Biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons from a Living Land

By Madronna Holden

One reviewer of a manuscript I wrote changed the Upper and Lower Chehalis peoples into the “North” and “South” Chehalis, in spite of the fact that these peoples traditionally lived (and still live today) along a river that runs east to west.  This man obviously thought that since north is “up” on a map, the Upper Chehalis must live north of the Lower Chehalis, imposing a standard modern map of the land and its squared off directions on the land.

Monoculture stems from this same type of thinking:  pick a favorite crop and impose it on the land according to your own  map of what the land should produce– in spite of the nature of the land itself.  Then all else becomes a weed—the dandelion, for instance, becomes the occasion for dangerous pesticide use in home lawns.

Wheat farming in the nineteenth century Willamette Valley was an example of this tactic. Planting wheat throughout the valley not only meant tremendous labor inputs to clear land and sustain this crop, but subjected the farmers to the vagaries of the national wheat market—leading to a cycle of boom and bust in the local economy.

The potato certainly seemed like a great crop to plant in nineteenth century Ireland—until the notorious potato blight hit and there was mass starvation, since there was nothing else to survive on.  Such examples give us cautionary lessons in looking to a “magic bullet”,  such as a single genetically engineered crop, to meet our agricultural needs.

The potato blight did not hit Peru with such devastation as it did in Ireland.  In Peru, farmers grow dozens of types of potatoes, drawn from hedgerows that flourish as wild seed sources. As with such hedgerows—once prominent in Britain and continental Europe as well– the strategies of Northwest indigenous ecological management entailed fostering the ecological “edges”where diversity flourished between habitats.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were “salmon people”, but they were not salmon only people.  Situated as they were in the midst the richness of local salmon runs, they still had diverse subsistence strategies to complement taking of salmon. Not incidentally, this allowed them to limit their taking of the salmon in order to sustain them.

In negotiating treaties with the US government, native representatives insisted on rights to traditional subsistence resources that included an encompassing diversity.  To the extent that they could make this clear in the rudimentary vocabulary of the Chinook jargon in which negotiations were conducted, elders at the Cosmopolis treaty proceedings on Grays Harbor asked to reserve for their peoples not only their favorite salmon streams but cranberry bogs, oyster beds, prairies where they took camas and deer, and beaches where they took advantage of the whales that washed ashore.

Those who insisted on maintaining these diverse subsistence strategies had generations of experience to advise them. In traditional times if a salmon run were poor, there were sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.

But it was the vast array of vegetable roots and seeds, ferns, berries and greens that most indicates the biodiversity of native subsistence strategies.  In 1945, Erna Gunther documented the use of ninety-seven local plants remembered by Puget Sound peoples– likely a mere fraction of those once used by peoples relocated from traditional lands.

East of the Cascades, an ethnography done by James Teit (again, after much change in traditional subsistence methods) among the Thompson Indians found 46 stems, leaves and flowering tops “used extensively” for food,  another 26 eaten as root crops, 41 more eaten as fruits and berries, and 6 eaten as nuts and seeds.  That is a total of 129 different vegetable foods utilized for food alone.

Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking,  53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.

They gave at least 23 plants a special place in their traditional folklore and mythology and recognized 29 more as good food for the animals that shared their landscape.

Such biodiversity expresses how sustainable human cultures are interwoven in reciprocal independence with the natural world. All nature operates in this fashion. If we wish to honor and nourish the salmon, it is necessary to protect their habitat, just as the decaying bodies  of spawned salmon feed so many other lives.

In the traditions of indigenous northwesterners, it is also necessary to nourish one another.  In Western Washington, potlatch feasts held both within and between tribes helped redistribute food to those without resources.  Sharing between the well to do and the less well to do was institutionalized by such potlatches, in which the wealthy affirmed their social status by giving away goods and food to others.  Most villages in Western Washington had a community potlatch house in which such ceremonies were held.

In Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee’s words, “This was a country that was free to anybody and if you a different tribe, they let you go up, they don’t bar nobody.  If you hungry for something, you go out and get it.”

With permission, that is, from its caretakers– the particular people who were “rooted to the ground” in each locale– and undertook care for their land, establishing limits on usage of particular plants and animals during particular years or seasons.

In this context, the Lower Chehalis seasonally moved into Chinook territory to fish the Columbia River; the Upper Chehalis moved into Nisqually and Mud Bay territory to fish the Sound.  At particular times of the year, the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quinault came to the Lower Chehalis territory on Grays Harbor to obtain seal. In July and August the Chinook and Cowlitz came to Lower Chehalis territory once again to fish for sturgeon.  Along with the Satsop, they all dug clams on the beach there. In turn, the Lower Chehalis would travel to Cowlitz territory to dip smelt when they ran in the winter.

In contrast to fences, which Cultee observed stopped the flow of life on the land, native maps honored the diverse mixture of space, time and life in such flows of people into and out of one another’s territories.

Cultee inherited the knowledge of the Harbor’s “fish trails” from his people. That knowledge told him not only where the fish swam, but when. He quipped that non-Indians might think him lazy, since he did not always get up at dawn to go out fishing. But he didn’t see any point in fishing when the fish weren’t there.  Thus though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.

An Upper Chehalis grandmother told me her people followed “streams of trees”, noting how communities of plants seeded themselves together. Following such “streams”, one would never get lost on the land.

Near Florence, Oregon a Siuslaw elder instructed a young pioneer boy to listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses—since if one learned to recognize these voices, one would always know where one was on the land.

In such maps of the land, there was neither clock time nor squared survey grids that caused “up” to be “north”, but an intersection of time, space, and the diversity of life.

The richness of these maps reflects the richness of a living land—to which it was necessary to attend with care.  The biodiverse subsistence strategies that flow from such observations illustrate the understanding that nothing in the natural world nourishes itself.

Biodiversity in indigenous subsistence strategies is directly linked to establishing a partnership with the land that follows nature’s models rather than trying to dominate it.

It is a pragmatic approach.

A UN conference recently convened in Brussels cited the largest study ever done comparing biodiverse  “ecological” agriculture (which avoids chemical inputs as well as genetically engineered seed) to conventional agriculture. In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.

The ecological methods also led to reclamation of degraded land, as in the area formerly known as the “Desert of Tanzania”, where  agroforestry rehabilitated 350,000 hectares  in two decades–while substantially raising local household income.

Besides avoiding chemical inputs, ecological agriculture uses diverse local seed, and grows a number of crops together, including mixing trees with other crops. This is the method by which the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh reclaimed their own land in the wake of the failed “high yield rice”– by combining forest, farm, rice paddies and animal husbandry on the same land.

Notably, in putting forests back,  “ecological agriculture” reverses the trend which causes conventional agriculture to produce 14 per cent of annual global carbon emissions and to add another 19 per cent through the deforestation it demands.

Nature does not “monocrop”.   And neither should we.

In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link here, but any part of it may be used off site only with attribution and permission.


Confusing Discovery and Conquest: A Recipe for Destruction

By Madronna Holden

The worldview that links discovery with conquest has caused considerable social and environmental harm.   This attitude has deep roots in Western history.  Julius Caesar’s famous motto Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), featured on some  modern t-shirts, couldn’t be more clear on this point.  Discovery is a prelude to conquest.

Caesar himself didn’t invent this approach.  It was the guiding principle of the Athenian colonial empire, as illustrated in the tragedy of Melos. The people of Melos sent the Athenians a missive indicating they wished to live in their own way rather than join the empire.  The Athenian response was to massacre them.  In their proposal of neutrality the people of Melos violated the first rule of colonial empire, which is that whatever lands or peoples the conqueror casts his gaze upon, he owns.  In this context, the only alternative to assimilation of the Melos was their obliteration.

The worldview which mingles discovery with conquest persisted in the history of the Pacific Northwest—and it still persists today in our modern technology.  It is signed by the failure to see what we discover for what it is rather than for what we would make of it.  Indeed, an essential part of this discovering/conquering gaze is what it doesn’t see. Rather than Caesar’s I came, I saw, I conquered, the slogan of the conquering discoverer would more accurately be, “I came, I didn’t see, and I conquered”.  Or alternately, “I came, and I destroyed what I didn’t see.”

Take some examples from Pacific Northwest history.  Several decades after explorer Alexander Henry declared the Willamette Valley Kalapuya a wretched and homeless lot who lived out under the trees, those same Kalapuya began saving Oregon Trail pioneers from wholesale starvation—and it was the pioneers themselves that took shelter in the trunks of trees when they first arrived here. As for the traditional Kalapuya, one of their houses on Marys River (near Corvallis) was sixty feet long, and the ones near Tualatin might be twice that big.

But the denigration of the Kalapuya in the pioneer worldview led to the Senate’s refusal to sign treaties with them on the logic of those like Senator Sam Houston, whose Senate speech declared them “insignificant”.

The reduction of native villages to “huts” on lands that were “wastes”, as early  missionary Father Francis Blanchet wrote of the Chehalis, licensed their destruction. In fact, the Chehalis houses where Blanchet traveled, constructued by whole communities working together, included a potlatch house nearly two hundred feet long, to accommodate intertribal horse races inside in the wintertime.  But if one saw native houses as huts, that licensed their obliteration and replacement by a shipping port on the Chehalis River, as Blanchet proposed.

The blindness of those who crowded into a tiny cabin roofed with sail canvas and the camping mats of native people–and declared their abode the first house on Puget Sound– might simply have been humorous from the perspective of those at Port Madison whose cedar longhouse covered an acre of ground. In describing this contrast, historian and novelist Archie Binns stated that many pioneers foolishly assumed that, “a house is not a house unless built by whites”. This blindness  provided a license for destroying that which the pioneer worldview rendered invisible.

Throughout the Northwest, the cleared land upon which Native villages stood was favored by pioneers—and they seized it as they destroyed native homes, usually by burning. This is the mortal danger in the discoverer/conqueror’s blindness:  that which he renders invisible, his actions work to banish in fact.In the claims case pressed by several Puget Sound tribes in the early 1900s, indigenous peoples testified how the houses in village after village were burned by pioneers, who sought the land on which they stood–and ignored the fact that this land had been cleared by native people.

