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.

Re-Storying the Northwestern Landscape

“So I’m rooted to this ground. That’s why I’m supposed to outlive everybody”.

Henry Cultee, Chehalis

“I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same thing.”

Billy Frank, Jr, Nisqually

“Before anything else, we are our land/place… Our flesh, blood, and bones are Earth-body. ”

Jeanette Armstrong, Okanagan

“Someday the land will be our eyes and skin again.”

Lizzie Pitt, Warm Springs

There is a story behind each of these quotes: a story that links human life with something larger and more enduring than a single human individual. A story that yields a sense of belonging that can be had no other way.

In order to understand such a story one must spend time in the company of its keeper. In such luminous presence one instantly abandons the stance that insulted Chehalis Indian storytellers: the stance that labeled the enduring wisdom of their people as “just a story”. To diminish a traditional story as less than a fact is to lack the intellectual sophistication of those who used the imagination to bring humans into a fundamental intimacy with all that surrounded them. Native stories were more rather than less than facts: they were facts imbued with meaning.

One day in 1975, Henry Cultee, whose mother and mother’s father were powerful “Indian doctors”, told me he wanted to show me something. He beckoned me aboard the boat he kept moored by his fishing shack at Samamanauwish on the Humptulips River. Samamanauwish was also Henry Cultee’s traditional name, inherited along with his luck in fishing from his grandfather’s brother. It meant “between two channels.” In explaining the name he shared with the land, Cultee said, “I’m living right here”, as he pointed out the channels of the Humptulips that ran on either side of his cabin.

Eighty-five year old Cultee stood erect as he poled the river to guide us over the riffles for which the original people here named this river Hum-m-m-m-p-tulips, the name humming along with water running so fast it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

As Grays Harbor opened before us, modern Damon's Point on Grays Harborframe houses and mill stacks dissolved from view. We entered a world composed of water and sky. The wind danced paths of light on the water. That was the wind that lives here, the one that Henry Cultee’s mother told him to run against with his arms outstretched, measuring its gaping mouth, so it would be ashamed of itself and calm down. As we moved on into ancient memory, that nearby lone sentinel of a rock shrugged off the name of James Rock (for the pioneer) and relived its history as Sme’um– the place where Wildcat stole fire, singeing his tail with the mark he still wears as a result. The urbanized jumble along the Aberdeen River evaporated on the milky mist behind us, giving way to its more lively self: the Wishkah River (“stink water,”) –where Thunderbird dropped a rotting whale carcass. Across the harbor from us was no longer the Cosmopolis named by pioneers, but Khaisáləmish: named after the character of the sandbar where the Transformer Xwane Xwane kept himself from being swept out to sea in the story that depicted the origin of the Chehalis way of life.

Power lived in this place. It was also here that Henry Cultee’s mother’s father obtained his Indian doctor power that was as famous as it was dangerous. After he found his power, his grandfather took the name of the place where it lived: Khaisáləmish. He had a white name too, but he never dropped his Indian one. Thus he was known as Khaisáləmish Pete- or as pioneers anglicized it, Cosmopolis Pete.

Cultee and I slid smoothly down the harbor channel until we came to a dense dense array of shell mounds exposed by the action of the water on the shore beside us. Cultee laughed as he pointed out these signs of the generations of sweet feasting of his people here. This was what he wanted me to see: how the land recalled the lives of his people.

The land trades stories with us this way. If we know its stories, it keeps our own. The stories Henry Cultee told me expressed this ancient reciprocity with “the eyes of the world” that sees “what is in our hearts”, even if we hide it from other humans. In his tradition, it was how the land’s eyes see us that determine the length of our lives.[1]


Stories belong to a live land: and if that land becomes only an object of development, those stories can be lost. There is a place in Upper Chehalis territory, where the old winter dances and later Shaker dances were held. This prairie is perfectly encircled by hills, like a bowl offered up to the sky and time. The stuttering lines of hills to the west hold the story of the swinging door between the worlds that the salmon jump through when they go back to their own lives in the sea.

I could hear ancient voices of people singing here, etched onto the waves of hills and playing back again like the grooves of a record playing back a song.

That was in 1976. Today the prairie where the people danced has become a gravel pit. The hills that encircle it don’t sing anymore. I can only hope that they keep their music inside somewhere where dreamers may still find it. Perhaps this music is another thing, as Grandma Aggie sees happening with mistreated water, that the earth is taking back to her womb.

Henry Cultee’s fishing cabin is also gone now. There is a “no trespassing” sign where visitors drove in as his little dog ran out barking to meet them, while Cultee laughed, “Just don’t speak English to him. He gets awful mad when he hears English!”

