Drawing a close parallel to First Nations ontology is philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s proposal that the landscape is “not so much the object as the homeland of our thoughts” (1962, p. 24). We dwell within the world, co-evolving with the local ecology, creating homelands. I situate myself as an anthropologist and archaeologist, having longstanding, collaborative, relationships with the St’at’imc, Interior Salish peoples. These are complemented by years of experience learning within Carrier, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haida, Tsimshian, and Sinixt worlds. It remains an honour to hold roles and responsibilities bestowed upon me, as a collaborator with St’at’imc elders, knowledge bearers, and youth—kukwstumckáľap (thank you to all).
To express the deeper, relational basis that holds meaning to my practice, I recall remarking in a talk at my post-convocation gathering a dozen years back, “I look forward to continuing to serve numerous communities in myriad capacities….” My field experiences, as a guest within other cultures, reflect this sentiment. I believe everything is inherently relationally based, as my corpus of experiences has unfurled within the living homeland of the St’at’imc people. Honouring the bearers of the knowledge and heritage I am entrusted with, I believe I ‘work’ for the ancestors and future generations of the communities whose territory and histories I delve, and within which I abide.
For a phenomenological translation: I have spent years walking the banks of rivers, creeks and lakes along lush valley bottoms of the Coast Range; and moving amongst arid sagebrush and cactus country that characterizes the Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene benches of the Fraser Canyon Plateau; amid dense mixed spruce, cedar, hemlock and coastal Douglas-fir forests, and more spacious mixed pine and Interior Douglas-fir forests blanketing the mountain slopes within the former and latter eco-zones respectively; and the rugged mountain alpine that orients time and process. Life is most fragile where the land and sky intersect, water is stored as snow and ice, elements transform most readily with the intensity of the seasons, and where ax7xa (spirit power, or spiritual intelligence) is most potent.
Upon reflection, I have travelled trails millennia in the making, guided by culturally modified signatures, bent feathers and intuition; I have inhaled volcanic ash blown off artifacts that were the last to provide sustenance before a blanket of airborne volcanics covered entire valleys, shifting perspectives of homeland for centuries and millennia. I have stood on mountains and watched as Raven, Eagle, and Great Blue Heron transcend the Coast Range, between deep coastal inlets and upper tributaries of the Fraser watershed. I have listened to the voice of elders describing their knowledge of times past, when St’at’imc ancestors canoed from fresh to salt water, crossed mountain ranges from Interior to Coast Salish worlds, stood on Nqw’elqw’eluìsten (Mt. Meager Complex) with an ocean view prior to its eruption 2350 years BP, and routinely undertook multi-day glacial traverses as part of their socio-ecological obligations.
Such combined experiences of learning elders’ articulation of their cultural connection to place, while experiencing personal revelations of a deep socio-ecology, reveal that barriers to mobility, interaction, and knowing one’s homeland are perceived, rather than the lived experience of all.
Cold Mountain is a house
Without beams or walls.
The six doors left and right are open
The hall is blue sky.
The rooms all vacant and vague
The east wall beats against the west wall
At the center nothing.
Borrowers don’t bother me
In the cold I build a fire
When I’m hungry I boil up some greens.
I’ve got no use for the Kulak
With his big barn and pasture—
He just sets up a prison for himself.
Once in he can’t get out.
Think it over—
You know it might happen to you.
(Han Shan, trans. Gary Snyder 2013)
In the Beginning: Homeland Origins
Continuity of in-situ St’at’imc occupation gleaned through the archaeological, ethnographic, ethnohistoric records, and oral histories, lends credence to both the Western legal notion of precedence and the Indigenous laws of territoriality. Let’s begin with the multi-verse beginnings; a set of narratives that illuminate seminal events and processes that help articulate St’at’imc cosmology.
