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.

“Going on the Side of Life”: Managing Humans to Foster Nature’s Resilience

By Madronna Holden

Given the extensive impact of human actions on the natural world, it is improbable that we can restore our environment to a previously undisturbed state-in terms of climate change, for instance.  Even if it weren’t for the current environmental crises, it is problematic to decide what our “restore” point would be.  In the dualistic framework of the modern industrial worldview,  “wilderness” is that which has no human impact.  However, some lands pioneers in the Pacific Northwest considered “wilderness” since they were not altered by western-style development were in fact the result of thousands of years of a human-nature partnership which fostered the resilience of the local landscape.

More than ever, in the modern age, we need such models to honor and support natural resilience: which I define here as the ability of natural systems to sustain, heal, and regenerate themselves. This is in line with a native grandmother’s words. At a meeting in which her Muckleshoot people detailed the ways in which their sacred sites had been ravaged by developed, she said, “I guess we just have to go on the side of life.” Life has a sacred meaning among many indigenous Northwesterners as it should for all of us: as the animating principle of the earth we share. I cannot think of a more powerful sense of nature’s resilience.

I want to suggest four guiding principles for managing human behavior toward this goal.

One key element in an environmental philosophy that supports the resilience of natural systems is reciprocity. Reciprocity casts human and natural interactions in terms of balanced and mutual exchanges: As such, it enjoins humans to take (food, energy, shelter, medicine) from the natural world only what they return. Though some institutionalized religions link reciprocity with a mentality of accounting, earth-centered societies link it with gratitude, moderation, generosity, and sharing-in which giving back to the circle of life is done without knowledge of how and when a gift will be returned. Enacting reciprocity with respect to natural systems inhibits human actions that undermine the essential vitality of these systems by drawing too much from them. notably, those mid-Columbia River peoples who saw life as a sacred animating principle of our world also saw reciprocity as a key ethical standard.

The precautionary principle or “forecaring” is a second element of a standard of human behavior that supports the resilience of natural systems. Its main tenet is that human actions (especially new technologies) must prove themselves harmless before being enacted. This principle compensates for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. As instituted in modern law, this principle protects natural systems from harm in a way that echoes traditional stories stressing the importance of care in human choices-care that extends to future generations. The precautionary principle is linked to environmental justice in the ethical prohibition against inflicting harm on those who share our world both today and in the future.

Honoring the flexibility and diversity of natural systems is another way of supporting their resiliency. Flexibility is essential to the ability of any system to respond to and recover from stress. “Edges” and interstices between ecosystems as fostered by indigenous practices in the Willamette Valley are the most diverse and thus resilient parts of ecosystems. The value of diversity to the resiliency of ecosystems weighs in against practices that create “blank slates” for human use — such as clear cutting, non-contoured plowing for mono-cropping, and wholesale bulldozing for construction projects. Today wilderness set asides might be used to balance some of the diversity lost through human use of the land.

It is important to note that indigenous peoples throughout the world traditionally managed their landscapes for biodiversity and this is one reason that they now steward some eighty per cent of global biodiversity. Another reason consists of the tragic homogenization of nature and culture that results from industrialized development.  In creating such homogenization, we are undermining the options for both ourselves and the natural systems we depend upon to respond to stress such as global warming.

A fourth essential element supporting natural resilience is partnership. Traditional societies enact their partnership with the natural world through ceremonial or diplomatic relationships with other natural beings: animals, plants, and spirits of place. Such personalization (as opposed to commoditization) of others has the pragmatic result of fostering the protection of these natural beings and the habitats upon which both they and humans depend. We might take a first step toward enacting the partnership ethic today by assuming a stance of humility in our dealings with the natural world-and respect for those others that show us how to expand our own humanity. We might also work to learn the “language” of our natural partners, as did contemporary Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock. Importantly, the partnership ethic shifts the social Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” from competition to cooperation. In terms of the partnership ethic, those most “fit” for survival are those who support the lives of the most “others”-and thus the diversity and resiliency of natural systems upon which they depend for survival.

From a somewhat different perspective, the Resilience Alliance works with natural resource managers to  foster natural resilience.

For a more detailed discussion of my sense of the relationship between partnership and resilience, see my “perspectives” piece in response to Brian Walker’s essay at Ecotrust’s online journal:

http://www.peopleandplace.net/perspectives/51

You are always welcome to link to this post.  Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.

