Implement Impossible: Industry and Cultural Genocide
by Mariel Belanger
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.