In fact, lands pioneers favored throughout the northwest were those specifically modified by native labor:  as was the broad Willamette Valley early fur trappers nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” for its profusion of natural foods. But Lyman Abbot, major spokesmen for the ironically named “Friends of the Indians” who lobbied Congress to assimilate Indian peoples to white ways in the nineteenth century (and take their land in the process) argued that the Indians did not even “occupy” the land.  Real occupation, he argued, would consist of things like mining operations.

Or the beaver trade.  The destruction of beaver homes along with human ones was something Chehalis elder Mary Heck remarked in the claims trial above.  This gets to the heart of the discovering conqueror’s blindness—the conqueror destroys that which creates the very things he favors. Pioneers throughout the continental US coveted beaver meadows as choice farmland, as Carolyn Merchant details in her analysis of ecological changes in New England with the coming of pioneers.

But at the same time, Euroamericans brought the beaver to the brink of extinction.

Val Plumwood outlines the blindness of the “dominator” logic—or more properly, illogic—expressed here.  The conquering mindset divides the world into dualistic sets such as progress/backward, civilized/savage, human/nature, civilization/wilderness, man/woman, master/slave, boss/worker, insider/outsider, friend/enemy– with the idea that one is higher and one is lower.

From the perspective of the ones above, those below become “objects” for their use—and invisible in their own right.  And also invisible in terms of the ways in which those at the top rely on them.  As Carolyn Merchant also observed, seeing nature as an active process means recognizing the contributions of natural life in creating the landscape upon which we make our own lives. But today we are still laboring under the induced blindness of the discover/conqueror in this respect, which sets humans above nature and renders natural systems as there for our use–and invisible in their own right.

Thus  globalization and industrialization are systematically destroying seventeen ecosystem services priced at $33 trillion a year, treating these aspects of ecosystems as it they were merely objects for our use–and thus invisible both in  their own right and in their contributions to our survival.

It is a matter of logic and of justice that we recognize and honor the living communities that charge water tables, contain and filter storm water, hold hillsides together with their roots—and provide us with the air we breathe and the soil on which to grow our food.   But we are hampered in doing this by the mentality that mixes discovery with conquest.

The mentality does not ask the “discoverer” to assess the consequences to natural lives (including human ones) in the use of his newly discovered technology. Modern industrial society simply gives the rights of usage to the “discoverer” as a patent.  The dangers involved in this approach have led the European Union to institute the precautionary principle in its REACH program.  According to this principle, a new chemical must be proved safe before it can be distributed.

There is the further question of who owns something derived from an ecosystem– something created and sustained by other life. The notion that if we “discover” something it is ours to do with as we will brings to mind a quip comedian Dick Gregory made about the discovery of the American continent by Europeans. Following this historical precedent, he declared that he would like to discover himself a car.

To address this issue in modern globalization, Vandana Shiva has instituted a “no patents on life” campaign. According to its guidelines, discoverers can neither own nor lock up from others the use of what they “discover” if it is part of a living ecosystem.  This pertains especially to the patenting of food and medicinal products traditionally used by third world peoples.  In the case of Shiva’s India, corporations patented both basmati rice and neem—and attempted to use those patents to keep these products out of the hands of those who used them for generations.  Shiva’s idea has been picked up in a European Union proposal.

All in all, it is time to clear up our inherited confusion between discovery and conquest—and the near-sightedness that goes with it.

Let us re-imagine discovery as a matter of meeting and mutual learning—rather than overrunning and obliterating the others who share our earth.

After all, blindness to the natural sources of our lives is not a survival tactic.

The Dangers of False Reverence: Destroying What We Think We Love

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.21.2012

In Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water and the Future of the West, Charles Wilkinson notes two ideologies that resulted in the destruction of the salmon runs that once yielded 42 million pounds annually on the Columbia River alone.

The first is the sense of dominance that saw the land only as a resource for human exploitation. But the other is perhaps not so obvious.  It is a reverence for that which it destroys.

We don’t have to imagine the destructiveness of the first attitude:  we have history to inform us of it.  This attitude created a free for all in the Pacific Northwest in which, as Wilkinson puts it, the “fish hardly had a chance”.  This was expressed in the waste in the taking of salmon in the late 1800s, as in the case of the trap on Puget Sound that wiped out an entire run of sockeye salmon when tens of thousands of fish wedged themselves into that trap and suffocated before they could be released.

Wilkinson also notes that some pioneers, by contrast, held the salmon in reverence. But it was a strange reverence, an idealization that never really saw the salmon for what they were– or as anything that incited human responsibility. In their awe for the overwhelming abundance of the salmon runs, pioneers never saw their limits.  Unlike the indigenous system which set up seasonal harvest limits orchestrated by religious leaders, pioneer harvesters depleted that which they never thought would end.

Partly this was because they had no historical experience with the runs—but the destructiveness of their actions was also mingled with their idealization of Western lands as something larger than life.

I spoke with those who logged the old growth forests they found on arriving in Western Washington in the late 1800s– who had experienced the grace and power of those forests as they took them down with crosscut saws, leaving stumps twenty feet high– since mills couldn’t handle logs over five feet in diameter. As they grappled with those great trees body to body, they did not stop to think that the forest that defined their lives would ever be gone.

In their minds, the hugeness of the land bestowed it with a sense of eternity—a sense that it would endure no matter how humans behaved toward it.

After he had been a logger, one man I interviewed served as a fire lookout, living alone in a cabin on Mt. Rainier. In those days the animals were not afraid of humans–and just watching from his mountaintop as various animals came by, day after day, he felt a reverence for the natural world that was no longer entangled in struggling with something larger than life.

That was when he looked around and saw the old forests were going.   He was in a state of shock as a result.

When I interviewed him he was in his nineties and had spent several years tracking the changing weather patterns resulting from those missing trees.  He filled his notebooks, day after day, with his record of the lost forest, as if his faithfulness could redeem his former carelessness.

He wanted most of all for our generation to understand the mistakes made by his.

The pioneer west is not alone in expressing the dangers of such a reverence toward an idealized part of nature. The Ganges River in India is both one of the most revered and one of the most polluted rivers in the world.  In effect, this river is loved to death, as its idealization licenses some to overlook the fact that it has any limits—any needs of its own which might depend on human responsibility towards it.

The good news is that while political will in India has not taken up the cause of cleaning the sacred Ganges, this project has recently united Muslims and Hindus.

The idealization of women expresses a parallel dynamic of failed or too idealized reverence.  At the beginning of an abusive relationship, a man classically expresses intense reverence for the object of his desire.  Indeed, in modern Western culture, many relationships are characterized by a “romantic fallacy”—an idealized projection on the other that prevents each from seeing who they really are.

The romantic fallacy is exceedingly dangerous to the object of its projection.  For the Ganges, the salmon, the trees, the idealized woman, the object of such reverence loses subjective identity—the right to act on their own and have their  needs honored.  As Jean Kilbourne points out in her analysis of the idealized woman in modern advertising, that ideal portrays the woman as a kind of corpse.  The airbrushed presentations of her face are like mummified parodies of real life. Such an objectification of anything, she observes, is the first step toward licensing violence toward it.

Those who idealize another cast see them in terms of their own needs—and thus are all too liable to exact of them the kind of sacrifice Trask exacts of the indigenous elder who befriends him in Don Berry’s historical novel Trask, situated on the Oregon Coast.  In this novel, the pioneer protagonist kills the elder in the midst of his attempt to initiate himself in a spirit quest like that of traditional indigenous peoples.  In a profound metaphor for real history, the pioneer is literally out of his mind as he commits this murder, unaware that establishing his own “spiritual” connection to the land costs the life of another.  In his trance, he carries the dead body of the elder through the landscape in his personal search for a spiritual home.

The ambivalence of this murderous reverence—in which the land and its people become a sacrifice on the altar of human need– is expressed in this quote from the novel:

“Taking possession of the land is the first and final grasping of a man … toward immortality…As a child clutches blindly at his mother’s breast, so a man will strain to the land without understanding…

The thing that possesses a man to open a land is simple lust…A molding and carving and forging takes place between [man and land].. bitterly, happily, angrily, exultantly…  And in time there is no …clear edge of difference where … the land ends and the man begins.”

As this quote expresses, there is a profound human need to belong to something larger than oneself—something that begins before an individual’s birth and continues after death.  But such belonging cannot be had by seizing it:  “possession” and “land lust” are the contrary to belonging established in the mutual inter-working of the land and its human residents over time.

Moreover, we can never see a land so entwined in our own need for what it really is.  Idealization of the land, that is, inhibits true intimacy with it.

By contrast, indigenous reverence for their land rests on intimacy with it—on gratitude and humility for the daily gift of life the land provides. It is characterized by the reciprocity between a people and a land that is not larger than life, that is, but bound up in life itself.

In its link to daily life, such reverence motivates care for the land and for all life that shares it. This reverence is illustrated in the words of native naturalist Linda Hogan in Dwellings: “What does god look like? These fish, this water, this land.”

In such recognition of the divine in creation, there is quietude and fullness, as expressed by Rebecca Adamson, Founder of the First Nations Development Institute: “God is in the space and silence. That is where it is sacred. You look up on a starry night and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.”

In her interview in  YES magazine (summer 2009), Adamson indicates an essential difference between opening to the silence of the divine in the stance above and the idealization in the pioneer perspective.  The indigenous perspective is based on fullness and gratefulness;  the pioneer perspective, like that of modern capitalism in general, is based on hunger and need:  on a “self-fulfilling scarcity”.

In the indigenous case, humans adapt to the fullness of natural life, in the pioneer case,  the land becomes a projection of human need.

Thus the latter sees the land as that which might redeem humans from their hunger for  belonging and security–even if they have to destroy it in order to possess it.

How to Love a River

By Madronna Holden

Updated April 2012.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee obtained his own long life from sharing it with the river his people named themselves for. Hum-m-m-ptulips, that river was, its name humming along on the tongue the way its rifles hummed along, so that it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

His elders had taught him to dive deeply in the river when its water was “alive”, when it was at its most powerful– and the greatest challenge to humans.

Cultee told me of a cousin who simply wet his hair to give the appearance of diving.  His elders might be fooled, but the river knew who really dived there.  His cousin passed to the other side many decades ago while Cultee lived on in concert with the land.

He was in his mid-eighties when I first met him and still living in season in his “fishing shack” on the Humptulips, tending and mending heavy nets on his own.    He was ninety-nine when I last went to see him. Then he had given up the heavy labor at his ancestral place on the Humptulips.  He was living with his son Richard on the Skokomish Reservation, where the only medication he took was an occasional aspirin-and where he and Richard had taken in two small boys.

