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.

 

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.

The Best Thing We Can Do for the Okanagan and Ourselves, Ever

I’m working on a series of 100 practical things we can do in the Okanagan to create a sustainable culture. They are archived in the menu bar above. Let me give you a hint: this is not it:

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This is:

Let that be our parliament. It is the pow-wow grounds at the Okanagan Indian Band at Head of the Lake. This is the biggest change of all, and the most important. We’re not going to get there all at once, but it’s not impossible to get there, and getting there is worth it. Please follow along through this argument, although it might be hard reading. I repeat: it’s worth it. Here’s how it works:

  1. All of this land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean belongs to its First Peoples.
  2. All of this land between Brewster and Kettle Falls Washington and Enderby and Merritt British Columbia, belongs to the Creator, who gave it into the care of the Syilx People.
  3. They never gave it away.
  4. The Creator was, arguably, given to the peoples of North America as a concept by fur traders who preceded recorded European exploration of the West by 250 years. There is evidence, although not conclusive — although how could it be.
  5. The Country of Canada takes its justification from the Queen of England (and Canada), who takes hers from God (and the Crown Jewels.)
  6. The Okanagan takes off from God, too.
  7. No argument there.
  8. Sure, I own the small piece of land my house sits on, and the Queen owns 94% of the rest of the place and leases it out to American logging companies, and I own my house itself, and my apricot tree, well, actually no, the robin owns that …

… waiting for dinner! Bless her. That nest has been rebuilt in the same spot for five years now, and who knows how many before that. I can lay no claim to it, except in a claim to care for it for her. If her kids would only leave my strawberries alone, but … oh well.

9. There are multiple levels of government in this place, which there should be, as this is a successful and dynamic democracy and a prosperous, liberal industrial state. It is a complicated place requiring a great amount of democratic discussion.

10. Let’s expand that discussion.

Currently, Syilx participation in those levels of government is minimal, although it is mandated by the Government of Canada, which set fair accommodation of the Syilx, and all native peoples, as sovereign peoples, as a condition of British Columbia (this place on the North Eastern Pacific) entering the dominion of Canada. Fair enough. Thing is, I have sat on local committees and only once has there been native participation (there has, however, been resistance to it, despite my protests), and that only in the body of one single man in a sea of 60 immigrants … not just Canadians but Canadians new to the valley, some only a week or two into the experience. All this in a situation in which in the last 145 years only two land issues between the sovereign governments of the 198 independent aboriginal nations of British Columbia have been settled. My revulsion aside, you might ask what right do I, a man with obviously European ancestors (Rhenisch, Silesian from Kattowice, Gleiwitz and Wroclaw) have to be commenting on First Nation issues? Good question. None, except… I was born in 1958, which makes my personal memory and experience of this experiment over a third of its total. Pshaw, that’s nothing. True. How about this: my grandparents came in 1929, which makes my family experience two-thirds of its total. Pshaw, that’s nothing either, not when considered against the, what, 500 generations of the Syilx or the, I dunno, 1000 generations of the Haida. That’s kind of my point. Still, I do think, though, it gives me the right to speak a little bit about European culture in this place. What I’d like to offer is this:

Every political decision made in this place should be made with the full and equal participation of the Syilx. It should have been so in 1858, but it’s not yet too late to start.

Period. No limitations or exclusions or excuses. None. No saying, “but this is Canada, and we’re all Canadians.” The terms of that takeover have not yet been met. This land is in Syilx care. There is no negotiation on that. We can join them, but that’s it. And they’d be welcome of any help. This is who they are, and it’s who I am, too.

This does not mean, though, that I’m advocating a single Syilx representative on every council and board in the region. That means 1 vote out of dozens, as big of a change as that might be. It would mean a bit of important ceremonial recognition, but little else.  No, I’m advocating a change. I’m advocating a Syilx vote for every Syilx community in the region. In my city, Vernon and Coldstream (there’s kind of a disagreement over class, which gives 2 administrations, which is so White, isn’t it), there are at least eight traditional villages. Here’s one. It’s currently a trailer park, a dredged creek, an airport and a soccer field. Everything to the right of the creek has been in the courts since 1895. It is currently for sale.

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This is not too much to ask. The European people of the Okanagan might be honest, and might have purchased their land in good faith, and they have, of course, but, ultimately, it’s not ours. It’s Syilx land. Ultimately, if I want to prune my apricot tree I should be conferring with Syilx elders about that. Now, I know that’s impossible, and no one, especially Syilx elders, who have grandchildren to care about, for the love of God, wants to get involved with that, but regulations can, and regulations are created by committees, and committees work on majorities, discussion and either consensus or majority vote. Eight Syilx members on every committee? That would make the discussions relevant, and would likely lead to something like a 50-50 sharing of power.

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This hill above Kalamalka Lake stands just above the point of a triangle of three village sites. You are looking at three votes.

Here’s my thinking: the earth is dying; we did this; no excuses.Now, we can’t give the earth a vote; but we can give a vote to its fruitful places, the ones suitable for human settlement, through the people who answered that call and whose survival is dependent upon honouring it. That there are no people in the view below is kind of the point.

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They’re there in spirit, and they need to be invited back there, not in some romantic fashion, but in the hard, nuts-and-bolts practical work of working together. They keep asking. Let’s answer “yes” this time. Let’s ask them. Anything else — anything else — is racism. That the “land” and the “water” below is a Provincial Park is racism (unless we use the time it has bought us to move forward) …

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I told you this one was hard. Now, let’s work towards it, slow step by step. Let’s be brave. We can do this. If we can’t, we should pack up and leave. Me? I’m staying. What about you?

