Interview of Jeannette Armstrong ― Resistance Radio

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Derrick Jensen: can you tell the listeners a little about yourself? And then can you talk about your most recent work in your appointment as Canada Research Chair?

Jeannette Armstrong: I am Okanagan, Syilx from the southern part of British Columbia, of the Interior Salish tribes. I grew up in my reservation in Penticton., and worked all of my life setting up a cultural recovery program called the En’owkin Center, where ’m currently the executive director. I’ll be transitioning out of that role in the next two months, to takea position as Canada Research Chair. I am a fluent speaker of my language, and a practitioner of not only the current and contemporary practice of Okanagan culture, but have looked at, researched, discussed and tried to implement things I felt were necessary to be carried forward from the Syilx Okanagan culture.

DJ: What is the Canada Research Chair?

JA: I was instrumental in organizing the indigenous studies degree programat University of BC Okenagan, where I currently teachindigenous studies as a faculty memberWe started organizing in 2002, and it was finally fully implemented as a Baccalaureate degree program, and now is moving up into a Masters level program and a Grad program. It was really hard to develop the idea of an indigenous studies program rather than a program of native studies, or native American studies, or First Nations studies from the anthropological view. We wanted to develop an academic program lookeing at the knowledgeindigenous people hold in various areas, and to develop a degree program where instead of people coming to study us as First Nations people, they’re actually studying what being indigenous means, and how it’s connected to the land and knowledge,and why it’s important.

That lead to the idea for the University to solicit a Canada Research Chair position, so we could develop and complement that program with research significant to the idea of being indigenous, and what indigeneity means. My Canada Research Chair is a five year appointment at UBC Okanagan, funded by the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada. It gives me the opportunity to hire research assistants and conduct a research program in the ideas of indigenousness and indigeneity, from my perspective as a Syilx Okanagan indigenous person.

DJ: What does indigeneity mean? What does it mean to be indigenous?

JA: Globalization is foundational to destruction because of the competitive nature of corporations, extraction of resources, mobilization of peoples as a labor force,, and countries segmenting the world to own and commoditize.

In contrast, indigenous peoples, valuinglong term residency and knowledge, work within the conditions appropriate to whichever place they are located. They develop social structures to live sustainably, not only for the environment but for the community itself. To be indigenous to a placeis to have adapted to the conditions present over a long period of time, to have learned not only how to thrive, but how to survive thecatastrophic interventions and changes that threaten lifeforms on the land. I have always been interested in finding ways to mediate,speak about,and shift society’s thinking about how people occupy land. All of my PhD research was centered on environmental ethics, the idea of indigenousness, and the idea of a social paradigm. I explored the Sylix point of view and used the Okanagan culture as an example because it’s the most available to me: I live in it and speak the language. I wanted to research this cultural paradigm and its ethics, which have been practiced and perfected: their principles, how they were encompassed in the social institutions, how they were transmitted, how they were kept in place, and so on. My goal was to identify principles, and to determine whether or not a social paradigm of this sort requires a long term association. Can we develop some principles the contemporary society might be able to implement, to return all of the earth to an indigenous state? This is extremely important research, because any other way of doing things isn’t going to work.

I’ve been looking at the idea of indigeneity, not indigenousness, because indigeneity doesn’t necessarily require ethnicity, and doesn’t necessarily require race or cultural aspects that have been developed by an indigenous group. Indigeneity describes principles of how to be in a specific place, and the kinds of laws or rules or protocols that human beings could practice within those principles. Indigeneity can still apply in a contemporary context, without humans having to go back to the woods of a thousand years ago. (Mind you, that would be nice too.)

DJ: I’ve learned so much from you, not merely when I’ve officially interviewed you, but also in some of our conversations. In one of the conversations, you said “We, in our communities, have squabbles just like everybody else does. One of the big differences is that I know that my great grandchildren might marry my next door neighbor’s grandchildren, so we have to find ways to get along.”

And of course that also applies to the natural world. If you’re planning on living in a place for the next 500 years, your land use decisions are going to be different than if you’re not.

