Jeannette Armstrong: In the spirit of En’owkin
September 16th, 2012
Jeannette Armstrong is a grand-niece of Hamishama [Mourning Dove], the first female Native novelist in North America.
As a poet, novelist, musician, historian, Native activist, and teacher, Armstrong has become one of the most influential indigenous writers in North America.
She is currently a director of the School of Writing and Visual Arts at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, a collaborative educational facility that serves Native writers from across the country.
Born and raised within the Okanagan band, she participates in the global concerns of aboriginal peoples, speaking around the world and participating in United Nations conferences.
In May Armstrong was interviewed in Penticton by BCBW for a documentary film, Jeannette Armstrong: Knowledge Keeper of the Okanagan, which airs on CBC-TV on September 23 at 9:30 pm.
In August she was a key participant – along with Lee Maracle and Maria Campbell – in a national gathering of aboriginal publishers at SFU’s downtown campus, coordinated by Greg Young-ing of Theytus Books and the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing.
BCBW: How do you feel about the name British Columbia?
ARMSTRONG: It reinforces an idea that this is British territory, that it’s British ground, British-owned and British-regulated, and that to me has always been an insult. If you look around, maybe with the exception of a small part of Victoria, it’s definitely not British.
BCBW: How much does your sense of storytelling evolve from your immediate family?
ARMSTRONG: Probably more than I realize. I give credit to the people who gave me the tradition through their teachings.
BCBW: So when you tell a story, do you find yourself falling into a natural family rhythm?
ARMSTRONG: Definitely. The storytelling tradition in the Okanagan is very strong because of the permaculturing that was practiced here, as opposed to the people being nomadic. Storytelling is very much the art form that people have practiced and taken pride in. When I’m recounting the stories of, say, my grandmother, Christine Armstrong, I see her gestures and I hear her voice. I can see her body, her face. She’s the one talking and I’m simply listening and reiterating what she’s saying.
BCBW: You’re using English as a second language whereas when I write I can take my language for granted.
ARMSTRONG: That’s right. I learned Okanagan first. I speak Okanagan more fluently than I speak English.
BCBW: Is it true that one of your grandmothers forbade you to speak English?
ARMSTRONG: That was my Grandmother Christine. She spoke some English but it was very limited. When we visited her, she always reprimanded us when we used any English words. All her family was like that. For us it was a really good thing in that the communication in the home was always Okanagan.
BCBW: Is Pauline Johnson important?
ARMSTRONG: In grade school, when I first read some of her poetry, I didn’t know she was Native. I remember going back to her poems and re-reading them. I remember the sound and the rhythm and the images. I thought, “Wow, you know, that’s how our people speak. That sounds like how we use language.” It wasn’t until grade seven or eight that I learned Pauline Johnson was a Native person.
BCBW: To this day the only monument to a writer in Vancouver is the Pauline Johnson Memorial in Stanley Park.
ARMSTRONG: That’s great. (Laughter) I think that’s great!
BCBW: One of the other major Native writers who preceded you was George Clutesi.
ARMSTRONG: I was influenced by him quite a bit. I remember him doing public appearances. He came to Penticton one time. He was on the radio talking about some of his stories. I remember thinking, what a wonderful thing to do. It was important that he recorded his stories in English in the same way that my great-aunt, Mourning Dove, wrote from her perspective in Okanagan and published in English.
BCBW: Did you know Harry Robinson?
ARMSTRONG: Harry was one of my teachers. I spent a lot of time with him. I spent as much time as I could with him after coming home from university and taking up residence here again. He’d send the message to the band office to have somebody tell me to pick him up because he wanted to tell me a story. I used to go, on average about once a week, and either sit with him or have him come to my home. I was deeply influenced by Harry.
BCBW: And George Ryga? And The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?
