I Stand With You Against the Disorder

An indigenous woman invites us to learn how America’s rootless culture looks to a people who are “dream and land together”
Jeannette Armstrong
photo by Grey Young-Ing

I am from the Okanagan, a part of British Columbia that is very dry and hot. Around my birthplace are two rocky mountain ranges: the Cascades on one side and the Selkirks on the other. The main river that flows through our lands is the Columbia.

My mother is a river Indian. The Kettle River people are in charge of the fisheries in the northern parts of the Columbia River system in our territories.

My father's people are mountain people. They occupied the northern part of British Columbia, known as the Okanagan Valley. My father's people were hunters. My name is passed on from my father's side of the family and is my great-grandmother's name.

I am associated with my father's side, but I have a right and a responsibility to the river through my mother's birth and my family education.

So that is who I am.

When I introduce myself to my own people in my own language, I describe these things because it tells them what my responsibilities are and what my goal is, what I need to carry with me, what I project, what I teach and what I think about, what I must do and what I can't do.

The way we talk about ourselves as Okanagan people is difficult to replicate in English. When we say the Okanagan word for ourselves, we are actually saying “the ones who are dream and land together.” That is our original identity. Before anything else, we are the living, dreaming Earth pieces. Dream is the closest word that approximates the Okanagan. But our word doesn't precisely mean dream. It actually means “the unseen part of our existence as human beings.” It may be the mind or the spirit or the intellect. We are mind as well as matter. We are dream, memory, and imagination.

Another part of the word means that if you take a number of strands of hair, or twine, place them together, and then rub your hands and bind them together, they become one strand. You use this thought symbolically when you make twine, thread, and coiled baskets. This part of the word refers to us being tied into and part of everything else. It refers to the dream parts of ourselves forming our community.

I explain this to try to bring our whole society closer to that kind of understanding, because without that deep connection to the environment, to the Earth, to what we actually are, to what humanity is, we lose our place, and confusion and chaos enter.

When we Okanagans speak of ourselves as individuals, we speak of four main capacities that operate together: the physical self, the emotional self, the thinking-intellectual self, and the spiritual self. The four selves join us to the rest of creation.

Okanagans teach that the body is Earth itself. Our flesh, blood, and bones are Earth-body; in all cycles in which Earth moves, so does our body. We are everything that surrounds us, including the vast forces we only glimpse. If we cannot continue as an individual life form, we dissipate back into the larger self.

As Okanagans we say the body is sacred. It is the core of our being, which permits the rest of the self to be. It is the great gift of our existence. Our word for body literally means “the land-dreaming capacity.”

The emotional self is that which connects to other parts of our larger selves around us. We use a word that translates as heart. It is a capacity to form bonds with particular aspects of our surroundings. We say that we as people stay connected to each other, our land, and all things by our hearts.

The thinking-intellectual self has another name in Okanagan. Our word for thinking/logic and storage of information (memory) is difficult to translate into English. The words that come closest in my interpretation mean “the spark that ignites.” We use the term that translates as “directed by the ignited spark” to refer to analytical thought. In the Okanagan language, this means the other capacities we engage in when we take action are directed by the spark of memory once it is ignited.

We know that in our traditional Okanagan methods of education, we must be disciplined to work in concert with the other selves to engage ourselves beyond our automatic-response capacity. We know too that unless we always join this thinking capacity to the heart-self, its power can be a destructive force both to ourselves and to the larger selves that surround us. A fire that is not controlled can destroy.

The Okanagan teach that each person is born into a family and a community. No person is born isolated from those two things. As an Okanagan you are automatically a part of the community. You belong. All within family and community are affected by the actions of any one individual. The capacity to bond is critical to individual wellness. Without it the person is said to be “crippled/incapacitated” and “lifeless.” Not to have community or family is to be scattered or falling apart.

The Okanagan refer to relationship to others by a word that means “our one skin.” This means that we share more than a place; we share a physical tie that is uniquely human. It also means that the bond of community and family includes the history of the many who came before us and the many ahead of us who share our flesh. We are tied together by those who brought us here and gave us blood and gave us place. Our most serious teaching is that community comes first in our choices, then family, and then ourselves as individuals, because without community and family we are truly not human.

Language of the land

The Okanagan word for “our place on the land” and “our language” is the same. We think of our language as the language of the land. The way we survived is to speak the language that the land offered us as its teachings. To know all the plants, animals, seasons, and geography is to construct language for them.

We also refer to the land and our bodies with the same root syllable. The soil, the water, the air, and all the other life forms contributed parts to be our flesh. We are our land/place. Not to know and to celebrate this is to be without language and without land. It is to be displaced.

