The Fourth Annual Willamette River Blessing: Opposing the Readiness to Harm

By Madronna Holden

What Traditional Stories and Ceremony Can Teach us About Sustainable Technology

On April 17, 2011,  the Willamette River flowed past the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon,  in great swells, rolling up over its banks and swirling through wetlands of willows– full of of itself for the annual river blessing led by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.

For 22,000 years, Grandma Aggie told those gathered to take part in the blessing ceremony, her Takelma ancestors had lived in the Rogue River valley south of here, which they felt the Creator had shaped especially for them.

It was with “sick hearts”, a Rogue River man explained, that they moved at the hands of soldiers to the Siletz Reservation so many miles away. It was a sickness, an early reservation official wrote, that was serious indeed– since many who suffered it died as a result.  One man begged that if he might just have one more look at his land, he would be satisfied. But these are the points of history I am adding here. Grandma Aggie doesn’t call attention to them.

She has no rancor over this:  what is done is done, she says, and none of us were there.  Now we need to go forward in love for one another—and care for the earth that sustains us all. Over a century after her people were confined on the reservation surrounded by military forts to prevent them from attempting to go home, Grandma Aggie felt the call of the land and returned to live in her people’s homeland, reviving the ancient salmon ceremony there.

Her people’s ancient story of the salmon, Grandma Aggie says. taught her the salmon were people just like us who sacrifice themselves for our well-being.  It was this story that motivated her to dedicate herself to freeing the local rivers of dams and pollution.  Now all the dams are removed from the Rogue and it runs free its entire length.

But there is much yet to do to care for the waters of the world yet.

Grandma Aggie is fond of saying that we are all “water babies”—and through the water that gives us life we are all connected.  Thus she honors the requests of  communities  throughout the Northwest to bless their local rivers; bringing the message that working for the well-being of the rivers is working for our own well-being.

She warns us not to complain of the rain that settled over the Northwest this past week, but to speak well of water that is precious—and disappearing from so many parts of the world where she and the indigenous grandmothers have traveled. How we speak of the rain, she said, is how we speak to the water in ourselves.

As we circle close by the river and Grandma Aggie pours into it the waters of the other rivers of the world she has visited, I am struck by the simplicity and reverence of the traditions represented here.  A man at Grandma’s side prays to be one of the men who supports the work of the grandmothers, as men everywhere should be– and he tries to teach his boys.  Many who speak are choked with tears as they speak of their grief for the hurting earth and ask forgiveness of the living water for allowing its pollution.

We should treat the water as a “god”, Grandma Aggie tells us, with the reverence due that which gives us life.

Lest some of us get caught up in struggles over terms, we might use Grandma Aggie’s model of openness as she participates in the ceremonies of the other indigenous grandmothers, praying to the Creator with these words, “These ways are not my ways, but help me to gain something from them, too.”

Treating water as a “god” means listening to the natural world in a way that has pragmatic pay offs.  Grandma Aggie predicted the problems with disease among hatchery salmon before modern science verified it.

The people who lived with their land for 22,000 years expressed the vital humility that allowed them to attend to the natural lives that sustained them–and thus to live in a way that supported the abundance and fertility of their lands.

“Grandfather, help us keep the rivers clean for the sake of all the swimmers”, Grandma Aggie prays, as an eagle circles overhead, swallows circle the water in droves (flitting away after the ceremony), and ducks  bobble up on the bubbling water as if to learn closer to her words. At their presence, Grandma Aggie smiles the same smile she gives to children when she says she is “everybody’s Grandma”.

And for that moment, we are all part of a web of life that is whole.

Grandma Aggie’s stance exemplifies a technology of reverence:  a technology that brings lives together.  If technology’s purpose is to extend our reach in the world, sustainable technology should extend our sight as well.  Thus the story-technology of Grandma Aggie’s people reminds us that what we do touches other lives that are like our own in value and meaning—and upon which our own lives depend.

It is a technology that extends human reach by strengthening bonds of intimacy:  and thus motivating humans to act in a way that protects the precious fabric of life—a goal which Grandma Aggie specifically reminds us

Last October, the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers were in Japan, in the precise location where the devastating earthquake was to strike—and the continuing nuclear emergency emerged. In the wake of those disasters, Grandma Aggie recalls that the Japanese peoples were the most generous and hospitable she has ever met.  It is one way to understand this tragedy: to see it as happening to people with kind human faces.  Grandma Aggie told me of meeting another “Aggie” in Japan. This Aggie told Grandma Aggie she had dreamt of her coming and was anxious to meet her, since she bore the same name.