Black-Bear migrates from the Botani Valley in the Central Fraser Canyon, through the St’at’imc world, ultimately siring all úcwalmicw (Lower St’a’timc speakers), “intermarrying with the mythical inhabitants; that is, the semi-animal people of the Lillooet country” (Teit, 1912, p. 289). Reaching the southernmost St’at’imc territory, the Xa’xtsa were born of a marriage between the son of Black-Bear and Seal-Woman; both symbolically and consanguineously tying the St’at’imc to the coastal world. It is common to see the Seal People today at key fishing nodes such as Slapus along the Lower Lilwataìtkwa (Lillooet River), as they follow the Salmon People’s inland migration to their spawning grounds.
As described by a St’at’imc elder in his eighties during the early 20th century,
- …in the beginning the inhabitants of the world had animal characteristics. It is doubtful whether at that time real animals and real people existed as we know them today. The world was very sparsely settled. A number of transformers gave the world its present shape, and transformed the beings of the mythical period into real people and real animals. (Teit 1912, p. 289)
The Whalaymulth, or Transformers, period is defined by the era when the relationship between land, water and people became established in terms largely understood today, memorialized by a set of toponyms animating the narrative landscape of primary waterways flowing like lifeblood arteries through St’at’imc territory. This period defined Lower St’at’imc socio-political, economic, and spiritual protocol (law). The Whalaymulth and Coyote were contemporaries, Coastal arbiters of setting things right in the world, and Interior Trickster with his endless ‘hard-knock’ lessons.
The Flood narrative tells of the terminal-glacial flooding event, featuring a common ancestor and culture hero, Ntci’nemkîn, who, heeding the words of the Great Chief, waits out the deluge atop Mt. In-SHUCK-ch, ensuring the survival of his people. The Flood is followed by the redistribution of the Lower St’at’imc people throughout an expanded territory. (Ritchie in Bouchard 1977, p. 10-12; Teit 1912, p. 342)
The story of “The Poor Man, or The Origin of Copper”, set at Green Lake, is another important narrative with multiple themes. Most prescient of themes describe a regional population decline resulting from an unidentified epidemic, the localized survival of a boy and his grandmother, and the boy’s success in becoming a sxwena7m (shaman); in turn, the boy gains tremendous hunting prowess, enabling familial security, occasioning gift-giving and a redistribution of wealth with neighbouring tribes encountered during his expanding homeland sojourns. Ultimately, this narrative leads to a regional resettlement and cultural florescence, for which the boy gives rise (Teit 1912, p. 343-44).
As Black-Bear, Whalaymulth, and Coyote’s encounters with people and places along their travels help define the Salishan world, these interactions establish an etiquette of socio-ecological, and familial relations. Events featuring memorialized ancestors and culture heroes, along with cataclysmic phenomena invoke a more complex cultural geography. As the Holocene unfolds, a palimpsest-like transformation of homeland is created. The underlying message symbolizes balance and harmony amongst all Beings cohabiting within the common homeland.
I recall a sharp contrast to this world-view during a meeting between Xa’xtsa leadership and provincial representatives, who in their extreme naïveté, were visiting to consult on the prospect of a licensed game hunting operation they were hoping to gain buy-in on. After an overly polite afternoon of discussions, one Xa’xtsa Councilor highlighted the obvious incongruity at play, and while pointing to his Band’s crest boldly adorned on his vest of Bear holding Salmon, stated, “personally, I find it difficult to support such a project that would involve hunting our Ancestor”. The room fell silent, and I for one, observed at play a history involving an illegal colonial entity wielding the imbalance of power, that is too infantile to invoke an encouraging sense of hope-in-the-making that history is undergoing the required correction.
Some critic tried to put me down –
“Your poems lack the basic truth of Tao”
And I recall the old-timers
Who were poor and didn’t care.
I have to laugh at him,
He misses the point entirely,
Men like that
Ought to stick to making money.
(Han Shan, trans. Gary Snyder 2013)
The act of seeking, identifying, and interpreting archaeological signatures of people Being-in-their-homeland, takes place in a diverse ecological setting, from seascape to mountainscape, and every aspect of geographical terrain that connects and intersects. Ecology is the rhizome that infuses and is infused by culture. To understand culture, we must perambulate—literally and figuratively—along the complex of rhizome-like pathways and tributaries, connecting homeland.