JA: You’ve exactly stated what one of the major underlying principles is in terms of how community is formed; and, the basis of how that community must interact with each other, and therefore conscionably interact with other lifeforms on the land. The idea from the Silyx perspective,of that kind of required interaction, is one that doesn’t allow for disharmony; that doesn’t allow for the kinds of inequalities that currently are so present everywhere in the world,in terms of classism and the kind of economic disparities that are basic to this economy. That’s one of the basic principles of this system,that there has to be those disparities.

Whereas, from an indigenous perspective, that creates a number of different kinds of probabilities which are being played out today. The overconsumption and overuse of resources, and abuse of the lifeforms around us in order to meet the needs of the human population, without any regard to other lifeforms, that needs to be included in that process of decision making. And so, one of the underlying principles is that how the community, as a human community, operates must also take under consideration on an egalitarian level, how we interact with the other lifeforms around us. So, how you interact with those other lifeforms, must ensure from the analysis I did, in the work that was the part where we were talking of environmental ethics, it’s not so much about sustainability for continued production of a specific thing, like, say, logging, for instance, looking at ways in which regeneration of the whole system, under a wholesystem’s process, the idea of complete regeneration has to be underpinned by an idea that every life form has as much right to exist as the human lifeform.

That idea of the human being having dominion, or the human being having more right or more privilege, in terms of the field of ethics, is no different than saying one race having more right and more privilege. So, that is a profound principle to think about. How do you enforce that? How do you create that? How do you act responsibly,if that were the bottom line? How would you create a government? How would you create an economic system? How would you create an education system around that? It sounds really simple, but then you start looking at the complexities of how it would change government institutions and how it would change laws, and how it would change all of those things that would require us to first make sure that every lifeform can regenerate itself. It means the whole of the system, needs to be able to – because everything is interdependent in a biodiversity within an environment, any given environment.

That’s a profound deep and complex principle. It is not a principle that is simply indigenous knowledge. It is a very deeply scientific knowledge that would allow that to happen. And yet when I examined the Okanagan peoples and all the Syilx people in the plateau area, how their communities were organized, it was really an eye opener for me in terms of looking at how government is really upside down. For example, Jerry Mander’s argument for against globalization. That was a really profound idea. But then how do you implement it? What are the principles? What are the possibilities around that? Those are the kinds of questions I was asking, and some of the questions that I’ll be asking in the Canada Research Chair position.

DJ: Can you tell me a little bit more about some of the sustainable forms of governance?

JA: Yeah, I just did a paper, and I’ll be doing another paper on it in New Orleans at the Ethnohistory Conference there. I just did a paper recently, here at Simon Fraser.

( Maybe this one? If not, more are available here:

In the 1950’s, a researcher by the name of Anastazu was looking at the plateau tribes of British Columbia and Washington State. The question he was asking was really an important question that gave me a footing or a grounding in looking outside of the Okanagan tribe and looking at all the other sister tribes that are Syilx. One of the questions that he was asking was: was there a broader culture? Or were these tribes somehow interacting peacefully, because there was no war between them, and there are 25 Syilx separate tribes in Montanta, Idaho, Washington State and British Columbia. Of those 25 tribes, there were other surrounding tribes that weren’t Syilx, and that were also a part of that large, what I call, peaceful concord. I looked at that idea that he proposed, that there might be another culture, a larger overarching culture, rather than a specific tribal cultures. There might be a larger overarching intertribal mechanism. And he didn’t call it a culture. He was talking about it as a mechanism of governance. In other words, a mechanism of agreement in which all 25 would have protocols or laws, intertribal laws and mechanisms that allowed for the peaceful negotiation of joint use, for instance, of resources like salmon, or whatever other large game, and berry fields, and root digging fields and so on. Because there is like the Kettle River fishery on the Columbia was a huge fishery. So when looking at some of the records, I was looking at 15 tribes at a time,gathered there,getting along peacefully under one salmon chief leader, who just happens to be my great grandfather. And, him laying down the law to all those tribes that were there, about how many they could take, and how the catch, every day, was to be distributed equally among all those tribes. And that was happening in a number of the other areas, that they had that kind of regulatory and equalizing regime in place for sharing of that resource. Rather than excluding others, finding ways to develop mechanisms to cooperate and share in the peaceful process. Instead of stockpiling it, and excluding others, and using it in a way to have other tribes have to pay larger premiums or larger prices for them, but finding ways to set up those kinds of mechanisms so that they were equally included. That was the basis of the mechanisms. And, he outlined a number of those mechanisms. So my understanding and my research was to look at how the language and how our traditional knowledge is carried and transmitted,and how they were organized in relation to protocols and mechanisms, or laws, if you want to call it that. And, therefore, what kind of philosophical ideal and ethics and values was at the bottom of all of that that everybody relied on. And realize that there was a strong, strong ethic of non-aggression of collaboration and of sharing and of egalitarianism,strong mechanisms that would maintain that, and sustain those rules through institutional and ceremonial processes between the political leadership, essentially the chiefs, a number of social mechanisms that held that in place throughout Syilx territory.

