A Solstice Story: Putting the Pieces Back Together Again

By Madronna Holden

Just after the US set up their space program, NASA hosted a group of Asian scientists, treating them to a tour of their facility– with which the visitors were duly impressed.  There followed a presentation of the benefits of Western science, during which the NASA administrators touted the importance of specialization.

The visitors listened attentively, but when the time came for questions, one asked, “Your technology is excellent at taking the world apart.  What is your plan for putting it back together again?”

To me, that is one of the central questions of the modern age.

There is an ancient answer to that question, in the storytelling technology that bridged so many aspects of the world, bringing them together.

Such stories bridged generations– and brought human culture itself into being.  Though we might not recognize passing stories between generations as a technology in the age of digital phones, such stories are the basic human tool that empowered us to expand our reach in both time and space.

This technology is  a powerful tool for not only bridging generations, but for linking human life with the larger community of natural life. When Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim tells the story of the salmon’s struggle to return to their home waters to carry on the the generations of the salmon people, that story brings humans and the salmon into  special solidarity.

Such stories not only bring communities together across generations and species. They have the potential to bring us from times of relative hopelessness and fear into vision.

The Chehalis knew how valuable such stories were, since they would bring those who heard them to a place where they “could take care of themselves”;  where they knew “how to get along with one another.”

Children would “pay” for stories by doing a task designated by the storyteller. The nurturance and wisdom of such storytellers was signed by the tasks they designed for these children. A child afraid to go to a certain place in the woods, for instance, might be told to fetch a stick from a place nearby–and then to repeat that task until he or she drew so near to the feared place, their fear would disappear.

Thelma Adamson’s  Chehalis fieldnotes (drawn up in 1926) record the profound insight that the power of our past will haunt us until we turn and face it. At that point it will become a vision power for us to use.

There is working knowledge here of the links between past and future– between wisdom learned from our past and vision for the future.  There is the working knowledge of how human generations depend upon and may nurture one another.

According to Jacob Bighorn, former administrator of the Chemawa Indian School, Native American education works from the premise that each child is given a natural “life plan” by the Creator that is theirs alone.  Certainly, giving children the understanding that each of their lives is a unique story the Creator waits to hear is an antidote to any future smallness imposed on them.

In this context, education is a “natural process” of supporting the child as his or her spirit-calling emerged.

In cultures throughout the world, the time of year surrounding the winter solstice is the season to draw inward and pay close attention to our dreams–and to tell stories.  Indeed, many indigenous peoples  only tell their traditional stories in the winter.

As Adamson’s recorded statement about the haunting of the past that chases us until we can learn to face–facing up to it may take considerable courage.  But certainly each of our pasts as well as our past as a society will continue to haunt us until we face it. Only then might we gain the wisdom of our past and the power to guide our future with vision.

This is the process that traditional stories enable.

Today we stand together on the verge of the longest night of the year, which is also the moment when our dreams are strongest. This is the moment when we need stories and their vision– when we need the hearth of community in which elders and young people come together to share their gifts with one another–and with our precious ravaged world.

The faith in the returning sun celebrated by solstice ceremonies is more difficult to hold to today, in the face of such things to face as climate change — or the 252 toxins recently found in the umbilical cords of 10 babies.

If you were an elder, how you would create the stories that are called for at this moment?  What gift would you share? What trust would you express in the actions of the next generation?

These questions were answered in the wisdom, generosity, and trust of the speaker at a gathering honoring indigenous environmental knowledge at OSU.

Here is the story she created, a story that truly brings us together as it teller Val Goodness notes, in relating a bit about the event where it took place, which she helped to organize.

The speaker, Elder Gail Woodside held a handmade clay pot in her hands.

This clay pot was decorated by native hands and she proudly said it was her Grandmother’s pot. It showed wear, and even had a small crack, which Elder Gail said happened when her daughter dropped it when she was young.

