Implement Impossible: Industry and Cultural Genocide

In my personal blog entry They Connect: Discussions in protocol through artistic presentation I started a personal report of my experience in Arica and surrounding Aymara villages. I said

We discussed our role and responsibility on the land. We spoke specifically about Cultural Genocide through Industry and appropriation as a very real threat to our UN sanctioned right to be distinct people with distinct intact cultures. One must tread lightly when engaging with the culture of another and it is the land and water that gives us capacity to retain the knowledge of how to create all the implements necessary to embody our cultures. It was my honour to learn their stories and share in the discussions in protocol and creative developments for media and other industries.”

In Arica, I introduced myself first to the ocean to greet the ancestors so they would know where to find me, a first step upon visiting a new land and water source. I visited many village sites including the old Ticnamar Aymara church village site. It was deserted because they built a hydroelectric dam up river and caused the water to rage, raising to flood the valley destroying corrals and cobble streets. I learned important stories about the land and people on this trip. Stories of a way of being and knowing interrupted. I introduced myself this way to follow a protocol taught from my elders – Greet the water.

One of the stories I shared with the Aymara people was about my grandmother Mary Abel being a birch bark basket maker and hide tanner. These are two things I have experience making, but do not instinctively know all the steps to making artistic and authentic from gathering to pitch sealing. I haven’t gathered birch in years, though I know the general steps if I needed some in a pinch. They are duties and responsibilities I should know instinctively because of the time I would have had to put into doing specific activities like engaging in tanned hide projects and making clothes or moccasins for a week straight at winter dance time to stay connected while separated during my moon. Or mending and repairing mats, baskets, clothing and designing adornments during my moon time in the long hot summers as would have happened in my tule mat isolation tipi. Improving my skills from instinct basic need to respected artistic quality requires I have time to do many things, including making baskets. Can’t make half a basket and let it dry that way. I also need help. These things rarely happened alone. Harvest time comes at a very specific time of year. Usually this falls around exam time and high pressure for sales time in the colonial economic environment. Economy/Harvest/Gathering “time” has many names depending on what you are trying to make or do.  In an Indigenous language “time” may sound vague but it could be as simple as “the time when the buds appear”. It indicates a specific activity with a specific material that occurs at a specific time. The Interior Salishan group of peoples made implements of all sizes from the trees and natural fibres they had available to them.

Among the Interior Salishan Plateau people, bark baskets, canoes and other implements are a family tradition passed down through family transfer of knowledge and communal mentoring systems. My Interior Salish Plateau genealogy spans the Okanagan Trail from Spences Bridge to below the Kettle Falls to the Columbia River, near Arrow Lakes. Gathering places of the people. In the south eastern part of the Northern Interior Salish Plateau live a Sinixt speaking peoples, who are a neighbour relative to the Syilx people and territory. We share common practices and a base language group. In their dialect the Western White Pine is known specifically as tl’i7alekw “bark canoe tree”( Sinixt Historical site ) as I am just now doing more critical in depth research into the names in my own n’syilxcen language on this subject I now realize I do not know the phrases for canoe making material. I am timid when it comes to learning the language. Generational trauma and also personal experience in public school trauma. So asking about what word means what takes a while for me to generate into a phrase and when I think of the right phrase, I ask my mom and from her we figure it out or ask another language speaker. In the mean time I started asking my friends online “how were implement making natural materials identified?”

I asked this of Shawn Brigman PHd a Northern Pacific Interior Plateau Recovery Artist from the Spokane Tribe whose mother was a Sinixt. He has a 14 year legacy in delivering a high museum quality representation of what I envisioned  a chiefs lodge to be and manifested a ballistic nylon covered Shawn Brigman Signature Salishan sturgeon nose canoe design – which is a new contemporary interpretation earned through vision, academic blood, and 23 physical implement incarnations specifically honouring the canoes of the Interior Plateau people. A vision sourced organically through blood memory and academic integrity. He gives his students tons of resources, including his PHd dissertation and numerous ethnography reports specific to implement creation. His classroom begins in his hands by physicalizing the responsibility in maintaining an understanding of how we exist as contemporary Indigenous peoples constructing our implements as we have since time immemorial. He mentors critical thinking by reading his online Indigenous Village Makers manifestos on Facebook, giving tips as to what it takes to make artistic implements and told me how I could fix my cracked performance basket.