So if we were to look athow the cells in the body operate, they are interdependent. If you look at how an ecosystem operates, any ecosystem, there is this mechanism of interdependency, which means one part could not exist without the cooperation and the help of the other parts that surround it.

So, if we look at communities in that way, as an interdependency, and we look at what, therefore, it might mean in terms of governance, or a social structure, then it becomes really exciting research. Because, in a lot of ways, the opposite ideas are in place in regards to governance and government. Where governance and government is largely exclusionary, and largely protectionist, in terms of trying to isolate and protect, and I know this sounds really radical, and that’s fine, but that’s what the research is moving toward and uncovering.

I’m really excited about that idea of looking at what I call eco-mimicry, where the human did what our indigenous people did, is to understand how the whole system works and then mimic that in their social institutions, ceremonial, governance and in their education process. All of those parts are parts that I’m proposing on working on during my Canada Research Chair, which is a five year scholarship.

DJ: When you say mimicking, you’re not so much talking about figuring out how geckoes can climb up glass walls, so that you can mimic that to make military robots to climb walls, because I’ve seen mimicry used in that way sometimes. Instead you’re talking about how the world really is, and using that model to help sustain communities.

JA: Yeah, to create abstract models for governance.Governance is simply an idea of the way you do things and the procedures that are in place in order to maintain how those things continue to be done, right?

DJ: Right.

JA: So, that is an abstract idea. When you look at the idea of democracy, and how it operates, or the idea of capitalism that exists in terms of how international countries in their trade agreements operate; those are all abstract mechanisms that regulate how people do things, the decisions they make, and the decisions they can make, and the decisions not to do certain things, and to do other things. The idea of biomimicry has been out there in terms of looking at, for instance, how a system is better served by a spiral than a straight line, if you were to strengthen something. If you look at the biology of different lifeforms, the idea of mimicking that in machinery, for instance, a wind tunnel can create a much higher velocity if it’s run through a spiral rather than a straight line.

That’s an idea of biomimicry. What I was getting at is more like looking at the ecology of a system, how a system works. Systems, to me, are ways that all lifeforms interact with one anotherThe riparian system, for instance, in looking at water within a system, and how that water flows through that system provides a number of different kinds of opportunities for all the lifeforms that exist in that system, regardless of whether they’re situated next to the water or in the water, there’s a utility that flows through it, in different ways throughout the lifeforms, or else there wouldn’t be lifeforms.

The idea of looking at how a system operates in that kind of adaptive interdependency. For instance, if you could say in that system of lifeforms, how lifeforms feed off of each other, and provide food for each other and access food for each other, all the way up the food chain, or what’s called the food chain. Can you say that in any part of that system, anyone of those parts of that system is more important or less important due to size? Or because of numbers, demographics, or because of location? It doesn’t break down into that.

DJ: Which is a problem I’ve always had with the word you had a problem with, food chain.

