Reciprocities: Kindness and the Land

Jeannette Armstrong, Photo by Alison McNamar

The following interview took place at the En’owkin Centre on the lands of the Penticton Indian reserve in the spring of 2008. Jeannette C. Armstrong, an Indigenous Okanagan or s’yilx, is the Director of that Centre, which offers post-secondary educational programs in creative writing, fine arts, and Okanagan Indigenous history and culture. She is an internationally known activist for Indigenous rights, and she is also the author of two novels, Slash (1986) and Whispering In Shadows (2000), as well as a book of poetry, Breath Tracks (1991). Armstrong has long worked in the Okanagan region, and with others in Canada and the U.S. concerned about the environment, to share her Indigenous perspectives on land, community and sustainability. Under the guidance of Armstrong and others, the En’owkin Centre is also becoming an ecological centre, and this interview explores the perspectives Armstrong brings to that work.

Lally Grauer: You have spoken elsewhere of the Okanagan landscape as “kind.” Can you elaborate what you mean by that?

Jeannette C. Armstrong: The kindness of the land can be thought of in many ways. This land took care of, fed and sheltered our people for ten thousand years or more, as we measure time. I have been told that’s how old the place, spinktn, is, where you’re sitting. The information comes from artifacts that have been found. This is the oldest village site in the Okanagan, right here. If you look at the climate here it’s really mild in the winter, compared to most of the rest of Canada. That’s why there is an influx of retired people from places like Winnipeg and Edmonton, where it’s snowing today. So our people found the climate to be generous: a long growing season and a short winter, and the winters are quite survivable.

Also, when I use the word “kind” I always think about the variety of foods that we harvest—that we still harvest!—and the varieties in the Okanagan are amazing. Maybe I’m biased, but we seem to have many more varieties than in the Shushwap territory north of us. Other areas on the coast may have more kinds of fish, but we have more kinds of birds, mammals and plants, root crops especially, that we harvest. The land itself may seem to be sometimes fragile or sometimes harsh, but actually, almost anywhere you go on the land, there’s food to be had.

Our people did use all of the territory. There weren’t any specific habitats that were more plentiful than others. You can go right from very dry, pocket desert conditions to wet riparian land. You can also go from bottom lands up to the high country, the alpine levels. All the way up, there is the generosity of different types of foods in different seasons of the year. You can get it in the winter seasons from our rivers, and our lakes and creeks. And of course, there were the rabbits and the grouse, and all the different kinds of birds that were available for meat, let alone the larger mammals. So there was always lots of protein, as well as the berries and starches.

For instance, the saskatoon berry—I think the English word for it is “service berry,” in other words it’s serviceable—was our main food crop, making available vitamin C and other vitamins. There are seven varieties of saskatoon that we can select from that grow in different habitat types, all the way up to the high country.

Lally Grauer: Do they grow at different seasons?

Jeannette C. Armstrong: Yes, at slightly different seasons, different humidity levels. Of course, there are lots of other kinds of berries as well: elderberries, Oregon grapes, choke cherries and hawthorn berries, and at the higher levels raspberries, blackberries, black caps, huckleberries, blueberries—a wide variety of berry crops around us.

Lally Grauer: When you think of the land and its abundance—do you think of stories that talk about that?

Jeannette C. Armstrong: We have the Okanagan teaching story about the four food chiefs, who gave their lives so that we, as human beings, as Okanagans, as s’yilx people, would be able to exist. In the story, all they ask for is a reciprocal kindness to them. Reciprocity, in that teaching, requires kindness to go both ways. If we’re kind to the landscape, kind to the birds and berries, the roots and animals and fish—in other words, if we are mindful of their right to exist and their requirements, and we protect and care for them, then we can expect kindness in reciprocal bounty. And, of course, there was that.

Lally Grauer: Who are the four food chiefs?

Jeannette C. Armstrong: Well, they represent the four food types, I guess you could say. All of the root crops—a hundred varieties of them—were represented by the bitterroot, Chief Bitterroot, which is thought about, in gender terms, as the domain of the female. And the berries, the ones I mentioned and more, were represented by Chief Saskatoonberry, again, in the domain of the female. These are two women chiefs that sustain us.

All fish, and anything that comes out of the water—anything we can think of that feeds us from the water—had their own chief. The amphibians, reptiles, fish species and crustaceans. For instance, the freshwater crayfish and freshwater mussels were used for food, as well as turtles and turtle eggs. We did not eat any of the other reptiles, but we did eat turtles. This group was represented by the third chief, Chief Ntityx, the Chinook salmon or Spring salmon. The salmon that came up the Columbia and the Okanagan rivers was the largest of the ocean-going salmon in BC that had its home here in the central Okanagan.

That’s amazing to us, that we were given the right to have salmon, salmon that came out of the ocean all the way to us, and fed us, and went back to the ocean. So that kindness is a mystery that is understood and appreciated all the way down the river. That’s why the salmon chief is chief of everything in the water. The water is part of the salmon. You can’t think of the salmon without the water. The water is a part of the being of all the fish that live in it. So the respect for water and the caretaking of water and its cleanliness, and reverence toward it, is really an important thing.

Lake publishes fiction, poetry, critical essays, interviews, reviews and visual arts related to the environment.
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