Jeannette Armstrong

Jeannette Armstrong. Courtesy The People and the Text.

Jeannette Armstrong (born 1948) is an Okanagan Canadian poet, novelist, educator, and artist. Her 1985 work Slash is considered the earliest novel by a Native woman in Canada.[1] [2]


Youth and educationEdit

Armstrong is the grandniece of Mourning Dove, who is regarded as 1 of the earliest Native American woman novelists for her 1927 work Cogewea, the Half-Blood.[2][3]

Armstrong was born and grew up on the Penticton Indian reserve in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Armstrong has lived on the Penticton Reserve for most of her life and has raised her 2 children there.[4] She received a formal education at a 1-room school on the reserve as well as a traditional Okanagan education from her family and Elders.[5] Armstrong’s customary education enabled her to learn the Okanagan language, and she remains a fluent speaker of both Okanagan and English today. For many years since her childhood, she has studied traditional Okanagan teachings and practiced traditional ways under the direction of Elders.[6]

Armstrong discovered her talent for and attraction to writing at age 15 when a poem she wrote on John F. Kennedy was published in a local newspaper (Voices). As a teenager, Armstrong continued to publish poetry and develop her literary voice by listening to and reading works by Aboriginal authors such as Pauline Johnson and Chief Dan George, who she identifies as her early influences.[5]

In 1978, Armstrong received a diploma of Fine Arts from Okanagan College and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Victoria where she studied Creative Writing. Armstrong’s education establishes the basis for her multifarious work and accomplishments.


Armstrong is best known for her involvement with the En’owkin Centre, writing, and perspectives on subjects such as creativity, education, ecology, and Indigenous rights. In 1978 she began employment with the Penticton Band in a number of cultural and political capacities while also pursuing her work as a researcher, consultant, and writer at the En’owkin Centre.[7]

The En’owkin Centre, located on the Penticton Indian Reserve and operated exclusively by the six bands of the Okanagan Nation, is managed in conjunction with Okanagan College and the University of Victoria and aims to provide students with a strong cultural and academic foundation for success in further post-secondary studies.[8] The objectives of the society which governs En’owkin, as Armstrong describes, are “to record and perpetuate and promote ‘Native’ in the cultural sense, in education, and in our lives and our communities”[9]

To support these objectives, the En’owkin Centre created the Okanagan Curriculum Project as a component of its institution. This project aspires to develop school curriculum that presents Okanagan history in an accurate and dignified way.[10] Armstrong and her fellow members on the Okanagan Tribal Education Committee believe that Okanagan people must tell their own stories; therefore, the curriculum project created the Learning Institute, which provides adult Native people with skills in research and writing so that First Nations individuals can develop quality, correct, and appropriate information for the project.[11]

Theytus Books Ltd., the 1st publishing house in Canada owned and operated by First Nations people, was established in 1980 as part of the curriculum project and continues to run as a division of the En’owkin Centre (Lutz 28 and Theytus). The En’owkin Centre’s programs help to provide Theytus with proficient employees who work collectively in efforts to produce and promote appropriate reading material and information created by Native authors, illustrators, and artists.[12]

Armstrong was appointed as the Executive Director of the En’owkin Centre in 1986 and she carries on in this role to present day.

In 1989 Armstrong helped to establish the En’owkin School of International Writing and became its director as well as an instructor. The En’owkin School of International Writing is the earliest credit-giving creative writing school in Canada operated entirely by and for Aboriginal people.[13]


Armstrong’s literary production increased in breadth and magnitude shortly after her 1978 graduation. She published 2 children’s books in the early 1980s, Enwhisteetkwa (or Walk in Water) in 1982 and Neekna and Chemai the following year, and performed two years of research in preparation for writing Slash, her debut and most famous novel.[14]

Like the En’owkin Learning Centre, Theytus Books, and the En’owkin School of International Writing, Armstrong’s novel Slash, which was published in 1985 by Theytus, originates from the Okanagan Indian Curriculum Project. Commissioned for use as part of a grade eleven study in contemporary history, Armstrong wanted Slash to connect with and relate to contemporary students (Jones 60). Furthermore, Armstrong assumed the project in order to anticipate the work of more famous non-Aboriginal authors who were “dripping at the mouth” to document Native history (Williamson qtd in Jones 60).

Slash relates a history of the North American Indian protest movement through the critical perspective of central character Tommy Kelasket, who is eventually renamed Slash. Despite the intolerance that Tommy encounters in an assimilationist school system and racist North American society, his family encourages him to be proud of his Okanagan heritage and he eventually becomes an activist for Aboriginal rights. Armstrong clearly states that Slash is not a chronicle of AIM (American Indian Movement) from the AIM point of view; rather, the text provides a personalized account of the origins and growth of Native activism since the 1960s.[15] [16]

Since the appearance of Slash on the Canadian literary scene, Jeannette Armstrong has continued to write and publish widely. Armstrong’s poetry appears in anthologies and her collection Breath Tracks (1991). Her short stories are collected in works such as All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction edited by Thomas King. Armstrong’s second novel, Whispering in Shadows, which traces the life experiences of a young Okanagan activist woman, was published in 2000.

