Before she blesses the Willamette River, pouring into it a vial of similarly blessed water from around the world, Takelma-Siletz spiritual elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim thanks the natural elements, including the cloud people, for their cooperation. The latter answered her prayer to hold off so that it would be a nice day for people to gather. The sun is shining on this perfect day, April 26, 2008 in Eugene, Oregon. That is something to be grateful for after six weeks of unsettled weather.
“Grandma Aggie” is here to help us honor the water. She tells the gathered crowd of two hundred that the water hears us when we thank it for cleaning us and quenching our thirst. “We are all water babies”, she says, reminding us that we are composed largely of water.
In her eighties, Grandma Aggie is the oldest member and chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers whose goal is to “circle the globe” with social and environmental healing. As stated in the book that tells their story (Carol Schaefer, Grandmothers Counsel the World), this remarkable community of holy women came together in October 2004 (post 911) from “the Amazon rain forest, the Arctic Circle, the vast plains of North America, the highlands of Central America, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the mountains of Oaxaca, the desert of the American Southwest, the mountains of Tibet, and the rain forest of central Africa” in “an alliance of prayer, education, and healing for our Mother Earth-for all Her inhabitants, for all the children, and for the next seven generations”.
Grandma Aggie has visited the lands of the other grandmothers and seen firsthand the lamentable pollution of the world’s greatest rivers. She has also experienced increasingly widespread drought in the global arena. She says Mother Earth is withdrawing her water, taking her precious source of life back into her womb-as she will continue to do if humans continue to treat our water as we are. The sign she requested for the water-honoring ceremony reads, “The River is not a Garbage Dump.”
Grandma Aggie jokes that if she were to write a personal memoir, it would be entitled, “Everybody’s Grandma”. With the humility befitting a spiritual leader she resisted assuming her current leadership role at first. She did not think she would live up to the model of her Takelma (Rogue River) ancestors like her grandfather George Harney.
Harney saw her people through terrible times following their removal far from their homelands to the Siletz Reservation. When the government informed one Rogue River elder, Whiskus, he had signed an agreement to vacate his land and come to Siletz, he insisted he had not understood he agreed to any such thing -it made “his heart sick”. It was a grave sickness, indeed. In the early days at Siletz, Indian Agent Metcalfe noted among the residents of Rogue River descent, “a depression of spirits” so serious that those who suffered from it died. Indeed, far from their homeland, with no food or shelter, 205 out of 590 (the remnants of several thousands) Rogue River Indians died at Siletz within a year.
For two decades after their forced removal to Siletz, the survivors of the Rogue River people worked to build homes on the new land. Then the government decided to remove them the lands they had worked at Siletz-and open up those lands to white settlement. When the government informed them of their decision in 1873, George Harney (Olhatha), Chief of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, protested: “We do not want to be driven away. We were driven here, and now this is our home, and we want to stay.” Harney also went on record to state that his people were tired of token gifts of blankets, tobacco, and shirts-and were ready to receive their promised treaty goods of teams and wagons and tools-and schools for their children.
Grandma Aggie doesn’t speak of this bleak history before the gathering of the Willamette Valley Grandmothers, one of the local grandmothers’ councils springing up on the model of the global council everywhere. She is too busy finding the good in everyone. “You could put me on death row”, she laughs, “And I would find the goodness in the inmates there”.
She does express her hope, however, that the Thirteen International Grandmothers will get the audience with the Pope they have requested. They want him to rescind the Vatican edict of 1493 that supported the killing of “non-believers” on lands discovered by Europeans. “He wasn’t there”, Grandma Aggie says, “He didn’t do it”. Thus it wouldn’t hurt him to take that edict back. And it would do a great deal of good, as it did when the Australian government recently apologized to the Aborigines.
These days Grandma Aggie travels the globe, but she is also leading a resurgence of spirit and culture on her homeland. Last year she re-instituted her people’s sacred salmon ceremony at its ancient site. This year’s salmon ceremony will be a large gathering-even as Grandma Aggie continues to invite more and more people to attend. She has arranged to generously feed all the travelers who will arrive for the three day ceremony. She has also done research to house and feed the group in an environmentally friendly way. It is only fitting in a ceremony that praises the sacrifice of the female salmon that fight their way upstream to continue their people even as their bodies become nourishment for “thirty-three kinds of birds and forty-four kinds of animals”.
“Walking her talk” consists of caring for all the species who share this earth with us. “If the polar bears and the elephants and the tigers aren’t in good shape, than we’re not in very good shape either”.
There are many things to mourn in our world today, but Grandma Aggie counsels happiness. “You should live each day as if you were to die tomorrow. When you live with one foot in the other world as I do, you know how important it is to make the most of each day.”
For Grandma Aggie each day is comprised of soulful commitments and earthly delights. She smiles when she sees another of those dragonflies that surround her. The name of Transformer who made the earth good for people in venerable Takelma stories was Daldal- Dragonfly. The dragonflies that accompany her everywhere remind her of the presence of her ancestors. They also let her know the Creator is helping her as she “walks her talk”.
Grandma Aggie’s vision requires a transformation as great as Daldal’s in those Takelma stories. But she does not plan to do it alone. “I have a ship run by the L-word. It’s friendship and it’s run by love.”
Without skipping a beat she adds, “I am happy.” That is what she wishes for all of us. She advises us to laugh every day, telling us how good this is for us.
Later, when I pause to say good-bye to Grandma Aggie, she grins and says, “It was a good day, wasn’t it?”
The Alliance for Democracy also has a campaign to protect water quality and public access to global waters.
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Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Ecofeminism, Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Folklore and Oral Tradition, Health and healing links, Hope and vision, Indigenous links, Northwest History and Culture, Our Earth and Ourselves, Thirteen indigenous grandmothers, worldviews | Tagged: Agnes Baker Pilgrim, Ecofeminism, environmental philosophy, indigenous environmental values, Thirteen indigenous grandmothers |