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.”
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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.

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Feel free to email me for pioneer quote sources.

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).