As we drove up, I could already imagine the headline…
Two Middle-Aged White Men Drive Onto Indian Reservation and Steal Mountain Bike in Broad Daylight.
The truth is far more interesting.
It started where there is a lake to the north. Ten kilometres to the south is a second lake. Between them, a river ties them together. But also divides them.
On the east side is the small city of Penticton—a place of the colonial settlers—35,000 of them. On the west side is the Penticton Indian Reservation of the Syilx/Okanagan First Nation. The setting, a landscape of sagebrush and vineyards, lies deep in the southern interior of British Columbia, among the depths of a north–south valley over one hundred kilometres long and only a few wide.
The colonial settlers have a poor legacy with their Syilx neighbours. It hasn’t always been this way. Initially, in the 1800s, the newcomers—mostly French trappers and traders—had a good relationship with the Syilx. They even intermarried, so that today the most common surnames among the Syilx are French: Marchand, Louie, Lezard. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, when the industrial capitalism that was flourishing globally came to the valley, new immigrants arrived—mostly British—and relations quickly soured. The recent immigrants took most of the lands from the Syilx and forced them to live on a small patch of former territory. Then they took their children away for indoctrination in a residential school.
That practice officially ended in the latter years of the twentieth century. Some say its legacy still continues, while others say it is time to move on. Either way, an enduring mistrust has been planted deep in the minds and memories of the people on the west side of the river.
In spite of all this, the cultural barrier marked by the flow of the river is softening. People from both sides are becoming friends. And I don’t mean that they are being forced together through the mandate of some Office of Equity and Meaningful Inclusion with its kitschy photo-ops, drum-making, public beratings or meet-and-greet sessions. This is more genuine, more real. People are simply doing things together because they like one another. They may have strong—even existential—disagreements, yet in daily life they are working, hunting and playing together. Individuals from both sides of the river are spurred on by curiosity: they want to get to know one another—enough of them, at least, for some bonds of friendship to have formed.
Social scientist Aaron Ponce describes cohesion as a “willingness to engage with other people, with positive engagement implying a greater sense of social solidarity.” Unfortunately, “cohesion is often disrupted by the perception of group boundaries.”
A river can be a powerful group boundary, yet our river seems to have less power these days.
A great miracle is unfolding here. Reconciliation has begun, though it will take many generations to complete.
Are there individual Syilx who harbour anger, resentment and animosity? Of course. How could there not be? Their children were loaded onto cattle cars and railroaded to a residential school far from home, where soul, culture, language and sometimes life itself was squeezed out of them—the scars of that trauma will exist for some time to come. But, in an act of great courage, many have forgiven the colonial settlers.
Among those colonial settlers there is, of course, still some racism and arrogance. In spite of this, many have reached out a hand, asking to be forgiven, genuinely wanting to learn from the people over there, out beyond the river, on the other side of a cultural divide that can sometimes seem impenetrable to both sides.
This reconciliation began not only by reaching out, but by rooting.
Colonial settlers who have lived in this place for generations are slowly becoming rooted. They have begun to know the intricacies of the natural environment and the stories that connect them to the place. They have begun to learn the paradox of fire’s blessed destructions. They have learned to welcome all six Okanagan seasons, know the four food chiefs and understand the message that balsamroot sends when she drops her seeds in late spring. They have learned why salmon must be returned to the Okanagan River, but never to the Similkameen. They have begun to learn the protocols by which we should talk with one another. But why coyote left larch trees on one side of the valley but not the other remains a mystery for mystics and scientists alike.
These are elementary lessons but necessary beginnings, which root people in the place they live, rather than connecting them to illusory communities on YouTube and Facebook, whose attendees are devoid of attachment to the soil they cross, the sage they smell and the sun that warms them.
The colonial settlers have been learning from their teachers, the Syilx, and they, in turn, have been cautiously opening their arms to those on the east side. Including me.
Last summer, I arrived in these parts without a necessary toy—a mountain bike. It didn’t take long before friends had arranged the use of one. Where they got it says everything about this place and about the power of cohesion.
Cohesion is a strange concept, first proposed in Gustave Le Bon’s 1897 book The Crowd. Since then, an abundance of literature has been written on the topic. Social scientists are constantly recalibrating their definitions in response to the smallest new understandings stemming from the research. Trying to define cohesion is a bit like trying to trace a silhouette against a wall we cannot touch. Perhaps experience can prove more illuminating.
Do people share their toys? The answer reveals a great deal about reconciliation with indigenous peoples, forgiveness, coming together, and the possibility of a hopeful shared future.
On this particular summer’s day, the person who loaned his bike to me was someone I knew in passing. Tim (not his real name) lives on the Penticton Indian Reservation. He is an important political member of his community. That day, however, he was not acting as a man from the other side. Nor as a politician. He was simply acting as someone naturally engaged in building bonds of cohesion. He was acting as a friend of a friend. “Here is the security code to my garage. The bike is inside,” he said.
That day, two middle-aged white men crossed the river, drove onto the Penticton Indian Reservation, unlocked a garage door and borrowed a toy.