A few years ago the Okanagan Indian Band was hosting a food security event at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, British Columbia. Dr. Jeannette Armstrong welcomed us to her traditional territory, and then she did something we colonizers would never do to kick off a conference. She introduced her grandson, a 9-year-old boy who had just shot his first moose. In doing so he had taken on a new role, as someone growing into his responsibility to care for his people. The meat would be shared among elders and his family.
I thought of that moment, of the practice of honouring someone for providing for the common good, when I listened to the 2011 talk Dr. Armstrong gave at the TEDxOkanaganCollege in Penticton. In it she called for a new way of thinking about sustainability. Instead of considering it in terms of human and economic terms, she urged the audience to think in terms of re-indigenization.
She was not calling for a return to old ways of life but rather for adopting a place-based view of the world. Our human habit of spending our natural capital is a flawed economic model, she said. We need to consider the interconnection of species, landscape and environment. Instead of monoculture (not just in plants but in our social and political structures), we need to recognize, she said, “Diversity is one of the strongest things that we have to depend on in terms of survival.”
Sometimes it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the possibility of change, but the return of sockeye salmon to the south Okanagan shows the power of collaborating on a big idea. They are a critical part of food security for Okanagan people, but by the mid-1990s the sockeye run had nearly stopped. Nine dams blocked the sockeye’s 1,000 kilometre trip down the Columbia River to the sea, and their return to spawning grounds. In 1995 only 5,000 sockeye survived the perilous journey.
The Okanagan National Alliance, which straddles both sides of the U.S./Canadian border did not just throw up their hands in despair. They developed a plan for safe passage and habitat restoration. To implement it they worked with governments of both countries and in 2003 launched a model project that in 2010 resulted in nearly 300,000 sockeye returning to Osoyoos Lake. That work is now being extended further up the Okanagan Valley.
Early in her talk, Dr. Armstrong said:
“The kind of development that we’ve been engaged in is neither good or bad. It’s human. It’s who we are. It’s what we were hardwired to do…. It’s the gift that we have that pushes us to innovation, that pushes us to create the things that we have created to move the things that create our societies, that we become within our cultures….”
We can use that ingenuity to find solutions to the problems we have created, as the Okanagan National Alliance has shown by restoring the sockeye run. That is a hopeful vision.
To learn more about “Native Perspectives on Sustainability”, read David E. Hall’s interview with Dr. Armstrong from October 21, 2007.