The Fourth Annual Willamette River Blessing: Opposing the Readiness to Harm

By Madronna Holden

What Traditional Stories and Ceremony Can Teach us About Sustainable Technology

On April 17, 2011,  the Willamette River flowed past the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon,  in great swells, rolling up over its banks and swirling through wetlands of willows– full of of itself for the annual river blessing led by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.

For 22,000 years, Grandma Aggie told those gathered to take part in the blessing ceremony, her Takelma ancestors had lived in the Rogue River valley south of here, which they felt the Creator had shaped especially for them.

It was with “sick hearts”, a Rogue River man explained, that they moved at the hands of soldiers to the Siletz Reservation so many miles away. It was a sickness, an early reservation official wrote, that was serious indeed– since many who suffered it died as a result.  One man begged that if he might just have one more look at his land, he would be satisfied. But these are the points of history I am adding here. Grandma Aggie doesn’t call attention to them.

She has no rancor over this:  what is done is done, she says, and none of us were there.  Now we need to go forward in love for one another—and care for the earth that sustains us all. Over a century after her people were confined on the reservation surrounded by military forts to prevent them from attempting to go home, Grandma Aggie felt the call of the land and returned to live in her people’s homeland, reviving the ancient salmon ceremony there.

Her people’s ancient story of the salmon, Grandma Aggie says. taught her the salmon were people just like us who sacrifice themselves for our well-being.  It was this story that motivated her to dedicate herself to freeing the local rivers of dams and pollution.  Now all the dams are removed from the Rogue and it runs free its entire length.

But there is much yet to do to care for the waters of the world yet.

Grandma Aggie is fond of saying that we are all “water babies”—and through the water that gives us life we are all connected.  Thus she honors the requests of  communities  throughout the Northwest to bless their local rivers; bringing the message that working for the well-being of the rivers is working for our own well-being.

She warns us not to complain of the rain that settled over the Northwest this past week, but to speak well of water that is precious—and disappearing from so many parts of the world where she and the indigenous grandmothers have traveled. How we speak of the rain, she said, is how we speak to the water in ourselves.

As we circle close by the river and Grandma Aggie pours into it the waters of the other rivers of the world she has visited, I am struck by the simplicity and reverence of the traditions represented here.  A man at Grandma’s side prays to be one of the men who supports the work of the grandmothers, as men everywhere should be– and he tries to teach his boys.  Many who speak are choked with tears as they speak of their grief for the hurting earth and ask forgiveness of the living water for allowing its pollution.

We should treat the water as a “god”, Grandma Aggie tells us, with the reverence due that which gives us life.

Lest some of us get caught up in struggles over terms, we might use Grandma Aggie’s model of openness as she participates in the ceremonies of the other indigenous grandmothers, praying to the Creator with these words, “These ways are not my ways, but help me to gain something from them, too.”

Treating water as a “god” means listening to the natural world in a way that has pragmatic pay offs.  Grandma Aggie predicted the problems with disease among hatchery salmon before modern science verified it.

The people who lived with their land for 22,000 years expressed the vital humility that allowed them to attend to the natural lives that sustained them–and thus to live in a way that supported the abundance and fertility of their lands.

“Grandfather, help us keep the rivers clean for the sake of all the swimmers”, Grandma Aggie prays, as an eagle circles overhead, swallows circle the water in droves (flitting away after the ceremony), and ducks  bobble up on the bubbling water as if to learn closer to her words. At their presence, Grandma Aggie smiles the same smile she gives to children when she says she is “everybody’s Grandma”.

And for that moment, we are all part of a web of life that is whole.

Grandma Aggie’s stance exemplifies a technology of reverence:  a technology that brings lives together.  If technology’s purpose is to extend our reach in the world, sustainable technology should extend our sight as well.  Thus the story-technology of Grandma Aggie’s people reminds us that what we do touches other lives that are like our own in value and meaning—and upon which our own lives depend.