In addition to her creative works, Armstrong has published and continues to compose a wealth of critical works such as The Native Creative Process, a collaborative discourse between Armstrong and Douglas Cardinal on Aboriginal artistry, and “Land Speaking,” which addresses how land and Okanagan language influence her writing.


Armstrong also expresses her imaginative vision through works of sculpture, art, and music. Her artistry has been recognized through a number of awards.


In addition to the activism Armstrong displays in her educational work, writing, and art, she is also a sought after speaker who serves on a number of committees that reflect her beliefs and interests.

She is a consultant to the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. This foundation encourages education that develops sustainable patterns of living. Moreover, she has acted as a consultant to social and environmental organizations such as the Centre for Creative Change, Esalen Institute, Omega Institute, and the World Institute for Humanities at Salado ("Awardee").

As a campaigner for Aboriginal rights, Armstrong serves as an international observer to the Continental Coordinating Commission of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations. She was also named as one of seven Indigenous Judges to the First Nations Court of Justice called by the Chiefs of Ontario and to the Council of Listeners in the International Testimonials on Violations of Indigenous Sovereignty for the United Nations ("Awardee").


Criticism and influenceEdit

In her study of Native literature, Penny Petrone includes Jeannette Armstrong amongst a young generation of university trained Aboriginal authors who contributed purposeful, exciting, and original creative works to Canadian literature during the 1980s.[17]

Petrone comments on Armstrong’s poetry, describing it as “direct, unequivocal, and assertive, even aggressive”[18]

Despite Armstrong’s involvement in the 1980s upsurge of Aboriginal literary activity and her prolific work, in-depth scholarship on her writing principally examines her poetry and, more extensively, her debut novel.

The scholarship on Slash, however, is more abundant and varied. In a 1989 interview with Hartmut Lutz, Armstrong relates that some feminist scholars question her decision to select a male central character for her novel; however, Armstrong compellingly contends that female strength and male development are portrayed effectively through the perspective of Slash (18). In the same interview, Armstrong notes, “I’ve been criticized by non-Native critics in terms of character development”.[19]

She explains that she could not isolate the character of Slash from his community in order depict his individual nature and still compose the story for her people. Significantly, and consistent with the view she expresses in “Land Speaking,” Armstrong argues that Slash’s personal growth can be perceived through his relationships with his family and community.[20]

In her study of Slash, Manina Jones catalogues a number of critical responses to the work and states that many academic articles concerning it relate the difficulties that audiences experience in their attempts to address Armstrong’s novel. Jones also describes Slash as a work that refuses priority to speech or writing, insisting instead on a hybrid status.[21] As Jones and the critics to whom she refers demonstrate, Slash is unique in its aesthetic practice and didactic purpose. In Slash, therefore, Armstrong compels audiences to read and consider her text in ways that may be unfamiliar to them. Ultimately, an innovative critical reading approach is essential for the appreciation of her work and to achieve the aims of the Okanagan Indian Curriculum Project.

Armstrong is dedicated to the advancement of literature and the arts among First Nations people and the realization and promotion of the distinct artistic forms of Aboriginal people in the international arts and literary community (Creative 126). Armstrong’s insights as an educator, creative force, and activist are respected by First Nations individuals and international audiences alike.



  • Mungo Martin Award (1974), available to people of First Nations ancestry as they enhance their education and skills in Native art.
  • Helen Pitt Memorial Award (1978), which continues Pitt’s support of emerging artists.
  • Honorary Doctorate in Letters, St. Thomas University (2000).
  • Buffett Award for Aboriginal Leadership (2003), in recognition of her work as an educator, community leader and Indigenous rights activist.
  • Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award (2003)[22]



  • Breath Tracks. Stratford, ON: Williams-Wallace / Penticton, BC: Theytus, 1991.
  • "Trickster Time" in Voices: Being Native in Canada (edited by Linda Jaine & Drew Hayden Taylor). Saskatoon, SK: Extension Division, University of Saskatchewan, 1992, 1-5.


  • Slash. Penticton, BC: Theytus, 1985.
  • Whispering in Shadows: A novel. Penticton, BC: Theytus, 2000.

Short StoriesEdit

  • "This is a Story" in All My Relations: An anthology of contemporary Canadian Native fiction (edited by Thomas King). Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990, 129-135.