There is a profound metaphor in this story Aggie shares with simple delight: an understanding that each of us has a potential namesake in the lands we conceive of as most distant– and in the lives we might think of as different from our own human ones– like the salmon.  Shortly before, she reminded me again how hearing that the salmon were people who sacrificed themselves to sustain human lives impelled her to care for the river and its swimmers.

It was such traditional stories that created culture:  that gave us  physically puny humans the edge in adaptation. If this past teaches us anything, it is that the tools we use should bring us closer to understanding the long term and long rang results of our actions.

Blessing the river is that kind of technology: a ceremony that reminds us of our connection to one another and to the vital sources of our lives. It is about “spreading the word”, as Grandma Aggie asks us to do on leaving the ceremony—“so that everyone will know what went on here”.  So that everyone can join this community, feeling the hope and purpose of caring for the water that sustains us all.

By this criterion our contemporary technology doesn’t always fare so well.  Instead of making the results of our actions more visible to us, it cushions us from them.  We don’t understand the vulnerability of our water when we just turn on a faucet to have it magically appear.

Shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a newscaster questioned a local man who lamented that since radiation is invisible, local people had no idea how to respond to it.  This is not just the nature of radiation:  it is the way in which nuclear technology has been put into practice, based on secrecy and distancing, as detailed in too many unfortunate incidents in what Arjun Makhijani, co-editor of the MIT Press publication, Nuclear Wasteland, terms the  “readiness to harm”. 

We express such a “readiness to harm” toward those we think less valuable than ourselves—or those who are invisible to us.  If sustainable technology has made the the invisible visible, gives voice to the voiceless (in Grandma Aggie’s words), then technology that truncates our vision does the opposite:  leading to the multiple crises that come as unpleasant surprises to us in the present age.

Our contemporary crises and the contrasting indigenous success challenge us to re-shape our technology to make the results of our actions transparent, to extend our reach and power in the world even as we extend our compassion and wisdom.

Honoring the Water: Third Annual Willamette River Blessing led by Agnes Baker Pilgrim

Madronna Holden

Update:

Grandma Aggie’s words are featured on the theme page of the latest issue of YES magazine’s “water solutions issue”, which is full not only of ideas but good news in ways that small communities have made headway against corporate ownership.

Here are the words Grandma Aggie is fond of saying:   “We are all water babies.  It’s never too late to save the world.  Wherever you are, take care of the water- if you really want  to live”.


This past Sunday,  Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers came to Eugene to lead the third annual honoring of the water ceremony to bless the Willamette River.

Grandma Aggie smiles after traditional drummers from the Cottage Grove Longhouse sang and drummed to the river while she prayed.  Afterwards, others shared songs and poems in honor of the river.

Grandma Aggie reminded us we are all “water babies”, instructing us to “introduce ourselves to the water” as a way of thanking it and blessing ourselves. Each of us touched the water on the bowl in the chair beside her before she gave it back to the river along with water from all the rivers of the world she personally gathered in her  travels.

Grandma Aggie shared her concern for the rivers that she witnessed drying up in Australia in the past few years since she had last visited there.  She observed that perhaps Mother Earth is taking the water back, since we are not treating it properly.

She reminded us of all the ways water sustains and enhances our bodies and set out concrete tasks for those present, such as finding out how the water from things such as carpet cleaning gets disposed of– and making sure it does not contaminate our water in the process.

Grandma Aggie also  listed  some of the  ways in which we should continue to be grateful for the lives that supports our own, giving the example of the “one leggeds”– the trees whose bodies built her house whom she daily thanks.

She takes heart that honoring our rivers is catching on:  she has been asked to lead a similar ceremony on the Columbia and in Eastern Oregon.


In the back along the river behind Grandma Aggie you see these banners placed by the Fresh Water Trust of Corvallis in honor of Earth Day.

Each of these gorgeous banners was designed and painted by a middle school student in honor of the salmon celebrated by the traditional Tlingit story of Salmon Boy.

