We are Our Laws Walking The Light Shining Through

By Ardith Walkem

This is Where it Starts

This is where it starts for me: from looking around, and seeing despair, seeing Indigenous peoples who are beautiful, with ancient literatures and laws, living in despair, knowing this needs to change. There are times when I could swear that I see despair like a shadow inhabitant on our faces, a separate species of spirit which stalks us. Some of our families (mine included) broke in the direction of isolation and break still. Indigenous Peoples have powerful and abiding laws for the care of our lands, our waters, our relationships, and equally we must have laws to pull us from this place. So this is my task, reverse engineering a path out of despair.

Despair comes from having sisters in law I will never meet, because their numbers are among the murdered and missing women. It comes from my grandnephew who I will now never know as a grown man because as a young Indigenous man he ended his own life rather than face bullying and brokenness for one more day. It comes from working at the outskirts of the child welfare and criminal justice systems and seeing individuals and families stuck in broken places and patterns, where the breakages seem to have become socially hereditary over generations. It comes from having daughters, and knowing this has to stop.

Letting go of Survival

Leanne Simpson talks of a time when “everything cracked. shattered. we cracked. everything fell to the ground in thousands of pieces”:

“no one knew what to do.
some people didn’t survive.
some people gave up. moved on. buried. forgot.
some people found ways to cope.
some people worked hard at just breathing.
just breathe.”

Sticks and Stones

I was a young Indigenous kid in Grade 7 at an elementary school in Salmon Arm. I was a rotund kid, and one of the only Indigenous kids in the school. I was dislocated, newly moved to town, after several moves to different towns having left my home community a year and a half before when my family broke apart. One day, our gym class was running on the sidewalk beside an apple orchard. It was the Fall. I struggled, last of the pack. Some of the other students waited in the orchard and threw rotting apples at me as they yelled, “fat squaw, fat squaw, fat squaw”.

In a school system that funnelled Indigenous kids into “trades” or “work experience,” I was one of very few Indigenous kids in regular programming. It was a recurring event for other students to follow me home yelling derogatory names (“fat squaw” remaining a favourite) and throwing rocks, sticks, or snowballs, from elementary school through to junior high, until we moved away from Salmon Arm four years later. Sometimes my pen and notebooks were thrown out the school window, and I would have to wait until recess or lunch to search around on the asphalt below to recover them. It was a very difficult and lonely time. I never told anyone in my family what was happening. I felt that my mom, who was a single mom, would not be strong enough. That if I told her, I would have the added burden of dealing with her anger and sadness too, and still nothing would change. I did not believe that any of the teachers in either the elementary or the junior high school could do anything, the world of school administrators being far removed from the world of kids, social pressures and punishments.

At that time, the only action I could see was to endure, survive, while planning for a different future. Our challenge is how do we let go of survival when we are no longer standing alone on the sidewalk beside the apple orchard, a rotund Indigenous girl, pelleted with rotten apples and worse words? An insignificant set of harms in the grander scheme of the damages that Indigenous People face, but a question that is shared no matter the damages.

I am writing from that space, after we have as Peoples survived, and wonder where to go from here. About the imperative of hope and of our need to act together to cast out despair, to assess the damages that have been done through our colonial history and call upon the laws that would apply to guide us out of this situation. The law of hope is segregated from the lives we live.

We inherit a colonial landscape, we inherit wounds, we inherit strengths, we inherit. A large part of how we work with hope has to do with how we address our history, how we exist at this point of being and becoming. Indigenous Peoples cannot simply forget the harms that have been done, that continue to be carried forward, that continue to garner benefits. At the same time, we need to find a way forward. To act now from a position of hope and love.

Indigenous laws – and many art forms – are participatory, made and remade through engagement with life. Indigenous laws are alive, in a process of constant creation, moving forward. Despair exists in a disruption of this process. Where we look backward, where we are frozen, where we see ourselves through the lens of a society which does not see a place for us now or moving forward.

Searching for a Law that Fits

When I first turned my attention to this question, no laws that I have been taught seem to address this situation directly. None seem to fit. We have not experienced colonialism in the past, and so no laws have been expressed that provide direction in this situation. Laws about mourning do not suit when we die in pieces, in farmers’ fields, on concrete edged parks, the roughened jigsaw of lodge pole pine bark our only promise of solace. When we live in pieces on the dust roads to feral blueberry patches looking at our daughter’s dark eyes in the mirror and floor it, before before; in courts where we stir at the recipe of acquiescence and measure what we can agree to. We search to find the song that will sing us back together.

This is the only way a half-urban-raised mostly-unilingual and nonetheless utterly Nlaka’pamux woman knows how to hunt: by picking through the different pieces and images of stories, to find a path through.