A teacher in every sense. I cherish these implement teachers I have. The basket in my performances is one I made with my own two hands. It is an implement I made from the pattern of my grandmothers under the mentorship of Barb Marchand at the Enowkin Centre in 2007. I was reminded that I too use these implements museums classify as “artifact” just as Francisco and Lily use the reed woven basket for morning toast in Arica Aymara Territory Chile. I don’t have pitch or bear grease to patch my basket as my grandmother was taught by her grandmother. It kind of makes me a pitiful basket maker. As an Artist Scholar it drives me to consider why. Why do I not have all of the materials needed to mend and repair my implements? I know why personally, I don’t have time when time is needed to gather these things. There is no basket repair shop. I can ask around and hope to find someone with extra in storage. I could make plans to gather next season, so I began researching where to find the materials locally.

I didn’t read all the ethnographies until returning from Chile. After a day of reading Interior Salishan implements ethnography, I admit I began having an implement makers identity crisis. They talk of bark implement creation from Coeur d’Alene tribe to Shuswap, Thompson and Lillooet tribes and all tribes between except Syilx/Okanagan tribe. Lakes tribe but not Okanagan. One even goes so far as to identify my home site specifically as Shuswap Head of the Lake band (FYI it’s Okanagan Indian Band “Keeping the Lakes Way” author) so despite there being a clear trail marked Okanagan Trail (even used by the Brigade) Okanagan specifically as a people’s are left out of specific historical implement making texts and contexts – our territory borders were all major water ways in the valleys of the north west interior plateau landscape. My grandmother was a bark harvester situated in the North Okanagan Valley of the Interior Salish Plateau language group. I’ve read marked maps of implement material plants specifically in the proximity of me in the northern tip of Okanagan Lake. These ethnographers and others who write about Interior Plateau travelling people had no clue about the relationality of the people making these things. I know there are implement trees here, I’ve seen the evidence, she made the baskets. We as sqilxw (people of the land) lived with nothing but what the land provided and survived through relationship building carried in canoes and baskets made by implement making families over mountain water ways. We did that here in the North Okanagan as well. I wonder why we were left out of these texts now. And I thought about who is left to carry the burden of knowing these things.

I went an hour and a half up into the Andes to visit a little village called Socorama that is a protected UNESCO site because of the Inca trail and the stunning terrace gardens. It’s a community of elders. Their children leave because they have no school past elementary and no prosperity. Economic diaspora is an epidemic in these places. We spoke about what their goals are, what they want for their cultural survival. The young people go to the city and some never come back. I can’t see why, it is such a beautiful place. I put my hands into the creek that fed this desert oasis and prayed we would collectively find solutions that protected the land for the people, theirs and mine. I was told to come back to share my findings with them.  I asked how they identified their common territory – they marked the valleys and the waterways, just like we do. I was told a story from Hernan that he and his cousin Francisco (my contact) were the first to plant trees in their community for generations. Some young people are embracing whatever they can to motivate their return to ancestral communities.

Back in Arica at the beach I saw a giant cattail boat. It is being crafted by Aymara boat makers for an expedition to Sydney Australia. Cattail boats and reed woven toast baskets awakened me to the cultural poverty we’ve endured as our implement materials became downgraded as currency in conforming to the western standard of living , traded out of our hands and reborn into cash. The trees, especially cedar and western white pine became commodities in the forestry industry. A commodity that could only ever be allowed to grow so big, and rarely grow big enough to accommodate a traditional bark canoe. We had to give up, to fit in. What culture dependent on the waterways for travel could survive if all the trees no longer grow to canoe making size and important medicines and materials are eradicated for agriculture? I didn’t see any other water vessels on my trip but did hear of a canoe pictograph somewhere in the valleys we were going.

It is rare to see traditional sourced and made white pine bark canoes in the Interior Plateau. Dr. Brigman is one of few actual canoe makers who can facilitate and assist a group of other material gathers to source out specific trees for the purpose of building an ancestral sturgeon nose bark canoe. It can be done on time in a timely manner, when a canoe maker knows when to harvest. A real bark canoe maker knows to not waste  a tree so he prepares the apprentices for harvest when the tree is cut and not any later. Theft of culture comes in many forms, appropriation from white saviors, mono crop agriculture, resource extraction all contribute to on going cultural genocide, and wasted materials. From north to south, our struggle resonates with the various people of the Andean mountain range. The Aymara people know our water struggles. Hydro electric dams changing the course of water. Mapuche people of Southern Chile understand as well as they too are being used as tree plantations. And so we spoke about it and made some more people aware of things they didn’t know to be true about the North American Indigenous Experience and our shared cultural struggles.