This pot was 100 years old. Elder Gail told us that the pot resembled her Grandmother’s knowledge about things in nature, full and complete knowledge handed down generation after generation through oral history. Her Grandmother’s indigenous knowledge about sustainability and the practice of her father’s use of fire to help things grow.

Elder Gail then held the pot up over her head and let the pot drop.We were shocked, and held our breath as the pretty little pot broke to pieces.

In her soft voice, Elder Gail bent down, picking up a piece of the broken pot, and said, “This….is the knowledge I have.”

She said the old ways and the knowledge are broken. Small pieces are used–borrowed from Native peoples– while the rest ignored as un-specialized or not scientific.

Elder Gail then asked all of us to come forward and take a piece of the pot. She challenged us all to come back this coming spring to put the little 100 year old pot back together as a symbol of unity in sharing our efforts to present indigenous knowledge in sustainability as an all day event for spring term.

So that the knowledge of sustainability can once again be whole.

Kiowa writer Scott Momaday once noted that oral tradition is as fragile as it is precious, since it is always “one generation away from extinction”.

The story created by Elder Gail illustrates this.  It is only the fact that pieces of this precious pot of tradition are in the hands of community that it has a chance of remaining whole.  But only if its members are each willing to keep and share and enable their piece so that it remains alive in the whole.

The Story Given to Me by Seals

Ancient stories taught our ancestors to hear the voices of the larger than human world.  There are those stories, for instance, in which men find themselves married to seals-who nonetheless still long for the sea.  No matter how much the seal-wife loves her human husband, she will abandon him for her first home if she gets the chance.

And if her husband is not wise enough to give her that chance, she will die. As with the seal-wife in this tale, something of the wild may profoundly touch us–it may even come to live with us for a time.  But if we attempt to keep it under our control, we will kill its vitality. We will also lose something essential in ourselves in the process.  There is the telling origin of the word “nightmare” related by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.  Those who first domesticated horses in Britain believed that for every mare broken to a stall, there was a “nightmare” that haunted the craggy cliffs and bogs where humans dared not go.  And with her long teeth and dangerous hooves, she trampled those who would domesticate her in their dreams.

The sense of the wild as something in need of taming is a relatively new one in human cultures– and as the historical incident above indicates, it carries considerable psychic ambivalence. Pope Benedict recently observed that we need to reclaim an understanding of natural law: of the perception that we might find a guideline for human conscience in the profound spiritual order of the natural world. This idea directly coincides with traditions of indigenous Northwesterners such as those on the Columbia River who understood the “laws of creation” as necessary and ethical human behavior.

Indeed, many cultures understand that natural life has something essential to say to us both about the sacred and about human conscience.  Take the story from the Black Sea, which tells how seals and whales once lived on land and built an empire with their hands whose bones are still very much like those in our own hands. According to this story, they also created a sophisticated technology– but they used it to make war on one another and ravage the earth.

In short, they violated natural law in a way parallel to what many humans are doing today.

The Mother of Life intended to destroy them before they destroyed life itself. But the holy men among them struck a bargain with her. If she would let their people live, they would take to the sea, and exchange their dangerous hands for flippers.  As part of the bargain they would warn others away from the mistake they had made.

Thus it is a seal might follow us along the shore, as if trying to catch our attention, or a whale will beach near a ship as if it has something to tell us– in spite of the dangers to itself in doing this.

It is not so great a distance between listening to the earth in order to understand “natural law” and attributing agency to the wild. Indeed, if we truly believe that the natural world is animated by law that transcends human whims, mysterious things follow.   Folktales from traditions throughout the world reach across species lines to the mythic times when “all the animals and humans spoke the same language”–and animals had much to teach us about being human.

Such tales are not limited to non-Western societies.  There is an intriguing European folktale from the Middle Ages, in which a young boy outcast by his rich father for failing to be a social climber has one marvelous trait:  he can understand the language of animals. This skill not only helps him foil the plots of those humans who conspire against him. The story ends by his being chosen Pope, since the doves of the Holy Spirit speak not only with him but about him to the faithful.