We are our laws walking

This conversation does not start in places
we are comfortable

the sing song discussion

sacred ease of our laws about lands and trees and waters,

how we are connected

This starts at a deeper place harder

the marrow, where land becomes bone,

becomes blood

Where we are our laws rendered real walking

Rendered real

huddled boneless in a doorway, our hands reaching out,

come, I will take you home, I will return

you to you, I will return you to me.

Law of Hope

I am struck at the difference between our easy willingness to talk about our laws about the lands, waters, trees, and for our relationship with other living beings as Indigenous Peoples, and our difficulty with addressing the broken among us (or within us). The difference between the sacred and the disposable. Our obligations to our living world are equally obligations to each other. We are equally part of our living world, connected across time and generations. There is an underlying law of hope which wends its way through and into the laws within many Indigenous traditions. It is both internal and external, exercised when we turn from despair toward a knowing that we have a future, that there is place for us, for our beauty. The law of hope within Nlaka’pamux tradition marks the obligations that flow from knowing that we are the “now” in a line of existence that stretches from time out of memory, and into the future.

Jackrabbit – Casting out Despair

There is a story about hope and how laws came to the Nlaka’pamux people, this is a small fraction of the story. In the time when our people transitioned back and forth between their human and animal forms, still talked to the animals in shared languages. There came to be a time when we were living in chaos and despair. Many of our people had given up hope and were living in fear. We were plagued by different forces, which some people describe as alien beings. Despair took hold of our hearts, our spirits, our minds.

We realized we could not live as we were. Whispers and conversations started. People and animals drew together and made the decision that something had to be done to cast out the despair, to cast out these entities which plagued us, to change our world.

A decision was made to build a large fire on top of the steep mountain which breaks off to a sheer steep drop to the Thompson River below. The plan was to collectively draw the spirits to this site and to cast them over the side of the mountain and to reclaim our lives. The people and animals got together to carry out this plan.

Somehow, along the way, jackrabbit was injured and broke her back leg. Jackrabbit despaired about being unable to help or contribute. She sat wailing, and crying in a piteous state. Others approached and bandaged that leg up. Though Jackrabbit could no longer walk upright, her back leg now bandaged up at a sharp angle. Jackrabbit was admonished that we are all needed, there is no time to sit by the side of the trail – we cannot cast out despair, we cannot change our situation – without the contribution of each of us. No role, no matter how big, nor how small, can be overlooked. Each of us who shares in the life force is related to the others, each of us has an obligation to ourselves, each of us has obligations to our nkshAytkn (relations), each of us has an obligation to act now.

Wounded, Jackrabbit joined in bringing fuel for the fire built by the people and animals on the cliff to relentlessly force the beings over the cliff edge. As the fire burned hotter and hotter, the spirits withdrew farther and farther. Slowly, the spirits melted over the side of the mountain. They melted down the side of the mountain in large purple diagonal stripes which stain the sheer rock face to this day. This community action to cast out the monsters, mirrors communal hunting or fishing that our community did at times when we needed to act together to survive. When survival alone or in small family groups was not possible.

Jackrabbit is damaged, and yet that damage offers no refuge from action. Each of us is damaged, each of us is broken in our own way, and yet each of us we hold those broken pieces and that fierce and beautiful light. My elders say that the people who have been broken may be the most beautiful because it is through the fissures and cracks that the light shines through. How can we gather these broken pieces together to weave ourselves back to wholeness. We learn also from this story that we cannot sit with the broken parts of ourselves and cry that we cannot join in, have nothing to offer. Hope is a battle we actively fight for, each minute, not a default position.

It would have been impossible to cast out despair without all of the people and animals acting together. This story ends with strict instructions about how the alien beings – the despair, the lack of hope – once melted over the side of the mountain – must remain there. Looking back, searching for them, rethinking, is dangerous because it invites them in again. There are strong cautions against looking over the edge, clear instructions about what to do with the items that carried tears from the time of despair.

Despair are Spirits Walking Amongst Us

The aliens that we live with break us apart in directions of unkindness and isolation, as we search in fear to name the spirits that break us – looking inward, naming ourselves and each other instead, too afraid to look anywhere else. So much of our anger and despair is turned inward. Against ourselves, against our families, our communities, our children, our women.

The Jackrabbit story tells us that we should treat despair or lack of hope as though despair is a real, powerful and dangerous spirit. It is so powerful that it cannot simply be ignored, its disruption will grow. Despair is not personal weakness or breakage, but rather as a spirit, alien yet long known, unleashed and stalking among us. Despair is a real spirit, alien being(s) – appearing together in stories with the laws that tell us how to deal with them. Seeing despair, or part of the problems that we face as alien beings, instead of as personal short comings, offers a new way forward.

Our law tells us that recovery from despair, to defeat this alien spirit that robs us of so much, requires a conscious decision to measure our actions and interactions against their impact when we acknowledge our connectedness across spiritual realms, across time – both backward and forward, when we acknowledge that this moment of existence is where all of those realms come together through us and our actions.