“Here we are, bachelors with children”, Henry Cultee quipped.

“Wherever you found a river”, Cultee once told me, “There you found Indians”.

The fluidity of the river mapped the flow of the land, rather than the frozen north or south of paper maps-and certainly-rather than fence lines, which Cultee complained stopped the flow of natural life

To the Northwest’s river people the treaty promise of the US government:  “as long as the rivers shall run” was no fleeting thing-even if Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens wrote to his superiors, that as soon as the US gained more strength in this area, they would no longer have to honor the treaties they were making.

Indian peoples themselves soon learned that to the US government, treaties held “as long as the rivers shall run–or thirty days, whichever comes first”.

Richard Cultee’s Skokomish people had another joke:  “We knew the whites had arrived when we woke up one morning and the river was moved.”

It was no joke that Tacoma Power stopped up the entire north fork of the Skokomish River with a massive dam at Cushman to generate electricity.

That whole section of the  river didn’t run at all any longer.  Neither did the salmon, whose care was outlined in traditional Skokomish tales, which instructed the people to allow the salmon to release their eggs so as to perpetuate and strengthen the runs.

There wasn’t any advice in those old stories about how to help the salmon up a dry river bed.

But the Skokomish fought the dam that blockaded their river.  Recently they achieved a settlement with the Tacoma utility that it would release enough water from its turbines to allow the river to flow again.

There won’t automatically be salmon back on that water. The water flow comes all at once, in a steady blast from the turbines rather than in an ebb and flow.  But the Skokomish have visions for changing that too.

And someday they may be able to follow the injunctions in their ancient tale for caring for the salmon on their river again.  They have dreams about that:  and like the Chehalis who earned their long lives on the land in conjunction with the rivers, they plan on persisting.

So do the Takelma, represented by Takelma elder, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who will conduct the second annual ceremony “honoring the water”-blessing the Willamette River-this coming Sunday, April 26 at the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon.  Grandma Aggie has international stature as chair of the International; Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. But she has local status with the salmon.

On her website Grandma Aggie conceives of her role as a “voice for the voiceless”-for all those things, that is, whom we have neglected because they may not speak in a human voice-or if they do, may speak only the language of the privileged.  In this sense she works to actualize a “democracy of all life” as East Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has put it.

This phrase is an apt term to describe the “commons”- that natural life upon our own depends, no matter what our status in human society.

We are only now beginning to see what happens when we ignore the natural sources of our lives.

This is a lesson we would not have to learn the hard way if we had traditions of honoring the rivers in the way of the Takelma or Chehalis or Skokomish.

We might learn from the river instead.

There is nothing that can teach us more about the democracy of nature than a river.

And nothing that can teach us more about reciprocity and balance:  since what we put into the river ultimately comes back to us.

This is one tragic lesson in the current state of the Ganges River, sacred to millions, but one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the world whose flow is also threatened by global warming. Hindu ecofeminist Lina Gupta has analyzed how the idea of transcendence without reciprocity has led to the pollution of this river. There is a belief that the river is a goddess who can cleanse anything-and thus anything can be dumped into her with impunity.

It is the understanding of reciprocity and balance, Gupta writes, that is most dangerously missing from this perspective.  fortunately, since this essay was first posted here, the plight of the sacred Ganges has become a cause (cited in a news story in April 2012) for uniting Hindus and Muslims in cleaning this river.

Conceiving of the river as transcendent in this way implies that she never has to be cared for herself. Gupta argues that this attitude contradicts true Hindu belief about Dharmic (duty)  responsibility for one’s actions.  Gupta also ties this into the notion of dominance in the industrial world that denigrates the sources of nurturance that it designates as feminine-like the Mother Ganga.

Thus those who say they revere the river as transcendent can actually use this as an excuse to pollute it.

Global warming is currently affecting the glacier that feeds this river-and as its source dries up; millions downriver are affected by drought.  And the e.coli and heavy metal content from industrial pollution is directly affecting those who use this river as the source of their drinking water.

From a short-sighted human perspective, it might look like we can dump anything into our rivers and have it simply carried away.

But in fact, the river teaches reciprocity:  how what we dump there ultimately comes back to us.  It teaches karma, that is, in Hindu terms.

It also teaches another revered Hindu idea, according to Gupta: the idea that all is one.  In its flow it negates the modern industrial divisions between spirit and nature, humanity  and  the natural world.  When we pollute the rivers, we pollute our own bodies.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Grandma Aggie specifically requested that a sign be made for her blessing of the river that reads, “The river is not a garbage dump”.

Coming back to the question that began this essay– how do we love a river?

By caring for it, as have the Skokomish with the long court battle to free its water and as does the Chehalis River Council today.

By knowing it-following the example of the Corvallis Environmental Center’s mapping of the water quality in the Willamette River in conjunction with the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State. University.

By fighting its being bottled up in plastic and sent elsewhere, as are the Winnemem people currently defending their sacred McCloud River in Northern California.

By learning from rivers everywhere what they have to teach us about fostering the length of our lives on the land.

The Dangers of Pricing the Priceless

By Madronna Holden

Land was something priceless–something that could not be bought or sold at any price– in the worldview of the traditional peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

The local peoples gathered at the treaty proceedings at Cosmopolis on the Olympic Peninsula expressed the utmost frustration in their negotiations with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens on this point. They could not make him understand that his plan to remove them from their homeland was unacceptable, since nothing could replace their land for them.  It was a concept that Stevens did not register even as native peoples spoke of the spirit of the land, of their love for this particular place, of the loneliness of the ancestors without the presence of their descendants.

Instead, Stevens flourished gifts to replace their land.  Whether  it is a literal story-or one meant to convey Stevens’ stance-Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee  told me that Stevens doffed his top hat and promised to fill it with gold for every man, woman and child at the treaty proceedings.

When the Indians refused to leave their homeland in exchange for any material compensation, Stevens spoke of how the “father in Washington” would ensure their safety in exchange for their lands-but could not be responsible for their welfare if they stayed in the way of the pioneers.  Native oral tradition has it that Stevens threatened to put them all on a boat and maroon them at sea until they learned to get along if they continued to insist that they would not live on the land of others’ rather than their own.

There was no bridging the gap between the perspective which sees the land as distinctive, precious, and priceless– and that which sees the land as a thing to be bought and sold. But some Indians still tried. An Upper Chehalis man spoke these words recounted by oral tradition:  “Move my body anywhere you wish, but cut off my head and place it on the land of my people.”

Stevens still didn’t get it. When the Chehalis, the Cowlitz and the Chinook refused to sign the treaty at Cosmopolis, he blamed his failed treaty on particular recalcitrant Indians rather than on the worldview he never understood.

At the Walla Walla treaty negotiations, government agent Joel Palmer tried to sway those present by stating that he had moved all the way across the country for his own betterment. Thus native peoples could move a little distance away from their land to go to a reservation- where the US government promised to better their lives.

But Palmer’s argument at Walla Walla had the same problem as Stevens’ argument at Cosmopolis.  It was based on the assumption that one could simply exchange one bit of land for another.  This idea has been carried into the present day in the idea of “mitigation”-if one wants to develop wetlands, one must recreate or maintain a comparable wetland somewhere else. But such a notion was wrenchingly sad to a group of elders on the Muckleshoot Cultural Committee who mourned the sacred sites they had lost to highway development.

This reflects an essential aspect of the indigenous worldviews:  the sense of the unique value of individual persons, other natural life, and particular lands such that none of these can be replaced by or exchanged for any another. [1]

By contrast, the modern industrial system prices everything-including human life.  This is what got the Ford Company into trouble for its exploding Pinto gas tank-which it failed to replace after creating a balance sheet on which the value it fixed for human life didn’t make it worth the cost of repairing the tank.  Ford is not alone. Our own EPA has done this kind of analysis in its decision to continue to allow cancer-causing chemicals on the market.

In a capitalist market system, what people are willing to pay for a thing determines its value.  But as economist Mark Sagoff points out, the truth doesn’t work that way. Three will never be the square root of six, no matter how many people are willing to pay  to make it different.

I don’t think some lobbyists currently in Washington D.C. believe this point.

But we cannot just blame them:  the mindset that sees everything as being capable of being exchanged for something else has led us into manufacturing plastics to use in place of natural materials.  This has not been spectacularly successful.  We  have plastics which result not only in brain cancer suffered by workers who make them, but in the endocrine disruption caused to infant bodies by plastics leaching into milk in baby bottles. Plastics with chlorine in their formulas (such as vinyl) are particularly toxic;  and plastics with BPA  cause endocrine disruption.

The fact that we have exchanged plastics for products of natural systems causes more general problems.  If it is hard to imagine what we would do without plastics in the modern age, it is also hard to figure out what to do with them.  Sunlight only breaks them down into smaller and smaller pieces that persist and are consumed by ocean plankton–and thus they have become a part of all ocean life.  And then there is that floating soup of plastic in the ocean–most of which has blown off of landfills.

All human bodies now consist of a certain percentage of plastic.  We have no idea what part of our physiology this replaces.

In complex and dynamic and carefully calibrated natural systems (including our own bodies), we cannot easily lift out and replace some part for another.  This should give us pause in gene splicing, where the attempt to replace one gene by another in “Roundup Ready” soybeans has produced a mysterious  “extra” gene whose effects are unknown. General problems with genetically engineered crops include gene migration which spreads genetically engineered genes for miles and the fact that genetically engineered crops have contaminated non-genetically engineered seed stocks.

It is a dangerous thing to blithely create something we cannot contain-even if its convenient business of substitution gives us something we want.  This is why the European Union has wisely created the REACH program to use the precautionary principle with respect to the creation and use of human-created chemicals.

This business of thinking we can exchange everything for something else needs to be re-evaluated.  The minute one sets a price on something, no matter how high– it is devalued.  For then it can be bought.

As did those who lived sustainable lives in the Pacific Northwest for tens of thousands of years, it is time to think about and revalue the things that are priceless–before we trade them all away.


[1] See Nancy Turner’s “Lesson of a Birch” in Resurgence no. 250, for more support for this point.

