Jeannette Armstrong works to protect Indigenous philosophies and oral Syilx stories
October 6, 2021
Canada Research Chair in Okanagan Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy
Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
PhD, Environmental Ethics, University of Greifswald
Bachelor of Fine Arts, University of Victoria
Penticton Indian Reserve, BC
“I’m extremely passionate about Indigenous research that advances knowledge and will better guide environmental practices.”
AS A SPOKESPERSON FOR INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ RIGHTS, award-winning writer, activist, novelist and poet Dr. Jeannette Armstrong has always sought to change deeply biased misconceptions related to Aboriginal Peoples.
Dr. Armstrong feels passionately that the best way to accomplish this is through her role as an associate professor of Indigenous Studies in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, where she gets to research, develop, educate and inform the minds of the next generation.
“I get excited when students are inspired and new insights occur,” she says.
Whether it’s in the classroom or the community, Dr. Armstrong cherishes the opportunity to enrich students across a wide variety of topics. Her research into Indigenous philosophies and Okanagan Syilx thought and environmental ethics that are coded into Syilx literature has been recognized locally and globally, and she serves as a member of the En’owkin Centre.
In 2021, Dr. Armstrong was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) in the area of community, culture and global studies. The fellowship of the RSC comprises over 2,000 Canadian scholars, artists and scientists who are peer-elected as the best in their field and have made remarkable contributions in the arts, humanities, sciences and public life.
“I’m extremely passionate about Indigenous research that advances knowledge and will better guide environmental practices,” says Dr. Armstrong. “At UBC’s Okanagan campus, I know that my research directly contributes to the Syilx Okanagan community, as well as other Indigenous communities, in terms of tangible applications in the betterment of cultural revitalization toward positive change.”
A story to tell
Known for her literary work, Dr. Armstrong has written about creativity, education, ecology and Indigenous rights. Slash, which Dr. Armstrong published in 1985, is considered by many as the first novel by a First Nations woman.
Commissioned by the curriculum project for use as part of a Grade 11 study in contemporary history, Dr. Armstrong wanted Slash to connect with and relate to her students.
Slash explores the history of the North American Indian protest movement through the critical perspective of the central character, Tommy Kelasket, who is eventually renamed Slash. In the novel, Tommy encounters intolerance and racism in an assimilationist school system but his family encourages him to be proud of his Okanagan heritage.
“Slash positions the reader to walk in the moccasins of an Indigenous Okanagan person, encouraging an Indigenous view of that period rather than the one-sided view available in popular media,” says Dr. Armstrong.
In 2016, Dr. Armstrong was named the first First Nations recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, British Columbia’s most prestigious literary honour recognizing local authors. The award recognized Dr. Armstrong’s outstanding contributions to B.C. literature.
Indigenous language fluency
One important project Dr. Armstrong has spent several years working towards is the creation of UBC Okanagan’s Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency (BNLF)—a first for Canadian universities.
Developed in collaboration with the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and the En’owkin Centre, the program is designed to work closely with community members to provide a comprehensive and high-quality education in Nsyilxcn, while also helping speakers gain a deep understanding of the language, culture and customs of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.
“The idea that there’s only knowledge in English or French is absolutely not true,” says Dr. Armstrong. “Language is identity. Indigenous knowledge systems and an Indigenous paradigm—how we view the world and how we interact—is deeply rooted in language.”
She adds that the transfer of Indigenous ideas and consciousness can only happen through the knowledge systems that are resident in the language.
“We hope to help foster a revitalization of the Nsyilxcn language in our communities and to see it spread across all domains of community life,” she says. “This is an important step in acting on Indigenous peoples’ rights to develop and transmit their languages, knowledge and oral traditions.”
As part of the University of British Columbia’s own response to the TRC’s Calls to Action, in 2019 UBC Okanagan signed a declaration in front of Elders, chiefs and community members from throughout the Syilx Okanagan Nation, on whose unceded territory UBC Okanagan is located.
The declaration formally committed the university to delivering on five recommendations developed by UBCO’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee. One of those five commitments was to develop activities to support the revitalization of Indigenous language fluency; other recommendations included developing and delivering an Indigenous culture orientation program for all faculty and staff; creating a senior advisor role on Indigenous affairs; advancing Indigenous teaching and research; and expanding health and wellness services to better support Aboriginal students.
“To study in your language and your knowledge systems, which many English speakers take for granted, is not there for Indigenous peoples,” Dr. Armstrong says. “UBC Okanagan is at the cutting edge in making that breakthrough — it’s a powerful statement of reconciliation.”
She adds that the declaration signing was not only an important step for UBCO, but especially for students. “For all students of this institution, there is great opportunity to make change happen so we can have a better future for all our people.”
Canada Research Chair
In 2013, Dr. Armstrong was honoured for her work and was appointed a Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy. Her chair was renewed for another five-year term in 2018 to further research, document, categorize and analyze Okanagan Syilx oral language literature.
Oral Syilx stories contain a wealth of Indigenous knowledge but much of this knowledge is largely inaccessible because no extensive work to date has been undertaken by a fluent speaker.
As CRC, Dr. Armstrong aims to address existing barriers to research within the Indigenous community by surveying, analysing and categorizing Syilx captikwl (oral story) and smamay (legends) from a variety of published and unpublished collections.
Western conventions have created a cultural blindness to Indigenous methods of knowledge documentation in storytelling. As well, analysis of Syilx culture and language contexts has not been conducted using a combination of Syilx story and Western literary conventions.
Dr. Armstrong’s work involves analyzing Syilx traditional knowledge to inform and revitalize contemporary Syilx society. She also contributes to local ecological and sustainability practices, and links story knowledge to such areas as Syilx governance, land use and health. Her analysis is being conducted in the Nsyilxcen Okanagan language and includes approvals by fluent language speakers for accuracy of translations.
“Through my research, my goal is to make the Indigenous knowledge of the Syilx Okanagan accessible, while also providing planning and development support within Syilx Okanagan First Nation communities.”