Marilyn James is pictured at a rally outside the courthouse last year.

LETTER: The gnarly politics of extinction

K.L. Kivi writes to reflect on the Sinixt event held by Touchstones on April 9 and its aftermath.

I am writing to reflect on the Sinixt event held by Touchstones on April 9 and its aftermath. As Will Johnson aptly pointed out in his article in the Nelson Star, “conspicuously absent from the proceedings was former Sinixt spokesperson Marilyn James.” Many would agree that leaving Marilyn out of an event celebrating 35 years of Sinixt resurgence in their traditional territory is like celebrating 50 years of Canadian government without a Trudeau. It doesn’t matter what your political stripes are, the magnitude of those personalities is perfectly clear.

Some people are curious about what is going on. And the Nelson Star’s refusal to print Marilyn James’ letter concerning the event and the letter itself, which appeared in the April 24 edition of the Valley Voice, have left many people upset. In her letter, James’ assertions against Touchstones are particularly contentious. I will attempt to cast some light on this matter that concerns all of us living in Sinixt taditional territory.

One of the key tools of colonialism in Canada has been the eradication of the languages of First Nations people. As elucidated by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, most of us know that children were beaten and otherwise severely punished for speaking their own languages. The result has been what linguists such as Daniel Nettle have called “language murder” (Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages). Because language has been so tightly entwined with cultural survival, others, like Prof. Greg Young-Ing at UBCO have used terms such as “cultural genocide.”

So what does this have to do with the Touchstones event? My understanding of one of James’ concerns is that the language being presented by the Sinixt representatives from the Colville Confederated Tribes is that it is not the language of the Sinixt, but rather a related dialect of Salish. This may seem like a fine political point to some but to someone looking at loss after loss (extinction in Canada, for one), each loss is a tragedy. And when the loss is compounded by your truth being denied, it can be infuriating.

Marilyn has questioned why the Colville-Okanagan dialect is being taught as the language of the Sinixt. Her assertion that it is because her Sinixt compatriots from Colville are working in collusion with the Okanagan Nation Alliance who have claimed Sinixt Territory as their own, is understandably upsetting to some.  Knowing LaRae Wiley and Shelley Boyd personally, I’d say their desire to preserve the language they have been taught by Sarah Peterson of Keremeos is sincere and they have put decades of effort into learning and teaching that language. For them, it is probably close enough. I have studied the Colville-Okanagan dialect with them over the past year and appreciate their work.

For James, who has lived in the Inland Temperate Rainforest part of her traditional territory, she knows that important parts of her ancestral Traditional Ecological Knowledge is embedded in their specific language. With only a handful of native speakers left, the specific language and specific knowledge of the Sinixt about this place is profoundly endangered. Because the water and Earth are so important to her (and to me), the details matter. I deeply honour her perspective. It is a political perspective that many indigenous people and language scholars agree with. The authors of Vanishing Voices argue that “the extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of near-total collapse of … ecosystems.” They contend that the struggle to preserve environmental resources cannot be separated from the struggle to maintain diverse cultures; languages are the key to that diversity.

Living in an area where we have not been exposed to the diversity of political perspectives among First Nations people, we are at a disadvantage in understanding what this situation is about and knowing how to grapple with it. Many of us sincerely want to support the Sinixt and look for ways to do that. Undeniably, the Sinixt coming from Colville are nice people. Undeniably, Marilyn James has worked, almost single-handedly, to re-establish the Sinixt presence in Canada over many decades. Many of us are familiar with her vehemence in holding us accountable for what we do and don’t do around recognizing the Sinixt.  So, to say that we support the Sinixt is like saying “I support Canada” without saying which vision of Canada you support — for example, Stephen Harper’s vision or Maude Barlow or David Suzuki’s vision.

It’s time to set aside personalities and our own fears of being held accountable for “ethnic cleansing,” or “genocide” and get to work. We can support the self-determination and contributions of each Sinixt person all the while deciding which vision of Sinixt Territory/our home fits with our own political perspectives. I support a vision that recognizes the Sinixt and their responsibilities to their land and addresses the very real and ongoing problems of the Canadian colonial agenda which is not just obliterating First Nations cultures but also the very land we rely upon for our survival. A line from one of my poems comes to mind: “At what point in our history/did the cocoon of nice become more important/than truth?”

K.L. Kivi, Sinixt tum-xula7xw (pronounced toom-who-lau-h)

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