JA: And, that’s the issue. It’s not a chain, it’s a whole system. And, the relationship between things are much more important than the things themselves. How a tree relates to the undergrowth and all the insects and all the small mammals that live in the undergrowth is that idea of that whole system. So, that relationship has to be made visible in some way. In a whole system process, the knowledge of what those interactions are, what those relationships are, what they mean to each other is what I started discovering in the analysis that I was doing on what is sometimes called our legends, or our folklore. We call our Chaptics, which means our knowledge to carry our light into the future.

My position was, if the characters in those stories represented relationships in the known ecology, because every indigenous person would have complete knowledge of that system that they lived in. They would have to because they have to survive in that system. And, if they depleted something or overused something, they would not survive. That idea of knowledge of those interrelationships is part of what I looked at in my dissertation. I was profoundly surprised that that was indeed what those stories are about. They are not folklore, they are not legends, they are not, as some of the academics have stated in the past, ways to try to make sense of wilderness or the mysteriousness out there. They were actually diagrams of knowledge of those interactions. So, part of the proof in my dissertation was to say, this is what those stories are about. We need to be able to look and to see those connections. We have to, in our minds, to take them out of the abstract and understand what those mean.

The idea of indigeneity is to create that kind of process, and to mimic, this is where the idea of eco-mimicry comes in, and to be able to mimic what nature does in those interactions in order to stabilize how we have to participate in that interaction of what constitutes the place we live. So, we become a healthy part of that interaction rather than isolated from it, or aggressive toward it.

That idea of indigeneity for me is one of the basic principles that is missing, in terms of the knowledge systems in this world. I think that it is such an exciting way to look at knowledge and an exciting way to tie in what we as human beings have to learn about how to get along with every other living thing. So we are not placed in this position where every second person is going to be affected by an environmental disease of some kind. And, maybe more than that in the future. Maybe every one of us. The human being, in terms of their very health, we’re probably not going to survive in this way for another few thousand years. And, that’s the reality. And, maybe sooner than that if all the predictions are right about global warming and what it’s going to do, and how critical, when it reaches the tipping point, the kinds of crises that human societies will be in, and other lifeforms, of course in this world.

I think, for myself, search for finding more appropriate ways to rethink how human beings might govern themselves is the only way to go. Because, it is in that process that something is really wrong, something is really broken.

DJ: We have about ten minutes left, a little bit under. I want to say one thing and then ask you two questions.

JA: Sure.

DJ: And, the thing I want to say is that, even know we’ve known each other,- We first met for what? Decades ago, it was like 1992, 1993.

JA: Exactly.

DJ: Even though it’s been so long, I have grown so much. It’s still absolutely extraordinary to me that – One of the things I love about talking with you is – the word that keeps coming to mind is subtlety. You are saying these things and even though we’ve known each other for so long, there is a line you threw out today that just hit me really hard. Which was the line about how it’s not so much a tree as it is the tree’s relationships. And, that made me think about the western classification system of dividing this is a Port Orford Cedar, this is a Western Red Cedar, this is something, something. The western way of classification is generally to talk about what distinguishes one thing from another, as opposed to – Like when we talk about a river, we say, a river is here, and then this over here is not the river. And so how you define the river is by defining its edges, as opposed to talking about the river, or talking about the tree, in terms of its relationships to others, as opposed to specifically the shape of a leaf. That’s an entirely different way to look at the world.

Okay, I’m going to say that, but then I want to go in a different direction, because there is one thing I really want to hit on before we have to end this conversation.

Which is two questions. The first one is: You talked about being the director of the En’owkin Center, and can you talk about En’owkin, as, what that means, and what it is and also we’ve talked about that for years, obviously, about it being a conflict resolution method among other things, but then one of the questions that, one of the points that you made that is very very important, which I’m going to try to tie in to this whole thing together is you said that that process, the En’owkin process can only really work with two people who are participating fairly, and it doesn’t work with someone who wants to steal what you’ve got. Which leads to the question of –

So, first, what is En’owkin and the second is yes, what do we do about the fact that there are sociopaths who are trying to steal everything.