Some of the times that I have seen elders most fierce is when people despair or continue to mourn beyond what they think is healthy – they insist this is “looking back” and potentially encouraging a bad interaction with the spirit world (who should be respected and not anchored here in our world). At a funeral or memorial service, we gather up all of the tears, have a ceremonial way to dispatch of items that have collected our tears – we burn wailing tissues and dried flowers to ceremonially send them to the next world. We see this as well in ceremonies for healing certain illnesses or sadnesses. We have stories which talk about the extraction of illnesses (which are often discussed as spirits or separate beings), and how these powerful forces must be dealt with to maintain the healing, and wellness. To relive things that have gone wrong or have harmed us; to question a successful healing; to continue to save pieces of mourning (allowing our tears to fall and be amongst us rather than dealt with in a ceremonial fashion once someone has passed) are all actions that are identified as invitations for those spirits, that despair, those illnesses to return or stay with us.

At the same time, this directive about hope, about moving forward, is not a story of forgetting, or just “getting over it”. Moving forward only occurs after action, after rectification, after despair is cast out. Hope is not a passive process. Hope is a battle. We fight for it. We fight together for it. We must choose it, and then continue to choose it.

nkshAytkn – We are Related Across Time and Worlds

One of the strongest parts of Nlaka’pamux law is nkshAytkn. This is a powerful idea that talks about how we are related, but far more deeply than can be seen on the surface. On one reading- we are all related, what happens to one of us happens to all, it speaks to our obligations to each other, to other life we share our world with, in a very real, personal, and abiding way. It is not limited to this world or to linear time. nkshAytkn – we are related across realms – the spiritual and other worlds are as real and related to us as this world we see. nkshAytkn – we are related across time – we are related to those that have come before us, and to those that will come after us. This is not a simple platitude. It means, in a very real way, we have to ask how our actions today will impact our Peoples generations into the future. This is more common when we talk about decisions about how to authorize uses of lands or resources and ask what the environmental impacts will be into the future.

When we are called upon to make decisions about a family that may be broken, about a child in need of protection – how would those decisions be made differently if we applied the principles embodied within the concept of nkshAytkn? If we asked what the long term impacts of our decisions would be on that child, their children, their relations over generations? If we act only to “protect” a child now, without considering their relationships, and the wealth that their culture and extended family bring over their lifetime, over generations, we act from incomplete knowledge. Our actions could harm over the course of lifetimes. If we assess the risk to a woman who has been subject to physical violence according to nkshAytkn and the impacts over a lifetime, over the impacts of the people that she will impact and be impacted by (her sense of dignity, safety and security within her community, her nation, her world – her children and grandchildren’s sense of those things) our decisions are different. If we assess our response to Indigenous people who may be accused of crimes according to nkshAytkn and the knowledge that these people – and their children, relations – will continue to be part of our society, we make different decisions.

We Embody the Land, We are Our Laws Be/Coming

The Jackrabbit story is powerfully identified as one where laws were brought to our people. Nlaka’pamux law is not dry or removed – it is found in the moment of being, becoming, in our actions. It doesn’t exist apart from us. Our law is, and is found within, our obligations to ourselves to live in alignment with our understanding of what is right, our obligations to each other, our obligations to the living world, in the truth that we are part of our living world and cannot walk away when we see something is wrong, that we cannot refuse to act. When we draw our sustenance from the land through the foods we eat and the environment we live in, in the marrow of our bones, our land and all of those other life forces become us.

We embody the land. We exist in this beautiful, stunning, sacred, dizzyingly scary moment of constant creation. We reconstitute the land, and are the living breathing embodiment of it.
In writing about hope my inclination was to talk only about the future, where it is easier – when we have magically gotten beyond where we are now, to where we can dream of being. In this collaboration I was lucky enough to be paired with Corinne Hunt who pointed out a problem with my instinct to talk about the future only: the only place we can act is where we are standing now. Our law tells us that because we exist at the moment of be/coming, we exist at the very moment of creation, as we reach forward, as we embody that creation.

If we truly believed and had hope for the future, we would treat people who are convicted or investigated for crimes differently. We would treat children differently when we are called upon to protect them, if we knew that our future was shared, we would not protect only today but look to their future – at the connection, wealth of culture and belonging, we take in the name of immediate protection. When we protect children in ways that break them, we are not acting according to a law of hope, this reflects instead a law or hope of extinguishment. In criminal law, the disposition of most Indigenous Peoples (many of whom are broken) is that we warehouse these people as though waiting for extinguishment, instead of healing and instead of believing that they have a future. A process of containment, rather than repair. What would the idea that we are all related (which we apply so easily in assessments of environmental damage and repercussions across generations) mean if we applied it to the way we make decisions about people? //