SHARING ONE SKIN
As a child of ten, I once sat on a hillside on the reservation with
my father and his mother as they looked down into the town on the
valley floor. It was blackcap berry season and the sun was very
warm, but there in the high country a cool breeze moved through
the overshading pines. Bluebirds and wild canaries darted and chirped
in nearby bushes, while a meadow-lark sang for rain from the hillside
above. Sage and wild roses sent their messages out to the humming
bees and pale yellow butterflies.
Down in the valley, the heat waves danced, and dry dust rose in
clouds from the dirt roads near town. Shafts of searing glitter
reflected off hundreds of windows, while smoke and grayish haze
hung over the town itself. The angry sounds of cars honking in a
slow crawl along the black highway and the grind of large machinery
from the sawmill next to the town rose in a steady buzzing overtone
to the quiet of our hillside.
Looking down to the valley, my grandmother said (translated from
Okanagan), The people down there are dangerous; they are all
insane. My father agreed, commenting, Its because
they are wild and scatter anywhere. I would like to explain
what they meant when they said this. I do not speak for the Okanagan
people, but my knowledge comes from my Okanagan heritage.
- Creating communities of heart -
The discord that we see around us, to my view from inside my Okanagan
community, is at a level that is not endurable. A suicidal coldness
is seeping into all levels of interaction; there is a dispassion
of energy that has become a way of life in illness and other forms
of human pain. I am not implying that we no longer suffer for each
other as humans but rather that such suffering is felt deeply and
continuously and cannot be withstood, so feeling must be shut off.
I think of the Okanagan word used by my father to describe this
condition, and I understand it better. Translation is difficult,
but an interpretation in English might be people without hearts
people who have lost the capacity to experience the deep
generational bond to other humans and to their surroundings. It
refers to collective disharmony and alienation from land. It refers
to those whose emotion is narrowly focused on their individual sense
of well-being without regard to the well-being of others in the
The results of this dispassion are now being displayed as large
nation-states continuously reconfigure economic boundaries into
a world economic disorder to cater to big business. This is causing
a tidal flow of refugees from environmental and social disasters,
compounded by disease and famine as people are displaced in the
rapidly expanding worldwide chaos. War itself becomes continuous
as dispossession, privatization of lands, exploitation of resources
and a cheap labor force become the mission of peacekeeping.
The goal of finding new markets is the justification for the Westernization
of undeveloped cultures.
Indigenous people, not long removed from our co-operative, self-sustaining
lifestyles on our lands, do not survive well in this atmosphere
of aggression and dispassion. I know that we experience it as a
destructive force, because I personally experience it so. Without
being whole in our community, on our land, with the protection it
has as a reservation, I could not survive. In knowing that, I know
the depth of the despair and hopelessness of those who are not whole
in a community or still on their own land. I know the depth of the
void. I fear for us all, as the indigenous peoples remaining connected
to the land begin to succumb or surrender. I fear this as the greatest
fear for all humanity. I fear this because I know that without my
land and my people I am not alive. I am simply flesh waiting to
Could it be that all people experience some form of this today?
If this is so, it seems to me that it is in the matter of the heart
where we must reconstruct. Perhaps it is most important to create
communities with those who have the insight to fear, because they
share strong convictions. Perhaps together they might create working
models for re-establishing what is human. Yet fear is not enough
to bind together community, and I cannot help but be filled with
pessimism, for I continue to see the breakdown of emotional ties
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. I see how television, radio, telephone
and now computer networks create ways to promote depersonalized
communication. We can sit in our living rooms and be entertained
by extreme violence and destruction and be detached from the suffering
of the people. We can call on the phone or send e-mail to someone
we may never speak to in person.
Through technology there is a constant deluge of people who surround
us but with whom we have no real physical or personal link, so we
feel nothing toward them. We can end up walking over a person starving
or dying on the street and feeling nothing, except perhaps curiosity.
We can see land being destroyed and polluted and not worry as long
as its not on our doorstep. But when someone is linked to
us personally, we make decisions differently. We try harder to assist
because we care about them.
In a healthy whole community, the people interact with each other
in shared emotional response. They move together emotionally to
respond to crisis or celebration. They commune in the
everyday act of living. Being a part of such a communing is to be
fully alive, fully human. To be without community in this way is
to be alive only in the flesh, to be alone, to be lost to being
human. It is then possible to violate and destroy others and their
property without remorse.
- The protectors of Earth -
With these things in mind, I see how a market economy subverts community
to where whole cities are made up of total strangers on the move
from one job to another. This is unimaginable to us. How can a person
be a human while continuously living in isolation, fear and adversity?
How can people 20 yards away from each other be total strangers?
I do see that having to move continuously just to live is painful
and that close emotional ties are best avoided in such an economy.
I do not see how one remains human, for community to me is feeling
the warm security of familiar people like a blanket wrapped around
you, keeping out the frost.
The Okanagan word we have for extended family is translated
as sharing one skin. The concept refers to blood ties
within community and the instinct to protect our individual selves
extended to all who share the same skin. I know how powerful the
solidarity is of peoples bound together by land, blood and love.
This is the largest threat to those interests wanting to secure
control of lands and resources that have been passed on in a healthy
condition from generation to generation of families.
Land bonding is not possible in the kind of economy surrounding
us, because land must be seen as real estate to be used
and parted with if necessary. I see the separation is accelerated
by the concept that wilderness needs to be tamed by
development and that this is used to justify displacement
of peoples and unwanted species. I know what it feels like to be
an endangered species on my land, to see the land dying with us.
It is my body that is being torn, deforested and poisoned by development.
Every fish, plant, insect, bird and animal that disappears is part
of me dying. I know all their names and I touch them with my spirit.
I feel it every day, as my grandmother and my father did.
I do know that people must come to community on the land. The transience
of peoples criss-crossing the land must halt, and people must commune
together on the land to protect it and all our future generations.
Self-sustaining indigenous peoples still on the land are already
doing this and are the only ones now standing between society and
total self-destruction. They present an opportunity to relearn and
reinstitute the rights we all have as humans. Indigenous rights
must be protected, for we are the protectors of Earth.
I know that being Okanagan helps me have the capacity to bond with
everything and every person I encounter. I do not stand silently
by. I stand with you against the disorder.
Source: New Internationalist
Used with permission of Jeanette Armstrong. - Thanks!
Jeanette Armstrong is a member of the traditional council
of the Penticton Indian Band in British Columbia, Canada, and is
director of the Enowkin
Centre, a school teaching traditional Okanagan philosophy and
Jeannette Armstrong ist Okanagan, geboren im Reservat bei
Penticton, Kanada, wo sie auch die meiste Zeit ihres Lebens verbrachte
hat. International ist sie durch ihre Menschenrechtsarbeit und ihr
Engagement in Umweltinitiativen und Antiglobalisierungs-Organisationen
hervorgetreten. Jeannette Armstrong war neben vielen außerhalb
Kanadas eher unbeachteten Aktionen auch als Organisatorin
an dem Mowhawk-Aufstand 1990 in Quebec beteiligt. Darüber hinaus
arbeitet sie aktiv an der Vernetzung indigener Kämpfe von Chiapas
bis Neuseeland. Sie ist die erste indigene Romanschriftstellerin
Kanadas und Gründerin des indigenen Informations- und Bildungszentrum
En' Owkin Centre, in dem sie heute die Internationale School of
Writing leitet. Ihr Romandebüt Slash wurde in Kanada zum Bestseller. Deutschsprachig
erschien es im Unrast-Verlag.