We can still tell the story of Samamanauwish, so that, as Cultee put it, “what’s in my heart won’t die with me”. But I’m not quite sure how to tell the land’s story without the land. It’s not so easy to tell this story to those who have never stood on this point and watched the Humptulips rushing single-mindedly toward the harbor in a flamboyant expression of its name.

There were some members of pioneer families- ones who lived as true neighbors to the Chehalis– who understood how land and stories go together as well. One ninety seven year man (Sandy Ames) whose Chehalis neighbors were like an “aunt and uncle” to him, were very particular when they taught him how to roast salmon. From them and from somewhere in his own heart, he also learned how to hear the “words that come through the air”. Those are the words that live on the land’s own breath, like the ones that he shared with me when I arrived at his door as a seeker.

If for no other reason than this, we must safeguard the places that have elder status in the natural world. Without them we lose the ability not only to tell their stories but our own.

Driving back from Oakville the day after I went out on the Harbor with Henry Cultee, I was hit by severe dizzy spells that caused the world to spin ruthlessly around me whenever I moved. A local RN told me it was an inner ear infection, but I dreamt that night that it was my uncried tears for all that was lost of our human belonging to this land, rolling like a rough unbidden tide against my sense of balance.

Surely if we all shed the tears waiting behind our eyes to mark the disappearance of the land’s stories, we would not allow them to be replaced by a gravel pit– or a highway or a high rise. We would still need to shelter and feed ourselves, but we would do so in a way that is in concert with the land– in a way that would allow the land to “recognize us” as innovative architect William McDonough put it.

Riding with Cultee that day on the waters he knew so well he called them by name, I entered a world in which the land did not belong to people by way of deed and title-but instead a people belonged to their land. What made a man, Cultee once asked me, think he could come along and put his name on the land? To him, it was a rhetorical question. No man by rights could do such a thing. Cultee’s people did not name the land for themselves. As in the case of himself, his uncle, and his grandfather, they named themselves for the land.

Altogether the indigenous peoples of the Northwest held the names of the land’s places and beings as an essential spiritual inheritance. At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings on the mid-Columbia River in 1855, Cayuse spokesperson Young Chief asserted that the land had its own names that men and women could not change. Asking Native peoples to turn their land over to those who would re-name it as individual property was asking them to perform an act that was “literally against their religion”, as Clifford Trafzer put it.

In Young Chief’s words:

“The earth and water and grass says God has given our names and we are told those names. Neither the Indians nor the whites have a right to change those names… The same way the Earth says it was from her man was made.”

He also said to the thousands seated on the ground for those treaty proceedings:

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

Yakama elder Owhi put it this way when he spoke at Wallla Walla: “God looked one way and then the other and named our land for us to take care of”. “God named this land for us”.

In this light, to replace the land’s names for itself with names of individual human owners is not only a conceit, but a sacrilege. It is also a singularly self-destructive act.

In Henry Cultee’s wise tradition, if we ignore the “eyes of the world”– the eyes of those who sustain our lives–we are liable to construct a way of life that is decidedly short-lived. That tradition thus anticipated the report came out last week indicating that the average US lifespan is continuing to decrease.

No matter the count of our years, when we cease to hear the voices of the land tell their own story we truncate our lives in another way. We set ourselves adrift from the story of belonging to life and land larger than ourselves.

—————-

[1] This material, beginning with “One day in 1975”, is reproduced in a related article available online:  “Restorying the World:  Reviving the Language of Life”, Australian Humanities Review, November 2009 (no. 47).

Quote Sources:

The sources of the quotes are Billy Frank, Jr: from Charles Wilkinson, Lessons from Frank’s Landing (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2000); Jeannette Armstrong, “I Stand with You against the Disorder,” Yes Magazine, winter 2006; Lizzie Pitt in Cynthia Stowell, Faces of a Reservation, (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1987).

The quotes from the Walla Walla Treaty Proceedings can be found in Darrell Scott, ed. Isaac Ingalls Stevens, A True Copy of the Official Proceedings at the Council in the Walla Walla Valley 1855 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press reprint, 1985).

The land trades stories with us this way. If we know its stories, it keeps our own. The stories Henry Cultee told me expressed this ancient reciprocity with “the eyes of the world” that sees “what is in our hearts”, even if we hide it from other humans. In his tradition, it was how the land’s eyes see us that determine the length of our lives.[1]


[1] This material, beginning with “One day in 1975”, is reproduced as the introduction to a related article available online: “Restorying the World: Reviving the Language of Life”, Australian Humanities Review, November 2009 (no. 47).