  • "Traditional Indigenous Education: A Natural Process." in Tradition Change Survival: The answers are within us. Vancouver: UBC First Nations House, 1988.
  • "Bridging Cultures", Columbiana: Journal of the intermountain northwest 30 (1989), 28-30.
  • "Cultural Robbery: Imperialism - Voices of native women." Trivia 14 (1989), 21-23.
  • The Native Creative Process: A collaborative discourse (with Douglas Cardinal). Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 1991.
  • "Racism: Racial Exclusivity and Cultural Supremacy," Give Back: First Nations perspectives on cultural practice (edited by Maria Campbell et al.). Vancouver: Gallerie, 1992, 74-82.
  • “Land Speaking” in Speaking for the Generations: Native writers on writing (edited by Simon J. Ortiz). Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1998, 174-194.


  • Enwisteetkwa (Walk in Water). Penticton, BC: Okanagan Indian Curriculum Project/ Okanagan Tribal Council, 1982. x
  • Neekna and Chemai (illustrated by Kenneth Lee Edwards). Penticton, BC: Theytus, 1984
    • (illustrated by Barbara Marchand). Penticton, BC: Theytus, 1991.
  • Dancing with the Cranes (illustrated by Ron Hall). Penticton, BC: Theytus, 2009.


  • Looking at the Words of our People: First Nations analysis of literature. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 1993.
  • We Get Our Living Like Milk from the Land (with Lee Maracle et al.). Researched and Compiled by the Okanagan Rights Committee and the Okanagan Indian Education Resource Society. Penticton: Theytus, 1993. x
  • Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology (edited with Lally Grauer). Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001.
  • River of Salmon Peoples (edited with Gerry William). Penticton, BC: Theytus, 2015.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[23]

Audio / videoEdit


Jeannette Armstrong - Knowledge of Place

Jeannette Armstrong - Knowledge of Place

The history lesson

The history lesson. By Jeannette C Armstrong

  • "Mary Old Owl" on Poetry is Not a Luxury: A Collection of Black and Native Poetry Set to Classical Guitar, Reggae, Dub, and African Drums. Maya: CAPAC, 1987. Produced by The Fire This Time.


  • Jeannette Armstrong: Poet / novelist (VHS). Kamloops, BC: University College of the Cariboo, 1994.[23]

See alsoEdit



  • Interview with Hartmut Lutz. Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991. 13-32.
  • Interview with Victoria Freeman. “The Body of Our People." The Power to Bend Spoons: Interviews with Canadian Novelists. Beverley Daurio, ed. Toronto: Mercury, 1998. 10-19.
  • Armstrong, J. (Interviewee) & Hall, D. E. (Interviewer). (2007). Native Perspectives on Sustainability: Jeannette Armstrong (Syilx) [Interview transcript].
  • Beeler, Karin. "Image, Music, Text: An Interview with Jeannette Armstrong." Studies in Canadian Literature 21.2 (1996), 143-154.


  • Green, Matthew. "A Hard Day's Knight: A Discursive Analysis of Jeannette Armstrong's Slash." Canadian Journal of Native Studies 19.1 (1999): 51-67.
  • Fee, Margery. "Upsetting Fake Ideas: Jeannette Armstrong's Slash and Beatrice Culleton's April Raintree." Canadian Literature 124-5 (1990): 168-180.
  • Hodne, Barbara and Helen Hoy. "Reading from the Inside Out: Jeannette Armstrong's Slash." World Literature Written in English 32.1 (Spring): 66-87.
  • Jones, Manina. "Slash Marks the Spot: 'Critical Embarrassment' and Activist Aesthetics in Jeanette Armstrong's Slash." West Coast Line 33.3 (2000): 48-62.
  • Williamson, Janice. "Jeannette Armstrong: 'What I Intended Was to Connect...and It's Happened." Tessera 12 (1992): 111-129.



  1. Biography and criticism of Jeannette Armstrong at Voices From the Gaps
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lutz, 13.
  3. Biography and criticism of Mourning Dove at Voices From the Gaps
  4. Beeler, Karin. "Image, Music, Text: An Interview with Jeannette Armstrong." Studies in Canadian Literature 21.2 (1996)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Armstrong, Jeannette. “Four Decades: An Anthology of Canadian Native Poetry from 1960 to 2000” in Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology. Jeannette Armstrong and Lally Grauer, eds. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001. xv
  6. Jeanette Armstrong and Douglas Cardinal. The Native Creative Process: A Collaborative Discourse. Penticton: Theytus, 1991. 125.
  7. Lutz, 13; Petrone, 140.
  8. Petrone, 140.
  9. Lutz, 27.
  10. Lutz, 27.
  11. Lutz, 28.
  12. Lutz, 28; Theytus.
  13. Petrone, 140.
  14. Petrone, 179; Lutz, 22.
  15. Lutz, 22.
  16. Jones 51.
  17. Petrone, 138.
  18. Petrone, 163
  19. Lutz, 15-16.
  20. Lutz, 16.
  21. Jones, 55.
  22. Awardee: Jeannette Armstrong, Ecotrust. Web, Apr. 20, 2014.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Search results = au:Jeannette Armtrong, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Mar. 26, 2017.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
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