What folktales tell us in their mythic inspiration, the natural world expresses in its own mysterious ways when wild creatures reach across the species lines to us– as has happened to me–and likely to each of your in various ways.  Such experiences have led me to believe there are no coincidences- -only stories waiting to be told.  Those stories are gifts that life blesses us with: our job is to be alert enough to recognize them.

One such story of depicting my own experience begins at Sunset Bay on the Oregon coast almost twenty years ago. In winter, when I came to Coos Bay to teach, I regularly walked the beach alone, in companionship with sea and sky–and a certain baby seal who would follow me along the edge of the tide line, popping up to eye me with its  wide unblinking stare. In response to its curiosity I began a spontaneous song

“You with your ocean eyes,

I with my feet on earth.

What will say to me?”

As I sang, I happened to look down at the beach where I strolled. And there at my feet was a flat rock, half the size of my palm that was shaped exactly like a seal!

I placed this in the glove compartment of my car as a memento of the mysterious ways in which our world is bound together.

A few months later I was camping at that same beach with my seven year old daughter, who was fascinated by the seal-stone and its story.  As I ran in the sand a short distance away, she took it out to play with. And amidst the uncounted stones on this beach, it slipped away and disappeared. No matter how hard we looked, we could not find it again.

My first response was frustration.  How could she be so careless with my treasure? But then I understood something.  Perhaps she has done just what she should.  What good is a thing with a story to it preserved in the dash compartment of a car? (Or a museum or a zoo?) It should be taken out, admired, played with-and ultimately given back to the elements once again.

After all, my daughter had only given back to the beach what belonged to it. Such a thing we may hold in our hands only long enough to glimpse something luminous from the heart of life. Only long enough, that is, to feel how precious it is-before we release it back to the natural world from which it came.

And if we do give it back, as I did only with my daughter’s help, more wondrous things may happen.

A short time after the stone was lost, I was at Cape Arago beach, a vigorous walk from Sunset Bay.  I like to imagine that this was just time enough later for a stone to be swept up by the tide and travel back to the sea with a story attached to it.  For, as I sat against a driftwood log, half dozing in the sparkling sunlight, a baby seal climbed out of the sea, pulling itself laboriously through the sand, and placed its head on the log on which I leaned my own head less than a foot from my own.

During the time I stayed by the log, the seal dozed beside me.  When I walked up the cliff to my car, I watched her slide back down the beach to the sea and swim away again.

She left me with this story that indicates how much larger the world is than our rational conception of it–the limiting rationality that the Pope decries as constraining us only to analyze and manage our world rather than to feel our full embeddedness in it-and accept the messages it wishes to bring us.

But if we do perceive the way the wild places us in its story, we can hardly fail to honor a world so full of gifts.

Please note that this material is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden.  I welcome you to link to this site, but you need my permission to reproduce the material here.

Update on “Re-storying the Northwestern landscape” (and an excuse to share more stories)

Places on this land–and the ancestral spirits of all the species that reside there– connect us in ways our rational minds cannot always account for. On the same day I composed a post about my experience riding with Henry Cultee on the Humptulips River three decades ago, the Seattle Times published a note about this very place as a wildlife refuge. I didn’t know it had even become a reserve until almost a month later.

I had not been back for a few years, as I didn’t see any reason to revisit the “no trespassing” sign at the site where Cultee’s cabin once stood– and the aura of decay in the accumulated garbage by the side of the road. But these things are gone now and a measure of the grace I experienced here in 1976 has returned.

In the midst of all the news about the bad effects humans have on the environment, it is important to remember that sometimes we also change things for the better, as in this case.

Henry Cultee told me that the traditional ethics of his people urged leaving a place as clean as one found it– cleaning up or burying all hunting debris, for instance. He remarked that those who defiled the beauty of the land “lived like whites”.

