I could almost see the headline as we drove up.
“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, is a river that ties them together. But the river also divides. 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 Okanagan Nation (Syilx). The setting, a landscape of sagebrush and vineyards, lay deep in the southern interior of British Columbia, among the depths of a north-south valley that is over one-hundred kilometres long and only a few wide.
The colonial settlers have a poor legacy with their Syilx neighbours here. It wasn’t always this way. Initially the newcomers in the 1800s had a very good relationship with the Syilx.—mostly French trappers and traders. They all got along well, intermarried, and today the last names most common among the Syilx are French: Marchand, Lezzard, Louie. But when Industrial Capitalism flourished and came to the valley in the last decades of the 1800s, and new immigrants arrived, mostly British, relations soured quickly. The 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 to ‘Residential Schools’. That legacy ended in the late 1900s. Some say it continues. Some say it’s time to move forward. Indisputable though, is the legacy of mistrust that was planted deep in the minds and memories of the people on the west side of that river.
In spite of all this, the cultural barrier marked by the flow of the river is softening. People from either side are becoming friends. And I don’t mean they are being forced to be ‘included’ through some mandate from an Office of Campus Equity and Meaningful Inclusion like one finds on Canadian university campuses these days, with their artificial programs, or strange ‘Indigenous and People of Colour’ groups that promote kitschy photo-ops, basket making and meet and greet sessions. This is more genuine; more real. They are simply doing things together because they are finding they actually like one another. They may have strong disagreements, even deep existential disagreements, and yet in daily life, they are coming together. That includes working together, hunting together, playing together and even mountain biking together. These are individuals from both sides of the river that have found through the power of curiosity, they often want to spend more time together. Not always, but enough to form some bonds of friendship.
The social scientist Aaron Ponce (2019) refers to this as ‘horizontal cohesion’, defined as a “willingness to engage with other people, with positive engagement implying a greater sense of social solidarity.” But he also noted that, “social cohesion is often disrupted by the perception of group boundaries.”
That river can be a powerful group boundary, but it seems to have less and less power these days.
Indeed, a great miracle is unfolding here.
Reconciliation has begun.
It will take time; many generations of course.
Are there individual Syilx that harbor anger, resentment, and animosity? Of course. How could they not? When your children are loaded onto cattle cars and railroaded to a Residential School far from home, where your children have the soul, culture, language and sometimes literally their life, squeezed out of them, the scars of a great trauma will exist for some time to come.
And yet many have forgiven the colonial settlers.
And among those colonial settlers there is, of course, still bone fide racism and arrogance. In spite of this many have reached out a hand and not only asked to be forgiven, but genuinely want to learn from the people over there, out beyond the river, on the other side of a cultural divide that can seem impenetrable at times for both sides.
But reconciliation began with rooting.
In the valley, the colonial settlers whom have lived in place for generations, are becoming rooted to it. They have begun to know the intricacies of the natural environment and the stories that connect them, that root them, to it. They have begun to learn the paradox of fire’s blessings in destruction. They have learned to welcome all six Okanagan seasons, know the four food chiefs and understand the message that balsamroot gives when she drops her seeds in late spring. They are learning why salmon must be returned to the Okanagan River but never to the Similkameen River. They have even begun to learn the protocols by which we should talk to each another. Why coyote left larch trees on one side of the valley but not the other, well, that remains a mystery for mystics and scientists alike; an enduring thing for all to ponder over. These are elementary lessons, but they are the necessary beginnings of rooting people to the place they live instead of being falsely connected to illusionary communities on YouTube and Facebook, where people are devoid of any 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 people on the other side of the river—the Syilx. They in turn, are opening their arms with caution, to those on the east side; including me.
Returning home to Penticton this last summer, I drove into town but I had come without a necessary toy—a mountain bike. It didn’t take long before friends had arranged the use of one but whom they got it from says everything about this place.
The borrowing of a mountain bike can tells us a lot about ‘cohesion.’ Much has been written about, and researched on topics such as social trust, social capital, compatibility and cultural distance. But there is less on the concept of cohesion. At a deep level we recognize that cohesion has something to do with the act of forming a united whole. Yet, trying to define cohesion is a bit like a maddening silhouette against a wall we cannot touch. Perhaps that is the wrong approach, when experience and examples are just as illuminating. In our search to find ways to live peacefully, especially in an era of large movements of migrants, with so many groups of potential antagonisms living next to one another, it is perhaps the most profound concept we need to understand right now.
I suggest it starts by asking a very simple question: Do they share their toys?
Because the person that loaned out his bike to me happened to be someone I know, not well, but in passing. We are not close but we have spoken together and know of each other and who he is is more important than anything else.
Tim (not his real name) lives on the Penticton Indian Reservation. He is an important political member of his community. But on this summer day, he was not acting as a man from the other side of the divide, nor a politician. He was acting as someone engaged in building bonds of cohesion. He was acting as a friend. “Here is the security code to my garage. The bike is inside,” he had said.
The truth of that day was that two middle-aged men crossed the river, drove onto the Indian Reservation, unlocked a garage door and borrowed a toy.