Indigenous stories hold wisdom to help tackle modern challenges

Analyzing Indigenous languages and legends yields deep insights

Oral story mapping of a traditional hunting campsite with members of the Osoyoos Indian Band in Oliver, British Columbia.

Photo: Jeannette Armstrong

Indigenous cultures are rich with oral literature containing knowledge that can help address issues such as climate change, social justice and community well-being. Jeannette Armstrong, Canada Research Chair in Okanagan Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy, is doing her part to make sure that profound wisdom gets shared.

Working out of The University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan Campus, Armstrong documents, catalogues and analyzes meanings in Indigenous oral histories and knowledge systems. She then shares her findings with the Indigenous communities who are the keepers of that knowledge, to help shape action on today’s pressing issues.

Armstrong herself is a member of the Syilx Okanagan First Nation and is fluent in the Nsyilxcen Okanagan language. She hopes her work will inspire other scholars to study Indigenous languages and build their concepts into various fields that enhance our ways of living.

“Indigenous knowledge can help us transform everything from social work to education,” Armstrong says. “It’s important we do everything we can to preserve the knowledge that resides in our languages.”

Sharing knowledge, sharing values

Armstrong, who has devoted her life to education, says she was always interested in studying Indigenous knowledge systems—especially how they can help guide Indigenous communities to maintain their identities. Her PhD dissertation explored ecological ethics among Interior Salish people, who believe deeply in preserving the environment.

“They would give their lives to save a forest,” she says. “But where do those values come from? Why do our people have it so deeply ingrained in them? What is it that makes knowledge of nature so very important?”

Traditional Ecological Knowledge Elders at White Lake, British Columbia, in the Penticton Band area of interest, exchanging oral narratives related to First Roots observance.

Photo: Jeannette Armstrong

Armstrong seeks to answer those questions through her work as a Canada Research Chair. Starting with reviewing what ethnographers and other researchers have written about the actions of the Syilx people, she then goes deeper to understand the why behind those actions. To do so, she works closely with other fluent Nsyilxcen speakers and Knowledge Keepers. Together, they break down and analyze Syilx oral literature to understand the full meaning of the symbols and narratives within—and how that meaning is passed down over generations to comprise the overall Syilx knowledge system.

Significance beyond the surface

Armstrong says the words and symbols used in Salish stories often express more than just what they literally seem to represent, with their real meanings known only to those with the proper cultural context. As an analogy, she points out that the blue bird icon on our mobile devices doesn’t really refer to avian wildlife—it signifies Twitter and a certain kind of social media experience.

The Syilx word tmxwulaxw loosely translates to “land” in English. Yet, when broken down, it means much more. The first part of the word refers to “all living things,” the second to “in continuous cycles,” and the third to “of the soil.”

“The full meaning is so much deeper than just the word ‘land,’” says Armstrong. “And that’s just one word. If you put them all together and look at entire knowledge systems, there is something real there that scientists and ecosystem theorists can use.”

Revealing the deep meanings of language in this way is integral for understanding knowledge systems of all Indigenous Peoples. Armstrong recently expanded her project beyond Syilx to include the other four Interior Salishan speaking groups (Lil’wat, Secwepemc, Nlaka’pamux and Sinixt), which tend to be less studied than other First Nations.

As a result of Armstrong’s research and advocacy, in 2021, The University of British Columbia became the first university in Canada to offer a bachelor’s degree in Indigenous language fluency.

Armstrong’s research has been captured in scholarly papers, and she has been invited to conferences across North America to speak about Indigenous environmental stewardship and language revitalization. The work offers hope for languages around the world at risk of disappearing and having their unique ideas on the environment and other subjects lost forever.

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Jeannette Armstrong’s work, read her profile on The People and The Text.