JA: Well, first of all, I’ll talk a little bit about En’owkin process. The idea of the word En’owkin comes from governance and dialogue process. That is called En’owkin way. Meaning that we do En’owkin with each other before any kind of decision is made. The idea that En’owkin is really quite a complex – I teach a course on En’owkin in the indigenous studies program at UBC. I teach a grad course and I teach an undergrad course in it. We also use it and utilize it in all of our communities in the decision making that relates to the land or that relates to other peoples like the cities that surround us, in terms of decision making that have to be made by our chiefs and our leaders.

So we are really implementing that process and we are finding that it really is a much better process than what is called the democratic process, in which for instance majority rules. Meaning that majority will always have tyranny over the minority. The tyranny of numbers. And, the minority, if they are a minority, will always be the minority, and not have necessarily their requirements met or even be understood, even.

Whereas the En’owkin process that is part of the Syilx Okanagan people’s traditional process is to find a way in which we can exclude all the disparate sectors within a community, or the polarized sectors within the community. And, put them through a process in which they are required to hear and understand their most opposite view. In this process you’d be required to fully hear and to fully understand your opposition’s reasons and views and perspectives, and they’re required to understand everything that you have put forward as your reasons, and your perspective.

We create a dynamic polarity that is represented in one of our four chief stories, that that story actually represents that model. It’s one of the stories I analyzed in the dissertation. One of the things that happens in the process asks you to listen, to understand, to ask questions for clarifications, but it doesn’t ask you to make any decisions right away. So, that’s the first part of the process. And the second step in the process is to find ways in which if, for instance, if we put a problem between four opposing sides. And, we said present everything from your perspective that you know about that problem and the reasons why you take the positions that you take. That’s all that they would do in the first round.

Then the second round would attempt to do is to find a way from their position to include the others positions. In other words, I would be given the responsibility, not only to understand and hear completely why the other side thinks the way they that it does, and why it’s taken the position that it does. But it also given, in the second round, responsibility to develop and include their position with mine, and they would have to do the same thing for this side. They would be engaged in trying to come closer and closer to what you all call a consensus, building process.

And in the third round (there are four rounds) they would develop a vision each four parts of the society would develop a vision as to what it should look like from each of their perspectives, given the things that they could implement and in collaboration with each other. It’s an inclusive process, rather than an exclusive, you know, trying to vote somebody out, and somebody loses and somebody wins. But to try to create a win- win situation.

Once that third round is done and the only round that is remaining is what do we need to do to get to that vision. So, that is the fourth and final round, once that vision has been imagined, and in real terms, in terms of how they could consensus wise, collaborate. Then the final part is not a question of Oh, we’re going to vote you out, or we’re going to exclude you, or we can’t do what you’re asking, the real question is how can we do this? Because if we do it that way, then everyone can participate, and everyone can be satisfied, and we can have harmony. And, we will have peace. We won’t have an argument. So, that process is an extremely intelligent process and extremely peaceful process, and an extremely collaborate process, and it works, it works every time.

That is one of the primary requirements from our perspective in terms of how we must conduct ourselves as civilized beings, in terms of understanding and using our knowledge and our creativity and using every skill that we have in place to make things work in that way. So that there isn’t anybody that is excluded, or left out or discriminated against. It creates a vast difference in terms of, not only the harmony, but the solidarity, toward taking an action on anything. Solidarity is huge and immense, and it creates community at a much deeper level than anything else. It doesn’t divide the community.

In terms of looking at the last question, in terms of how we should, what should we do? My belief is that we should always learn that process, and that process could be an advantage to the world, in terms of how that process works.

What we have said, though, is that the four partners, or the two opposite sides, must willingly agree to sit down and use the process. In other words, engage in the process. They can’t come into the process saying, well, I’ll let you do all the talking, but you got to do it my way, you got to think about it my way. So, you can’t come in there with an agenda. That undermines the ability of the process to create a collaborative works that really are consensus made.

DJ: Thank you so much. And, I would love to do this again. And, I think that is all we have time for. This has been Jeannette Armstrong with Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio and the Progressive Radio Network.

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