A Struggle on Many Fronts

17 Jun 2015

Taking a pen and a piece of paper, Pauline Terbasket begins to sketch a map of the area around the Canadian-USA border, from the Columbia River estuary in Portland to the Okanagan Sub Basin and the far reaches of the headwaters in British Colombia. To this map she adds a large circle and a series of dots. The circle marks the “homeland”, a cross-boundary territory that is home to tribal organizations on both the US and the Canadian side. The dots mark individual Okanagan Nation communities living within the territory, including 7 Syilx communities on the Canadian side.


For many of those living in these communities, their history is one of colonization and oppression, with a subsequent loss of language and identity, and the right to govern land, resources and peoples. They are just one of many indigenous communities around the world that have faced a similar fate.


The youngest of 9 children, Pauline was born and raised in Cawston, B.C. Canada. She is a member of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band. Coming from a ranching family, some of her earliest childhood memories are of helping out in the garden and fishing in the river. Idyllic as this might sound, these memories are not always entirely optimistic. She recalls how her daily life became increasing overshadowed by a growing awareness of poverty, unemployment, systemic racism and alcohol abuse. Despite these troubles that faced her community, her peoples and her family, Pauline never lost her belief in the importance of her indigenous heritage and culture. She attributes this pride in her culture to the courage and resilience of her parents. In the face of oppressive social conditions, her parents were hardworking, honest and committed to helping their extended family. They passed on these values to their children. She tells us that today she is a proud Syilx woman, who feels privileged to represent her family and work for her people. She is a strong advocate for Indigenous Title and Rights, working hard to promote sustainable community and economic development and to raise awareness about the poor living conditions many Indigenous Peoples continue to face around the world.


After starting work at her local band office (the representative office for each reserve community), Pauline decided to go to university. It was here that she first learnt more about the government policies, and national and international laws and treaties that were ultimately responsible for the displacement and alienation impacting her and her people on a daily basis. Not long after her return to the Okanagan, she started working for the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), the organization for which she is now Executive Director. The aim of Alliance is to strengthen the ties amongst the Syilx peoples and create a united front among seven reserve communities in Canada and those in the United States so as to preserve and revitalize a way of life. Their aims and objectives are based on the work of their predecessors, with the idea of collectivity at the core.


The ONA operates on a number of different levels. At least once a month, a chief from each of the seven reserve communities on the Canadian side, along with the chairman of the partner organization in the US – the Colville Confederated Tribes of WA State – meet to discuss common concerns and interests. Alongside this, the ONA organizes a number of events, special interest meetings and assemblies. Each of these events honors the ceremony and culture of Syilx peoples. 


Rather than expecting quick wins, Pauline explains that what is required in all their work is patience and resilience. This approach is necessary for two main reasons: firstly because changing international policy is always a lengthy and bureaucratic process; and secondly because no move is made by the ONA without the mandate of the elders and the people of the Okanagan territory. “Move too fast and you lose support from the community,” she explains. Although the ONA is more than aware of the need to work with external organizations, from the UN to universities and private sector organizations, the final say always lies with the local people.


In many cases it seems this patience is paying off. With the revitalization of indigenous language within communities and schools for example, many children are now reconnecting with their culture and heritage.  “These children are learning a language spoken by their grandparents but stolen from their parents,” Pauline explains.


Perhaps the most remarkable success story however is the reintroduction of salmon to the Okanagan Sub Basin. Post-contact urban sprawl, agriculture expansion and the final thrust of hydroelectric power developments of the early 1900s, resulted in an interruption of natural habitats and the movement of fish along the trans-boundary Columbia River system. Salmon fishing in the area ceased to exist, having a devastating impact on the local people’s way of life. However, thanks to strong leadership and persistence in lobbying governments, industry and the public to accept responsibility for these damages, today the loss of salmon must be substantially mitigated. Several reintroduction programs are in now place, and in the last five years the salmon are returning to the basin in record numbers. The first destination for the salmon, an indigenous food, is always the households of community members.


Pauline explains that the reintroduction was simply the first step; more work will be required to encourage more members to fish once more, and to reintroduce this food source as a staple in the diet of the younger generation who has not access to salmon for at least three generations.  It will also require discussion, innovation and strategies to establish and entrench best management and stewardship practices, and responsibilities that embrace Syilx people’s values and role.


It was through this work to reintroduce salmon that Pauline and the ONA first came across the local Slow Food Convivium. Having first visited Salone Del Gusto and Terra Madre in 2014, Pauline was back in Italy at the beginning of June as one of the delegates at the People’s Expo, the international forum of civil society and farmers’ movements that took place from June 3 – 5 in Milan. The ONA will also take part in Indigenous Terra Madre in India this November.


Describing her work as “a struggle on many fronts”, it is clear to see that Pauline is aware of the complexity of her work and the delicate approach needed when working to protect beliefs, language, culture and customs. Displaying quiet determination, and taking courage and strength from her parents teaching, her family and these success stories, she knows that a series of small steps represent a long and ongoing journey. She describes moments of her youth like “watching a film that you are part of, and yet cannot change.” Today, she is personally rewriting her own script. 


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Photo credit: Wikicommons


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