Spe pu c’n: Ancestral Memories Embodied

In 2014 I began the final year of my undergrad. I started looking at specific areas of my family lineage and discovered my Syilx roots were actually Southern Interior Plateau roots. Since that time I have been tracing the blood memory within my very own veins, following the landscape of familial relation and inter tribal governance.

Since I began opening my eyes to the importance of researching the North Okanagan Syilx heritage as method and pedagogy, I have been having visions of me in specific implements. There are none other like them. Specially hand crafted from the research, dreams and visions of a true Recovery Artist.  This canoe became known to me only after seeing a Tule Mat lodge like my grandmother Mary Abel story tells about, a special place where the Chief gathered the people. Through a student initiative at UBCO called Tuum Est, I invited Shawn Brigman to construct his Tule Mat lodge interpretation on campus. The very construction was an act of performed resistance as it was the first time a complete Chief’s lodge was constructed in the north Okanagan near our kikanee fishing site at the university.  These fine art implements enable a polished contemporary look to an age old story of a syilx woman retracing the layers of landscapes, walking the blood ties through village site to village site.

This journey carried me from Spences Bridge and my grandfather Edward Fred’s mothers family and introduced me to Spe pu c’n: Their Voices Echo Across the Land. I called out looking for those whose voices still carry and I found they echo in the contemporary skin of a signature Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe.

In this Performed Happening, I brought together a small group; photographer to document and canoe maker to witness the journey of The Dreamer, a Siwash – halfbreed raised by her Syilx Mother and French Father in a traditional ancestral home, next door to my stemtima (grandmother )Mary Abel and great grandfather Joseph Abel. I recall being a companion of my grandmother as a pre-teen and teen. We would drive down the Okanagan Trail from North Lakes around through the permanent village sites: Okanogan, Kettle Falls, Spokane.

I remembered visiting with my stemtima in American places when listening to stories by my friend Shawn about the ones he researched in his doctoral research. I told him what I had dreamed of, this place on the river that I had to go. I could only describe the landscape when I was reminded of the vision I had of myself in a canoe and from there he took me here, this place where the photos were taken. It was there that the Okanagan Anthem, a song that speaks to the beauty of the Syilx people coming from the beauty of the land, made itself alive in the vibration of my voice. My song voice had been hiding in shame until that summer. Earlier in July I had a spiritual experience in the pit house at Komasket. Our now passed mentor Caroline Kenny engaged us in a resonance exercise and Manulani Meyer had us sing in braided harmonics her personal Oli. It was through these vocal experiences my voice felt free to find itself in the middle of the Spokane River. It was recorded only in these photos.


Barb Marchand

In 2005 I was reduced hours at the youth centre I worked at so I took the opportunity to go back to school. But not any old school no, I went specifically to the Enowkin Centre where I enrolled in their NAPAT program. I was fortunate to have been instructed by Barb P Marchand and made my very first birch bark basket. My fingers bled and I cried many times but to know I have the physical memory of what it takes to make more baskets – I know now it is something I can accomplish.

Barb and I are going to be working together this summer. Stay tuned for more updates as we explore marsh materials.

Here are some of the online sites and personal photos I have of our workshops together:

BC Achievement Award winner

Illustrator for Kou-Skelowh: We Are The People A Trilogy of Okanagan Legends

Illustrator for Neekna And Chemai

Photos from a Marsh Art workshop with Barb Marchand hosted by Enowkin Centre, an article from Boulivard Magazine with Barb’s cat tail mask sculptures and cat tail reed head dress.


Recovery Artist: Shawn Brigman PHd

I first met Shawn Brigman PHd in July 2017 to construct his Tule mat lodge at UBCO to showcase Salishan architecture and to have a place to dream in. I did just that and collaborated with him and David Bernie on the canoe series featured in my profile photo. It is through his work I have been able to continue mine. I am thankful there is an authentic Interior Salishan tribal member creating contemporary implements for artists and community to learn and grow from. For the people, by the people

Here are some of the public places I have found to be useful in identifying quality control and high end implements for Performance and general use:


One Heart Festival Featured Artist

Featured blog on Art and Culture

Demonstrating construction:

Performance Art in signature SALISHAN STURGEON NOSE CANOE