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


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.

Protecting the Pope? Fear Makes for Distorted Vision

Updated November 15. 2012

In good faith and with a permit from the Vatican in hand, the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers set up a prayer altar in St. Peter’s Square last week. Along with sacred symbols from the traditions of each of the grandmothers were two crosses, since some of the grandmothers are Catholic.

From my point of view, St. Peter’s was blessed with the presence of these elders. I cannot imagine a more hopeful model than that engendered by such a prayer gathering: perhaps it might even inspire others to work for social and environmental justice, as the grandmothers themselves do tirelessly.

I have stood by Grandmother Aggie, eighty six year old chair of this group, as she prayed. I know her humility-and her strength, both of which are grounded in her love for all the Creator’s work on this earth, of which humans are only one part. I can imagine the other grandmothers with their heads bent in reverence. As one who was raised Catholic, I want to thank them for bringing their devotion to the spiritual center of the Church.

But this was not the response of the Vatican police. As soon as the grandmothers began setting up, the police scurried out, claiming the women were conducting “anti-Catholic” demonstrations, and ordering them away. This leads me to wonder what kind of Catholicism they themselves held if it runs contrary to the work of these women for global justice.

I don’t think the police thought much about it. They were obviously acting out of impulse and fear. I imagine they assumed they were protecting something, but who or what that something was remains unclear. It was not the pope, who took an unplanned vacation after the grandmothers sent him notice they would be appearing at his scheduled public audience for that day to request he rescind the papal bull that “gave” indigenous lands and peoples to Christians in the fifteenth century–and was subsequently used as a license for genocide and slavery.

“He didn’t do it”, Grandmother Aggie is fond of saying. Therefore, she reasons, it wouldn’t hurt him to rescind this action–and it would do a lot of good.

Certainly, the pope might well entertain a plea to separate the Church from this shameful history. He might express the same kind of courage as did the Archdiocese of Seattle, which recently issued a public apology to the indigenous peoples of the Northwest for the harm missionary activity had brought to them and their lands.

Last week, however, the police continued to insist the grandmothers leave. But the grandmothers continued to stand their ground. Finally the police brought a law official to arbitrate: the latter listened to the grandmother’s songs and pronounced them non-threatening. This official not only okayed their permit, but invited the grandmothers into St. Peter’s Basilica to pray–and to rest, which Grandma Aggie, who is wheelchair bound, must certainly have needed at that point.

What is it about a particular kind of fervor (I would rather not call it “religious”) that caused the Vatican police to act with such hostility toward these gentle women who represent the best of the world’s spiritual traditions? Why did they not receive the grandmothers with open arms and gratitude for making their long journey from the ends of the earth–and honoring the Catholic Church with a dialogue about its integrity?

I myself believe that if the heart of God is large enough to include us all, that is a challenge for us humans to enlarge our own hearts in response. Fear, exclusion, and injustice does not protect anyone’s faith.

Here is a story about the experience of the Grandmothers at the Vatican published in Indian Country Today.

I can only imagine how differently Pope John Paul II might have received the Grandmothers in 1990- the year he wrote his encyclical “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation” which emphasized the necessity of a “new solidarity” among all earth’s peoples  and contained these words on ecology:

“An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others, and for the earth..
The fruits of the earth are for the benefit of all. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness– both individual and collective– are contrary to the order of creation, which is characterized by mutual interdependence.
Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress. Each State should actively endeavour within its own territory to prevent destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere, by carefully monitoring, among other things, the impact of new technological or scientific advances. The State also has the responsibility of ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes. The right to a safe environment is ever more insistently presented today as a right that must be included in an updated Charter of Human Rights.
Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power. Even cities can have a beauty all their own, one that ought to motivate people to care for their surroundings. Good urban planning is an important part of environmental protection, and respect for the the natural contours of the land is an indispensable prerequisite for sound development.”

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.

Takelma-Siletz Elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim: Honoring the Water

Before she blesses the Willamette River, pouring into it a vial of similarly blessed water from around the world, Takelma-Siletz spiritual elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim thanks the natural elements, including the cloud people, for their cooperation. The latter answered her prayer to hold off so that it would be a nice day for people to gather. The sun is shining on this perfect day, April 26, 2008 in Eugene, Oregon. That is something to be grateful for after six weeks of unsettled weather.

“Grandma Aggie” is here to help us honor the water. She tells the gathered crowd of two hundred that the water hears us when we thank it for cleaning us and quenching our thirst. “We are all water babies”, she says, reminding us that we are composed largely of water.

In her eighties, Grandma Aggie is the oldest member and chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers whose goal is to “circle the globe” with social and environmental healing. As stated in the book that tells their story (Carol Schaefer, Grandmothers Counsel the World), this remarkable community of holy women came together in October 2004 (post 911) from “the Amazon rain forest, the Arctic Circle, the vast plains of North America, the highlands of Central America, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the mountains of Oaxaca, the desert of the American Southwest, the mountains of Tibet, and the rain forest of central Africa” in “an alliance of prayer, education, and healing for our Mother Earth-for all Her inhabitants, for all the children, and for the next seven generations”.