It is a technology that extends human reach by strengthening bonds of intimacy:  and thus motivating humans to act in a way that protects the precious fabric of life—a goal which Grandma Aggie specifically reminds us

Last October, the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers were in Japan, in the precise location where the devastating earthquake was to strike—and the continuing nuclear emergency emerged. In the wake of those disasters, Grandma Aggie recalls that the Japanese peoples were the most generous and hospitable she has ever met.  It is one way to understand this tragedy: to see it as happening to people with kind human faces.  Grandma Aggie told me of meeting another “Aggie” in Japan. This Aggie told Grandma Aggie she had dreamt of her coming and was anxious to meet her, since she bore the same name.

There is a profound metaphor in this story Aggie shares with simple delight: an understanding that each of us has a potential namesake in the lands we conceive of as most distant– and in the lives we might think of as different from our own human ones– like the salmon.  Shortly before, she reminded me again how hearing that the salmon were people who sacrificed themselves to sustain human lives impelled her to care for the river and its swimmers.

It was such traditional stories that created culture:  that gave us  physically puny humans the edge in adaptation. If this past teaches us anything, it is that the tools we use should bring us closer to understanding the long term and long rang results of our actions.

Blessing the river is that kind of technology: a ceremony that reminds us of our connection to one another and to the vital sources of our lives. It is about “spreading the word”, as Grandma Aggie asks us to do on leaving the ceremony—“so that everyone will know what went on here”.  So that everyone can join this community, feeling the hope and purpose of caring for the water that sustains us all.

By this criterion our contemporary technology doesn’t always fare so well.  Instead of making the results of our actions more visible to us, it cushions us from them.  We don’t understand the vulnerability of our water when we just turn on a faucet to have it magically appear.

Shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a newscaster questioned a local man who lamented that since radiation is invisible, local people had no idea how to respond to it.  This is not just the nature of radiation:  it is the way in which nuclear technology has been put into practice, based on secrecy and distancing, as detailed in too many unfortunate incidents in what Arjun Makhijani, co-editor of the MIT Press publication, Nuclear Wasteland, terms the  “readiness to harm”. 

We express such a “readiness to harm” toward those we think less valuable than ourselves—or those who are invisible to us.  If sustainable technology has made the the invisible visible, gives voice to the voiceless (in Grandma Aggie’s words), then technology that truncates our vision does the opposite:  leading to the multiple crises that come as unpleasant surprises to us in the present age.

Our contemporary crises and the contrasting indigenous success challenge us to re-shape our technology to make the results of our actions transparent, to extend our reach and power in the world even as we extend our compassion and wisdom.

25 Responses

  1. Dr. Holden,

    Another great essay! The more I read of Grandma Aggie, the more I want to meet her. I really value her outlook on the connectedness of the land and the people it sustains; I also value her forgiveness for, and her drive to amend what wrongs have been done to it. I also really enjoyed the section about the “readiness to harm” which I think could be applied to many different instances of the invisible agents of malady we as humans have inflicted on the world.

    • Thanks, Gabe. I appreciate your thoughtful responses: given Grandma Aggie’s travels, you may well have the chance to meet her sooner rather than later. She is an inspiring woman that so many (including myself) are blessed to know.
      And if we don’t start using our technology to make the results of our actions more visible, we will continue to blindly to wreak havoc on our life support systems.

    • I agree, Gabe, that Grandma Aggie’s forgiveness and approach to restore and heal the land rather than lay blame and focus on the past is admirable. She has felt a grave loss, yet speaks only of goodness. Through this, she spreads so much hope.

  2. I like that although a ceremony may not be her way, Grandma Aggie offers a prayer that she, too, may gain something from it. It acknowledges that there is power, wisdom and beauty in beliefs other than her own and demonstrates that she has an open heart to learn from them. This is a model all cultures can benefit from. It isn’t the “terms” that are important, it is the intention.

    • I think this is an important lesson from Grandma Aggie about a learning stance — as well as compassion for others, Valerie. Thanks for your comment.

    • Valerie,
      I agree with you and also think that there is a lot to be gained by understanding, accepting, and even incorporating the beliefs and values of other people and cultures as a means of bettering our approach to difficult situations. Grandma Aggie sets an example that ALL can follow regardless of who, where, or even when we are!