The Mice in the Sink– and Us

In “Mice in the Sink”, an essay exploring empathy in non-human animals, Jessica Pierce leads off with a provocative incident witnessed by CeAnn Lambert, head of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center. Lambert found two baby mice, exhausted and terrified, trapped in the sink in her garage. She set a bowl of water in the sink. One mouse drank immediately, but the other was too weak to traverse the short distance to the bowl. The stronger mouse, however, devised an ingenious way to help the weaker one. It moved the piece of meat Lambert had also put in the sink close enough to the second mouse so that the latter could nibble it. When it had done so, the stronger mouse moved it closer to the water until it took another bite. Step by step, it led its weakened partner to the water to drink. By the time Lambert placed a board against the sink wall, both mice were strong enough to scurry up it. In her essay in the latest issue of Environmental Philosophy, Pierce calls this an example of heroism. What would you call it?

Here is an experience related by a woman who made a career of taking in injured bats and rehabilitating them in Eugene, Oregon. She was affectionately termed the “Bat Lady” by the school children whose classrooms she visited. She relates how she was cleaning the wounds of an injured bat-an obviously painful process. As she began to work on a severely injured bat that was struggling in fear and panic, there was another bat in the room who had undergone the same treatment and was now healed. As the new bat began to fight, the veteran bat made a sound. Instantly the newly injured bat become perfectly still and let the human handle it in any way she chose.

If we recognized that there is a place in the animal brain that is linked to empathetic reaction, as Pierce details in her article, perhaps it would change factory farming techniques that radically harm the health of ourselves and our environment together. Caging chickens so close together they practice cannibalism and restraining cows in such crowded conditions and filth they need daily antibiotics not to succumb to disease are two practices I am thinking of.

Indeed, ever since Francis Bacon, the purported father of modern science, stated that the wily scientist ought to “pin nature to the experimental board to torture her secrets from her” (language he got from the witch trials current at the time), experimentation on natural creatures has been licensed by the idea that nothing else in the world feels anything but us. At least other natural life does not feel anything deserving of our consideration, that is. That’s what doctors used to say when they circumcised male babies without anesthetic: their brains weren’t developed enough yet to feel the pain.

If we accepted the fact that animals of all brain sizes not only feel pain, but feel the pain of others, we’d have to revise Herbert Spencer’s misuse of the idea of Darwinism as the struggle in which only the “winners” survive. We’d have to go back to Darwin’s original sense of things, which emphasized cooperation rather than competition in the development of interdependent natural systems over time.

Evidence of this type is all around us– if we give up our sense of privilege in our work with other natural creatures– as do the scientists writing in Linda Hogan’s, Intimate Nature. Jane Goodall had an ongoing struggle with her scientific peers, who argued that her naming the animals she worked with made for “subjective” results they could thereby dismiss. She argued that good science takes all our senses: including empathy. This does not mean that the animals she studied lived an idyllic existence– though they have much to teach us. She found among her chimpanzees individuals who acted on their community mates with compassion and altruism, and others who acted with hostility and violence. The point is that the natural world is a complex affair when we allow it to speak for itself.

I would go so far as to say that anything we think we have learned about natural behavior using caged animals is not about natural behavior at all-but the human-created results of animal behavior under stress.

At the very least, we miss a great deal by telling our scientific story within such cages. For decades, geneticist Barbara McClintock worked without the support of an official research position, her work denigrated by her colleagues-until she won the Nobel Prize for the work that she derived from “listening to the corn”.

This is not a new way of looking at our world, but an old one. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River who lived at least 10,000 years in their home, the term, waq’ádyšwit, meaning “life”, was the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit “implies intelligence, will, and consciousness” and since it existed in all natural things, it was the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. This is Eugene Hunn’s description of the belief system of these peoples: “People, animals, plants and other forces of nature-sun, earth, wind, and rock-are animated by spirit. As such they share with humankind intelligence and will, and thus have moral rights and obligations as PERSONS”.

“The earth is alive”, said Esther Stutzman, echoing this view from the perspective of her Western Oregon tradition: “It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise believed that the entire land was alive with spirit. In the early 1900’s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a classificatory word for “animals” as opposed to humans in the Pit River language. His consultant, Pit River elder “Wild Bill”, told him there was no such term in the Pit River language, since there was no such distinction between humans and other natural beings in Pit River culture. When pressed, the only equivalent Wild Bill would give for “animal” was a term that meant “world-all-over-living”-a category which embraced all natural things, including what the white men called animals, what they called humans, and even what they saw as objects. In Wild Bill’s words: “Everything is living, even the rocks, even that bench you are sitting on. Somebody made that bench for a purpose, didn’t he? Well, then it’s alive, isn’t it? Everything is alive.”

Everything, that is, has a will and purpose of its own. Even those creatures we might dismiss in Western culture: like mice and bats. Like the water we mistreat, according to Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim. Or the salmon whose honoring she has recently re-instituted along with the ancient ceremonies of her people. “Grandma Aggie” Pilgrim’s insight is that if we restore our reverence to these aspects of the land that sustains us, we will treat them better: not using the water, for instance, as our “garbage dump”.

