Okanagan Women’s Voices: Syilx and Settler Writing and Relations, 1870s – 1960s
June 30, 2022
Review By Kerrie Charnley
The “truth” of British Columbia’s history has yet to be fleshed out, with many active participants’ voices un-accounted for. This is particularly true regarding certain facts of Indigenous-settler relations that can be best understood through the insights, experiences, and words of the women who were there. Importantly, there needs to be inclusion of the perspectives of Indigenous women and their distinctive knowledges and positions within what is understood as the history of British Columbia, as Canadian history at large, and in what is known as the Okanagan. The editors of Okanagan Women’s Voices: Syilx and Settler Writing and Relations 1870s – 1960s went to exhaustive lengths to fill gaps in scholarship and in the public sphere, centring the history of Syilx women’s lives, voices, writings, and relationalities and also—interestingly—highlighting kinships between Syilx and settler women, where their respective places overlapped during pivotal moments in British Columbia’s history.
The book spans the onset of the colonial project in the 1860s and 1870s, and maps changes that occurred (and what made those changes occur). Drawing on archives in which Syilx and settler women’s voices and perspectives are in dialogue, the editors, Syilx scholar Jeannette Armstrong and settler scholars Janet MacArthur and Lally Grauer, deploy their decades of expertise to deftly contextualize and make space for Syilx and settler women’s perspectives and voices, shining a light on the experience and nature of Syilx–settler relations during this period. The seven women writers in the book often comment on occasions when colonial officials (whom the writers met as children or adults or were related to), all men given the time, visited their families’ homes, ranches, stores, and colonial offices.
We learn from these women’s perspectives how these men, familiar to anyone who has studied Canadian colonialism and the American wars against Indigenous tribes, drove the way in which the colonial project was wrought, including land and gold commissioners J.C. Haynes, W.G. Cox, Joseph Trutch, G.M. Sproat; political and military figures like Governor James Douglas, the U.S. General W.T. Sherman; and the famously eloquent Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Percé to the southeast of BC (who fought back against forced starvation and containment to reservations). Okanagan Women’s Voices reveals that these contracts created personal tensions in the lives of the women in differing ways. Some were outspoken about their disappointments in the colonial actions of the time and others, the writing shows, wrestled internally with conflicting external social pressures, as evident in correspondence between Haynes’ daughter, Hester White, and the Syilx writer, Matilda Kruger who was a first cousin to the famous Syilx author Mourning Dove’s father, Joseph Quintasket.
While they wrote from their respective “domestic” positions and locales in a heightened patriarchy, their parallel lives were intertwined in their concern with the well-being of neighbours, friends, and family. The Syilx writers, descended from esteemed, renowned Syilx leaders like Grand Chief Nkwala, Chief Francois, and Chief Tetlanista, quote mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers as keepers of Syilx family stories and histories. John Fall Allison’s first wife, Nora Yacumtecum, stands out as a particularly savvy and regal Syilx figure of the time with her pack train venture (horses packing supplies and people, often in the hundreds, over the Hope-Princeton trail), worthy of a book unto herself. Her expertise and connections were pivotal. The non-Syilx writers, Susan Moir Allison, Hester Emily White, and Isabel Christie MacNaughton, quote or draw from stories told by Syilx friends and family. Some writings show a sharing of stories based on Syilx captikʷɬ which hold multi-layered histories and ethics knowledge. Both Syilx and settler women show affectionate esteem for each other—and each other’s work and knowledge.
Having spent childhood summers in the 1970s travelling from Vancouver with my family to visit and ride horseback in the Penticton hills, and newly residing in Kelowna, Okanagan Women’s Voices allowed me to learn the stories while literally travelling the pathways of the Syilx and settler writers, thereby deepening my connection to this place through time. As a Katzie Coast Salish person, I have, since the 1980s, been moved by Jeannette Armstrong’s tenacity and resoluteness in transforming and indigenizing the academy while perpetuating Syilx Peoples’ worldview, language, histories and ecosystem ethics and concepts. A novelist and poet, Armstrong was one of the first Indigenous women in Canada to be published. The first third of the book documents Syilx writers: Josephine Shuttleworth, Eliza Jane Swalwell, Marie Houghton Brent, and Armstrong’s relative Mourning Dove. In starting with the Syilx women’s voices, respect is shown for Syilx People as the rightful hosts of the Okanagan and as such their voices begin the proceedings. Armstrong describes how these extraordinary women navigated their standings within, and between, two worlds and divides across land, culture, class and colonialism: “Their lives, their voices, and their stories are gifts they have left to us” (p. 1). The Syilx and settler women whose persons and writings are honoured in the book were interconnected through their writing, historical interests, and familial relations. These women grappled with complexity and harm amid the onslaught of new and changing colonial policies— the impacts of which reverberate in the Okanagan today.
Armstrong, Jeannette, Lally Grauer and Janet MacArthur, eds. Okanagan Women’s Voices: Syilx and Settler Writing and Relations, 1870s – 1960s. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2021. 464 pp. $34.95 paper.