Grandma Aggie has visited the lands of the other grandmothers and seen firsthand the lamentable pollution of the world’s greatest rivers. She has also experienced increasingly widespread drought in the global arena. She says Mother Earth is withdrawing her water, taking her precious source of life back into her womb-as she will continue to do if humans continue to treat our water as we are. The sign she requested for the water-honoring ceremony reads, “The River is not a Garbage Dump.”

Grandma Aggie jokes that if she were to write a personal memoir, it would be entitled, “Everybody’s Grandma”. With the humility befitting a spiritual leader she resisted assuming her current leadership role at first. She did not think she would live up to the model of her Takelma (Rogue River) ancestors like her grandfather George Harney.

Harney saw her people through terrible times following their removal far from their homelands to the Siletz Reservation. When the government informed one Rogue River elder, Whiskus, he had signed an agreement to vacate his land and come to Siletz, he insisted he had not understood he agreed to any such thing -it made “his heart sick”. It was a grave sickness, indeed. In the early days at Siletz, Indian Agent Metcalfe noted among the residents of Rogue River descent, “a depression of spirits” so serious that those who suffered from it died. Indeed, far from their homeland, with no food or shelter, 205 out of 590 (the remnants of several thousands) Rogue River Indians died at Siletz within a year.

For two decades after their forced removal to Siletz, the survivors of the Rogue River people worked to build homes on the new land. Then the government decided to remove them the lands they had worked at Siletz-and open up those lands to white settlement. When the government informed them of their decision in 1873, George Harney (Olhatha), Chief of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, protested: “We do not want to be driven away. We were driven here, and now this is our home, and we want to stay.” Harney also went on record to state that his people were tired of token gifts of blankets, tobacco, and shirts-and were ready to receive their promised treaty goods of teams and wagons and tools-and schools for their children.

Grandma Aggie doesn’t speak of this bleak history before the gathering of the Willamette Valley Grandmothers, one of the local grandmothers’ councils springing up on the model of the global council everywhere. She is too busy finding the good in everyone. “You could put me on death row”, she laughs, “And I would find the goodness in the inmates there”.

She does express her hope, however, that the Thirteen International Grandmothers will get the audience with the Pope they have requested. They want him to rescind the Vatican edict of 1493 that supported the killing of “non-believers” on lands discovered by Europeans. “He wasn’t there”, Grandma Aggie says, “He didn’t do it”. Thus it wouldn’t hurt him to take that edict back. And it would do a great deal of good, as it did when the Australian government recently apologized to the Aborigines.

These days Grandma Aggie travels the globe, but she is also leading a resurgence of spirit and culture on her homeland. Last year she re-instituted her people’s sacred salmon ceremony at its ancient site. This year’s salmon ceremony will be a large gathering-even as Grandma Aggie continues to invite more and more people to attend. She has arranged to generously feed all the travelers who will arrive for the three day ceremony. She has also done research to house and feed the group in an environmentally friendly way. It is only fitting in a ceremony that praises the sacrifice of the female salmon that fight their way upstream to continue their people even as their bodies become nourishment for “thirty-three kinds of birds and forty-four kinds of animals”.

“Walking her talk” consists of caring for all the species who share this earth with us. “If the polar bears and the elephants and the tigers aren’t in good shape, than we’re not in very good shape either”.

There are many things to mourn in our world today, but Grandma Aggie counsels happiness. “You should live each day as if you were to die tomorrow. When you live with one foot in the other world as I do, you know how important it is to make the most of each day.”

For Grandma Aggie each day is comprised of soulful commitments and earthly delights. She smiles when she sees another of those dragonflies that surround her. The name of Transformer who made the earth good for people in venerable Takelma stories was Daldal- Dragonfly. The dragonflies that accompany her everywhere remind her of the presence of her ancestors. They also let her know the Creator is helping her as she “walks her talk”.

Grandma Aggie’s vision requires a transformation as great as Daldal’s in those Takelma stories. But she does not plan to do it alone. “I have a ship run by the L-word. It’s friendship and it’s run by love.”

Without skipping a beat she adds, “I am happy.” That is what she wishes for all of us. She advises us to laugh every day, telling us how good this is for us.

Later, when I pause to say good-bye to Grandma Aggie, she grins and says, “It was a good day, wasn’t it?”


For additional inspiration on grandmothers active for social and environmental justice, check out the Raging Grannies and Holly Near’s song, 1000 Grandmothers.

The Alliance for Democracy also has a campaign to protect water quality and public access to global waters.

Feel free to pass on the material in this post, but please cite its source. Thank you.