Wild Bill went on to contrast this worldview with that of the whites: “White people think everything is dead… They don’t believe anything is alive.” As a result of living in a “dead” world, he concluded, “They are dead themselves.” I once had a student of Pit River heritage in one of my classes at Linfield College. He related how an elder had told him that in traditional times, humans had been able to speak to the animals. Some might still be able to do that-if we were ready to listen.

His elders urged Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee to dive in the rivers to train for his spirit quest “when the water was alive”- when it was full of power and spirit. “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, they would tell him. Thus the multiple eyes of the natural world assessed his behavior-and ordained the length of his life and that of his people here with it. It was a survival technique increasing human awareness of the natural world that worked for Cultee’s ancestors for 10,000 years.

I led off this essay by asking how recognizing a world with a will, consciousness-and the ability to feel empathy toward others-might change our behavior toward it. There is a linked question. How would it change our quality of life to recognize that our daily lives take our place in such a living world?

——————

You are always welcome to link to this post.  Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.

The Sahaptin material cited above is from Eugene S. Hunn and David H. French, “Western Columbia River Sahaptins”, Handbook of North American Indians 12, and Hunn, Eugene S., with James Selam and Family: Nchi’i-Wána “The Big River” Mid-Columbian Indians and Their Land (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press: 1990).

The Pit River quotes are from Bob Callahan, ed. A Jaime de Angulo Reader (Berkeley: Turtle Island Press, 1979).

Burning down the House

As Chehalis elders reminded a visiting anthropologist in 1926, human power strong enough to heal is also power strong enough to kill. It would not have surprised them that the third leading cause of death in the US today, after cancer and heart disease, is undergoing a medical procedure.

Today we are great at developing new technologies– but not so great at considering the results of applying them– or even understanding what those results might be. Thus we sorely need the “precautionary principle” instituted in European Union countries and some municipalities in the U.S. That principle states, “No data, no market” with respect to innovative technologies. That is, we shouldn’t market such new technologies until we have researched their safety. As modern philosopher Andrew Light observed, we look both ways before crossing the street even though we are not one hundred per cent certain a car is coming. We might certainly apply the same basic standard of precaution to the thousands of new chemicals and genetically engineered foods their developers are releasing annually into our shared environment.

Indeed we might apply parallel standards of care to all human technology. Take the example of the wildfires currently burning everywhere in the West. One could hardly find a more basic form of human technology than fire. Learning to set that first fire was an important step for humans. No more cold winters and raw meat. It seems we like this about ourselves. Western culture cheers those who “set the world on fire”. But that does not absolve us of choices. A deed that is “world burning” is only a good thing until we come face to face with global warming. And even a single campfire may spread out of control and set someone else’s house on fire if not properly handled.

We might do well mull over traditional stories told by indigenous Northwesterners such as the Chehalis, which encouraged care in dealing with fire-and by extension, with all human technology. Fires burned on the prairies between the land of the living and the land of the dead in such tales. In one story, Bluejay has to cross these prairies-and learn lessons about how to deal with fire-lest he get himself burned up and relegated to the land of the dead forever.

This story taught pragmatic lessons to those who regularly gathered in inter-tribal groups to set fires to clear out the underbrush in their landscapes that otherwise provided fuel for more dangerous fires. At the same time their fires encouraged habitat for game animals and important food crops. Those fires were essential, and they set then with care.

Without their own stories that helped them deal with fire, pioneers stopped native burning and suppressed fires started by natural causes. Smokey the Bear became our icon. But that didn’t exactly work out as planned. If an area has no small fires, fire fuel builds up there. When that area does burn in the inevitable course of things, it burns with a larger and hotter fire. Today Forest Service policies have put that lesson into effect to allow for controlled burning and/or fires started by natural causes to burn unabated.

Fire is not good or bad in itself. It is not a matter of whether we should laud it or outlaw it. Instead we have to learn how to handle it. And as the example of fire illustrates, in learning how to handle it, we must account for the cumulative and spreading effects of our actions. In parallel fashion, we must assess the health effects of chemicals currently in production before we release new ones into the environment, as stressed in a memo sent recently to the members of Congress crafting the Kid-Safe chemicals Act by the Science and Environmental Health Network.

I am impressed by the compassion for their fellow citizens exhibited under emergency conditions. Last night (July 10) shelters housing those who evacuated because of the fire in Spokane issued a call for donated toys. They were flooded with so many responses, in only a few hours they had to issue a request to stop sending donations.