 

Caring and the “Fore-caring” of Precaution: Watching over the Commons

By Madronna Holden

One day when I visited a Chehalis grandmother that I sat and spoke with many times, she called my attention to the prairie in front of her house. She loved that prairie which brought her the smell of wild strawberries in June and remembered images of her ancestors with their slender digging sticks prying camas up carefully, so carefully, so as not to “disturb the prairie”. Over generations, the careful work of her people and that of other indigenous women resulted in the camas flowers everywhere on the prairies pioneers nicknamed “camas lakes” for their stunning visual effect.

But that day the prairie this elder loved was full of shoveled mounds of dirt.  It seems that some people on a quest for wild foods had been seeking camas and had tunneled away, turning over and uprooting soil everywhere.  It was something I myself did not at first notice, but it was immediately apparent to this woman who in her eighties watched over the prairie just as she watched over the Chehalis children playing outside the tribal hall during recess from the Headstart Program.  She had an all too extensive recollection of the assaults on Chehalis identity and language during the boarding school era, but observing these children who “knew who they are”; she could finally say of her people, “I guess we made it”.

She had strong eyes with which to do all that watching:  ones that could warm you even in the coldest days. Others (non-Indians) advised me to wear a coat when I came to see her in her unheated cedar house.  But sitting there before her bright watching eyes, often flashing with glee at a joke, I was never cold.

She had plenty of vision with which to observe that those folks armed with shovels had “really messed up the prairie”.  This violated her ethic of non-disturbance the same way the sloppy leavings of a modern hunting camp violated the same ethic in Henry Cultee’s eyes.  You should take and use all of what you shot-and should there be something you couldn’t use of the animal that had given its life for your survival, you should respectfully bury it. Honoring the life you had taken and leaving the land just as you found it.

In this sense the “precautionary principle”, which mandates that we take special care not to disturb other lives now or in the future, is nothing new.

Caring for the land and for the people is anciently intertwined in traditional indigenous views in which animals were hunted so that meat could be shared. In some areas of California, the hunter never ate any of his own meat.  He could justify taking the life of another natural creature only by giving it away to feed others. In the same way, girls who harvest their first roots berries on the Mid-Columbia River never consume these themselves-but instead give them away.  In wisdom gleaned from observing the reciprocity of natural systems, they realize that the one who gives away her first harvest will see nature return the favor to her in future years.

What we share of nature and society expresses the content of what environmental philosophers term the “commons”.  The commons includes things like air, water, transportation and storm water systems upon which modern developers depend-and for the Chehalis grandmother, the prairie in front of her house. That commons differs radically from “private property”. What was truly “private”shouldn’t matter to anyone else.  Thus the grandmother above thought it as peculiar as it was insulting that social service folks had knocked on Indian doors with the purported purpose of teaching Indian women how to arrange their housekeeping.  Once the word got out, the Indian women they targeted didn’t let them in the door.

Digging up the prairie by any means convenient and intruding on the home life  of Chehalis people to proffer their re-arrangement both violate the ethic of non-disturbance shared by many native cultures and the modern precautionary principle–originally called “fore-caring”, in that it was caring for the future.

It was the same kind of violation that saddened the Chehalis grandmother when she had, years before, gone to visit someone at the state mental institution at Steilacoom.  She was indignant that the inmates could be “paraded around like that-human beings!”  She did not recall that there were many who were “lost to us that way” before contact, but when there were, her people would work to “bring them home again”.

To bring them, that is, back to a place of honor and belonging, to include and embrace them rather than to isolate and regiment them.

There is exemplary tenderness in this stance:  in the stance that honors all life exactly as it is– and understands disease as lack of belonging.  Instead of remaking the world for its own purposes, this stance attempts to enlarge itself to embrace those who have been left out, thus bringing them home again.

Imagine a science that worked with this kind of tenderness toward our world. It is a possible vision. Indigenous Community Conservation Areas now account for a substantial portion of the world’s lands (up to an estimated twelve per cent), and they include global areas with the largest cultural and biological diversity (“biocultural diversity”). Such areas are managed in terms of the ancient partnership between native peoples and their land.

Imagine if global development and technology turned to such tender caretaking:  what if we defined “progress” as enlarging ourselves, embracing others (including natural systems) as they are?

What if we exhibited such tenderness and watchfulness over our social and ecological worlds?

What if we instituted the precautionary principle in all aspects of our lives, combining the stance of non-disturbance with intimacy (so that we have the knowledge to understand whether or not we are disturbing others) and the watchful protection that many indigenous worldviews have modeled?

If we honored our own potential in this way, then perhaps we might begin to expect our actions in this vast mysterious world to yield unexpected positive consequences rather than the unintended negative ones we all too often face  today.  Like those in the community of Gaviotas in Colombia, who have worked  so carefully to be in harmony with their environment that thousands of acres of recovered rainforest have serendipitously risen up in their wake.

Imagine what daily life might be like if we expressed such tenderness towad our environment that we woke up each morning expecting wonderful surprises– and secure in the sense  that those who followed us would inherit an even more vital world than the one that sustains us.

This is a vision that all of us might work to make a reality.


As a point of information, I have not used this wise Chehalis elder’s name since, in keeping with her traditional values of humility she asked me to “use my words but don’t mention my name”– even as she asked me to pass on what she and others told me– to “make a book of it.”

Partnering with the Natural World

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By Madronna Holden

In 1927 Chehalis elder Mary Heck testified on behalf of her people before the U.S. Court of Claims. She spoke in Chehalis, enumerating the things a non-Indian court might count in terms of value.

She listed the houses that had been destroyed by pioneers who wanted the cleared land on which they stood. She told how long it took her people to build each of those great cedar houses that stood for generations unless they were destroyed by fire – the white tool of choice in this matter. She spoke the names of villages erased from maps that set down straight lines over lands and waters that contemporary Chehalis elders told me were traditionally navigated by “streams of trees” and “fish trails.”

But Mary Heck had something else to say as well, something she deemed important to place on the record alongside the list of the destroyed homes of her people: the destroyed homes of the beaver, devastated by pioneers as they drained her people’s lands for their farms.

Even in translated court transcripts, her tone comes through. She is speaking up for the beaver who shared a partnership with Chehalis women in their root digging grounds. Mary Heck credits the beaver for sustaining the wetlands and fertile ground the Indian women favored for these crops. In relating the destruction of the beaver’s homes, Mary Heck mourned the loss of a friend.

Just as the otter is a keystone species in Pacific Ocean ecosystems, the beaver had a central role in ecosystems both east and west of the Cascades. Indeed, in taking beaver and otter, the early fur traders could hardly have picked two species whose depletion had more profound effects on local ecosystems. Beaver dams helped create and sustain the wetlands that are now ninety-nine per-cent gone along the Willamette River, wetlands which married the river to the land, providing habitat for a proliferation of plant and animal species, containing and filtering storm water, and keeping ground water tables charged.

Across the Cascades, along the Crooked River, for instance, innumerable springs dried up when the beaver dams were lost in the wake of the fur trade. Then the once fertile lands that spread out beside that river shrank as the formerly meandering waters stayed to a deeply cut bed. In this sense, the concerted policy of Hudson’s Bay Company administrators John McLoughlin and George Simpson to stymie competitors by creating a “fur desert” in the Pacific Northwest had an ironic ring. In accomplishing their goal of depleting the otter and beaver, they enlarged dry land areas throughout the Northwest.

We can set Mary Heck’s story of the beaver alongside the modern ecologist’s story of the sea otter in expressing the dynamic interplay of species in a resilient ecosystem. Her perception, in turn, derives from the “partnership” worldview in the indigenous Northwest. With this point, I want to take up where many natural resources managers, including innovative ones such as “resilience” thinker Brian Walker leave off.  I want to shift from questions about how we “manage” natural resources to how we manage ourselves to support nature’s resilience.

The issue of partnership takes up a theme in a paper I recently gave on resilience thinking, in which partnership was one of four strategies I proposed for managing human behavior in ways that support the resiliency of natural systems.

The first step in establishing a partnership is treating our partners with comparable respect to that with which we treat ourselves.  In their 10,000 years of sustainable living here, the Pacific Northwest’s diverse indigenous cultures did this by treating all natural life as their intimate kin, with standing comparable to that of humans. “All animals and inanimate objects possessed spirits,” as STOWW (Small Tribes of Western Washington) stated in their handout for their 1975 treaty rights workshop. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River, the term for “life” is waq’ádyšwit, the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit indicates “intelligence, will, and consciousness,” and since it exists in all natural things, it is the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. [i]

Parallel recognition of personhood in nature is found in the traditions of the inland valleys as expressed by contemporary Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman: “The earth is alive. It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise also perceived natural landscapes as comprised of persons alive with spirit. In the early 1900s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a word for animals that contrasted with that for humans in the Pit River language. But there was no such word in their language, since there was no such distinction in Pit River culture.

A partnership worldview inherently promotes respect for diversity in its recognition that all natural life possesses spirit and personhood. In this sense, the partnership view envisions the most democratic of socio-ecological systems, embracing what Vandana Shiva terms “a democracy of all life”.

The radical equality between humans and other natural life in the partnership worldview goes hand in hand with the recognition that nature and humans are intertwined in the relational manner of Brian Walker’s “socio-ecological systems,” in which “changes in one domain of the system… inevitably impact the other.”

In this sense, both the partnership model and the resilience paradigm offer an alternative to the dualistic split of the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature. Both concur with the modern science that tells us whatever we do to our natural environment, we do to ourselves. Thus, for instance, the pesticides and fire retardants released into our environment have become ubiquitous in U.S. breast milk.

In recognizing the dynamic reflexivity between ourselves and the natural world, indigenous Northwesterners developed an ethic of reciprocity, which entailed sharing the gifts of life with others, taking only as much as you could replace from natural systems, and treating natural life with respect in order to allow it to flourish – which in turn allowed humans to flourish. In such reciprocity, we find the intersection of ethics and practical outcomes in an interdependent world.

Take for instance, the case of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  Respecting the salmon as partners with humans, for instance, resulted in their abundance under native management, so that the indigenous peoples on the Columbia River harvested seven times the modern take without harming the sustainability of the runs.

Since all natural species were peoples in the partnership view, it followed that one should develop an ethics of consideration for the future generations of salmon and humans together. Drawing on this perspective Yurok elder Lucy Thompson observed in 1916 that non-Indian rules for protecting the salmon on the Klamath River were bound to fail, since they were based on the actions of individual fishermen – but their actions taken together created a gauntlet of barriers the salmon could not run.