    • I really like the words you use to describe the importance of accepting and being open to others’ beliefs. Of the three that you mentioned, I feel that wisdom is the most important. This whole concept of learning to work together despite differences is present everywhere in our world. In America alone, we see this in politics, religion, and many more. Maybe we can learn from Grandma Aggie’s mindset and apply it to our lives in more ways than one.

  3. This essay reminds me of the idea of interdependence that was covered in lessons two and three. Without realizing it, many of us live a dualistic lifestyle and fail to “care for the earth that sustains us all.” Grandma Aggie seems to be demonstrating her ability to give back to the earth which gives to her by creating more awareness in today’s society.
    I really appreciate the mindset the Grandma Aggie has, showing others how to accept differences among us for the sake of something more important. Even though the traditions vary between all of the Grandmothers, they still make the effort to partake by noting that they can gain something, even though it is not one of their regular practices.
    Ultimately, the message here is that there is a lack of understanding and appreciation in many societies. Many of us are naive and fail to recognize our own impact on the earth. Even more, we lack motivation to make a difference because, as stated in the essay, a lot of things are considered “invisible.” I think Grandma Aggie has the right idea with beginning to make a difference by attempting to educate people about what she believes to be important.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jenni, and for sharing your response to Grandma Aggie’s compassion; I like the fact that your comment also ties together understanding and appreciation. We can never understand anyone or anything we denigrate as not worth understanding.

    • Hi Jenni,

      It is very true what you say, that many of us do live a dualistic lifestyle and may not even realize it. That is an unfortunate fact, but it can be changed.

      One of the other main ideas that I came away with from this essay is it just takes one person to make a difference. As I’m sure you agree, we can no longer afford to take on the attitude of “I’m only one person, it won’t make a difference.” And as you emphasized, it is really important for us to come together for the greater good, even when we don’t always see eye-to-eye.


      • It is true that our worldview often seems to be reality until we can stand aside and look at it with perspective, Carol. Each of us can indeed make a difference– even as our actions model the way for others.

  4. This essay was filled with examples of the contrasting worldviews. There were three ideas that spoke to me the most:

    – We must move forward and focus on what we can do to change how we treat the world and stop focusing so much on what we have already done wrong.
    – We must embrace technology that creates a solution, rather than an illusion.
    – Stop taking other lives for granted just because it doesn’t make a difference to us either way.

    The third point in particular is crucial, because if the “readiness to harm” mentality continues then we will continue to hear people say things like this, “Don’t worship the Creation, worship the Creator. The trees and rivers have done nothing for you.” I was so shocked an appalled to hear this come from the mouth of someone I have met, but I was not offended by her saying worship the Creator. We all are entitled to revere anyone/anything we want. I desperately wanted to ask her if her house was constructed of wood and if her garden grew green because the water was clean.

    Her viewpoint exemplifies the worldview that is the excuse behind the “readiness to harm” mentality. She does not acknowledge interdependence, interconnectedness and certainly does not respect what the Creator has given as a gift. No one said you have to worship the rivers and trees, but there is no reason to disrespect the Creator’s gift as a way of sustaining us. I’m still shocked.

    • Very thoughtful points, Carol. I would respond to your point on focusing what we have done wrong that we do need to learn from our mistakes (and create justice where we have created injustice) in order to stop repeating actions with destructive consequences.
      Very well said about the technology that creates a “solution rather than an illusion”.
      I am not quite sure what you mean about our lives not making a difference to us.
      Thoughtful point about reverence as well– seems like we can use all the reverence toward creation that we can get these days.
      And I wonder if this woman acknowledges that she breathes air created for her by trees– or drinks water.

      • I see now that some of this doesn’t make sense, I have had a terrible head cold and it has fogged my ability to think clearly for the last two weeks. Let me clarify what I meant by, “We must move forward and focus on what we can do to change how we treat the world and stop focusing so much on what we have already done wrong.” I mean that we need to stop repeatedly pointing out what we have done wrong and actually do something about it. It’s almost like the elephant in the room syndrome, everyone is aware there is something wrong and talks about it, but there is not enough moving forward from that point.