Traversing any contemporary or palaeo-shoreline along the Pacific Northwest Coast, there’s a strong possibility you are standing on an anthropogenic landform; that is, a place with history and meaning to First Nations, an aspect of their ancestral homeland. Be they intensively occupied village settings, indicated by deep house formations and midden deposits, or the more discrete shellfish harvesting eco-niche, fish and seaweed harvesting encampments or canoe-run, the rich coastal ecosystem has always been a productive zone of socio-ecological importance that time and process has not forgotten.
Understanding that the terminal Pleistocene and Holocene history on the Pacific Northwest Coast underwent dynamic sea-level fluctuations, affected by the multifaceted post glacial maximum influences of glaciation, glacial melt and shifting tectonics, expands our notion of shoreline life over this ten to fifteen thousand year period. This understanding informs us that such reflections of coastal life over this period currently exist beneath the oceans we sail or paddle on, swim or fish in, or photograph and paint as an opaque, near-synchronic entity. Similarly, we understand that coastal life over this period occurred in what today consists of inland forests, meadows, wetlands, or under the pavement of modern urban ventures.
Places seemingly wild by today’s understanding: mountains, high-elevation river valleys, forest depths, dry exposed benches, caves, rock bluffs and shelters, talus slopes, boulder fields, wetlands, deltas and estuaries, may all appear quiet places, lacking great histories, thereby uninhabitable. In truth, their relatedness to homeland is simply a story less told, and less understood. When in the right company, stories of their importance pour out, like sap from tapped maple trees on a frost-melting terminal winter’s morning. Traversing homelands, with a language comprehension of dwelling, stories of place (events) and the voice of time (process) become amplified, re-birthing a “narrative landscape” (Sanders 2009).
Fire birth, cooling into form.
Time lapse, human intentionality, perhaps.
Alive, bloodied, buried, rebirth.
Each artifact; one elucidative word, in a long-told storybook.
Cultivating Homeland Practices
Home may be as large or small as our awareness privileges. For some, knowing place is about sinking in, establishing roots, and excavating legacies of in-situ knowledge. For others, it may be an inherent birthright. Both are privileges.
I’ve found that both ontological approaches to knowing homeland share common experiences. An inherent aspect of Indigenous worldview draws from oral narratives, as observed above. Oral narratives establish a relational connection between the self and kinship webs of family, clan, or nation, imparting shared meaning. Similarly, drawing from an interdisciplinary and experiential inquiry, informed by Indigenous histories and knowledges, situates the co-participant in the narrative landscape. Both require time, devotion to place-making, and memorialization, through narrative acts and intergenerational knowledge transmission centered on relationship formation; mitakuye-oyasin (“all my relations”).
I have sat with elders who have travelled between villages, have gone deep into the mountains, by foot, horse, and canoe, from the time they could first walk. I have met others who act as tewít, or resource specialist, their familiarization and geographical conceptualization of homeland comprising entire watersheds. Stories the elders recount may be woven into a narrative fabric, retold and relived. The elders have taught me to be receptive to the spirit of the land and waterways, in recognition and harmony with the cohabiting Beings forming homeland.
Similar to the aforementioned work of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger’s (1927) Being and Time is an attempt by a Western mind to envisage an experience-driven world where phenomenon, “that which shows itself in itself”, generates the tools and language for knowing. Perhaps qualitatively limited within the cross-cultural conversation, the manner in which these authors grapple with how people conceptualize phenomenon, benefits considerations of how we relate, and interact with it. Their efforts at espousing Husserl’s phenomenology, has been of personal relevance. I remain interested in how related ideas par with certain aspects of Indigenous worldviews, and how they eschew conventional Western epistemological principles of materialism, logic, reason, fetishism to explanation, and metaphysical assumptions.
Returning to the merits of oral histories, as the context by which the world is understood, establishes etiquette for mutual coexistence between all Beings. The sentience of the world within the complex of oral histories is seminal in establishing this perspective. Deciphering between mountains as objects that underwent processes which lend them to mining and exploration interests, is ontologically opposed from relating to the same mountain setting as a place where generations from time out of mind have visited in order to obtain the requisite spirit power for pursuing their gift (kw`azantsut), or where the sky-realm is accessed in order for Raven to retrieve the sun and illuminate the world.
