Articles

Burning off the Colonial Fog: A Sinixt-Settler Storytelling Collaboration

by K.L. Kivi and Lori Barkley

 

Burning off the Colonial Fog:
A Sinixt-Settler Storytelling Collaboration

by

K.L. Kivi and Lori Barkley

 

Rattlesnake by Coleman Webb
"Rattlesnake"
© Coleman Webb. Courtesy of the artist. Click to enlarge.

 

The Blood of Life project began at a blockade. Indigenous Sinixt elder Marilyn James and settler supporters were impeding access to logging without consent in unceded Sinixt tum’xula7xw (traditional territory), in the colonially-named Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

Marilyn told stories and offered cultural teachings about Indigenous rights campaigns outside of her tum'xula7xw. She explained that traditionally Sinixt were a matriarchal culture and the second law of the Sinixt “is smum iem which means belongs to the women” (James and Alexis 2018, 8). Like many Indigenous peoples, women traditionally made decisions about resources, land and community care. While men were chiefs, they acted at the behest of the women. As honoured guests, they were well treated and expected to behave well.

Marilyn described how the Canadian government declared the Sinixt extinct in 1956 (according to Canada’s Indian Act), excluding them from exercising their responsibilities and cultural practices in the northern 80% of their tum'xula7xw. The late 1800s mining rush, and its accompanying violence and land usurpation, pushed Sinixt out of their northern territory in Canada, into the southern 20% of their territory in Washington State. Border laws and repeated refusals by colonial authorities to reserve viable land for Sinixt prevented their return to Canada. Thus Sinixt could no longer hunt, gather, conduct ceremonies, or carry out other cultural practices in their tum'xula7xw. Sinixt bureaucratic extinction made self-representation a dire necessity, especially given paternalism, violence, and a colonial land claims process that has allowed other Nations to claim unceded Sinixt territory.[1]

The conversation at the blockade led K.L. Kivi, one the authors of this article, to initiate the collaborative artistic group, The Blood of Life Collective. Marilyn and her daughter Taress Alexis’ storytelling became the foundation for this multi-pronged project aimed at Sinixt resurgence. Under their direction, the project mobilized over thirty settler and non-Sinixt Indigenous artists, writers, and activist allies, including youth mentees. The stories and subsequent discussions were recorded forming the basis for the book/CD set, Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way (James and Alexis 2018), a podcast audio series, Sinixt Stories: Ancestral Roots, Cultural Seeds, a speaking tour, a Teachers’ Guide, a play, and an art installation, as well as other ongoing engagement.

The Blood of Life Collective met frequently for over a year in the Kootenay Co-op Radio studios in Nelson, BC. During recorded storytelling sessions, listeners pondered the stories and questioned Marilyn and Taress about their layered meanings. The majority of stories are captikʷɬ, Sinixt traditional creation stories, many from Coyote Stories (1990) by Sinixt writer/storyteller Humishuma/Mourning Dove. Marilyn and Taress also told contemporary stories, passed down from elders in their community. Collective members then transformed these recordings into the book and audio series. They invited artists throughout the region to illustrate the stories for the book. Seventeen artists participated. They also invited settler writers to provide “Settler Reflections” following each chapter.

 

Owl Woman by Tannis Wood
"Owl Woman"
© Tannis Wood. Courtesy of the artist. Click to enlarge.

 

Settler participants who joined the Collective offered varying but sharp critiques of settler colonialism and a critical feminist decolonial lens. All understood, at least intellectually, the privileges accorded to them as white settler Canadians. These included “settler mobility” (Lowman and Barker 2015, 86), which had enabled them to arrive in the tum'xula7xw as young adults. Two members strongly related to their own ancestors’ colonized history, which provided powerful motivation for their own involvement in the Collective. All were willing to witness historical and contemporary colonial harm, “come face to face with the fear of looking beyond the limits of settler colonialism, and consider what life could look like without it” (Lowman and Barker 2015, 89).

