoelpi salmon of Kettle Falls were not so lucky.

The game of S’lahal is played with these spirits, with songs that are often created by these spirits. In short, every S’lahal player had a social group that included family, tribe, nation, and all the animals and plants and rivers and mountains of the world. Even pine pitch and stumps. And this bunch:

Buck and Canada Geese on the Impounded Columbia West of Kettle Falls

There’s no need to get all romantic about this and abandon all Western knowledge to imitate an old culture of nature spirits (it would not, however, be dishonourable, either, in any way, short of the romanticizing, but that’s easy to peel away), but there’s a beautiful point here. In the Plateau cultures, it was not that human social culture arose from the gathering of people and their interactions, or communications. That is a Western cultural idea. In its place, what the people learned on the Grasslands was to survive by paying very close attention to the world and working within its forms. The primary social relationship was dual: with the creatures and forces of the world, on the one hand, and with family and other people on the other. Communication was a unifying force that brought these two human orientations together. Song was one way. This was another:

Mara Lake

These words are another. And these:

Raven at Lolo Lake

The old mammoth hunting ground and bulb gathering ground on the Camas Prairie between the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon Rivers.

Even in Western thought, before humans became specialized at living in concrete, asphalt, steel, plastic, brick and glass environments punctuated with slave groupings of plants and rogue invaders called weeds or graffiti artists, humans derived their languages from observations of the world, because they lived and worked in the world and had to understand it well. The language I am writing in here, and which you are reading, English, has its roots in that mode of being, and didn’t start catastrophically deviating from it until a couple decades ago. This is the language of goose girls and cowherds, fishers, crofters, charcoal burners, salmon poachers, beechnut gatherers and kids herding pigs with a stick and sheep with a crook. I’m proud of that.


Mallards Leaving Town

Some kid still thrashing through a swamp after duck down is glad to see them.

Not just that, I’m glad. It means that the separation of people from the world is not a Western cultural thing. It is a consequence of environments, continually at war with the social knowledge living energetically within language, trying to be born with every sentence, like this, perhaps:

It spells that the cutting of men and women from their home is not a bond knotted around all people of the West. It is a town warring with the bonds within its words and the spells between them, birthing anew with every knot in every telling.

Pregnant Whale, Wedding Rocks, Makah Illahie

Think of it. You create a whale by slowly wearing away the rock with the action of your own hand until the whale is there, and then you let the sea wear it away over centuries, taking that attention away and dissolving it into the water, to insure that whales will come, rich and pregnant with calves, for hundreds of years. When the art is gone? It’s never gone. It’s in the sea. It’s in the whales.

Today, many academics work hard and brilliantly at deconstructing the tendency of language to become ordinary, by dispelling the ordinariness of words. Deconstruction, though, is a French philosophical enterprise, and this is English we’re talking about here. Next time, I’ll illustrate the power of construction and reconstruction that is within English: a magical language, a language of practical application of materialized spirits, an Indigenous language a lot like the Sahaptin and Salishan of the Plateau, that, too, can reclaim its ancestral strength in a modern world. Anything less is an abandonment of ethics. We’ll be chatting about that soon, too. Until then, here’s some people to hang out with, without all this chatter!P2100892And these mergansers, too!

P2100734 And, yeah, I missed the shot of the eagle careening around this tree, as surprised to see me as I was to see her.P2110011

But the tree is just as fine a person to meet as the sun comes late over the hill.

When is a Wasp a Flower?

Here’s a wasp on some desert parsley two days ago. Check out the scaly covers of her wings.WSM


Here’s a willow on the same day. Note the scaly covers of her catkins.pw


Our ancestors saw these as the same thing. It was a principle of the world, in the way Newton’s Second Law of Motion is today. What remains beautiful about it is that it is an abstraction created using the stuff of the world itself. Stuff like, well, this:


Beach Rock at Ozette, Makah Illahie

… or this …



Mount Hood at Horsethief Butte, Yakama Illahie

Over the last 3.5 years of this project I have learned again what I knew as a child in the Similkameen: to think as the Earth. Look at all the little wasps in these young ponderosa cones!

pine Look at the force cracking the wasp’s wings open on the willow, written in the stone below!P1660676

Every day I grow more humble at what my ancestors knew and passed on. It’s here…

P1680415 … and here …P1680310

… and here.


I am walking with them. Not in the way of a ghost story, though. We’ll leave that to Mary Shelley. More like this…

P1650635 … and this…P1650850

Aging can be humbling.

The Magic of Shade and Shadows

Shade is defined as the effect that comes when something blocks the sun. Fair enough. All shade is not equal, though. Here are, in no particular order, choke cherry shade …shade2 … and black locust shade…


… and apple shade …

P1420130… and gingko shade…

P1140780… and staghorn sumac shade…

P1410398… and cottonwood shade …

V0000316… and red osier dogwood shade …

P1260542… and chinese elm shade …P1260657… and apricot shade.



I chose trees and shrubs with green shade, but I could have chosen red, purple, or even blue. Even within the world of green shades, though, I think it’s obvious that the shade of one plant is different from that of another one, and that the concept of “something blocking the sun” is a good general descriptor, but doesn’t describe what’s going on, because all of these shades are several things at once: blocked light, unblocked light, light from within the plant material, light reflecting off the plant material, and a mood… and that’s not counting the smells of the shade, or the sound of it. When it comes to plants, shade is a spirit. It is a plant projected around the plant, the way a photograph is cast onto a plate. The only thing is, humans are excellent photographic plates for this type of projection. And whatever you do, don’t go to sleep under an elder.


Bad dreams will come. Really. Not a good idea. You can, however, change your dreams by sleeping under different trees. That’s how sensitive a receiver you are. So, remember, in the heat of summer, there is a place to go to have visions that cross between you, the earth, and the sun, and there are trees in the middle of them, and the space is theirs, not yours.