An internationally-sought speaker for and about indigenous cultures, Jeannette Armstrong, Ph.D, grew up in rustic circumstances. This year she becomes the first First Nations recipient of the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career
As well as being a gifted writer, Jeannette Armstrong has contributed countless hours as an educator, spokesperson and organizer for the enhancement of indigenous cultures, making her the most integral, contemporary figure in the growing constellation of aboriginal authors of B.C.
Jeannette Armstrong grew up hearing stories about her mother’s great aunt, the novelist Mourning Dove, who lived briefly in Oliver, B.C., and who also taught Armstrong’s mother in school. Mourning Dove, who died in 1936, twelve years before Armstrong was born on the Penticton Indian Reservation in 1948, wrote Cogewea, the Half-Blood (1927), possibly the first novel to be written by an American aboriginal woman.
“Reading her stories had a great influence on me,” Armstrong says. “And I was really fortunate to have two grandmothers alive until I was well into my 20s.”
In addition to Mourning Dove, Armstrong was influenced by the cadence of Pauline Johnson’s poetry, the mentoring of Okanagan storyteller Harry Robinson and the proximity of Summerland-based playwright and novelist George Ryga who provided an introduction to Armstrong’s first novel Slash (1985). Reprinted more than ten times and adopted for use in schools, Slash recalls First Nations alienation and militancy during the period from 1960 to 1983. Despite ridicule from some friends, the protagonist Thomas Kelasket, nicknamed Slash due to a criminal incident, enjoys speaking the Okanagan language and attending powwows. Eventually he is forced to confront racism in a white-operated school. Sometimes angry and confused, he travels widely in North America to come to terms with himself and the world.
Slash was promoted in the Theytus Books catalogue as the first adult novel by a Canadian aboriginal woman. Lee Maracle’s earlier Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel (1975), as a synthesis of autobiography and fiction, provides grounds for disputing that claim.
In 1989, Jeannette Armstrong oversaw the creation of the En’owkin International School of Writing for Native Students in conjunction with Theytus Books, Okanagan College and the University of Victoria’s Bachelor of Fine Arts Program. Situated in downtown Penticton, it became a focal point for aboriginal writing throughout North America. The school has since re-located to Green Mountain Road on the Penticton Indian Reserve.
Theytus Books, a First Nations-owned-and-operated book publishing company, also migrated to Penticton in the mid-1980s. Started by Randy Fred in Nanaimo, Theytus Books is named for a Salish word meaning “preserving for the sake of handing down.” The word En’owkin is an Okanagan conceptual metaphor “which describes a process of clarification, conflict resolution and group commitment. With a focus on coming to the best solutions possible through respectful dialogue, literally through consensus.” Theytus Books and aboriginal-owned Pemmican Books in Winnipeg, created by the Manitoba Métis Federation, were both started in 1980.
Armstrong’s best-known non-fiction book is Native Creative Process (1991), in collaboration with aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal. She has edited, contributed to, and written numerous other works, including poetry.
A documentary film portrait, Jeannette Armstrong: Knowledge-Keeper, was produced by A.R.T. BookWorld Productions and premiered on CBC in 1995.
Fluent in the Okanagan language, Armstrong has participated in international conferences around the world. She received the Mungo Martin Memorial Award in 1974, the Helen Pitt Award in 1978, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from St. Thomas University in New Brunswick in 2000 and the 2003 EcoTrust Buffet Award for Indigenous Leadership. She was appointed one of seven indigenous judges to the First Nations Court of Justice called by the Chiefs of Ontario. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from UBC Okanagan in 2006.
As an assistant professor of Indigenous Studies in the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at UBC’s Okanagan campus in 2013, Armstrong was appointed a Canada Research Chair in Okanagan Indigenous Philosophy, an award of $100,000 for five years to research, document, categorize and analyze Okanagan Syilx oral language literature.