Indigenous Economics: A Syilx Perspective
Great Hall of the Cooper Union, New York City
October 26, 2014
Ms. Armstrong is at the same time, a traditional wisdom keeper for the Okanagan People, especially the Penticton Band where she lives and teaches the wisdom of Indigenous economics centering upon restoration and conservation. She is one of the last native speakers of her language and has created a center to re-teach her people in the Okanagan, the language that has been with them for generation after generation.
Film recording and complete transcript with slides is freely available. Summary excerpts follow:
My name. There I am with my daughter. My daughter’s name is Her Power Is Water, sumaxatkʷ. My name is The Sound And Sparkle Of A Small Brook Rushing Along, laxx̌laxx̌tkʷ. Behind and surrounding us, embracing us, is our Grandmother. Our Grandmother who gifts us with the beautiful berries and the precious cedar baskets that take a year to make.
I have been a resister and an activist, as that is also needed in order to defend. But today I share my indigenous work here from my home. This place is the multiversity of my people which gave me my true Ph.D. My other Ph.D. is from university in environmental ethics. The Ph.D. is a way to look at, and share something, of my Grandmother’s wisdom through that lens.
When I think of my grandmother I know that the soil and the plants and the animals and the birds are my ancestors. They have fed on our bones, on our lives. They have fed each other and us and we have sustained the reciprocity that is a gift to every living thing on that land. That is indigenous economics.
My Grandmother is wise in her wisdom, in her knowledge in the ways that that place needs to be.
The point to me seems obvious, that the root of today’s problem is how humans chose to live insulated from nature’s mediation of their behavior within a system of reciprocities in which everything that takes must also give.
I can also see that it has something to do with a belief, a belief in ever increasing the insulation from nature’s economic requirements of us as humans in the way we are.
It has been at great cost. A cost we cannot afford. We are now in deep, deep, deep debt. It has been but a few thousand years, this idea of civilization.
This civilization grounded in the belief that the Grandmother is wild and needs taming and that Indigenous Peoples are wild and need taming.
First they tamed Grandmother to make things. Taking things, easy to take without giving back. Taming the land. Agriculture was a way first to increase human advantage to sustenance. However, it also increased populations that now needed more and more and so more land was taken from other living things.
Agriculture needed easier tools in order to produce more and more. Then it created a need of tools for war in order to keep the tamed lands and tools to take more land from more peoples. Then it was necessary to make more war tools so taking was easier.
It was necessary to make more tools and to teach people to run the new tools to feed their families. It was necessary to make them believe that they could be wealthy and thus happy. It creates junk-ease.
Tools were made to reach into every house with that in mind. To keep people believing in making more tools to make life easy, and to rush to use new tools and thus to believe they need such tools. And so it is necessary to tame more and more—necessary to make junk easier and easier and they might be happier.
There is a deep belief that economic prosperity is based on this. There is a deep belief on this form of social dependency. We confirm this every day in the way we do things. The influence of the social mechanism structured to normalize that which we accept every day as our reality.
This is my brother, Richard. He didn’t go to university. He went to Grandmother’s University. This is my brother training ecologists and environmentalists and biologists in our lands economics. In doing restoration and conservation, they need to know the land’s requirements of us all. And that many of its beings on those lands have included us humans in their reciprocity and need humans to take their gifts. And that the grasses and the great herds have included us and other animals in their reciprocity. Learning that way so we stay a part of that reciprocity.
My brother here is providing some ideas. It is a framework of economic principles. That is my extended family’s children. That is my nephew and myself working with children.
And so one of the things that I have come to understand is that in maintaining those economic principles, is that we have to pass them on. Indigenous economics is a lived experience. We are socialized into that lived experience. It’s not something we can learn about from a book or something we can learn about from a far distance from what we need in our lives.
We are needed in that place by those things that live there in that place.
So one of the things that I see is that at the level of individual, personal knowledge, some of those things are lost.
This is one of the boys in our puberty training. He is learning how the deer gives to us. He must do a gratitude ceremony to release the deer’s spirit to rejuvenate itself. That way he never allows himself to kill the deer’s ability to fully regenerate its kind. So it will always be there to give us its gift of its life as food. He is recognizing through our human spirit the spirit of the lives that embrace us.
The idea of indigenous knowledge, is to understand it as economic interaction. It is to have deep knowledge about the limits and the requirements of all the different living things in the place you use. It is understanding that we as humans can partake in that place like every other living thing, but we have to know those limits. Indigenous economics is about knowledge, in how we view nature.
These are children in my extended family. They are learning to love the taste of Grandmother’s gifts and the pleasure of harvesting it together, and to hear the songs of its celebration. Also to give thanks and to love to work slowly and hard picking reverently each berry.
One of the things about the work that we do is in terms of bringing back our language. It is about re-languaging what we mean about work. That it is not work. That it is a joyful experience to be a part of that, to taste that, to love that and to be embraced by it. To re-language that our giving back is not work. That our giving back is being who we should be as humans.
