Jeannette Armstrong on Syilx Notions of Community and Governance

I learned about Jeannette Armstrong, a Syilx / Okanagan First Nations writer, from Ei Ei Samai on the podcast, “Fractal Friends: Growing and Healing Through Conflict.” There’s a wonderful interview with Armstrong, where she explained the meaning of the words “syilx” and “naw’qinwixw.” The whole interview is worth reading, but here are some excerpts that especially spoke to me.

On “syilx”:

So this word, “Syilx” is made up of three images basically. The middle image is “yil” which has to do with when you have many strands, and you twine them together (gesturing with hands) to make one strand. Like you twine them together to make a rope, or coil them together in a way which they’re interwoven or interbound together to make one strong unit out of it, and a continuous one that you coiled and coiled and coiled and coiled; like you would do if you were creating rope out of hemp or something.

It’s speaking about the ethic of the people, the responsibility or the philosophy of the people, to continuously bind with everything that’s around us: our family members, all of our relatives on the land, and continuously maintain one unit. In other words, to be unified, to be in balance, and if we can do that, we can move forward, into the next generation as a whole. And we need to be able to accomplish that as human beings. When we unravel that, then we are in danger, because strands can break off. We can lose strands, so we have to maintain that unity and balance with all other living things.

It’s imperative to know that, to practice it, to live that and to celebrate that. So, all of our ceremonies talk about that, and all of our stories talk about that. We have different kinds of processes and that we utilize in our community to accomplish that and achieve that.

On “naw’qinwixw” — Syilx process of collective problem-solving, decision-making, and governance:

One of the tools that we have — I would say it’s a decision making tool, or a dialogue tool, or it’s a tool that can be used for conflict resolution. It’s also a tool or methodology that can be used for finding out what the best solution to any question might be. In our language we call that process or that tool, “naw’qinwixw.”

The first part of the word, “naw’qin,’-‘aw” has to do with water dripping in a really slow, one drop at a time, that kind of action. So that would be an image. And “naw’qin” the meaning of “qin” always has to do with the top of the head, or the top of a mountain. So there is water dripping one drop at a time in the top of the head.

The last part of the word, “wixw,” means we do that for each other. I do it for you, you do it for me…. So in “naw’qinwixw” the idea means that people must be able to do that for each other.

You know how if you were to take a drop of water and put it on say cotton, and you’d see that the drop slowly permeate the cotton. That action, or that slow infusion into the whole system is what that abstract metaphor is speaking about. If you were to give knowledge in that way, then knowledge becomes integrated into the whole person: into their mind, and their spirit, and their emotions, every part of them.

On interconnection:

Because we care about each other, because we’re connected: we have to be together, we have to live together, we have to work together, we have to see each other every day, that has to be the best way to do things. Understanding that, it makes life easy. It makes life secure. It makes life in a community beautiful. It makes life in a sense something that you don’t want to step out of. It’s hard when you do. It’s hard when you move outside of that: you don’t know people, you can’t trust people, you don’t know where they’re coming from. You have no idea how to connect to them or how you might be able to clarify yourself to them. I don’t know how people can live like that. I really don’t understand.