by Jeanette Armstrong
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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.
Jeanette Armstrong (Okanagan) is an author and director of the En‘owkin Centre, Okanagan Indian Educational Resources Society. This article was adapted from Paradigm Wars: Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization, edited by Jerry Mander and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and published by the International Forum on Globalization, www.ifg.org.