These are children of the En’owkin Centre, our Syilx (the name of our people) learning center. They are learning appropriate ways to take but not to kill the relatives of the land. Those relatives have a right in their long, long lifeform residing there.
Whether they are trees for baskets or deer for food, to kill means taking until they cannot regenerate and they disappear. The laws of this is that it is nature’s requirements of us, to know those limits. To know its reciprocity as a human love for these relatives. This is a human responsibility in terms of our reciprocity.
We know that doing things in a way in which that reciprocity is not possible, causes the extinction of any one of those relatives and that is what killing is about.
These are the local people of both indigenous and non-indigenous heritage at En’owkin’s riparian forest restoration place. We rescued it from becoming a golf course.
We turn to the community of the local cities and the local reservations. We turn them into a force to protect it, to increase its reciprocity. We bring people to love it. The school’s children in all the surrounding towns come. Adults learning ecological restoration and those who just need to rest and heal come to learn about it. To learn about the ecological knowledge from our point of view, from the Syilx point of view, as a collaborative force and a collaborative voice in re-indiginizing the place.
These are En’owkin’s adults going into this park to greet our relatives. The park has been closed because of perceived dangers and was secured to exclude us from harvesting the spawning kokanee, a land-locked salmon. We have resisted that. The millions of teeming salmon in those deep creeks kept us alive for many years.
However, we can’t eat them now. The Okanagan Lake is being poisoned with effluent and agricultural and orchard pesticides and so we stopped eating them. But we do not stop going there to greet them, to give them offerings and to sing to them and to make a feast of giving to those who come to join in. We love them and they loved us. For too many years they loved us, for us to forget them.
One of the things I like about restoration, locally, is that it brings people back to local place. Local people back to local place. The spirit of the place wakes up inside of those local people and they are changed by it. It restores them to become indigenous to that place.
This is part of the Meadowlark Festival. A festival in which all the district’s environment projects are showcased and celebrated here on our restoration place called the Locatee Lands. Drumming together, singing together, feasting together, learning together, replanting and restoring together—it is the spirituality of that local culture that we are restoring and rebuilding.
This is a local teach-in at that same place with ecologists, biologists, and traditional indigenous keepers. En’owkin institutes a traditional knowledge component into Okanagan land conservation and restoration outside of the walls of the university. It has transformed the way they do things and the way they learn things in that place with us.
We need much more of this kind of restoration which restores local people to local places. It is people who need restoring to be able to do the things that are necessary to bring nature back on a global scale. One of the things I like about this slide is that that man is a bird watcher.
The idea of reconciling with what is indigenous in local nature is people living within its reciprocity. It can be something as obvious today as changing our food tastes. Something as easy as that.
The taste for exported and agricultured foods should be decreased. And the taste for local harvest indigenous foods increased. Learning how to responsibly and ethically empower indigenous reciprocity is to use those foods in local places by local people, while respecting the requirements of indigenous foods and learning to love them.
Those are my two Ph.D. supervisors, one is in environmental ethics the other in literature. It is a way of sharing Syilx ethics through that academic lens.
And this is a ceremonial feast. A gathering, a releasing of baby Sockeye which has been collected by hand from the Okanagan River and hatched to restore them where they had almost gone extinct. The whole community, indigenous and non-indigenous come together. To raise them, to sing, to pray, and to feast their release and their gifts to us.
It is one of the most beautiful ceremonies that our people did. This was the first Salmon release ceremony about 17 years ago. Since then, it’s just grown so huge that many, many people can’t fit into that small area.
This is Penticton, my home. En’owkin Centre is just behind there and the Locatee Lands that I was showing you is just behind, in that cottonwood riparian forest. Riparian forests now have only four percent left in the entire Okanagan.
This is the first run of returned Sockeye into the Okanagan. The gifts of Sockeye allow us its gifts, along its rivers and on its way to the ocean. Restoration is our way of giving back as Syilx people, as Syilx people enjoying each other. Living in the right way with these salmon, with these rivers and with these forests and other beings that surround us and embrace us.
These two long term collaboration projects that I mention here are still going on and more and more small environmentalist groups and conservation groups are working in collaboration with the Okanagan Nation Alliance to do that.
These are some of the gifts of the Sockeye to us.
These are my relatives, my grand daughter and my nieces and they’re preparing the salmon. The happiness that it brings is in the faces of my niece and my granddaughter. The taking care of the salmon in the right way is spirituality.
Belonging. The longing to be part of the way things are as a whole is a longing for the joy of breaking free from the destructive spirit of killing behaviors.
Belonging to nature’s reciprocity, here in this beautiful land and its diverse places. The longing to be a part of nature must end, and belonging must happen. It must happen in a good way.
So I will leave you now, with the contemplation of re-indigenization in this last slide as I walk back to my seat. Contemplation on how it transforms people to the land’s spirit.
I pray for many, many ways to do this. And this is the song that Turtle gave us, that gave me this medicine which I sing walking back to my seat.
The Turtle came up from the deep dark and grasped onto the land’s edge. I pray for that for everyone here. I give my medicine to you.