Lucy Thompson’s insights stand beside those of all the indigenous peopled cited above in illustrating how the partnership view implements both intimate knowledge of natural systems and careful monitoring of the results of human actions on those systems. Thus is the alternative to the Not in my Backyard attitude which separates the consequences of environmental decisions from those who make them.  Ecofeminist Val Plumwood points out the fundamental irrationality of the modern global system in this respect, in which those who have the most power to make environmental decisions are the least likely to be visibly  and immediately affected by them. This broken feedback/ethical loop must be repaired by remedying a sense of “remoteness” from particular places (as the bioregional movement sets out to do), from the future (in the effects of our actions on future generations) and from those “others” which a hierarchical worldview renders invisible or inconsequential.

The ways in which the partnership model encouraged humans to manage themselves for the benefit of both their landscapes and themselves were not limited to the salmon. In Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson details the way that this worldview led to the exquisite bounty of root crops, wildfowl, and game recorded in hundreds of explorer records in native California. In like fashion, early explorers in the Willamette Valley termed it the “gourmand’s paradise” for the results of the specific management practices of the Kalapuya – and they would come to the Willamette Valley to stock up on provisions whenever they ran low.

The intersection of ethics and practical results in the partnership model is eloquently expressed by modern Nisqually leader Billy Frank, Jr., who has worked tirelessly both for Indian fishing rights and the care of the salmon and its habitat: “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.” [ii]

Modern Westerners cannot authentically or ethically take over the specific spiritual beliefs of other cultures. Nor can we return to the past. Yet as the Resilience Alliance’s workbook for resource managers observes, it is important to tell the story of ourselves and our land in ways that free us from the constraints of the ruling paradigm. In this context, the partnership worldview has much to show us about fostering a resilient world.

Indeed, the partnership worldview immunizes its holders against the paradox of domination. This paradox flows from the fact that the more one tries to control a thing, the less one sees it for what it is. One-way communication with natural life (we plant, you yield) subverts the knowledge we need to foster a resilient world. As a remedy for the dangers of such limited information gathering, the partnership model sensitizes humans to the ways in which natural life “talks back” to us.

This paradigm has important scientific potential, as expressed in geneticist Barbara McClintock‘s Nobel Prize-winning work she accomplished through “speaking with the corn,” getting to know each corn plant as an individual. It was not a popular method for any scientist, much less a woman beginning work in genetics several decades ago. For years McClintock struggled to continue her research without the support of her colleagues, finding ways to fund her own work.

This is the kind of leadership expressed by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker in taking on her personal commitment as a “voice for the voiceless.” She does not say, “voice of the voiceless.” She is not subsuming or taking over the voice of the other. Instead she is expressing the central stance in the partnership worldview: speaking up for those we might otherwise leave out of our goals or visions, in the same way that Mary Heck called attention to the beaver.

Such leadership reminds us that in order to gear our behavior toward fostering a resilient natural world, we need to increase our listening skills-and thus expand our range of vision.

Key to the success of the partnership worldview is its attribution of agency to all in any socio-ecological system. Thus it helps us embrace a question as pressing in this era of increasing globalization as it was to cultures with 10,000 years of standing in the Pacific Northwest.

How do we share our world?


[i] “Western Columbia River Sahaptins,” Eugene Hunn and David H. French in Handbook of North American Indians v. 12.

[ii] Quoted in Charles Wilkinson, Messages from Frank’s Landing.

A slightly different version of this essay appears as “Partnership and Resilience” in Ecotrust’s online journal, People and Place.

Indigenous Peoples Day/ Native American Heritage Month: Remembering to Remember


In Braiding Sweetgrass  Indigenous botanist Robin Kimmerer relates the native teaching that the purpose of ceremony is to “remember to remember”.  That is a good guide for our upcoming US Thanksgiving ceremony.

Our modern worldview too often sees humans and nature in conflict– with the disastrous results of climate change and use of toxins that poison our own brains. In this context, it is important  to remember that there is another value system we might chose — and with it a history of successful relationship with the natural world.

Thankfulness is essential to that value system–and integral to the strikingly successful heritage in which humans lived together with other lives on this land for thousands of years.

As Kimmerer reminds us:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address [of the Onondaga Nation of New York State) without feeling wealthy. ” That address elaborates thanks for the people, the plants (with special additional thanks for food and medici9nal plants as well as trees) , the land animals, the fish, the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the four winds, the thunder, the enlightened teachers, the Creator–and any other aspect of life that this homily might have left out.

Kimmerer continues:

“And while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumerist society, contentment is a radical proposition. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift, rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

The practice of gratitude, along with partnership with natural systems and respect for one’s place in past and future generations led to what Kimmerer terms the Honorable Harvest that cared for the land while it sustained the people.

Together these values and practices created abundance and biological diversity on indigenous-tended lands over thousands of years.

Seventy five per cent of the food and fiber we use on a global scale today was originally cultivated by native peoples of the Americas, who managed their landscapes organically and sustained themselves while fostering habitat for other lives.

Many of the essays posted here detail such management practices on the part of the Pacific Northwest’s First Peoples.  This essay tells another part of the story:  the ways in which pioneer emigrants were welcomed into this landscape by its native inhabitants.

In fact , without the generosity and expertise of Native peoples, pioneers would never have gotten here in the first place.  It wasn’t just the famous guide of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Sacajawea. Chief Sealth guided David Maynard and his party to Elliot Bay, where they founded Seattle.  That land was cleared and suitable for building because the native people had situated their own houses there, like Old Man House on Bainbridge Island, which was hundreds of feet long with over forty living apartments.

Tillamook elder Ilga showed pioneers the best farmland on Tillamook Bay, where the dairy cooperative, Tillamook Creamery is today.  It was good farmland because the Tillamook carefully tended it to encourage fertile grazing land for deer and elk.

Other pioneers settled in Upper Chehalis territory, following the guidance of Indians traveling near the mouth of the Columbia River, who came upon an emigrant family trying to drain a swamp and guided them to Upper Chehalis territory where there was more suitable farmland.

Once the pioneers arrived in the Northwest, native peoples continued to transport them and their goods and mail. Anson Dart, first Indian Agent of Oregon Territory, pleaded that Indians not be removed from territories west of the Cascades (the current Congressional plan), since the pioneers sorely needed the Indians to do “all the boating on the rivers”. Phoebe Judson, whose family worked a claim in Upper Chehalis territory before they moved on to Nooksak territory on the Upper Puget Sound, wrote in her journal that “one was perfectly safe in the hands of an Indian”.  By contrast, “Occasionally a white man came along who, thinking he knew more than the Natives, would insist on assuming control-sometimes with very disastrous results”.  Judson cited the case of Captain Barstow and G. N. McConnaha who overrode Indian advice about the safety of traveling in particular weather-and all members of their party drowned.

Indians were also responsible for communication between pioneers isolated on their claims. Thus Bob Hunter related that the pioneers of his grandfather’s era, who came across the Plains when there were “buffalo as far as you could see in three directions, “were always happy to see an Indian” because of the news they brought of other settlers.  Everywhere in Western and Eastern Oregon Territory, pioneers echoed this view with respect to Indian mail-carriers.

That was not the only reason to be glad to see an Indian. Relying on the Indians for food was a tradition begun by Lewis and Clark. When they left the Columbia River on their return trip east, they prudently stocked up on provisions, since they were coming into a territory with fewer Indians-fewer Indians from which to obtain food. Astoria traders settled at the mouth of the Columbia in the first decades of the 1800’s suffered deprivation when the Indians temporarily abandoned the area due to an altercation with the traders. “For want of their aid”, the traders “suffered considerably”, one of them wrote.

Having traveled through the seasons of good weather, wagon train pioneers arrived on the verge of winter with all their provisions gone. Indian traders who frequented the Columbia River brought familiar foods to incoming emigrants on the Oregon Trail-such as Elizabeth Goltra’s family, who were supplied with potatoes and peas by some Nez Perce Indians near Mt. Hood in 1853. If their case followed that of most Willamette Valley pioneers, the Goltra family would continue to be provisioned by the land’s first peoples when they arrived at their destination.  In Linn County, pioneer testimonies of Milton Hale, John McCoy, John Crabtree and several others, “Indicate that the Indians prevented starvation among the whites when the food ran out.”

Pioneer recollections of the generosity of Indians toward incoming emigrants were often touching. Near The Dalles, Loren Hastings’ family camped and waited for Indian transportation downriver.  While they were there a young Indian girl gave his father shoes for his bare feet. In Hastings’ words: “The little Indian girl drew from her dress a pair of very fine buckskin moccasins trimmed with beads which she fitted lovingly on the barefoot child.”

Just as the Iroquois Confederacy modeled the Articles of the Confederation for the thirteen US colonies, early pioneers participated in and learned from Native forms of government and cultural practices in the Pacific Northwest.  Sarah McAllister grew up on Nisqually council grounds where Leschi invited her family to settle. She wrote: “There were not enough [non-Indian] people to think about forming a government of their own.”  Therefore, the McAllisters “lived under Indian rules.”

When the James family moved onto Grand Mound Prairie in Upper Chehalis territory, they were the only residents except for the Indians, who had a fishing station a mile from their claim. The James family had originally fled England, where oppressive laws ousted farmers from their land.  When they arrived on Grand Mound, they recognized indigenous peoples who shared their democratic ideals. The local Indians wrote Anna Maria James, were “real aristocrats” as opposed to the presumed royalty of the England they had fled.

According to the journal of her daughter, Mary Ann Frances James Shepherd, their little pioneer cabin was “almost swamped by the Indians crowding in”. These Indians were “friendly and kind-hearted”, though the Chehalis made it clear that the James’s were their guests-and it was only with their permission that they were allowed to stay on.  As John Roger James wrote, the Indians liked to trade with them, but continued to insist the land was theirs (emphasis his) until his father doctored them through a smallpox epidemic.  After that the Indians officially chose to share their land with the James family, as a delegation of Chehalis came to their cabin one morning in 1853 to tell them, “As he had been good to them, giving them “Lemichine”, (medicine in Chinook jargon) and saving many of their lives.”