As Okanagan, our most essential responsibility is to bond our whole individual and communal selves to the land. Many of our ceremonies have been constructed for this. We join with the larger self and with the land, and rejoice in all that we are.

The discord that we see around us, to my view from inside my Okanagan community, is at a level that is not endurable. A suicidal coldness is seeping into and permeating all levels of interaction. I am not implying that we no longer suffer for each other but rather that such suffering is felt deeply and continuously and cannot be withstood, so feeling must be shut off.

I think of the Okanagan word used by my father to describe this condition, and I understand it bet-ter. An interpretation in English might be “people without hearts.”

Okanagans say that “heart” is where community and land come into our beings and become part of us because they are as essential to our survival as our own skin.

When the phrase “people without hearts” is used, it refers to collective disharmony and alienation from land. It refers to those who are blind to self-destruction, whose emotion is narrowly focused on their individual sense of well-being without regard to the well-being of others in the collective.

The results of this dispassion are now being displayed as nation-states continuously reconfigure economic boundaries into a world economic disorder to cater to big business. This is causing a tidal flow of refugees from environmental and social disasters, compounded by disease and famine as people are displaced in the expanding worldwide chaos. War itself becomes continuous as dispossession, privatization of lands, and exploitation of resources and a cheap labor force become the mission of “peace-keeping.” The goal of finding new markets is the justification for the westernization of “undeveloped” cultures.

Indigenous people, not long removed from our cooperative self-sustaining lifestyles on our lands, do not survive well in this atmosphere of aggression and dispassion. I know that we experience it as a destructive force, because I personally experience it so. Without being whole in our community, on our land, with the protection it has as a reservation, I could not survive.

The way of creating compassion for ...

The customs of extended families in community are carried out through communing rather than communicating. Communing signifies sharing and bonding. Communicating signifies the transfer and exchange of information. The Okanagan word close in meaning to communing is “the way of creating compassion for.” We use it to mean the physical acts we perform to create the internal capacity to bond.

In a healthy whole community, the people inter-act with each other in shared emotional response. They move together emotionally to respond to crisis or celebration. They “commune” in the everyday act of living. Being a part of such a communing is to be fully alive. To be without community in this way is to be alive only in the flesh, to be alone, to be lost to being human. It is then possible to violate and destroy others and their property without remorse.

With these things in mind, I see how a market economy subverts community to where whole cities are made up of total strangers on the move from one job to another. This is unimaginable to us.

I do see that having to move continuously just to live is painful and that close emotional ties are best avoided in such an economy. I do not see how one remains human, for community to me is feeling the warm security of familiar people like a blanket wrapped around you, keeping out the frost. The word we use to mean community loosely translates to “having one covering,” as in a blanket.

I see how family is subverted by the scattering of members over the face of the globe. I cannot imagine how this could be family, and I ask what replaces it if the generations do not anchor to each other. I see that my being is present in this generation and in our future ones, just as the generations of the past speak to me through stories. I know that community is made up of extended families moving together over the landscape of time, through generations converging and dividing like a cell while remaining essentially the same as community. I see that in sustainable societies, extended family and community are inseparable.

The Okanagan word we have for extended family is translated as “sharing one skin.” The concept refers to blood ties within community and the instinct to protect our individual selves extended to all who share the same skin. I know how powerful the solidarity is of peoples bound together by land, blood, and love. This is the largest threat to those interests wanting to secure control of lands and resources that have been passed on in a healthy condition from generation to generation of families.

Land bonding is not possible in the kind of economy surrounding us, because land must be seen as real estate to be “used” and parted with if necessary. I see the separation is accelerated by the concept that “wilderness” needs to be tamed by “development” and that this is used to justify displacement of peoples and unwanted species.

I know what it feels like to be an endangered species on my land, to see the land dying with us. It is my body that is being torn, deforested, and poisoned by “development.” Every fish, plant, insect, bird, and animal that disappears is part of me dying. I know all their names, and I touch them with my spirit. I feel it every day, as my grandmother and my father did.

I am pessimistic about changes happening, but I have learned that crisis can help build community so that it can face the crisis itself.

I do know that people must come to community on the land. The transiency of peoples crisscrossing the land must halt, and people must commune together on the land to protect it and all our future generations. Self-sustaining indigenous peoples still on the land are already doing this. They present an opportunity to relearn and reinstitute the rights we all have as humans.

Indigenous rights must be protected, for we are the protectors of Earth. I know that being Okanagan helps me have the capacity to bond with everything and every person I encounter. I try always to personalize everything. I try not to be “objective” about anything. I fear those who are unemotional, and I solicit emotional response whenever I can. I do not stand silently by. I stand with you against the disorder.

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