Partnering with the Natural World


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.

The Green Revolution–Whoops! The Women of Bangladesh Offer an Alternative

The more we try to manage a problem with a technological magic bullet, the less effective we may be in meeting our goals. Take, for instance, the case of high producing variety (HVP) rice in Southeast Asia. The HVP rice provides more calories, but its introduction several decades ago wound up amplifying both vitamin A and protein deficiencies among those who grew it. Not only were the HVP rice strains lower in protein than traditional varieties, but the mono-cropping of HVP rice did away with carotene-laden greens that formerly grew in the rice paddies, along with the fish traditionally raised there.

In a parallel fashion, genetic engineering today may look good on one level, but work against its own purported goals on another.  Take the current “roundup ready” soy sold by Monsanto.  It works in conjunction with the herbicide Round Up to prevention competition in soy fields.  But the “round up ready” gene is spliced into a low-producing variety of soy-a variety rejected some time ago in hybrid breeding programs because of its low yield.

If we want to increase yields, as the “roundup ready” seed promises, why not return to higher yield varieties along with care of the soil– as opposed to low yield varieties plus with Round Up with all its health and environmental hazards?  Of course, then there are no profits for Monsanto?

There is another serious problem with genetically engineered crops:  one that caused British farmers to burn test fields of genetically engineered soy-and the European Union to reject imports of genetically engineered grains.  Through a  mechanism we can neither understand nor control, genes migrate from one plant or field to another. That is, gene reproduction in plants is not entirely contained within single plants.  This is a serious issue with the Monsanto “terminator” genes engineered to create sterility-as a protection for the Monsanto gene patents.  But what if the terminator genes migrate to crops whose seeds we want or need to save?

To return to Southeast Asia and HVP rice, bioengineers are currently working on “golden rice” containing carotene to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency there. But as some local people understand, what they need is something entirely different from a more heavily engineered super-rice.

Thus the women of Bangladesh began the Nayakrishi Andolon, or New Agricultural Movement, practiced by 25,000 households by 1998. This movement fosters biodiversity in the context of the Hindu belief that all life is interconnected through the single spirit that animates it. This movement has come to its striking success, two of its members recently told Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, co-author of The Subsistence Perspective with Maria Mies, by simply doing what brings them joy even as it makes their land beautiful.

These women have led a local movement to replace the beesh, or “poison” of the Green Revolution with a diverse ecosystem which uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers (phasing these out if necessary); practices mixed cropping; multi-cropping, and agro-forestry; integrates habitat for livestock, poultry, and semi-domestic birds and animals; and practices seed saving and genetic conservation. The farmers in this movement assess the productivity of their fields not by the yield of a single super product, but by the sum of their diverse products. They have not gotten back all 12,000 varieties of rice indigenous to this area, but some individual farmers grow more than 110 varieties. And their methods have been so good for the land that some now grow rice using only surface water rather than drawing up ground water. This movement is an obvious success.

It takes a local community in partnership with nature’s diversity– rather than a single technology developed somewhere else-to reclaim a land. As in this case, global development projects which purport to bring “progress” to a third world community might well take a moment to learn something from the communities they hope to serve.  Maria Mies’ “subsistence perspective” offers some guidelines for doing this.

It is important to note that though the women farmers of Bangladesh have reclaimed their lands in these ways, areas of Bangladesh are currently hard pressed to deal with rising waters in the Bay of Bengal resulting from climate change. As the documentary, “Afloat”,  indicates, what the people of Bangladesh face will be faced by all of us if the global community does not join in ameliorating climate change.

Diplomacy with the Nations of Life

The perception of other natural life as nations with distinct ways of life, values, perceptions, rights, and territories of their own would allow us to see the natural world in a more holistic way. This is not a new idea. This perception inspired indigenous Northwesterners to treat the first salmon taken from a run with ritual care:  for they if did not respect that salmon, they would insult the salmon people.

The treatment of other species as nations went hand in hand with whole-species and inter-generational assessments of the effects of human actions. Thus Yurok Lucy Thompson pointed out in her self-published book in 1916 that the modern laws meant to protect salmon runs lacked effectiveness. They would not  work as long as they were geared only to the actions of individual fisherman– since taken together, the actions of those fisherman created a guantlet of nets that the salmon could not navigate.  Notably, the shamans who oversaw traditional Yurok fishing indicated when to start and stop the taking of salmon from a run, thus gearing the take to the size of particular runs.

In this context, we see modern religious leaders such as Takelma Siletz elder Grandma Aggie as ambassadors between humans and natural domains such as the salmon and the waters in which they swim.  In her self-described role as a “voice for the voiceless”, she reminds us of those we might otherwise neglect in both human and larger-than-human societies.  Today, those are the ones that often the vulnerable ones  most in need our attention.

Such diplomacy entails respect for the homes of other creatures– the kind of respect with which we would like others to treat our homes. One day a Chehalis grandmother (in keeping with her sense of the value of modesty in her tradition, she requested I not use her name, though she urged me to use her words), pointed out the piles of earth on a prairie in front of her house, resulting from the going after camas with shovels.  “They really messed up the prairie”, she told me.  By contrast, one shouldn’t be able to tell that a prairie dug with the slender traditional digging sticks of her people had been dug.

I have heard this same ethic of non-disturbance of the habitat of other natural life  expressed by a number of other elders. In 1927, elder Mary Heck, speaking in Chehalis, testified before the Indian Claims Commission on behalf of her people, citing the villages that were destroyed by whites.  She added that beaver homes were also destroyed by pioneers as they drained land for their farms.

Refraining from disturbing the homes of other natural life is not an automatic response. Knowledge gained over generations of observation told indigenous root diggers how NOT to disturb the lives and habitats of others as they met their own needs. In Mary Heck’s case, she also observed the fertility the beaver’s activity added to the land.

Respect for the habitat of others provides an excellent model for respecting other human communities–a  special concern in the context of growing globalization.  Such respect must be based on the willingness to learn about the needs and views of these others. This is not an altruistic impulse.  In an interdependent world, what we learn of others enlarges our vision and our own choices.

This is a sketch of an idea I am working up into a larger paper.  I invite your response.

There is a story of a traditional African court mediation between a farmer and a hyena along the lines of the diplomacy mentioned in this post, as well as a discussion of the concept of nature having rights in  this article by Cormac Cullinan in Orion Magazine:

There is also an excerpt from his book, Wild Law on the site above.

See also Christopher Stone’s classic, Should Trees Have Standing?

Here is a Northwest independent bookseller sketch of Stone’s work complete with a number of responses and reviews.

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 :

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.

“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.