Brisk morning on the river,
mist rising from turbulent waters.
Oblique sunrays peaking between forest canopy,
hints of the waning season.
Shorelines obscured, mottled misty lichen riparian density.
Glimpse derelict native Pacific crabapple grove,
clinging to the fringe edge zone of a mature conifer forest.
Followed by a hasty traverse across a funnel of standing waves,
into the safety of a back-eddy.
Faint traces of an abandoned village,
the remaining, buried, beneath fluvial time and process.
Homeland: Legacies Returning
I recall being approached after providing a presentation during a community meeting on behalf of a First Nation I work with, summarizing the year’s archaeological and ethnographic findings. The Health Department manager asked me if I could present at an upcoming First Nations Coastal Heath Assembly, noting how therapeutic the theme of cultural heritage has been for her, her son, and could be for many others. I couldn’t have agreed more; the positive response that band members and communities as a whole have expressed has been a common, and always rewarding experience.
There is a dialectic to learning, and imparting knowledge and know-how. Over the years, I have mentored young persons in the art and craft of cultural heritage research, taught adult learners in university course contexts, and met with and interviewed elders. All the while, my knowledge and familiarity with subjects at hand, have been assisted through time on the land and time in the cognitive archives of community members with whom I share time. The synergy that evolves from collaborating with First Nations of diverse ages, experiences and backgrounds, invokes a powerful spirited excitement emanating from the reciprocity.
Working with St’at’imc descendants to re-enliven the routes connecting their experiences to those of their ancestors doubly acts to root a sense of an expansive homeland. The practice of field archaeology offers a unique, tangible means of connecting contemporary community members with their ancestors. There’s more to the experience than the materiality of the archaeological record. There’s the incorporeal spirit imbued with the artificer’s craft, that has all the potential to be a family possession for a member of the descendent community. Another seminal aspect of connection made during the archaeological endeavor is that it is possible to piece together, from a single excavation, raw lithics, formed tools, charred fauna and botanical remains that capture resource harvesting activities spanning the comprehensive homeland. Feeling the reward of millennia of ancestral survival, resilience, and thriving in place can be overwhelming, and a challenge to articulate. However, it is simultaneously deeply defining, uniquely illuminating, and lucidly empowering.
Being of service, seeking restitution for unceded First Nations’ rights and title is a life’s devotion; with it comes the bipartite responsibility of holding transmitted and practice-oriented knowledges of cultural ways that are of the land and water. In myriad ways, these knowledges, along with the pragmatic skills acquired practicing this trade, are often insightful and sometimes translatable in managing a responsible ecological footprint.
Anthropology and homesteading have offered an opportunity to learn alongside, and to guide my children in a dialogue with local ecology, wherein we inquire and explore, listen and experiment with how to co-evolve in the world with purpose and in a sustainable way. We have learned to grow whatever we can, to harvest, process and store over the winter, for feeding ourselves, for gifting, and for barter. Learning the local ecology means studying the use of the roots, leaves, needles, twigs, lianas, shellfish, stone, wood, sap, oils and the complete array of nature’s plenteousness. Working them, and with them. Studying weather patterns, plant and mycological allies, and animal behavior, even the imperceptible ones. Consulting elders. Books can be useful too! Become sweaty and dirty cultivating the orchard and tending the garden, then go jump in the lake!
My practice has fostered a wild attitude towards facilitating a healthy, enlightening, growing experience for my two sons. A mantra that serves the wilding effort I’ve shared with my children has been, “nature provides everything we need, it’s our work to find the tools for the task, and fit the pieces together.” Since they were toddlers, my children have been using oyster shells for spoons, mussel shells for cutting tools, stones for countless tool manufacturing purposes, sea-weed, lichen and cedar bark for scrubbing and cleaning materials, bull-kelp heads for drinking vessels, horsetail and moonsnail sand collars for abrasive purposes, grasses, sedges, mosses and conifer boughs for matting and other purposes, the array of woods, lichens, bark, fungus and pitch for fire-making and insect repellent. Prior to becoming fully verbal, my sons were familiar with the myriad edible berries growing around our home. On one occasion, their not-knowing Grandfather cautioned my eldest against eating one such edible berry (red huckleberry); my son began to cry in frustration, knowing the berry was perfectly edible. Ah! Toddlers can educate elders! Knowledge transmission flows in myriad directions.
