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Indigenous Mountain Knowledge: Transponsive Narratives

What is Indigenous Knowledge?  Indigenous Knowledge is the accumulative experience; dynamic practice; the historical understanding; expressed through transponsive narratives, which are embedded in place through our memories of moving across the land. 

You could argue that all individuals do this, and you would not be far off; however, what is different between Indigenous Knowledge and, let’s say, Mountain Knowledge - that of a guide or mountain professional would have - is the reflective dialogue expressed in complex forms and level of topophilia felt as a result.  These two aspects - feeling and - what most reduce to story - are the frame in which our Knowledge is recognized and understood by those around us. 

Western and Indigenous knowledge systems are not drastically different; instead, they are misrepresented through a lack of cultural anchors.  Our language and reliance on the written word fails us to understand what and how we experience the world; our education fails us to recognize the subtle nuances of betweenness. 

This essay is not an academic paper despite some reference to academics and some lofty concepts, and I want this to be as informal and as close to oral as you can get without recording my voice.  This first short essay is an attempt to draw light on these breakdowns between cultures while illustrating the way Indigenous Mountain Knowledge develops and maintains a sense of place which becomes a hearth, not for the person but rather for our Knowledge - best described by one of our Nlaka'pamux knowledge holders the late Annie York "These mountains are our universities."

With the help of my late friend and mentor Martin Whittles, we set out in 2004 to understand the myriad of indigenous stories in the city and how they contribute to making the seemingly foreign-built environment home for half the Indigenous population of Canada. 

What would become a book chapter, Napi in the City: Siksikaitsitipi Narratives Revisted in Annis May Timpson's 2009 edited volume “First Nations, First Thoughts: The Impact of Indigenous Thought in Canada” Martin and I looked at how Blackfoot narratives of the past, as well as those of today, come together to make sense of the urban world.  As a result, we developed a model of narrative we called 'Transponsive Narratives' – or those “narratives that are fluid, situational and responsive reflections of the world in which they are created and shared” (103).  At the time, I understood how narratives make the city.  Still, it wouldn't be until recently, with the help of another friend and mentor – Robert (Bob) Sandford, who places Indigenous stories as the primary anchor to the development of mountains as home, that the complexity of Indigenous narratives faces a similar challenge.

In “Napi in the City," Martin and I identified four models of city narratives of Indigenous peoples; one, describes the struggle of identity; two, perceptional and family narratives; three, stereotypical colonial image of Indigenous peoples; four, stereotypical racist joke or ethnocentric aside. 

These narrative models could be used when considering Indigenous narratives of the mountains.  I argue that the struggle for identity alters from losing identity to challenging a fault's identity – that of the ecological Indian.  For the second narrative, I see Indigenous peoples not speaking about their own or family history but from a collective or "pan-Indian history," which is problematic.  The third colonial narrative comes down to politics, in that there are no Indians in the mountain parks, and if there are narratives, they are ancient.  The fourth will always be there if the other three are.   

The transponsive narrative in the mountain context is like that of the city, yet the way they are attached to places requires all aspects of Indigenous Knowledge to develop a complete set of narratives. 

My mountain and Indigenous Knowledge and subsequent narratives are mine, yet they come alive through the interactions with my family, friends, mentors, and those we understand to be knowledge holders.  If Knowledge comes from experiences, practices, and histories, it must include our western educational learning and language.  The introduction to western concepts, notions, and histories with the decline of Indigenous languages, sets the stage for great confusion and fragmentation of Indigenous Knowledge. 

This clash of views and practices between Indigenous and non-Indigenous is what Leroy Little Bear calls "Jagged Worldviews."  The way I reconcile my two Knowledge and narratives is profoundly subjective, yet some aspects are similar for those walking these braided trails.  The elements that assist in bringing knowledge systems together come to intentional daily movement on the land, which builds, reinforces, and adds to our Knowledge.  Another friend and now University of Exeter scholar Martina Tyrrell studied hunting practices in the western arctic and spoke at length about how hunters would classify Knowledge into – “knowledge of” something, like you would read or hear about or – “knowledge at” something, like what occurs after working with something for a long time.

One of my favourite professors at the University of Lethbridge, Hendrika Beaulieu, would often use the term "working your culture” which speaks to the consistent building on your cumulative experience and the importance of amplifying your daily practice through doing. 

The embeddedness of our Knowledge on the land through diligent work creates what Edward Casey would describe as 'Thick' and 'Thin' places.  Put another way, places of great personal and cultural significance.  In western cultural understanding, these become World Heritage sites like Banff or the Burgess Shale.  In Indigenous experiences, our significant places are only genuinely recognized by the individual or family that layered that specific place, which means that western ideas of place are collective.  The indigenous opinions of place are more individual. 

The reason for this comes down to who enters or accesses the mountains.  For many Indigenous groups, from speaking with knowledge holders, only a select few understood the trails or were comfortable in the unpredictable mountainous environment or, in some cases, given permission to enter the mountains.  So, those not accustomed to entering the mountains asked the people with mountain knowledge, which meant there must be a relationship or, at the very least, a partnership.  Mountain access and activities were typically to move from one location to another, as indicated by the many trails like Athabasca or Howse, or to hunt, harvest, to work on oneself. 

Not all cultures were comfortable in the mountains, even those surrounded by mountains like the Nlaka'pamux in southwestern British Columbia.  My great-aunt, the late Herriot Coutlee, often warned me of the dangers of mountain travel.  My mother would worry about the mountain roads, and my sisters today lament the unpredictability of mountain weather.

Nevertheless, the mountains are our home regardless of the dangers. 

The western guiding notion of risk management while in the mountains happens with all people living in mountainous areas; this navigation of dangerous terrain becomes ingrained in our daily practices, from wearing layers to deal with the weather to understanding the nuances of spring or fall mountain travel even if it was going to school across town.  These dynamic practices linked by humorous antidotes, gossip, and ironic life stories leave personal and cultural markers only to be added by others' experiences. 

The way to communicate to decision-makers and those in power is to tell them the story of the mountains and the people that make them home.  However, by telling someone a narrative of the importance of mountains - like all accounts, merely telling a story, you run the risk of that story being taken out of context.  Personal and collective narratives are essential but must occur through cumulative experiences, dynamic practices, and historical understandings. 

Doing this requires more than just these foundational elements; they need a sender that recognizes, understands, and can negotiate cultures; and a receiver that can accept different communication and understanding methods. In attempting to explain mountain weather and relate it to Indigenous practices I came face to face with the limitation in the English language and academic concepts. The fluidity of our narratives in English.

By Tim W. Patterson. All rights reserved. 2005-2024

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