        “Stop taking other lives for granted just because it doesn’t make a difference to us either way.” I was referencing what we were talking about last week in regard to objectifying people in third-world countries by compensating them poorly for the labor and their lands and destroying their once pristine environments. There is a consistent disregard for these people and the land the belong to; it is also “readiness to harm” and “NIMBY” mentalities that allow this type of action to continue.

        As for my acquaintance, it is baffling to me that she does not have the ability to see that connection. We have extremely different viewpoints, she believes the starving people of the world will be saved with GMO crops and that pesticides and herbicides are necessary for large crops to grow successfully and feed the masses. I think that GMO crops are unfit for consumption and provide no nutritional value, not to mention they destroy the soil they are in; I think the mass use of herbicides and pesticides has created “super” weeds and pests that continue to build resistance to these synthetic products and that organic gardening, although a little bit more work goes into them, is the only way to go and can feed the masses what they need without all the waste and environmental pollution.

        • Thanks for the clarifications, Carol. This is Grandma Aggie’s point when she states “none of us were there” (during these abuses) and Mother Earth needs us all to care for her and for one another NOW.
          There is a very interesting article that I just came upon in the Jan. 2011 Monthly Review by soil scientist Fred Magdoff– which indicates precisely why the solutions your acquaintance believes in won’t work in the long term; basically, they are responses to destablized ecosystems. Soil that has lost fertility through industrial agriculture can no longer grow any crops– especially highly nitrogen dependent crops like corn without chemical boosts– but these in turn have to come from somewhere. A third of the energy required to grow corn now comes from turning natural gas into nitrogen. And we are running out of phosphorus. Moreover, and industrial farming needs more and more water to support farming on land with depleted ability to hold water on its own because of soil degradation. We cannot continue on this course, using more and more resources to produce less and less, while poisoning our food, water, sir, and soil.

  5. I really enjoyed her reference to us being “water babies” and that we are all connected through water. As a scientist, not a philosopher, this really intrigued me because people and animals are essentially made up of water and require it to survive. But people abuse our limited fresh water sources thinking it is unlimited which is completely false. If we continue to misuse this necessary resource by blocking it up in dams, polluting it and destroying species that maintain it, we will essentially destroy the very fabric of our life. Humans cannot go more than 3 days without freshwater and yet here we are throwing garbage and draining sewage into the few rivers we have left flowing though our land. It is a huge mistake that we will certainly pay for if we dont notice and take measure to change our habits.

    • I had the same thought. Water is essential for life and to see what we have caused to our water supply as in the oil spill, in my mind a disrespect to nature. Mother nature is very patient with us, but with the abuse we allow to happen I am not sure it will last much longer.

      • Indeed, we are seeing some radical changes in our weather even in this country; it is sad that places like island nations, Bangladesh and Africa must suffer for climate change first when they are the least contributors to it.

    • I think that this is one (of many) places where good science and thoughtful philosophy can come together, Kellie. Thanks for another reminder of how very much we need clean water.

  6. Again Grandma Aggie has shown nothing but compassion for people who are just finding the light and the ways to help reverse what we have done for our planet. I was very interested to hear that she had been in Japan before the earthquake had happened and had predicted it. It makes me wonder when politicians and the men who make the decisions in our society will stop and take Grandma Aggie wisdom as fact and work with her to create a better tomorrow for our generations to come. She has seen many children grow up and it must make her sad to see them try to deal with what has been destroyed for many years. Grandma Aggie has yet to make me doubt her wisdom and for that I take this essay to heart

    • Thank you for your kind and caring comment, Michelle. Grandma Aggie is an inspiration to others–and I know she feel the grief that you speak of. She once teared up because she was touched that others besides her are working to care for the natural world that sustains us.

  7. I appreciated the ceremony and understanding of the Grandmothers. I thought that the grandmothers were caring for the waters of our earth which in a special way that had special meaning not only for the people within the tribe but also for reaching out to communities around the world like Japan. They are an inspiration because they make you look at the use of water in a new way. For example when she said not to look at the rain as a negative but as a blessing because there are so many areas around the world that are suffering from lack of rain. I appreciate her positive outlook. I too was thinking of the tornado victims and how they were suffering from their weather. We could not complain over a little rain.

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