This set up the reciprocity that was essential to the ethics of local Native peoples. When a James family child tragically died of disease, they tore a board off the roof of their house to provide him with a coffin. Such reciprocity learned from the Indians was called “salmon interest” by the local pioneers. Accordingly, whenever a pioneer gave or loaned something to a local Indian, it would be returned with a large shiny salmon for “interest”.

When Ezra Meeker went on an extended trip, leaving his wife and two babies on a little island near Steilacoom, he arranged for a neighboring emigrant to look in on them.  The neighbor did not follow through, but all turned out well, since a local Indian woman took the initiative to come twice weekly to their house “with little gifts” when he was away, checking on his wife and children and seeing to their needs.

Women and children were often alone on their claims while men were off logging-or following the Gold Rush that one pioneer opined nearly emptied the Willamette Valley of its entire male pioneer population.  Such women-headed families elicited the sympathy and support of native peoples, as illustrated by an incident that took place near Cedarville, Washington. One day an Indian appeared at the door of their cabin and made hand signs to the mother and children in residence.  Unable to make them understand him, the Chehalis man walked into their cabin and took down a rifle that hung on the wall, along with three cartridges, and walked out again.  In a few moments, he came back with a deer slung over his shoulder, which he left for the hungry family.  He returned two unused cartridges along with the deer.

A number of emigrant children were mentored and even adopted outright by indigenous peoples-from the Sacramento Valley to the Olympic Peninsula in Nina Baumgartner’s story told here.  Siuslaw man Andrew Charles, was “a man to remember”, according to Norman Dick, who considered him his “godfather”.  On days when Dick was “cross” or “when  my mother was busy doing something else… he would gently take me in his arms and walk out to the creek where the water was talking and laughing as it was playing among the rocks.  He would sit on a log near the creek bank and hold me firmly in his arms. To the tune of the wind singing in the treetops, he sang softly low-toned Indian songs in a deep, tender voice.”

Andy instructed Dick to “Sit still and be quiet, and listen to this stream tell its story.” No two streams sounded alike, he told him. Indian children taught this wouldn’t get lost.

It was such knowledge of the land that Native peoples exhibited everywhere.  Along the Oregon Coast from Tillamook to Yachats, from Siuslaw to Umpqua, and from Coos Bay to Northern California, early ethnographer John P. Harrington found a “foot-by-foot” understanding of the land linked to the ancestral names of their places on the land.  This was so consistently rooted in generations of tradition that Harrington opined that an Indian “map of the coast” specifying tribal residence in 500 A. D. would replicate one made at the time of Lewis and Clark.

It was such knowledge Native people were kind enough to share when they guided, fed, taught and nurtured pioneers who became neighbors to them.

Native American Heritage Month is an essential follow up to Thanksgiving:  time to thank the land’s first peoples for their part in US history-to celebrate their generosity and their ancient belonging to their lands.

We would do well to help heal the injustices of our past by following through on the reciprocity Native peoples historically modeled for pioneers in the Northwest by supporting their modern bids for self-determination.


According to native traditions, plants serve as our first teachers, as they have lived in natural systems much longer than humans.

Accordingly, there are different ways to be immigrants–as Kimmerer sees in the models of different plants.  Thus “immigrant” plants like plantain with its healing nature and its ability to live in ravaged habitat, tucking itself into small areas where it modestly  fits in, show us how to be ethical immigrants– as opposed to plants like kudzu that overrun entire habitats, strangling all but themselves.

Kimmerer also reminds us that it is the responsibility of the immigrant to become indigenous to their place– which to her means honoring the past and its store of knowledge (including that built up over time in the inter-related lives of natural systems)– and our responsibility for the future in our attention and choices.

There is a powerful message of hope in both indigenous ecological  values and their empirical success. Thanksgiving is a good time to remember to remember that.


Here are words from the presidential proclamation on Native American Heritage Month (November):

“For millennia before Europeans settled in North America, the indigenous peoples of this continent flourished with vibrant cultures and were the original stewards of the land. From generation to generation, they handed down invaluable cultural knowledge and rich traditions, which continue to thrive in Native American communities across our country today. During National Native American Heritage Month, we honor and celebrate their importance to our great Nation and our world.”

As we honor these traditions, Congress might also consider the fact that the land’s first people prioritized consensus decision-making, in which all voices were heard and considered for the sake of those to come after us.

Here are the words of the National Native Heritage  law itself:

“Congress encourages the people of the United States, as well as Federal, State, and local governments, and interested groups and organizations to honor Native Americans, with activities relating to—

(1) appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities to observe Native American Heritage Day;
(2) the historical status of Native American tribal governments as well as the present day status of Native Americans;
(3) the cultures, traditions, and languages of Native Americans; and
(4) the rich Native American cultural legacy that all Americans enjoy today.”
———————————-
Happy Thanksgiving to You All!

Belonging to the Land: Historical Perspective

“We immigrants who call ourselves ‘natives’ after one paltry generation on the land, can scarcely fathom what it means to the Indian to walk on a land in which a hundred generations of ancestors have been buried”.

Eugene Hunn, anthropologist writing on the traditions of the mid-Columbia River peoples

————–

“Drift people”, the indigenous peoples of southwestern Washington called the newcomers to their land.  The “moving people” those on the Oregon coast called the pioneers, since, according to Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman, they would only “stay a little, move on, stay a little, move on”.  Pioneer Samuel James’ letter from Grand Mound, Washington in 1860 echoed that impression. He wrote, “The Americans are ever in motion. They generally calculate to build and do a little work on a piece of land, and then watch the first opportunity for selling, and the money they get is mostly spent in traveling before they settle again, and thus the great multitude of them are always on the move.”

Leroy Inman’s book of pioneer recollections on the Upper McKenzie River, near Eugene, Oregon expressed this restlessness with pride-since it was linked to Manifest Destiny. The pioneers were “restless men”, he observed.  But all this “pulling up stakes”  was done for the sake of owning land, which was all important to the pioneers– owning land “gave them power, and power governed Man’s destiny.”

Land was also all important to the Indians.  But indigenous peoples belonged to it rather than owned it. Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee saw this as a key difference between Indians and pioneers, expressed in the way they saw the names of the land. Indians named themselves for their land. This was a way of valuing its intrinsic worth, as modern environmental philosophers put it. By contrast, whites named the land for themselves-and thought this gave them the right to use it however they wished. After the land became their “property”, trees became lumber, rivers became shipping ports and waste removal conduits, and animals become game and skins.

Historically this process lent substantial irony to the term “settlers”.  Being in constant movement, remaking the land as you go, is hardly a settlement process.  It was the Indians that truly settled the land. The oldest human shoes found in the world are the 15,000 year old sandals in which the indigenous peoples of eastern Oregon walked the earth near Fort Rock.

Given their strong affinity for their lands, Oregon Indian Agent Anson Dart never succeeded in getting the Indians to move from the Willamette Valley and the mouth of the Columbia, the Oregon Coast and southwestern Oregon to lands east of the Cascades.  His treaty commission painstakingly recorded how each of these groups insisted they would sooner die than leave their land. Short of killing them all or removing them with military force (that policy came after Dart), the Indians could not be persuaded to leave their lands.

But the Indian refusal to leave their lands was not understood by those who were in constant motion themselves. At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings, Joel Palmer announced that if he had moved all the way from the east coast of the US to better his position, the Indians could move just a little off their traditional lands. He didn’t persuade the Indians.

Young Chief of the Cayuse expressed his sense of belonging to the land to Palmer and Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens this way: “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.”

Young Chief also asked the government negotiators to ponder this question, “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.”

This is a powerful expression of belonging to the land.  And it is a vastly different thing from having it belong to you. If you belong to the land, it means you are responsible in your actions there.  It’s not a moneymaking but a caretaking proposition.

It also means recognizing the others that share this land.  One day some three decades back I was outside speaking to a young Chehalis mother in a soft Washington drizzle.  I asked if she minded standing in the rain to talk to me.

“We don’t mind the rain,” she responded, “It belongs here.”

The unsaid echo in her words was that her people belonged here too. Indeed, before they knew themselves as “Indians”, she told me, they knew themselves as “the people who live here.”

Belonging is tied up with recognizing the full community of life on the land-human and non-human. And in this context, according to Okanagan traditionalist Jeanette Armstrong, lack of belonging is a dangerous thing: “Okanagans say that ‘heart’ is where community and land come into our beings and become part of us because they are as essential to our survival as is our own skin.” In this context, “people without hearts” exhibit “collective disharmony and alienation from land.” These are blind to the destructive effects of their actions both on themselves and others.

There are two propositions we must grasp if we are to truly understand how to belong to the land and avoid the ethical and practical consequences of acting as people bereft of such belonging.

Firstly, we must stay with that land long enough to observe the consequences of our actions:  long enough to learn from our own mistakes-as well to learn how to listen the land.  We must, that is, reverse what Wendell Berry has called the “unsettling of America”. We must stop treating land anywhere as, in his words, a “one night stand”, in which we simply take what we want and move on.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that belonging to the land is a matter of belonging to a community of life over time. We can only belong to the land by honoring the ways in which other life and other natural processes belong here with us.  We must get our priorities straight, reversing the process by which we name the land for ourselves–and learn to know ourselves by how we belong to the land instead.

———-

Feel free to email me for pioneer quote sources.

Gilgamesh and other pioneers in paradise

11,000 years ago the country where modern Iran is today was a “paradise”, according to the archeologists currently investigating the world’s oldest Stonehenge-type religious site there.  This site is thousands of years older than the famed one in the British Isles.  In the most recent issue of the Smithsonian, archeologists speculate that the landscape filled with lakes and leaping gazelles amidst fields of wild grain so inspired its human inhabitants that they raised this religious tribute to its ineffable beauty. The carved stones there include images of vultures that traditional mythology tells us carried off the souls of the dead to heaven. A splendid heaven it must have been, scattering light onto the fertile earth below.

Another tribute to the immense forest (remember the biblical cedars of Lebanon?) on this land remains on tablets of stone that tell the tale of Gilgamesh.   This ancient king  of Uruk has more power over other humans than he knows what to do with–and dangerous arrogance with respect both to his subjects and to the natural world.

The moving poem of joy to this forest on these stone tablets sits amidst the chronicle of the forest’s destruction by Gilgamesh. After he “conquered” that forest and its guardian spirit, things didn’t go well for this king and his wild-man companion (and only equal among men) Enkidu.  Enkidu died shortly thereafter– after all, what is there for a wild man when the wilds are gone?