ARMSTRONG: George and his family used to come to the salmon feast we had on the Penticton reserve. I remember I was sitting under a tree. It was a hot day in the park. He was sitting on the other side of the tree. He was talking with someone about the play and I was eavesdropping, I guess you could say. I swung around slowly and before I knew it I was sitting right in front of him. I was 17 or 18. The play was here in Penticton and people were interested in talking to him about it. He asked me if I was interested in seeing it.
He gave me some tickets to go. I remember none of my friends had ever attended a play like that. We went to the play and when we left that night, none of us said a word for maybe an hour. It changed my way of thinking about what story could do and how it could be presented. We became friends after that. There were many opportunities to go to his house in Summerland. He attracted a lot of people that way.
BCBW: Your novel Slash traces Native radicalism and Native awareness through historical events. Why did you use a male protagonist?
ARMSTRONG: During that militant period there was a lot of chauvinism or sexism – machismo may be another word – that created a weakness in the movement. It also exemplified, as well, that it was a movement born out of the anger and aggression rather than one that was born out of spirituality and reinforcement of who we were as Native people. I needed a male character to be true to the history of it.
BCBW: When you look back at the flowering of militancy, do you think of that as a painful growing period?
ARMSTRONG: No. That was one of the most exhilarating periods in my life. The change factors in our community were worth it, were valuable. You need to make a stand, you have to assert some things that are unjust to your community for change to happen. That’s where the victories were. People stood up and said, “No, we’re not taking the bullshit anymore. We have rights to be who we are as Native people. We’re not going to be you, so get used to it.”
The pain came in the defeats, in the backlash. There still is that heavy colonialist attitude that we should be like ‘everyone else’. We should just fade into the picture and assimilate.
BCBW: How did the En’owkin Centre get started?
ARMSTRONG: As a result of the militancy, in 1975 the closure of the district Indian Affairs office was one of the bigger steps that was taken here in the Okanagan. The occupation of the Indian Affairs office was basically a statement saying we can handle our own affairs, we can govern ourselves, we can make determinations about education and housing and welfare ourselves. There was a whole series of education conferences. I was going to university in Victoria so I was coming back and helping organize these conferences.
Education was a priority identified by our elders, our Chiefs. The mandate was created to develop an Indian education centre to resource all the Okanagan bands, for members right from ground zero up to a hundred years old. That’s what this centre is. It’s registered as the Okanagan Indian Education Resources Society.
BCBW: What is the meaning of En’owkin?
ARMSTRONG: The word is from the High Okanagan. There are three levels to our language. The High Okanagan is spoken by the elders in ceremony or in a serious meeting or gathering. And it’s spoken by storytellers and medicine people, people who are carriers of knowledge. It’s similar to what you would call academic English. Big concepts are compacted into one word. A literal translation of the concept of En’owkin is something like, “dropping an idea like a drop of water through the top of the head and absorbing it by osmosis”. That’s the literal image you can conjure in your mind. But its meaning is referring to a consensus-making process.
I’ve studied what the Western mind thinks of as a consensus-making process and it’s not the same. The En’owkin process is a way in which everyone in the room is engaged in a dialogue because there’s a problem or something that is unknown. They don’t come to argue with each other. They don’t come to debate. They don’t come for one person to win the argument and another person to lose the argument. They come saying, “This is my view on it, and I would like to solicit your opposite view to mine. Because if I don’t have the most opposite view to mine, then I won’t understand the nature of this problem.”
If we’re going to understand anything, if we’re going to become knowledgeable, if we’re going to change our thinking to be able to have a peaceful resolution to anything, we have to be able to engage in En’owkin. If everyone around the room has that vision and has that approach to a problem, you’re going to have resolvement. So when we started the centre, that was one of the words the elders told us to keep in mind as a principle. I believe in that principle. I believe it is the strongest principle for acquiring knowledge and change in the world. I know the students who come here learn that principle and they go back and will change their communities. They will change this country.
I have no doubt in that.
Essay Date: 1995