Prayer is the communication medium, transcending time, connecting the living with spirit Beings. Space is the canvas made meaningful through the complex of events memorialized within story; such place making is iterative, and ongoing. As Gary Snyder (2010, p. 49) stated in conversation with Jim Harrison, “A place exists because of its stories….” To expand on Snyder’s statement, I propose that places persist through story, as I have rediscovered numerous places that had been absent from the storybook of living peoples, but remained existent, occupied by ancestral spirits. Re-wilding is partially about relating through these time-honoured channels; it requires entering into conversation with the extant spirit, practicing patience and knowing that when acting in a good way, and “being of good mind”, as Sto:lo elder Sonny McHalsie (2007, p. 121-122) observed, we protect ourselves and those near. Worldly attachments wane in significance as we synchronize with natural currents.
Three consecutive family canoe trips into the wilds of Desolation Sound,
During a time the world is closed, and cancelled!
Observing the ebb and flow of tidal waters, and waxing and waning of the snowline blanketing the youthful mountains before us.
Nestled, all bearing witness to the eternal rhythm makers.
I’ve often considered: what better way to initiate children into the world?
Flowing water holds some of the answers, pollen-rich wind others,
seeds breaking the earth’s crust reveal even more;
while perfect, hidden silence contains the remainder.
I extend my sincerest gratitude to all those St’at’imc elders, and colleagues whose knowledge and experiences have been shared over the years. Your tellings enliven the St’at’imc world, in its profoundly stunning glory. These include, but are not limited to Edwin (Buckshot) Bikadi, Randel Charlie, Harry Dick, Keelie George, Harold Jack, Johnny Jack, Tony James, Johnny Jones, Lex Joseph, Alice Kelly (Purcell), John Leo, Lucy Smith, Mike Peters, Patricia Peters, and Neil Phillips.
Heidegger, Martin. (1962 ). Being and Time. Harper and Row, New York.
McHalsie, Albert (Sonny) (Naxaxalhts’i). (2007). We Have to Take Care of
- Everything That Belongs to Us. In Be of Good Mind. P. 82-130. Edited by Bruce Miller. UBC Press, Vancouver.
Ritchie, Baptiste (1977). The Flood. In Lillooet Stories. Eds., Randy Bouchard and
- Dorothy Kennedy. Sound Heritage, Volume VI, Number 1.
Cold Mountain Poems. (2013). Translated by Gary Snyder. Counterpoint, Berkeley.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology and Perception. Trans. C. Smith. London:
- Kegan Paul.
Sanders, A. (2009). Exploring the Utility of Computer Technologies and Human Faculties in their
- Spatial Capacities to Model the Archaeological Potential of Lands: Holocene Archaeology in Northeast Graham Island, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. Master’s Thesis. Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C.
Snyder, G. and Jim Harrison. (2010). The Etiquette of Freedom. Counterpoint,
Teit, J. (1906). The Lillooet Indians. Memoir 2(5): 193-300, American Museum of
- Natural History, New York, N.Y.
Teit, J. (1912). Traditions of the Lillooet Indians of British Columbia. Journal of
- American Folklore. 25(97):287-371.
Adrian Jason Sanders
Cortez Island, B.C.
I am grateful to reside—along with my partner Katrina, and our children, Anu, Faelan and Luna in Northern Coast Salish territory, Cortez Island. I remain especially honoured to work as a guest in the neighbouring Interior Salish territory. The richness of Salishan cultural narratives and history has been an endlessly fascinating exploration; making it contemporarily relevant to St’at’imc socio-economic, political and spiritual interests continues to inspire my community involvement.”