 

Here is a portion of the text that explains the banners:

“The Salmon River banner is inspired by a salmon trap stake, crafted and then fastened upright to a fish weir by a Tlingit trap owner who would place the stake and weir near the mouth of a salmon spawning stream. Doing this represented the highest value of respect to other humans and the valued and necessary salmon.

What would the jumping salmon see? A wonderful fully crafted representation of the Salmon Boy story, an announcement of the knowledge of and intent to abide by the requirements of that charter. But further, this is an object of great beauty and wonder, something that the salmon would appreciate in its own right as well as reflect upon the respect demonstrated by the state presenter through the exquisite quality of the carving.  In this way, it is not a representation to “lure” or “attract” or even merely a “reminder “, more a statement of intent to insure the sustainability of a species.

The Salmon Banners represent the image used on the trap stake, so in the event the salmon do return, they are given a gift of beauty to behold, offered by those how seek to sustain a relationship and welcome them back. It is a testimony to the power of the mythic charter to generate behavior by humans that respect salmon.

‘In order to understand how we treat salmon, you have to realize that we treat them like we would like to be treated.'”

-Eighty-two year old Tlingit elder James Osborne.


Any of you in the Eugene area will not want to miss the stunning exhibit, “How Water Speaks to Us” ,  at the Museum of Natural History through June 13.

Night-Mares and Horsepower: Domestic Partners in the More than Human World

march 2013 006

By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves related an ancient story from the British Isles that tells how– after men captured wild mares and kept them in stalls and bred them at their whim– the Night Mare visited these men’s dreams with her long teeth and punishing hooves.

As a girl, my family once had a mare who was a nightmare for a man who wished to control her, a huge thoroughbred with her ancestral wildness still in her. Since we were moving two thousand miles away, we sold the mare to a man who wanted to train her as a jumper.  But I got a phone call from him complaining she was unrideable.

I went immediately to the stable and the ring—the like of which the mare had never seen—to show just how well she handled.  I let her reins go slack as she read my body, turning on a dime and cantering like a dream.

As I slipped off her back, the trainer drawled, “No offense, but you can make that mare look like an old plug”.

That odd complement was centered in the Western worldview: the idea that I was a good rider because I made that mare look so tame.  I knew this man was wrong.  I didn’t do it. The mare did– as many other examples in the Tao of Equus demonstrate other horses as doing.

Though this mare would do anything you asked her to do if you asked properly, she refused to be manhandled.  She broke my heart with her grace that last time I rode her.  I hope she somehow understood it was out of my hands to let her go—and that she taught her new “owner” something about getting along with the world larger than himself.  In this case, about 2000 pounds larger.

After all, it was the job of mares to socialize others in their wild herds.

There is danger involved in assuming that such creatures are at our service just because we purchase  them– as this man found out.  And as we ourselves find out in our attempt to control the natural world with inappropriate technological development– though we still try.

As illustrated  in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we and our technology inevitably shape one another.  Human life in the machine age has become increasingly mechanistic even as we project our own psyches onto our machines. Advertisers know this as they sell trucks with the not so subtle claim that they will increase the masculinity of their drivers.

But the understanding of our psychological entanglement with our technology is not complete if it stops and starts at the human psyche.  There is something else to consider:  we are not alone in the world.  Domestication does not merely shape our consciousness.  It is about the relationship between human consciousness and other natural life.

Such lives cannot be simply reduced to the energy we measure as the “horsepower” of our machines.  Different cultures have very different ideas of domestication than the contemporary industrial impulse to count “horsepower” as force harnessed on our behalf.

Indigenous peoples in Western Washington very much valued the horses introduced into their territory after the coming of whites to this continent. They loved to race them and sometimes, to travel with them—though canoes made better vehicles of transport on landscapes so crossed with rivers. Horses were more useful for travel in the open areas across the Cascades and along the Columbia River.

Stories from pioneer families I gathered in Western Washington record astonishment at how an Indian might labor for months to obtain a horse he  favored from a white family—but then never keep that animal under fence.  One Indian man explained that if the horse came back after he turned it loose, that was great–and if it didn’t—well, it had a life of its own.