Of Racism, Nature and Ethnic Cleansing

Most trees in the Okanogan and the Okanagan are scrub growth that grew up after the land that was the people was ethnically cleansed to create wilderness. The pines below, victims of last year’s fire, are to be mourned, as all living things are that pass, but not in a simple way. Certainly they are a part of natural history, but they are a lot more than that.

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In contrast, the ghosts of two pines turned to soil in the grass on the slope below are Sinlahekin trees. They grew and fell when the land and the Sinlahekin people were one. They do not belong to the realm of nature, except in an abstract sense, in a kind of abstraction that is effectively a dismissal of human worth.P1070028

Certainly these trees are a part of natural history, but they are a lot more than that. The Sinlahekin are no longer mentioned in their valley. It’s as is they were never there, or that in death they have gone back to nature, as spirits of earth and air. That’s simply not true.

Making the Future

Here’s the old story: 

Indigenous peoples lived for thousands of years in the West, surviving by hunting and gathering, often in abject poverty, until settlers came from the United States, Canada, and Europe; through the application of sophisticated technologies these new peoples were able to harness the natural resources of the land to build strong communities on foundations of industry and fruitfulness. One of the most dramatic inventions of this new culture was an elaborate system of water works, through which water was pumped from underground streams and lakes or delivered from the high country through vast flume, canal, and piping networks to towns, cities, and farms, where it has brought fruitfulness to the desert.

Last night in Kelowna, I sketched out my journeys over the last year and proposed that we need a new story.

My Green Sweat Bee Sharing the Stage with the warm up acts, Eric Clapton and U2

Five minutes to show time.

The story I presented was:

Settlers came to a land dry to the eye but rich in food, maintained by a casual but nonetheless long-lived form of gardening by fire and succession, which ensured a bounty of food in a natural system that saw water passed naturally down the hills through long chains of organic life. With certain nineteenth century ideas about the relative worth of European and non-European societies, coupled with low populations of indigenous peoples, due to disease, warfare and resettlement, early settlers, although heirs to a tradition in which Europeans developed wine and agricultural industries and cultures out of wild plants growing on their valleys, plains and hills, were blinded to the real lesson of their ancestors and, instead of developing industries out of the native plants of the areas and the ways in which water moved through these exotic, rain shadow landscapes, simply planted European plants and solved the problem of their unsuitability in the perfect Victoria way, technologically. The results were astonishing and allowed areas such as the Wenatchee Valley in Washington and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to become fruit baskets of the world. 

This work has been going on for over a century and a half now, however, and has drawn such a large draft on the natural, organic capital of the region that the natural landscapes are largely bankrupt, while at the same time the wealth that was produced by these new societies flowed into the the larger societies of which these valleys were a part, as well as into the world at large. The story of bounty in the desert continues, and is a driving force behind the vibrant wine and food culture of the contemporary Okanagan, and drives a strong real estate and tourism economy in the region, but it comes at a great price: sustainability.

Last night, I suggested that the race-driven fears of early settlers, which were intimately bound up with the rather inaccurate founding myth of bringing bounty to the desert, are understandable, given the societies and conditions of the time, but that these concerns, or pressures, or systems of belief, no longer press upon us and that, correspondingly, it is time to return to the plateau peoples, grant them the respect that has been their due for a long time now, and integrate their food systems, the natural food plants of the hillsides, and natural water flow systems into contemporary social infrastructures.

As a vision to this end, I suggested that the story that could unite all peoples here, indigenous and settler, is the story of our salmon, who cross the Pacific to Siberia and back and breach nine main stem dams on the Columbia River, to come home to us.

If we can maintain the salmon, we will know that we can maintain ourselves, because to maintain the salmon is to maintain the earth.

As a first step, I proposed that we take a large part of the strain off of natural water systems by growing wild crops on our dry but in no way barren hillsides, build new industries around our very intriguing native food plants, and free up water in our high country lakes, which can be used to maintain water levels in our stream beds, so that our salmon can be released into Skaha and perhaps Okanagan Lake again instead of dying in the nearly toxic, overly-warm, shallow, and oxygen poor water of Osoyoos Lake. This is a project that shows respect to Sylix, Plateau, and settler cultures on all levels, has the potential to create new industries capable of supporting and nurturing our young people, and building sustainable, resilient wealth that need not be compromised or destroyed by climate change or social or political catastrophe.

A second step would be to work on forest policy, to bring forests to natural levels, and to maintain productive snow pack and spring melt levels that can drive the system to its fullest potential.

A third step would be to return fire, or at the very least elaborate replacements of fire technology, as a tool for crop succession and renewal.

A fourth step would be to develop other methods of landscape enhancement, to support rich natural processes.

A fifth step would be to develop elaborate technologies to support energy and water collection and distribution in ways which contribute to the project of created wealth and innovation here.

The second through fifth steps could happen simultaneously, or in any order, but, I suggest, will not occur without a system of education built on creating knowledge.

It is time to build a future on the best foundations of the past and the present, rather than on the myth of progress. Instead, it’s time to make progress at getting things right at last.

It is time to write, time to plant seeds, and it is time to teach. It is time to pass the past on to the future. I am very grateful to Robert MacDonald at the Okanagan Institute for giving me the opportunity to force myself to clarify my work over the last year and to put it into one vision, in front of such a supportive and enthusiastic group.

As my next step in this project, I will be working hard at an organized and detailed inventory of new agricultural crops and community based farming methods. Then I want to tell this story and to teach other people to tell this story far and wide, in this new (and ancient) form of literature and philosophy that leads to a practical aesthetic model.

We are making a new world here, for our children and our green sweat bees. It matters. It might not lead in a straight line, but it’s flowing. As they say at the Bohemian Cafe