But he also introduced me to women from pioneer families who fully honored the land– as well as the land’s ancient peoples. These women would have applauded the recent action of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society in raising funds to purchase and conserve lands in perpetuity along the estuary of the mouth of the Humptulips River.

This area is now being cared for my many, including school children who participate in watchdog projects along the Chehalis River and its tributaries. Henry Cultee would have liked that as well. One time I came to visit him with two young boys in tow from Oakville. He beamed, “This is what you should be learning in school” as he showed them how he mended his nets.

Henry Cultee noted that there used to be native homes all along Burrows Road–the current site of the refuge. So did Nina Bumgartner, another Lower Chehalis elder, granddaughter of Telyuk, the native Grays Harbor representative who refused to sign Governor Stevens’ treaty since it would have removed his people from their traditional lands.

Bumgartner, who joked she had adopted so many children she had “lost count”, also told me many stories as well. She told me, for instance, how a young white baby was nursed by her grandmother alongside her six week old son (she her adoption story in the pages here), since its pioneer parents didn’t want to raise a girl in this environment. This story communicates the striking ways in which native peoples sometimes nurtured their pioneer neighbors– ways that are often unremarked in the mainstream telling of history– along with the ways in which the native people here stood for their land.

After Telyuk refused to sign the treaty, Stevens publicly tore up the “chief’s papers” he had assigned to him. Once you could see a portrayal of this incident in the mural entitled “The Belligerent Chief” in the Montesano County Courthouse.

Telyuk did Stevens one better, according to Baumgartner. When Stevens came to shake the hands of the assembled Indian elders, Telyuk refused to stand to greet him. As Stevens bent to take his hand, Telyuk informed him that he got his power from his Indian ancestors– an avenue Stevens himself was lacking.

Of all the times that native peoples bowed to the will of the US government, it is a matter of balance to remember that sometimes, whites must bend, as Stevens unwittingly did in that moment, to the power of their predecessors on this land. According to Baumgartner and Cultee both, there are spirits on this land with which whites need to become acquainted in order to survive. Sometimes this is expressed in a story punctuated by laughter. Baumgartner told me a story in which a pioneer family that took over an Indian house on Burrows Road was so frightened by the spirits there that they enlisted the assistance of the neighboring Indian family. They refused to enter their house until their Indian neighbors had lit candles in every room–so that the windows of that house “were lit up like a church”.

Joking–and balancing the dynamics of history– aside, Baumgartner, who was both a Christian and a native traditionalist saw the two of these views come together in statements like “my help is in the hills”. From her perspective, it was the land that taught us how to live with spirit. She said this as well, “if the people forget how to praise God, the trees, moving in the wind, alive and growing, do it. The ocean, rolling in and rolling in, over and over again, does it.”

To recognize such praise, one must attend to the wisdom of the land’s living beings–like the birds that the State of Washington referred to in its declaration of this site along Burrows Road as an essential habitat for them. Once a bird tapped on Baumgartner’s window in such a way that she knew she should listen. Her resulting action saved a relative’s life in an emergency she would not have known about otherwise.

Henry Cultee told me that the Bluejay that portrayed a trickster in so many traditional stories also gave cues to Chehalis men out hunting. If they followed his words, they would know whether or not they would find and take their prey.

I am heartened that this vital place that holds so many stories from the lives of all species is now legally protected forever. Those who care for it today honor the legacy of those who came before them– a legacy signed by the way the land remembers its people here.

What I learned from my personal story in which this place called to me to write about it and return to it in this way is something about the difference between large and small memory. In the large memory shared with me by Cultee and Baumgartner there is a web of life that is mysterious beyond any human control-and even discernment. We can and must act ethically in the face of that largeness. And we must also act with humility.

