Knowledge and Respect:
by Garth East Greskiw

Being, changing and seeing. It’s that simple, with or without writing. Whether it is called reflective observation, praxis, or adaptive management we must constantly change and adapt our actions to ensure a sustainable future for forests and forest-based communities.

For indigenous communities, the rationality of continual adaptation and changing with environmental constraints is obvious. An evolving learning cycle of continuous being, changing and seeing with nature has ensured survival for indigenous people for millennia. “Adaptive environmental assessment and management”, is only recently being acknowledged by foresters as ecosystem-based forestry and the ‘way of the future’ (and not the present); but it is a principle so basic in traditional North Shuswap knowledge as to be obvious.

The Shuswap word “Secwepemculecw” stands for “Shuswap territory”; but at a deeper level still known to some, it may imply ‘the land and the people, and all their relations taken as one’. Implicit in this relationship is a sacred responsibility of the Shuswap people to continually care for lands and resources of their traditional territories for the benefit of all – including those of future generations.

The problem of communicating across cultures is found mostly in sorting out the complex and tangled webs of meaning that have been made out of written English words over the past few hundred years. It can also be difficult to fully understand in English why connotations of a term like “management” or “control” are problematic from the perspective of First Nations language and culture. A focus on team-work and problem-based learning could nurture listening and helping skills in individuals; but these approaches to learning are not yet central in the curriculum of most colleges and universities.

In Western culture, we take such pride in our abilities to measure, control and dominate that we have become less able to listen, to wait and to adapt to what nature is ‘telling’ us. It has been said that very literate people are like spiders, in that they spin webs in a solitary way from the written words that they can conjure from papers. To learn humility about my ‘powers of literacy’ and my associated weakness in orality, I find this image useful. Instead of living and continually interacting through speech and story telling, mutually supported in a network of relationships in the ‘here and now’, literate people like myself relate best to their webs, and perhaps to their unsuspecting victims, who could become trapped among what might become ‘word games’.

Socrates noted that writing has this strange quality about it “leading us to imagine that its words speak as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever”. Such is the purposeless and bewildering effect of print media when it is disrespectfully imposed on people (Bernier 1995, Freire and Macedo 1987).
Indigenous people and others struggling to achieve the sustainability of their forest-based communities know that a relationship of care and respect between the spoken word and the written word is what we must keep a wary eye on.

I am grateful to the Northern Shuswap people – the Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw for helping me in understanding and for helping me to learn how to apply ‘praxis’ to ‘open just the right doors at the right time’. One must proceed carefully in making and interpreting meanings – but we must do it nonetheless.