At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nez Perce entered with a display of horsemanship that left the US cavalry in a state of wonder, as reported by a cavalry lieutenant who observed it.  But he also wondered at the fact that those who rode such magnificent mounts let them graze the open prairie without any human restraint.

Local native people on the Oregon coast indicated their attitude toward horses in their lack of bridles and reins.  Coquille elder George Wasson came to speak in my Linfield College class shortly after the film Dances with Wolves was released. He pointed out the glaring cultural misstep in this film in the portrayal of Indian riders as using bridles.

Norman Dick was a pioneer child whom Siuslaw man Andrew Charles sat in front of him on his horse and took for long rides.  The Indian man used his arms to hold the toddler securely, since he rode his horse “Indian style”– without reins.

There is an essential lesson in the attitude toward “horsepower” that does not forget that there is a life behind it —a life that is more than the harnessing of it for human purposes.  It is better to cooperate with such life than fight its rebellion.

To try to  “break” any other life for our use, as the old West terminology has it., is bound to cause  us problems.  We may try to “break” a horse—or a cow that stands unmoving in a milking stall all day given hormones and antibiotics to keep it alive and maximally producing– or a plant that is genetically engineered to rein in its DNA to our use.  But there are results that are not predicted by those whose vision of  natural  life starts and stops in the barn or the laboratory—or the pocketbook.

There is mad cow disease that results from feeding these captured cows rendered brain and spinal cords from other mammals.  There is the spontaneous migration of genes between plants over unforeseeable distances in a process we have no idea how to accurately predict, much less control.

Natural life may shrug us off its back as easily as it slips houses down the hill below a clear cut—as has happened throughout the lower Umpqua River drainage.

The genetics of plants is better observed by those who,  like Barbara McClintock, derive their insight from speaking with the corn. Though her findings eventually won her the Nobel Prize, she could not find funding or professional placement for decades.  As both a woman and a scientist with this novel approach, she struggled to do her work in isolation until her colleagues finally recognized the importance of her finding.

Such scientists have much in common with traditional farmers all over the world– like the Czech farmer (her grandfather)  my student Iveta Habartova eloquently describes:

“My grandpa knew every branch and every tree so intimately; he spoke to the trees. He always told me that he had to talk to the trees to give them love so that they would grow well. Every time I entered my grandpa’s orchard, it was like entering a church. It was where all the wisdom, love and years of experience that my grandpa collected were kept. It was where he shared all those things with me. “

This is a profound expression of Wendell Berry‘s “agrarian mind” and its intimacy with the land–and contrast with industrial farming.

Domestication in its root means to bring something into our home with us:  to make it a part of our family.  As opposed to Monsanto’s battle for secrecy to prevent its agricultural products from being labeled for their consumers, caring for a Palestinian olive tree is a public affair, whose care is inherited by particular family members, and whose harvest is undertaken by a whole community.

During the year I lived and taught under Israeli Occupation, I once had dinner with a Palestinian family who used traditional methods of grafting to turn less than an acre into a garden overflowing with abundance.  As I sat in the shade of the trees this family cared for with such tenderness, I was for the moment sheltered from the winds of violence that blew all about us on this land.

This is certainly a profound lesson of appropriate domestication:  if we tend the land, it will shelter us.

And it will teach us about the vital processes  of natural life.

If we learn to “domesticate” with integrity as we bring other natural life into our homes and hearts, we might also learn to treat other  natural life—including humans—with respect, tenderness and generosity.

It is certainly past time to turn our technological nightmares into these better dreams.


I have received many wonderful comments since this essay was recently published, but I wanted to call reader’s attention to this one in particular from my student Susan Riley:

“Like Iveta’s grandfather, my grandmother treated her plants and livestock as reverently as she did her family. I distinctly remember her talking to her pansies, cupping them in her old weathered hand and telling them how beautiful their ‘faces’ were. Of course we laughed and thought she was being eccentric (heading toward senile) but no one could deny, that woman could charm a stick into growing into a beautiful, productive tree. Grandma’s chickens and her one old cow also got the best of care and attention and gave her eggs and milk long after what might be considered ‘normal’. Mostly I remember her wonderful vegetable garden. She had to share with the deer that wandered freely through her property but always managed a bumper crop of peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Nothing has or ever will, I think, tasted as good as grandma’s fresh spring peas creamed with Betsy’s fresh whole milk. While I’m sure Grandma felt she owned her property and animals, I’m also sure she considered that ownership more of a caretaker position than one of domination over the land and livestock. From her we learned to appreciate and respect even the smallest of creatures and we learned to talk to the pansies.”