And then there was my personal experience–which became small when it focused only on things that had been lost. There is legitimate grieving for the terrible consequences of human actions, such as extinction of species. Not to mention the native houses that were everywhere along what we now know as Burrows Road one hundred years ago– but are gone now. Even after Washington became a state, the “Grays Harbor Indians” refused to come to any reservation that removed them from their traditional lands. The “Grays Harbor Indians” was what Indian agents called these bands that persisted along the Wynochee, Hoquiam, Whiskah, Grass Creek, Chinoise and Humptulips Rivers on the north of the harbor and on the south in places like t’sehalis, a native village we now call Westport, for which whites named all the people that lived along the Chehalis River and its tributaries. In the 1880’s, a substantial delegation led by the “Grays Harbor Indian” Chinoise journeyed to Oakville to petition the agent there to speak to the government about the fact that they still wished a reservation in their own territory.

These people never received such a reservation, but many found ways to live on their home territory nonetheless. Some bought white homesteads when pioneers abandoned them. One way or another, they worked to stay on the land of their ancestors. Thus the Cultee and Baumgartner remember the current Burrows Road was once dotted with Indian homes.

By the time I interviewed him in the 1970’s, Henry Cultee joked that he might hang up a sign on his cabin, “Population One”, since his seasonal time in the fishing shack at the place he was named for, made him the only remaining resident of this place from his ancient way of life.

It is important to acknowledge our history: to tell the stories, as a pioneer family member once put, of “those who lived here.” And there is considerable sadness in that, even as there are lessons to be learned from it. But to hold onto that grief may become an adjunct to complacency or laziness. If we act instead with courage and yes, faith, in partnership with the land, mysterious– and sometimes wonderful– things happen.

Certainly, I can do no less than follow the brave and powerful example of women like the Agnes Baker Pilgrim (see my post on her here) who would have us all reclaim the stories of the land so that we can once more ensure its well being– and that of our children.

The story of the land as a whole continues beyond any one of us– and we may honor that story as did the members of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society who raised the money to conserve and restore the land while I was all those miles away in Oregon. I want to thank them. And pass on a few old stories that give a picture of this land in a memory that endures beyond any single human lifetime.

The site of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society : ghas.org.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden, and if you wish to copy it, please email me for permission. Thanks.

Re-Storying the Northwestern Landscape

“So I’m rooted to this ground. That’s why I’m supposed to outlive everybody”.

Henry Cultee, Chehalis

“I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same thing.”

Billy Frank, Jr, Nisqually

“Before anything else, we are our land/place… Our flesh, blood, and bones are Earth-body. ”

Jeanette Armstrong, Okanagan

“Someday the land will be our eyes and skin again.”

Lizzie Pitt, Warm Springs

There is a story behind each of these quotes: a story that links human life with something larger and more enduring than a single human individual. A story that yields a sense of belonging that can be had no other way.

In order to understand such a story one must spend time in the company of its keeper. In such luminous presence one instantly abandons the stance that insulted Chehalis Indian storytellers: the stance that labeled the enduring wisdom of their people as “just a story”. To diminish a traditional story as less than a fact is to lack the intellectual sophistication of those who used the imagination to bring humans into a fundamental intimacy with all that surrounded them. Native stories were more rather than less than facts: they were facts imbued with meaning.

One day in 1975, Henry Cultee, whose mother and mother’s father were powerful “Indian doctors”, told me he wanted to show me something. He beckoned me aboard the boat he kept moored by his fishing shack at Samamanauwish on the Humptulips River. Samamanauwish was also Henry Cultee’s traditional name, inherited along with his luck in fishing from his grandfather’s brother. It meant “between two channels.” In explaining the name he shared with the land, Cultee said, “I’m living right here”, as he pointed out the channels of the Humptulips that ran on either side of his cabin.