Gilgamesh defeated the forest and its guardian, but he ended his life in desperation.  He had immense logs brought from  the sacred forest to raise the mighty gates of Uruk where he ruled.  But his heroic escapades did not save him from coming face to face with his own death in the cycle of nature.

The land he deforested as a heroic adventure has fared no better in actual history.  The people of Uruk constructed  elaborate irrigation canals which resulted in the salination of the water table. And their once-paradise became a desert. But for their stone homage to a land now gone dry, the people themselves have disappeared.  Even their language has not been passed on. It is unrelated to any other language in the world, ancient or modern.

Bearing some resemblance to the paradise Gilgamesh came upon in the sacred forest,  George Yount’s 1833 description of the Napa Valley went like this:

“It was more than anything a wide and extended lawn, exuberant in wild oats and the place for wild beasts to lie down in. The deer, antelope, and the noble elk held quiet and undisturbed possession of all that wide domain. The above-named animals were numerous beyond all parallel, and herds of many hundred, they might be met so tame that they would hardly move to open the way for the traveler to pass. They were seen lying or grazing in immense herds on the sunny side of every hill, and their young like lambs frolicking in all directions. The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay and firth, and upon the land in flocks of millions they wandered in quest of insects and cropping the wild oats which grew there in the richest abundance. When disturbed, they arose to fly. The sound of their wings was like that of distant thunder. The rivers were literally crowded with salmon. It was a land of plenty and such a climate as no other land can boast of.”

In 1850, Thomas Mayfield’s description of the San Joaquin Valley includes these words:

“As we passed below the hills, the whole plain was covered with great patches of rose, yellow, scarlet, orange and blue… some of the patches of one color were a mile or more across… Several times we stopped to pick the different kinds of flowers and soon we had our horses and packs decorated with masses of all colors.”

I like to imagine this moment, when a family of pioneers on their way to the California gold fields (as they were) were stopped in their tracks by the loveliness of the land.  Can you imagine these pioneers so stunned by natural beauty they stopped the incessant journeying that caused the peoples of Oregon to term them the “moving people”–and covered themselves with flowers?

Something of the land stayed with this family.  Mayfield, a child at the time, was adopted by the local peoples after his mother died and his father went on to the gold fields.  The Indians raised Mayfield with love–and passed on their own love for the land to him as well.

But the land and people that nurtured him into manhood have not fared so well.  If the Choinumni people fed the Mayfield family so that they would not hunt with their firearms and scare the game, their tribe is tiny and fighting hard for federal recognition. And the land they once cared for is no longer a place to accommodate herds of wild game.  It has been plowed into vast irrigated fields for the mono-crops of industrialized agriculture. These fields today are becoming salinated in the same way as the fields of the ancient Middle East.  Further, in some areas of the Central California Valley, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have had such a profound effect on the land that nothing will grow on its own. This land, that is, is biologically dead.

Taking down the forests is more than a matter of axes and saws or modern chainsaws, as the tale of Enkidu and Gilgamesh tells us.  when we attack the spirit of the forest something vast in the potential legacy of human community dies with it.  In the same way, remaking the land for industrial farming is  more than a matter of plows and dams. These things are matters intertwined with the human soul. And something of “paradise” is lost when we change the land beyond its ability to care to revive itself and nurture wild things.

Clear cutting and industrial farming are not new things on the human horizon. As the tale of Gilgamesh indicates, humans have for thousands of years wrestled with the idea of taking down a forest–and they have not always won the struggle of conscience involved.  The tale of Gilgamesh is a cautionary tale in this respect.  as are the journals of Thomas Mayfield.

And so is the salt-laden biologically dead farmland of the Central California Valley waiting  to be reclaimed by a species of human care like that which the Choinumni once exercised.

“Dead Bodies All the Way Down”: Honest Stories to Guide Us

“This story will bring you to a place where you can take of yourself” a traditional Chehalis storyteller might tell the child to whom they gave the gift of a story.  “The place where you can take care of yourself” entailed the ethical knowledge communicated in that story. That story might teach the particular history of the land (e.g. Sme’um, the place on Grays Harbor where wildcat stole fire), but it also taught the ability to step into the place of the “other”, as they went back to the time when everyone– animals and people– spoke the same language. Stories allow us to step into other times as well:  they give us history as if, as a Chehalis grandmother told me, “You are right there seeing it happen”.

We need such stories more than ever today-like the story shared with me by a group of middle-management executives, students in my professional ethics class a few years back.   They related how they had been participants in a seminar given by a CEO whose success was meant to inspire them to “reach for the top” themselves.  As the excitement in the room built, one man asked, “And when you reached the top, what did you see when you looked back?”

The seminar leader blurted out, “It was dead bodies all the way down!”

He meant to boast of all those he had bested to get to the top of the ladder, but his statement had an unexpected result.  The atmosphere in the room shifted as the audience registered the image of a man standing alone at the top of the corporate ladder seeing only the bodies of those he had stepped on to get there.  After the stunned silence, the talk turned to how to avoid such an outcome.

Emotional honesty of this type–even accidentally stumbled upon–  is obviously rare in those who make it to the top by pushing others– or using them for their own ends.  That makes this an especially good story to remember and retell.

But I found such honesty among many working people ready to pass on what they had learned from their experiences at the end of their lives. Loggers who helped take down the old growth forests that once dominated southwestern Washington around the turn of the nineteenth century told me such stories. There was challenge and comradeship in those wild woods as two men cut through a tree so many times larger than themselves with a cross-cut saw, a man on either end.  It was a dangerous business and a rough and tumble outdoor life, full of adventure.

But when it was all over and they looked back, some saw what the executive above did:  the fallen bodies of whole forests in their wake. After their great green companions had died by their own hands, it seemed they had vanquished a whole way of life. And so one logger in his nineties kept track of the changes in weather that had come from taking of trees from the land. He recorded the rain and the wind daily in a small notebook likely no one else will ever see.  But he told me how much windier it was since the trees he helped log came down and how much more unsettled the weather seemed with its rain.

This was in 1974. He was not among the scientists who had begun to talk about global warming, but he had his own perspective on things.  And we could have used his story.

Another logger I interviewed had worked in the woods all his life, and won numerous awards in sawing and bucking contests.  But when I asked him about the story of his life, he did not talk about taking any trees down. Instead, he told me the story of three trees whose lives paralleled his own.

The first of these was a pear tree.  His mother had planted it for its fruit, to give her children.  Probably it or its seed had come across the Plains on a wagon, and once in this new place his mother had set into the ground.  And how it had grown, taking root here! This was good land for orchards. By the time he could scramble up a tree as a young boy, that tree was there for the climbing.  High in its branches grew the best fruit, where the sun hit it.  He climbed it year after year to bring that fruit down.  His mother loved that tree, and as it was his mother’s favorite tree, so it was her children’s.  It was set down in rich bottom land where you would plant a good tree; but it was also land where the river had its way.  Each year the river came closer and closer to that tree, lapping at its roots, until shortly after his mother died, the high water came up and took hold of that tree and swept it downriver.

After that her sons searched for their mother’s tree.  When they found it, they brought it back and tried to re-plant it, but after she was gone it would never grow again.

The second tree was a cherry tree he himself had planted.  He loved that tree as his mother loved her own.  It grew straight and tall and bore well:  but he never got out to see it anymore.

When I interviewed him, it was the old ash tree outside his window that held his attention. That year it had a season like no other; the blooms and then the berries that filled its branches were more numerous than its leaves.  The birds came to take away the berries bit by bit, and the burden of that old tree got lighter and lighter as he watched.  Now it was fall, and its leaves had gone.  Only a few berries were left, but the birds were still coming.

And so the man who had lived his life by taking down trees kept watch by the trees he now saw as echoing his own cycle of life.  He expressed their grace was his own–as was their coming and going.

The two men above were not unique:  Ron Finne’s documentary Natural Timber Country is full of such stories. Stories that we need to hear and remark in order to learn to take care of ourselves on this land.

We can’t say for sure that the traditional practice of inhabiting stories might have saved these men their sad look back-and our world the results of their actions.  But such stories give us a start in analyzing the consequences of our actions–and taking care as we as we make our own choices.

We need to tell these stories of the past rather than recording the triumphant history of the “winners” as one pioneer family put it. We need to tell the story of those who “lived it”: “The winner write history– and the rest of us just live it.”

The stories of “those who lived it” allow us to slip into the skin of another time and give us the wisdom to learn from their mistakes.   They tell us how to become a “guardian of the future“, working for a world that stretches abundantly before our children and grandchildren.

Then at the end of our own lives, we will be able to tell a different story than the one that looks back at dead bodies all the way down”.

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).

“Gourmand’s Paradise”: The Once and Future Willamette Valley?

European explorers and fur traders nicknamed the Willamette Valley, the “gourmand’s paradise”. When they ran low on food, they traveled to this fertile and abundant valley to stock up again. Here migrating birds darkened the sky and as one Willamette Valley pioneer rather gracelessly put it, deer were so “easy to kill” a man could “make more money shooting them for skins than working at a job”. There were nuts, fruits and vegetables to be had everywhere–not to mention, fish.

There is some question just how prolific salmon runs were once migrating salmon made it past the falls at Oregon City to run up the Willamette, but pioneers watched them jump the falls in amazement.  And oral tradition about the stretching of fishnets at the present site of Black Canyon Park indicates they swam on in substantial numbers to places like Salmon Creek Falls upriver from the modern day Oakridge.

What the explorers and the pioneers (who came after the self-sufficient and capable Kalaypuya had been hit by disease and moved to reservations at Grand Ronde and Siletz) did not note was that this “gourmand’s paradise” resulted from the partnership local peoples had fostered with their land for thousands of years. As with indigenous peoples throughout the Northwest, the Kalapuya had so intimate a relationship with their land that they named themselves for it. When a pioneer asked a group near the Santiam who they were, they gave him the name of the place where they stood: Kalapuya: “the valley of the long grasses”.

