Sharing One Skin: The Okanagan People’s Relationship and Responsibility to Land

“Okanagans say that heart is where community and land come into our beings and become part of us because they are as essential to our survival as our own skin,” says Jeanette Armstrong, a Canadian author, educator, artist, and Indigenous activist. One cannot fully thrive without the other, and a peaceful and full life is nonexistent if one does not acknowledge and strive to understand the interconnectedness of the physical and spiritual worlds. Heritage is of the utmost importance to Armstrong, her father being of the mountain tribes and her mother indigenous to the river lands. Due to her varying background, Armstrong feels familiarized with the mountains but still accountable for the rivers. Her path and responsibilities are clearly laid out for her because of her bloodline and proximity to those sources: “I cannot be separated from my place or my land,” she explains, “that is who I am and where I take my identity from.” (Armstrong 461). The language, community, traditions, and personal ethics all play a part in the Okanagans’ harmonious connection to the land, these beliefs being ultimately founded on respect for the Earth and all that thrive within it. It is a far cry from mainstream and settler ideologies, and Armstrong believes the Okanagan way of life is the perfect starting place for a reciprocal and restorative relationship with the land and all its inhabitants.

Armstrong’s solid ties to the land are first rooted in the language of her people. In Okanagan, it is nearly impossible to separate the land from the language because important words like people and humanity cannot be spoken or written without the context of the relationship to the land. The word Okanagan is consequently laden with multiple ties to nature, and it “comes from a whole understanding of what we are as human beings.” (Armstrong 461). The meaning of the word (and therefore the language and identities of the people it represents) can be broken down into three main components. The first part of the word implies relation to the physical realm or the tangible world people interact with daily. The second part of the word is best translated through the English word dream, but it essentially means “the unseen part of our existence as human beings,” implying that mankind’s existence is both physical and spiritual (Armstrong 462). Finally, the third part states that people are intrinsically tied to every other person, and likewise, every animal and plant. Every action has a reaction, and every party effects the others, whether indirectly or not. When people lose sight of these essentials of humanity and ties to all living things, argues Armstrong, “we lose our place, and confusion and chaos enter.” (462).

Armstrong believes there are four key differences between Okanagan (or Indigenous) ways of life and mainstream culture that impact one’s relationship with the land and all who reside on it, and the first two are directly related to the understanding self and community. The first is the significance of self. The Okanagan believe people are comprised of the following: physical self, which includes everything tangible and corporeal; emotional self, is loosely translated to heart and it involves all things related to emotions and feelings; intellectual self, which implies the thinking and logistical side of mankind; spirit self, which correlates to all things intangible and the concept that people are undeniably connected to everything this world as well as things that are not of this world (Armstrong 463-464). The last capacity of self is also called the true self, inferring that it is the most important of the four. The second key difference is the definition of community and the role it plays. Every person is born into a family and community, and those relationships are inescapable. Armstrong explains that the Okanagans best describe their word for community and relationship to others through the phrase “our one skin.” (465). This means that people are tied to one another by a bond that is uniquely human. It is unavoidable and dangerous when ignored. “Without community and family,” Armstrong says, “we are truly not human.” (465).

The latter two differences are comprised of the bigger picture: the understanding of the land in both physical and spiritual senses, and how self and community are irrefutably tied to it. The language of the Okanagan people is believed to come from the land, and it consistently reminds its speakers to “experience our humanness in relation to all else and in consequence to know how we affect the world around us.” (Armstrong 465). The Okanagan words for human and land have the same root syllable, showing that one cannot exists without the other for they are comprised of similar materials. The land is, therefore, the larger or collective form of self. The fourth and final difference is the idea that the Earth and man alike are old lifeforms. Much like human and land, spirit and Earth share the same root syllable in Okanagan. Existence of individual spirits and the Earth as a whole share a deep connection, and all people are “keepers of the Earth.” (Armstrong 466). People are lost unless they are connected to the Earth and the intangible spiritual world which is where the meaning of existence is derived from. Without understanding and implicating these four differences, people are indefinitely bound to the lust for materialistic satisfaction and the chaos and void of fulfillment that are associated with it.

Since modern society has stepped away from these ideologies, Armstrong’s Okanagan father believed mankind is currently comprised of “people without hearts.” (467). People have lost sight and understanding of their sense of place by straying away from the Indigenous philosophies. Since people clearly still have their physical hearts and express some forms of love, this statement means that people, in general, have lost respect and the natural bond that should occur between each other and the land (Armstrong 467). This type of ideology that idolizes self-first with little regard to others and nature is predominant in settler cultures across the world. People like this, explains Armstrong, “are blind to self-destruction…emotion is narrowly focused on their individual sense of wellbeing without regard to the well-being of others in the collective.” (467). Indigenous peoples do not thrive well in this type of lifestyle because it destroys bonds with others and the land, ultimately removing the concept of a cooperative world. If people are going to experience life the way it was intended, there must be a return to a reciprocal relationship with the land and all who inhabit it.

Armstrong concludes that the revolution needed to return to this lifestyle lies within the hearts of man. Since fear has not been a viable motivator in the past, she believes that people need to experience connectedness again. Relationships are the answer, and Armstrong believes reciprocal relationships between self, community, land, and spirit cannot exist without changing people’s hearts: “I see the thrust of technology into our daily lives, and I see the ways we subvert emotional ties to people by the use of communications that serve to depersonalize.” (468). Though technology in and of itself is innocent, the side effects of using it excessively and exclusively are almost always detrimental on a relational level. If people and nature are physically out of sight, no amount of technology will keep them from going out of mind. Long-distance relationships are rarely sustained, and therefore it is unrealistic to expect a healthy relationship with those four factors when people continue to detach themselves from real life and relationships. If land continues to be seen as “real estate” and relationships with nature and others remain self-serving, mankind will only further destruction (Armstrong 470). Only when people see the value of relationships primarily will the chaos begin to subside.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Jeannette. “Sharing One Skin: the Okanagan Community.” The Case Against the

Global Economy. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1996. 460-70. Print.


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