But on the flip side of our compassion, we have our carelessness. It is true that wildfires may be started by lightning strikes-and these in turn are exaggerated by global warming and its destabilizing weather patterns. But it’s also true that the vast majority of the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California were started not by lightning but by individual humans.

It seems our frontier mentality is still with us. According to the dictum of “full steam ahead” and “dam the torpedoes”. asking an entrepreneur to pause in getting a designer chemical to market is an unpatriotic as throwing a damper on a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July gave campers in northern California ample opportunity to start the majority of thousands of wildfires there. My neighbor related her own experience celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach where crowds gathered to set off fireworks. She watched a father hand his toddler a lit bottle rocket- I imagine he wanted to share the excitement of shooting it off with him. The toddler, not knowing quite what to do with it, turned around in a circle and finally launched it-into the open door of the family van. Out of the van poured the rest of the family who happened to be lounging there out of the wind to watch the family fireworks. Then someone remembered the rest of their fireworks were still in the van. Back in they went with sand and water and fortunately captured the miscreant firework which miraculously hadn’t lit anything else on fire.

While my neighbor was laughing, she heard a whoosh and turned around to note that someone from another family group had tossed a sparkler into the backseat of her own car through an open window. After they managed to put it out, her family went home. They had had all the fun they wanted for one night.

Some seem to hold to the idea that if we’re on vacation, nothing bad could happen to us. We’ve entered a realm where none of the cautions we otherwise use in daily life apply. That’s the frontier mentality as well: if we’re pushing the boundaries of human technology, nothing bad will happen as a result.

As a first step in rectifying such abdications of caution, it would help to name things correctly. Just as we can’t rightly call the recent flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa a “natural disaster” (since it was due to the breaking of levies humans built to protect houses situated in a flood plain), we can’t blame the wildfires burning in the West “natural” disaster. There are a number of dams in Oregon with cracks in their infrastructure-dams holding back water from the flood plains where currently reside hundreds of thousands of people. If those dams break under stress, as did the levies in New Orleans and Cedar Rapids, it’s ignoring our own responsibility to label the results a “natural” disaster. And acknowledging our responsibility is the first step to taking care of both ourselves and our environment.

Assuming such responsibility allows us to learn from our mistakes. Forest Service policy aside, things haven’t changed much since pioneer times on the score of our carelessness with fire in the Pacific Northwest. Those who played out the bottle rocket version of keystone cops on the beach were only following precedent. The year before first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens came to announce his unacceptable treaty provisions to the indigenous folks on the Olympic Peninsula, local emigrants accidentally set the forest on fire during their own Fourth of July celebration. That fire raged out of control until the autumn rains finally put it out.

By the time Washington became a state things weren’t going much better. That year was 1889, the same year a Seattle fire consumed two dozen business blocks and all the mills and wharfs on the bay, in spite of the help of volunteer firemen from Victoria to Portland. A similarly devastating fire hit Spokane in late summer of that year, as did fires that took much of downtown Vancouver and destroyed parts of Ellensburg, Goldendale and Roslyn. As a Snohomish County pioneer put it, it seemed “inevitable in all pioneer towns” that fire “virtually destroyed the entire town”.

As smoke pours into the Willamette Valley and hunkers down here from the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California, I am reminded of an historical image relayed to me by venerable Lower Chehalis elder Nina Baumgartner. When the first Scotsman arrived on the Olympic Peninsula with his red hair flying out in all directions, her people joked that they thought his head was on fire. This joke was about more than appearance. Baumgartner went on to relate the tale in which Bluejay crosses those burning prairies– which she emphatically slanted toward the necessity of being careful with fire.

With our heads set on “full steam ahead”, we don’t dwell on the disastrous potential of our power. We forget that what seems adventurous or profitable in the moment might eventually burn down our neighbor’s house-or give our children cancer.

But to balance that dangerous foolishness is the level of community response that brought firefighters from Portland to Victoria on the scene in Seattle in 1889-the same kind of community response that caused those fighting California fires to travel 24 hours and then begin their work without sleep.

Imagine if we could put such community feeling to work on caring for the future of our shared planet, as those in the Science and Environmental Health Network are currently doing.

Olympia Peninsula elder Nina Baumgartner’s people had ten thousand years to learn how to live in partnership with their land–and to observe the effects of their own actions. We don’t have the luxury of such timing. But the precautionary principle, which states that human innovations need to be proved harmless before enacted, is a good place to start. This principle helps compensate for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. It helps protect humans and natural systems from harm as did traditional indigenous stories stressing care in how we use our power.

The Precaution Reporter provides a wealth of information on the movement to institute the precautionary principle globally. And the Science and Environmental Health Network provides an outline of this principle and ways to support it.

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 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.

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[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.

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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.