The Collective’s work furthered Sinixt resurgence by embodying “cultural survival, self-determination, healing, restoration, and social justice” (Tuhiwai-Smith 1999, 142). Multiple methods fostered intersectionality, rather than (re)asserting colonial power in project design. The aim was to enact Sinixt sovereignty in their tum'xula7xw and engage a broader audience, within and beyond the tum'xula7xw, through art and storytelling. The first keystone project was, and continues to be, the cultural practice of returning Sinixt stories to their land. As Cree/Metis author Kim Anderson argues:

Indigenous stories are significant because they are anchors of resistance. They are also ways of preserving the language and the power and meaningfulness of the spoken word. Our stories are an unadulterated version of our history and creation. They are critical for Native people who seek a sense of identity founded within Native culture. (Anderson 2000, 131)

For Marilyn, finding community members “open to engaging with Sinixt protocols in order to maintain significant cultural practices” was key. “People are on different levels of understanding and not all people are open to the story content. To engage in the emotionality of seeing Coyote as a man, or Rain as a woman, is not self-evident for many” (Barkley 2019). Collective members bonded over the acceptance of these stories as representing a body of valuable knowledge.

Tuhiwai-Smith argues that, “The story and the story teller both serve to connect the past with the future, one generation with the other, the land with the people, and the people with the story” (1999, 145). In the US, Sinixt stories of the land no longer match their environment. The US portion of the tum'xula7xw and the Colville Reservation are an arid ecosystem of rolling hills but the northern tum'xula7xw is Inland Temperate Rainforest, a unique mountain zone where precipitation falls primarily as snow. Thus, when Sinixt tell creation stories, known as captikʷɬ, on the land that birthed them, it is a profound act of decolonization and resurgence. As Aguirre argues, “Storytelling is not empty repetition but a relational practice – it is where we come alive as peoples. Resurgence is about a reorientation to living from within our own stories once again” (2015, 203). Sinixt women telling their stories in their tum'xula7xw challenge ongoing colonial mistruths of extinction.

 

Map of Sinixt Territory by Amelie Blanchard and K.L. Kivi
"Map of Sinixt Territory"
© Amelie Blanchard and K.L. Kivi. Courtesy of the artists. Click to enlarge.

 

Contemporary stories, focused largely on displacement, contribute to remembering “a painful past and importantly people’s responses to that pain...This form of remembering is painful because it involves not just what colonization was about but what being dehumanized meant for our own [Indigenous] cultural practices” (Tuhiwai-Smith 1999,146). Contemporary stories also “contribute to a collective story in which every Indigenous person has a place” (Tuhiwai-Smith 1999, 144). For settler participants, these were vivid and important stories to witness because they resituated settler presence in the tum'xula7xw within the context of damaging losses.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Nishnaabeg) illustrates how stories link people and land in multi-faceted and repeated ways. The strength of that tie is rooted in oral traditions, providing opportunities for settlers to center “the landscapes, images, languages, themes, metaphors, and stories in the Indigenous [Sinixt] world” where they live (2017, 146). Settler participants in the Collective were invited to interpret and reflect on the stories too. This engagement with decolonizing did not preclude challenges to settler identities, but signalled a willingness to engage despite being unsettled, which is a necessary precondition to decolonization (Barker and Lowman 2015, 90). As youth participant Alison writes:

Throughout my life I have carried a dislocated sense that I am living on top of something, separate from the natural world. In Sinixt cultural narratives, landscape and people are inseparable. Our lack of ability to locate ourselves within a landscape is like squinting through a fogged window. We need to see past our own engrained entitlement that creates separation between the human-made economic systems we participate in to survive and those of the natural world that ultimately determine our survival. Separation removes us from a sense of responsibility and reliance on the land, which allows destructive systems like capitalism to take hold. However, connecting to indigenous storytellers and worldview… offered … a place from which to locate myself on a territory I am not indigenous to, and explore how acting in solidarity is the bridge to cultural revival. (Barkley 2019)

The project fostered spaces to engage with unsettledness through establishing deeper relationships. Participants were encouraged to start on their decolonization journey, and grapple with difficult emotions (e.g., shame, guilt, anger). The Collective’s work echoes Lowman and Barker’s call: “For us, to ally is a verb, not a noun. To ally with indigenous peoples implies constant action – the acts that show one as moving in coordinated support of indigenous resurgence” (Lowman and Barker 2015, 116).