How to Love a River

By Madronna Holden

Updated April 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We might learn from the river instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dangers of Pricing the Priceless

By Madronna Holden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Belonging to the Land: Historical Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Chief of the Cayuse expressed his sense of belonging to the land to Palmer and Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens this way: “The earth and water and grass says God has given our names and we are told those names. Neither the Indians nor the whites have a right to change those names… The same way the Earth says it was from her man was made.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feel free to email me for pioneer quote sources.

Blessing the Water: Gifts for a Gift

By Madronna Holden

Cottage Grove, the self-proclaimed “All American City” was an interesting site for the ceremony that took place on the banks of a tributary of the Willamette as the hazy heat hung in the air. Oral history recalls gatherings of pioneers and Native peoples at this site on Silk Creek. The gathering this afternoon was every bit as mixed. It included members of the Washat Longhouse religion brought here by a Nez Perce man, native and non-native members of the Willamette Valley and Cottage Grove Grandmother’s Councils, and miscellaneous others, including a young boy whose prayer ribbon boasted the Hindu blessing “Namaste”.

From the Longhouse singers with blankets folded over their arms to the white-haired woman from Eugene in a wheelchair the electric crowd had something in common that overrode their differences: their prayers for the earth’s waters upon which we all depend for survival.They offered songs of praise to the water from different traditions and poured water blessed by grandmothers from around the world into the river. And they gave gifts of songs and rose petals and sage and foxglove (to strengthen the heart of the water) to the river. It was important to pass on something beautiful to the river to replace the dumping in it that is all too common. Indeed, one participant pulled a twisted metal sign holder out of the river during the ceremony.

As one gray haired speaker recently arrived from Mexico observed, there are too many people on this earth who have never known what it is to drink clean water, much less to bathe in it. Grandma Aggie has seen the places where such deprivation exists first hand in her travels around the world with the other grandmothers.Water, its shortage and quality, is a worldwide crisis that is already here.

In the context of such imperatives, we might ask what difference it makes if a few dozen citizens of earth gather together to honor their local river. I have more than one way to answer this: for one thing, it is my sense that addressing our current environmental crises is not a matter of technological fixes, but of changing how we think and act. Honoring the river as was done this afternoon is certainly a disincentive to dumping in it– or allowing anyone else to do this.

It strengthens this sense of intimacy with the river when we remember that our own nourishment is linked to the way we nourish our earth.This was underscored in the ceremony when we all drank water that had witnessed our blessings for it.

In one of the conversational groups that formed after the ceremony, talk turned to the heyokas, sacred individuals of Plains culture who heal by doing things backwards in order to undo and rewind the ribbon of life tangled by our mistakes.Giving songs and praise and flower petals and sage to the water was such an unwinding: a reversal of the knots in our thinking which license us to take and take from this land rather without giving back to it.

Another story I heard in the circles afterward was this.A woman had just lost a dog and was grieving over this when she was given a new puppy.She was happy about this—except for the fact that an eagle took to circling over the puppy’s kennel. She knew well enough how fast and strong a golden eagle can be when it set its sights on something.Whether or not it was good for her, she stated, she really wanted that puppy—and had to do something about her fear for it.So she went to the log where she has a “gift plate” and left an offering of food for the eagle with the prayer that it not eat her puppy.When she returned, the food was gone and an eagle feather was in its place. Notably, the feather had a tiny splotch of blood at the tip of the quill. She had never seen a feather with blood on it like that.

This led to speculation that the eagle had pulled out its feather to give her. In any event, it left her puppy alone after that.

I would not presume to tell you what was in that eagle’s mind. But I like to contemplate what our world might look like if we all treated the natural world with this kind of diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy entailed in the gifts to the water at the ceremony at Cottage Grove. The is the way Grandma Aggie, the guiding force behind this ceremony and the local grandmother’s councils, urges us to treat the water: as if it is a live thing that can hear us and understand when we honor it.

Thanks to all those who offered me this vision this afternoon.

This post is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to use it.