Eighty-five year old Cultee stood erect as he poled the river to guide us over the riffles for which the original people here named this river Hum-m-m-m-p-tulips, the name humming along with water running so fast it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

As Grays Harbor opened before us, modern Damon's Point on Grays Harborframe houses and mill stacks dissolved from view. We entered a world composed of water and sky. The wind danced paths of light on the water. That was the wind that lives here, the one that Henry Cultee’s mother told him to run against with his arms outstretched, measuring its gaping mouth, so it would be ashamed of itself and calm down. As we moved on into ancient memory, that nearby lone sentinel of a rock shrugged off the name of James Rock (for the pioneer) and relived its history as Sme’um– the place where Wildcat stole fire, singeing his tail with the mark he still wears as a result. The urbanized jumble along the Aberdeen River evaporated on the milky mist behind us, giving way to its more lively self: the Wishkah River (“stink water,”) –where Thunderbird dropped a rotting whale carcass. Across the harbor from us was no longer the Cosmopolis named by pioneers, but Khaisáləmish: named after the character of the sandbar where the Transformer Xwane Xwane kept himself from being swept out to sea in the story that depicted the origin of the Chehalis way of life.

Power lived in this place. It was also here that Henry Cultee’s mother’s father obtained his Indian doctor power that was as famous as it was dangerous. After he found his power, his grandfather took the name of the place where it lived: Khaisáləmish. He had a white name too, but he never dropped his Indian one. Thus he was known as Khaisáləmish Pete- or as pioneers anglicized it, Cosmopolis Pete.

Cultee and I slid smoothly down the harbor channel until we came to a dense dense array of shell mounds exposed by the action of the water on the shore beside us. Cultee laughed as he pointed out these signs of the generations of sweet feasting of his people here. This was what he wanted me to see: how the land recalled the lives of his people.

The land trades stories with us this way. If we know its stories, it keeps our own. The stories Henry Cultee told me expressed this ancient reciprocity with “the eyes of the world” that sees “what is in our hearts”, even if we hide it from other humans. In his tradition, it was how the land’s eyes see us that determine the length of our lives.[1]

Stories belong to a live land: and if that land becomes only an object of development, those stories can be lost. There is a place in Upper Chehalis territory, where the old winter dances and later Shaker dances were held. This prairie is perfectly encircled by hills, like a bowl offered up to the sky and time. The stuttering lines of hills to the west hold the story of the swinging door between the worlds that the salmon jump through when they go back to their own lives in the sea.

I could hear ancient voices of people singing here, etched onto the waves of hills and playing back again like the grooves of a record playing back a song.

That was in 1976. Today the prairie where the people danced has become a gravel pit. The hills that encircle it don’t sing anymore. I can only hope that they keep their music inside somewhere where dreamers may still find it. Perhaps this music is another thing, as Grandma Aggie sees happening with mistreated water, that the earth is taking back to her womb.

Henry Cultee’s fishing cabin is also gone now. There is a “no trespassing” sign where visitors drove in as his little dog ran out barking to meet them, while Cultee laughed, “Just don’t speak English to him. He gets awful mad when he hears English!”

We can still tell the story of Samamanauwish, so that, as Cultee put it, “what’s in my heart won’t die with me”. But I’m not quite sure how to tell the land’s story without the land. It’s not so easy to tell this story to those who have never stood on this point and watched the Humptulips rushing single-mindedly toward the harbor in a flamboyant expression of its name.

There were some members of pioneer families- ones who lived as true neighbors to the Chehalis– who understood how land and stories go together as well. One ninety seven year man (Sandy Ames) whose Chehalis neighbors were like an “aunt and uncle” to him, were very particular when they taught him how to roast salmon. From them and from somewhere in his own heart, he also learned how to hear the “words that come through the air”. Those are the words that live on the land’s own breath, like the ones that he shared with me when I arrived at his door as a seeker.

If for no other reason than this, we must safeguard the places that have elder status in the natural world. Without them we lose the ability not only to tell their stories but our own.