Creating a permanent record of the stories required repeated engagement, including transcribing, editing, writing settler reflections, and seeking consent for the final product. Settler members of the Collective had many conversations about how to do their work respectfully. As members read chapters or played podcast episodes for Marilyn and Taress, another layer of interaction occurred. Reflexivity and reciprocity throughout the process were important to its success. While storytelling is ancient, attention to reciprocity in generating intersubjective understandings between Indigenous Peoples and settlers connects past to present and a future beyond extinction.

 

Why Mosquitoes Bite by kiala löytömäki
"Why Mosquitoes Bite"
© kiala löytömäki. Courtesy of the artist. Click to enlarge.

 

Designing curricular materials for BC educators, who are required to include First Nations (Indigenous) content in all subjects, is another important frontier for the Collective. With few published works on Sinixt in Canada, educators have become hungry for local, Sinixt materials. Lowman and Barker argue: “Decolonization is open ended and multiple, creating more and more different possibilities as it is pursued” (Lowman and Barker 2015, 112). In creating these materials, Blood of Life Collective members learned, personally and as a community, to respond, to take responsibility for learning beyond mere information about past lifeways of Sinixt people and enact Sinixt resurgence rather than focus on the devastation of colonialism.

Gender permeated the project. As knowledge-keepers of a matrilineal/matriarchal culture, Marilyn and Taress carry teachings of female elders such as Eva Orr and Alvina Lum who “have dropped their robes” (i.e. are deceased). Both the form of oral transmission, as well as the Blood of Life projects themselves, speak directly to the “challenge of contemporary indigenous politics (which) is the restoration to indigenous women of... their traditional roles, rights and responsibilities” (Tuhiwai-Smith 1999, 152). The emphasis on androcentric modes of communication with colonialism displaced women’s roles as key transmitters of culture, as well as reduced their importance in colonial forms of decision-making. Working with local Indigenous women is “a traditional way of generating knowledge, one that is oral, collective, and based on ongoing relationships within a community” (Anderson 2000, 46).

A key function of the project is networking and establishing relationships. Besides Collective members, ranging from settler to Indigenous, many writers, artists, educators, curators, audiences, organizations, and others have contributed to, or participated in Blood of Life projects. As Tuhiwai-Smith argues: “Networking by indigenous people is a form of resistance” (1999, 157), for networking re-inserts Indigenous people into forums where their presence is often marginalized or excluded.

Finally, the Blood of Life project is about sharing. The process of story-telling and engaged listening modeled by the Collective ripples into wider community circles. The Collective’s work (book, audio recordings, educational resources, art show) also provides opportunities for other Indigenous people in Canada and internationally to know that Sinixt exist despite being classified as “extinct.” Ultimately, sharing is more than just a project, but a fundamental value of many Indigenous Peoples, particularly Sinixt (Lowman and Barker 2015, 66). “These products, this book, these podcasts, give people an opportunity to engage themselves in a process of creating perspective beyond the colonial fog, beyond the standard colonial knowing,” Marilyn noted. “Who knows what will come out of that?” (Barkley 2019).

 

[1] Sinixt tum’xula7xw in Canada, is west of “the Treaty Line.” The vast majority of BC is unceded. In the 1990s the BC and Canadian governments entered into a contemporary land claims process. Only bands recognized under the Indian Act can participate, excluding Sinixt and enabling other bands to claim their territory.

 

References

Aguirre, Kelly. 2015. “Telling Stories: Idle No More, Indigenous Resurgence and Political Theory.” In More Will Sing Their Way to Freedom: Indigenous Resurgence and Resistance, edited by Elaine Coburn, 184-207. Halifax: Fernwood Publishers.

Anderson, Kim. 2000. A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Sumach Press.

Barkley, Lori. 2019. Interview with Blood of Life Collective, January 12, 2019.

Dove, Mourning. 1990. Coyote Stories. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

James, Marilyn. 2018. “Introduction.” In Marilyn James and Taress Alexis, Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way, 8-11. New Denver: Maa Press.

Lowman, Emma Battell and Adam J. Barker. 2015. Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishers.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. 2017. As We Have Always Done. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tuhiwai-Smith, Linda. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books.


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