North Central Washington

The Okanogan are the ones who are dream and land together

Mending the connection between our present culture and the timeless land of the Okanogan

We respect the people whose lives gave this place its name were river tribes in a land of many rivers––Okanogan, Similkameen, San Poil, Methow, and many more––all feeding into one great river, the Columbia. The descendants of these tribes still live here.

In an essay titled, Identity and Responsibility, Jeanette Armstrong (2001), a native Okanagan, described the Okanagan world view:

I am from the Okanagan, a part of British Columbia that is much like most of California in climate––very dry and hot. Around my birthplace are two rock mountain ranges: the Cascades on one side and the Selkirks on the other. The river is the Columbia. It is the main river that flows through our lands, and there are four tributaries: the Kettle, the Okanagan/Similkameen, the San Poil, and the Methow.

My mother is a river Indian. She is from Kettle Falls, which is a major confluence of the Columbia River near Inchelium. The Kettle River people are in charge of the fisheries in all of the northern parts of the Columbia River system in our territories. The Arrow Lakes and the tributaries of the Kettle flow south through the Columbia Basin. My great-grandmother's husband was a salmon chief and caretaker of the river in the north.

My father's people are mountain people. They occupied the northern part of British Columbia, known as the Okanagan Valley. My father's people were hunters––the people in the Okanagan who don't live in the river basin. They were always a separate culture from the river people. My name is passed on from my father's side of the family and is my great-grandmother's name. I am associated with my father's side, but I have a right and a responsibility to the river through my mother's birth and my family education.

So that is who I am and where I take my identity from. I know the mountains, and, by birth, the river is my responsibility. They are part of me. I cannot be separated from my place or my land.

When I introduce myself to my own people in my own language, I describe these things because it tells them what my responsibilities are and what my goal is. It tells them what my connection is, how I need to conduct myself, what I need to carry with me, what I project, what I teach and what I think about, what I must do and what I can't do. The way we talk about ourselves as Okanagan people is difficult to replicate in English. Our word for people, for humanity, for human beings, is difficult to say without talking about connection to the land. When we say the Okanagan word for ourselves, we are actually saying the ones who are dream and land together.” That is our original identity. Before anything else, we are living, dreaming Earth pieces. It's a second identification that means human; we identify ourselves as separate from other things on the land.

The word Okanagan comes from a whole understanding of what we are as human beings. We can identify ourselves as human as well, different from birds and trees and animals. When we say that, there is a first part of the word and an s; whenever you put an s in front of any word, you turn it into a physical thing, a noun. The first part of a word refers to a physical realm.

The second part of the word refers to the dream or to the dream state. Dream is the closest word that approximates the Okanagan. But our word doesn't precisely mean dream. It actually means “the unseen part of our existence as human beings”. It may be the mind or the spirit or the intellect. So that second part of the word adds the perspective that we are mind as well as matter. We are dream, memory, and imagination.

The third part of the word means that if you take a number of strands, hair, or twine, place them together, they become one strand. You use this thought symbolically when you make a rope and when you make twine, thread, and homemade baskets, and when you weave the threads to make the coiled basket. That third part of the word refers to us being tied into the part of everything else. It refers to the dream parts of ourselves forming our community, and it implies what our relationships are. We say, “This is my clan,” or, “This is my people. These are the families that I came from. These are my great-grandparents,” and so on.

In Okanogan County, many Indians live on the Colville Confederated Tribal Lands (brief history), where eleven different nations and tribes have persevered against incredible adversity. Today they are desperately working to preserve what remains of their custom and culture, the words of their elders. While we have begun to appreciate what was lost, modern civilization still lacks the spiritual connection to the land to guide us in harmony with nature.

The Okanogan word for themselves implies a connectedness, which may be the easiest way to describe how native concepts more easily relate to sustainability. Even today, it is impossible to set foot in the Okanogan without feeling the magic that emanates from the mountains and rivers. The old chiefs had it right.

I was born a thousand years ago, born in the culture of bows and arrows ... born in an age when people loved the things of nature and spoke to it as though it had a soul.

- Chief Dan George

image Chief Dan George (Painting by Ray Senft). Chief Dan George was a gifted actor and chief of the Salish Band in Burrard Inlet, British Columbia. He was born 'Geswanouth Slahoot', on July 24, 1899, in North Vancouver, British Columbia and died September 23, 1981, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is known for his supporting role as the Indian who adopts Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970).

Chief George also said this:

We have taken so much from your culture,
I wish you had taken something from ours...
For there were some beautiful and good things within it.
Perhaps now that the time has come,
We are fearful that what you take will be lost...

I shall grab the instruments of the white man's success:

His education, his skills, and society.

If you talk to the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other.

If you do not talk to them you will not know them, and what you do not know you will fear.

What one fears one destroys.

It is not just education, skills and society that white man has to offer, but contemplative introspection as well, which is willing to lend its analytical powers to the examination of minute details of both heaven as well as hell. Below are some more words of wisdom worth considering.

Almost everywhere in the world, man has been disregarding the Divine Law and the Laws of Nature, to his own undoing, In his pride, he has rampaged over the stage of the earth, forgetting that he is only one of the players put there to play his part in harmony and oneness with all living things.

from Richard St. Barbe-Baker

The meaning of any natural thing or event cannot be fully grasped or explained scientifically until we discover its relations to the components of the orderly flow of process we call our cosmos.

from C Judson Herrick

Cooperation for mutual benefit, a survival strategy very common in natural systems, is one that humanity needs to emulate.

from Eugene Odum, Ecologist

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

from Aldo Leopold, 1953

We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations … delicate ecological balances are upset by the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless exploitation of natural resources. It should be pointed out that all of this, even if carried out in the name of progress and well-being, is ultimately to humankind's disadvantage.... An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others, and for the earth.

from Pope John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, 1990

The Columbia River Watershed stands as one of the most beautiful places on God's earth. Its mountains and valleys, forests and meadows, rivers and plains reflect the presence of their Creator...