Driving back from Oakville the day after I went out on the Harbor with Henry Cultee, I was hit by severe dizzy spells that caused the world to spin ruthlessly around me whenever I moved. A local RN told me it was an inner ear infection, but I dreamt that night that it was my uncried tears for all that was lost of our human belonging to this land, rolling like a rough unbidden tide against my sense of balance.

Surely if we all shed the tears waiting behind our eyes to mark the disappearance of the land’s stories, we would not allow them to be replaced by a gravel pit– or a highway or a high rise. We would still need to shelter and feed ourselves, but we would do so in a way that is in concert with the land– in a way that would allow the land to “recognize us” as innovative architect William McDonough put it.

Riding with Cultee that day on the waters he knew so well he called them by name, I entered a world in which the land did not belong to people by way of deed and title-but instead a people belonged to their land. What made a man, Cultee once asked me, think he could come along and put his name on the land? To him, it was a rhetorical question. No man by rights could do such a thing. Cultee’s people did not name the land for themselves. As in the case of himself, his uncle, and his grandfather, they named themselves for the land.

Altogether the indigenous peoples of the Northwest held the names of the land’s places and beings as an essential spiritual inheritance. At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings on the mid-Columbia River in 1855, Cayuse spokesperson Young Chief asserted that the land had its own names that men and women could not change. Asking Native peoples to turn their land over to those who would re-name it as individual property was asking them to perform an act that was “literally against their religion”, as Clifford Trafzer put it.

In Young Chief’s words:

“The earth and water and grass says God has given our names and we are told those names. Neither the Indians nor the whites have a right to change those names… The same way the Earth says it was from her man was made.”

He also said to the thousands seated on the ground for those treaty proceedings:

“I wonder if this ground has anything to say. I wonder if this ground is listening… The Earth says, God has placed me here. The earth says that God tells me to take care of the Indians on this earth. God says to the fish on the Earth: feed them right. God named the roots that he should feed the Indians on. The water speaks the same way…the grass says the same thing.”

Yakama elder Owhi put it this way when he spoke at Wallla Walla: “God looked one way and then the other and named our land for us to take care of”. “God named this land for us”.

In this light, to replace the land’s names for itself with names of individual human owners is not only a conceit, but a sacrilege. It is also a singularly self-destructive act.

In Henry Cultee’s wise tradition, if we ignore the “eyes of the world”– the eyes of those who sustain our lives–we are liable to construct a way of life that is decidedly short-lived. That tradition thus anticipated the report came out last week indicating that the average US lifespan is continuing to decrease.

No matter the count of our years, when we cease to hear the voices of the land tell their own story we truncate our lives in another way. We set ourselves adrift from the story of belonging to life and land larger than ourselves.


[1] This material, beginning with “One day in 1975”, is reproduced in a related article available online:  “Restorying the World:  Reviving the Language of Life”, Australian Humanities Review, November 2009 (no. 47).

Quote Sources:

The sources of the quotes are Billy Frank, Jr: from Charles Wilkinson, Lessons from Frank’s Landing (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2000); Jeannette Armstrong, “I Stand with You against the Disorder,” Yes Magazine, winter 2006; Lizzie Pitt in Cynthia Stowell, Faces of a Reservation, (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1987).

The quotes from the Walla Walla Treaty Proceedings can be found in Darrell Scott, ed. Isaac Ingalls Stevens, A True Copy of the Official Proceedings at the Council in the Walla Walla Valley 1855 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press reprint, 1985).

The land trades stories with us this way. If we know its stories, it keeps our own. The stories Henry Cultee told me expressed this ancient reciprocity with “the eyes of the world” that sees “what is in our hearts”, even if we hide it from other humans. In his tradition, it was how the land’s eyes see us that determine the length of our lives.[1]

[1] This material, beginning with “One day in 1975”, is reproduced as the introduction to a related article available online: “Restorying the World: Reviving the Language of Life”, Australian Humanities Review, November 2009 (no. 47).