In Environment and Experience, Peter Boag documents how native practices expanded the rich habitat ecologists call “edges” in the central Willamette Valley, where their controlled burning resulted in innumerable ponds, marshes and wetlands that provided habitat for migrating bird flocks. Kalapuya practices encouraged the abundance of tar weed seeds, acorn, and the flourishing of roots crops such as camas. Indeed, as did the women to the north and south of them, Kalapuya women dug root crops with a method that both preserved the prairies and spread the roots as they harvested them. By the time the pioneers came to the Willamette Valley, camas was so abundant that pioneers termed the places it grew, “camas lakes”, since its prolific blooms looked like water shimmering in the sun.

Kalapuya elder and educator Esther Stutzman noted that their burning practices also roasted the native sunflower seeds and seasoned the hazel twigs used for basketry, which were at their prime the second season after they were burned. Wapato, an important Native root crop, also grew in the wetlands along the Willamette River. Forest islands protected from burning provided habitat for seasonal elk visitation as well as for resident deer. Boag noted the cooperation and care necessary to keep such never-burned areas clear of fire for hundreds of years. All in all, as Boag concluded, “The first whites in the Willamette Valley did not tame a wilderness; they inherited a park.”

Stutzman (an enrolled member at Siletz) noted that shortly after emigrants suppressed Kalapuya burning, a series of grasshopper plagues devastated their crops. Traditionally, burning had roasted valley grasshoppers, which were consumed by the Kalapuya, besides maintaining the oak savanna, keeping down the underbrush (including poison oak), and inviting elk and deer to live in valleys near Kalapuya villages, so hunters “didn’t have to go off and look for them”.

According to Stutzman, western Oregon’s peoples had a spiritual partnership with the deer whose habitat they fostered. A hunter participated in ceremony for five days before going on a hunt. During the hunt, he would sing a song to the deer honoring it and declaring his intentions. He sang, “Run! A man is coming to get you, but if you let us get you, we will treat you right.” Another five days of ceremony followed a successful hunt. In using deer’s gifts, the people must never “waste a thing.” If they were so careless as to throw something away, elk and deer would never come again to Kalapuya territory.

There was for Esther Stutzman’s Oregon ancestors special joy in seeing the tail of a deer as it lept away–that deer would carry away all one’s negative feelings with it. In the context of their affection for the deer, Kalapuya hunters not only utilized their kill carefully—they also chose their kill in such a way as to guarantee the robust quality of future herds. Early emigrants on the Santiam witnessed a traditional hunt in which the Kalapuya encircled a herd of deer and picked out the finest animals to release before they took their own kill.

As was the case with their indigenous neighbors, Kalapuya environmental strategies were carried out under the auspices of religious leaders with an intimate knowledge of the local landscape. Such religious leaders (who were usually women), discerned the optimal time for burning by forecasting the immanent arrival of the fall rains, so that burned areas might immediately turn green with new growth.

A few years ago, Esther Stutzman sang a Kalapuya song that had not been sung in public for one hundred and fifty years at the dedication of the Whilamut Natural Area marked by “talking stones” etched with Kalapuya words and placed along a path in Alton Baker Park in Eugene, Oregon. The name Whilamut designated areas of the river “where the water turns and runs fast”.

More recently Stutzman oversaw the creation and launching of a traditional Kalapuya canoe at Island Park in Springfield, Oregon. I was fortunate to watch that canoe dart smoothly through the rapids amidst the less agile craft that shared the river that day. Before it was launched the canoe was named and blessed, and it took to the river like a thing alive, lithe and fluid. It was obvious it was made for this river.

Those of us who live in the Willamette Valley today no longer manage game as our primary meat source, nor do we harvest an abundance of wild vegetables in wetland areas. Indeed, wetlands along the Willamette River have been drastically reduced, and the oak savanna that predominated in indigenous times is an endangered habitat. We need to protect ancient habitat as a library of knowledge about the operation of healthy ecosystems that might otherwise be lost forever.

Though many changes have come to the Willamette Valley in the past one hundred and fifty years, it might still be possible to revive its legacy as the “gourmand’s paradise” by restoring and protecting local ecosystems if we act quickly and with commitment. This is the vision for instance, of the many farms and community groups listed in this spring’s edition of “Locally Grown” , which also contains Dan Armstrong’s article outlining the potential of local food resources. Measuring the caloric needs of today’s population against the productive capacity of current farmland in Lane County, he estimates that that farmland could provide for all of our vegetable, fruit, and grain needs, as well as eighty per cent of our dairy needs.

We haven’t fulfilled this potential for local production. A substantial portion of our prime agricultural land currently grows grass seed. And much of it is under development pressure. But as Armstrong notes, with world droughts, oil shortages, and rising food prices, it is a good time to look to our local resources to sustain us.

In turn, our land sustains us only when we care for it. Enacting time-honored values such as respect and reciprocity that resulted in thousands of years of sustainability is certainly a tradition worth reviving.

———————-

The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition works on increasing local food production today.

Esther Stutzman is a traditional storykeeper of the Kommema (Yoncalla) Kalapuya.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to use it. Thanks.

The One that Got Away and Other Stories of Sustainability

The next time a fisherman tells you he let that big one get away you might congratulate him on his sustainability practice. The bigger the fish that got away the better, as indicated by the research publicized by OSU professor Mark Hixon, multi-award winning marine biologist. It seems that fishing folklore that enshrines the wily old fish too smart to be caught had something to it. As the research cited by Hixon indicates, larger and older female fish need protection in offshore reserves, since they are the ones most likely to breed-as well as to pass on the best survival genes.

Hixon is at the forefront of scientific research, but as chair of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, he grappled with the distressing anti-science mentality of the recent Bush US administration. He is not alone. The results of the survey released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that over half of the 1600 EPA professionals who filled out the Union’s detailed questionnaire reported incidents of political interference in their work, in which they were pressured by superiors to skew their findings.

If he worked as a knowledgeable elder whose job was to oversee the delicate balance of human and natural (spiritual) resources in traditional Northern California, Hixon would have had more community authority and support. Yurok/Klamath elder Lucy Thompson explained the “laws of the fish dam” overseen by traditional leaders in a book she self published in 1916. In a report confirmed by an anthropological study, she explained how traditional fish traps were open on one side to allow a number of salmon to escape upriver. The shaman also mandated that the trap could only be used for a short period of time, after which was taken down so that the entire run could pass to its spawning grounds.

Thompson noted that US conservation laws had gone into effect on the Klamath River, but they weren’t working very well. These laws prohibited nets from stretching all the way across the river, but because they only applied to individuals, they didn’t take into consideration the overall picture, which yielded a gauntlet of nets very few salmon could make it through.

Without a more comprehensive conservation policy, she predicted that the young California society would not protect the salmon resources as her people had done for thousands of years.

Throughout the Northwest, native spokespeople for those that US culture rendered “voiceless’, as Siletz spiritual elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim puts it, spoke out on behalf of the salmon. In 1846 a Chinook representative at the mouth of the Columbia told treaty negotiator Anson Dart his people would not sign until the pioneer commercial activity that disturbed the salmon was removed from the mouth of the river.

His plea was ignored, though earlier fur traders like Alexander Ross, who was reliant on native resources and good will, could not ignore native strictures for taking the salmon with care and respect. They were strictures which native peoples all over the Northwest held the early whites to. Fur traders on the Columbia as well as on Grays Harbor and Puget Sound encountered native protest against the pioneer method of fishing, which seemed bent on “catching them all”– even if they couldn’t use them.

In the early 1900s, Henry Cultee witnessed a fish cannery operation that blockaded the Humptulips and backed up the salmon so thickly they couldn’t be canned fast enough to keep them all from spoiling. Thus the canners hired scows to tow boatloads of the rotted fish out to sea to dump them. “It would have done a lot of good”, Cultee remarked, if they had let these salmon run upriver instead.

Letting some go was the perennial strategy of the native people wherever the salmon ran in the Pacific Northwest, out of courtesy to the people upriver as well as out of fundamental respect for the salmon themselves. The native strategy resulted in the fish runs so prolific they “embarrassed” pioneer Ezra Meeker on Puget Sound, who could hardly move his boat through the millions of salmon he encountered in such a run there. In one Columbia River camp in 1805, Lewis and Clark counted 107 bundles of salmon that Clark estimated to weigh ten thousand pounds. Altogether, the fifty thousand Indians who lived along the Columbia took an estimated forty-two million pounds of salmon a year from the great river of the West. Notably, this take was at least seven times the contemporary harvest. This stunning pre-contact catch harmed neither the abundance nor sustainability of the salmon runs.

This did not happen accidentally. Native fishing practices were governed by the belief that the salmon were kin with whom humans could and should engage in interpersonal partnerships. This partnership has recently been re-asserted by Takelma-Siletz elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker. Others, like Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr., have worked for years with Washington state officials and other fisherman to protect salmon resources in western Washington.

Grandma Aggie’s own work is paying off. Salmon runs have been coming back along the Applegate and Rogue Rivers, the traditional territory of her ancestors and the site of the salmon ceremony she recently revived. Her spirituality is linked to pragmatic action– “walking your talk”. She expresses satisfaction that the dam will soon be coming off the Applegate River just upriver from the salmon ceremony site–and another dam is coming off the Rogue shortly thereafter. She worked on a local citizen committee to help bring this about.

Letting the best go for the future was not only a strategy applied to the salmon. In the Willamette Valley, a pioneer witnessed a traditional Kalapuya hunt in which the people encircled the deer. Before they took any, they let the biggest and strongest go. This is the opposite strategy from hunting the biggest deer or elk to place its “rack” on a wall.

But the indigenous peoples who lived sustainably in the Northwest for thousands of years had the time and inclination to learn from nature. Theirs was not an attitude of domination of the natural world– or of gaining the trophies to express this. Instead, they worked to establish a reciprocal partnership with the other natural beings who share our lives.

That is as simple and wise a strategy as saving the best seeds for future crops– or passing on a better world for our children and their children.

To get involved in saving the Northwest’s fish resources:

Locally, OSPRIG’s campaign supporting marine reserves in Oregon is coordinated here. UNESCO has a recent report on the importance of local knowledge in sustaining fisheries.

Update:  in 2009, the Oregon Legislature approved a bill to protect two offshore areas as marine reserves.

For a detailed scholarly report of the environmental strategies of the indigenous peoples of California, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild.

An analysis of traditional indigenous ecological practices in the Pacific Northwest is here.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden.
Feel free to contact me if you wish to copy it in any other form than a link to this page. Thanks.