We call for a thorough, humble and introspective evaluation that seeks to eliminate both economic greed that fails to respect the environment, and ecological elitism that lacks a proper regard for the legitimate rights and property of others.

The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good focuses particularly on our common responsibilities for our region. In this pastoral letter we will explore biblical and Catholic Church teachings about stewardship; the need to respect nature; and the need to recognize and promote the common good. These themes are consistent with a Christian belief that the earth is a creation of God intended to serve the needs of all creation.

- Bishop's Pastoral Letter, 2001

Man has lost his way in the jungle of chemistry and engineering and will have to retrace his steps, however painful this may be. He will have to discover where he went wrong and make his peace with nature. In so doing, perhaps he may be able to recapture the rhythm of life and the love of the simple things of life, which will be an ever-unfolding joy to him.

- Richard St. Barbe-Baker
From the Way - An ecological world view:

The ecology we need is not the ecology that involves viewing the biosphere on which we depend for our survival at a distance and with scientific detachment. We will not save our planet through a conscious, rational and unemotional decision, signing an ecological contract with it on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. A moral and emotional commitment is required. Indeed, one of the key tasks of ecology must be to redirect our emotions so that they may fulfill the role they were designed to play in helping us preserve the critical order of the Biosphere.

- Goldsmith, 1993, p. 77

More surprising, however, has been the almost total indifferencde with which the academic world has viewed this critical problem [of environmental problems]. Its acknowledged role is to provide governments and society at large with knowledge that serves the public interest and maximizes the general welfare. But how can it achieve this task if it systematically ingores the fatal process that is rendering our planet ever less habitable and, unchecked, must inevitably lead to the extinction of our species along with countless others.

- Goldsmith, 1993, p. xii.

Nespelem cemetery, where Chief Joseph is buried.
Along the way to the Okanogan, you may find out that there are both circular and linear ways of thinking. But linear thinking has gotten us into trouble. If life was as simple as live, grow, and die, then there would be no problem with linear thought. For amoebas. If you are a linear thinker, then you should be uncomfortable that we have allowed linear thinking to control our very cyclic lives. We humans are not amoebas, and it won't do to continue to patch our problems with band-aids. We evolved in cyclic environments where the four seasons reminded us of the rebirth and death of creation that was re-enacted each year. Our earliest cultures were based on stories of this creation.Here for example, is a section of collected essays and web pages exploring our Okanogan civilization:

Here is an essay on civilization, including a cynical, entertaining look at Okanogan county.

Here is an essay by Vic Bondi, "Letter from Okanogan County"

Here is a Chinook Blessing Litany

We call upon the earth, our planet home, with its beautiful depths and soaring heights, its vitality and abundance of life, and together we ask that it

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the mountains, the Cascades and the Olympics, the high green valleys and meadows filled with wild flowers, the snows that never melt, the summits of intense silence, and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the waters that rim the earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the land which grows our food, the nurturing soil, the fertile fields, the abundant gardens and orchards, and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the forests, the great trees reaching strongly to the sky with earth in their roots and the heavens in their branches, the fir and the pine and the cedar, and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the creatures of the fields and forests and the seas, our brothers and sisters the wolves and deer, the eagle and dove, the great whales and the dolphin, the beautiful Orca and salmon who share our Northwest home, and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the creatures of the fields and forests and the seas, our brothers and sisters the wolves and deer, the eagle and dove, the great whales and the dolphin, the beautiful Orca and salmon who share our Northwest home, and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon all those who have lived on this earth, our ancestors and our freinds, who dreamed the best for future generations, and upon whose lives our lives are build, and with thanksgiving, we call upon them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

And lastly, we call upon all that we hold most sacred, the presence and power of the Great Spirit of love and truth which flows through all the Universe ... to be with us to

Teach us, and show us the Way.



  • Armstrong, Jeanette. 2001, Sharing Our Skin: Okanagan Community; in Columbiana Magazine, May, 2001.
  • Briley, Ann. 1999, Boom Town Tales and Historic People, Boom Towns and Relic Hunters.
  • Cannings, Richard J. and Eva Durance. 1998. Human use of natural resources in the South Okanagan and Lower Similkameen Valleys - Post Contact to the Present; in Smith, I.M., and G.G.E. Scudder, eds. Assessment of species diversity in the Montane Cordillera Ecozone. Burlington: Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network.
  • Bishops' Pastoral letter. 2000. The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good, Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project. The Columbia River is the focus of an extensive pastoral letter project launched by twelve Catholic bishops of the Northwest and Canada, that culminated in a pastoral letter issued by the bishops in February 2001.
  • Goldsmith, Edward. 1993. The Way - An Ecological World View, Shambhala Press, Boston.
  • Leopold, Aldo. 1953. A Sand County Almanac, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.
  • Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket). 1990. Mourning Dove – A Salishan Autobiography, ed. Jay Miller, Univ. of Nebraska Press.
  • Raufer, Maria Ilma, O.P. 1966. Black Robes and Indians – The Study of Heroism on the Last Frontier. Bruce Publ. Co., Milwaukee.
  • Turner, Nancy, R. Bouchard, D. Kennedy. 1980. Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of British Columbia and Washington. Occasional Papers of the British Columbia Provincial Museum No. 21, Ministry of Provincial Secretary and Government Services, Publ. British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria, Canada.