Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Girl Blew West Diary: Blake Island, Tapping into Native American Wisdom

"The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst, they carry our canoes and feed our children. You must give to the rivers the kindness you would give to any brother. Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." - Chief Seattle, in a reply to Washington about selling the remaining Salish lands.
Gathering my thoughts about my visit to Blake Island in Washington state, the birthplace of Chief Seattle which gives the Emerald city its name, I keep crossing back the coast to West Virginia, where in Charleston 300,000 people were left without clean water to drink, bath in, or even do their laundry in, after a chemical spill found its way into the water supply.
Remember how John Denver sang of West Virginia in Country Road,
"Almost heaven West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah river
Life is old there older than the trees
Younger than the mountains blowin' like a breeze."
What a mess has been made of this almost heaven. Somehow, it's supposed to be reassuring that the spill isn't tied to the coal mines themselves, but the chemical company processing the coal, one article noted. For some citizens, jobs - at any cost - seem to trump basic human needs of clean water to sustain life.
Says Bonnie Wireman, "I hope this doesn't hurt coal. Too many West Virginians depend on coal and chemicals. We need those jobs."
Steve Brown, 56, unemployed, who has worked in the industry says,
"You made enough to support your family.  But you also see what it's done to the environment. People stay away from fishing in rivers and streams near chemical plants. You have fish advisories. You know better. You just know." 
We need to hear the whispers of those who were the caretakers.

"He remembers what the visionary...Black Elk, a Lakota said – man's scratching of the earth causes disease like cancer. He meant the mining and drilling for coal, gas, oil and uranium. The scratching brings up the things deep in the earth that should have stayed down there. Henry shudders."- J.J. Brown, Brindle 24.

If we do not, Chief Seattle's fear may come true, "It will be the end of living, and the beginning of survival." 

I found Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden through lucky chance browsing at a thrift shop. The novel, about a fictitious Massachusetts town Bearsville which later becomes Blackwell, takes readers through two centuries starting from the town's founding in the 1700's. A running thread is how local legends shape their way into the townspeople's lives, but I think of how little sense of history most of have about where we live. How much do you know of the history of your town or city and state? Do you know who the founders were? I don't. 

Seattle pioneer Doc Maynard, a good friend of the peacemaker Chief Seattle, persuaded settlers to change the town's name from Duwamps to Seattle in 1852, a year after it was settled. I hope his legacy lives on.

More than going to the top of the Space Needle or visiting Pike Place Market, when going through a library guide book on Seattle, I knew I wanted to visit Tillicum Village on Blake Island for a Native American show and feast.

Steamed clams are given when you exit the boat. Throwing the clam shells on the path to stomp on for natural gravel is encouraged. No waste here.

Giving pause on this passage from an informational area about the tribe's ways, remembering our nation's founding ideals on freedom of religion, but not for those whose lands were taken, and the reverence for the spirit of the life-sustaining food when we are so wasteful with food today.

 "Many fishing methods still used today - such as the weir and the reef net - were designed and perfected by the Coast Salish. But their ability to catch salmon was seen as an act of generosity by the salmon, as much as an act of skill by the fisherman.

The Coast Salish see all spirits as "people" with feelings and moods. So an important aspect of Coast Salish custom is to show appreciation for the spirits' sacrifice. One important part of this is the First Salmon Feast.

The first salmon caught each season is treated with special care and placed on a bed of cedar boughs. The tribal elder greets the salmon and speaks words of thanks for its sacrifice. The salmon is then shared among the elders and the rest of the tribe before its head, tail and bones are returned to the water.

By treating the first salmon with such reverence, they hope that he will tell the other Salmon People that this tribe is worthy of their sacrifice, thus ensuring they will have plenty to eat. Native American ceremony and customs, including the First Salmon Feast, were officially outlawed by the U.S. government as a way to help the Native American people better "assimilate." However, some tribes still practiced in secret."

Thankful for my salad with ground rosemary dressing, wild rice, a bean salad, wild salmon and bread made with molasses. I follow a vegetarian diet 99 percent of the time (eating fish at most a handful of times a year). I wanted to partake in the wild salmon here. There was an unmemorable apple dessert after.

I never thought of salmon as "seasonal" until I read David Tanis' article, "Wild Salmon is Worth the Price" in the New York Times. He notes the season is May through October and that, "Wild salmon swims long distances, its color a result of a natural diet of krill, plankton and algae. Farmed salmon languishes in pens, and its pink color comes artificially."

A performer from the show displaying the mask he wore onstage. 
Roger Fernandes, (Kawasa) a Native American storyteller, educator and artist from the Lower Elwha band of the Klallam tribe, appears in a video as part of the show. From the informational plaques,

"As an art form that predates writing, storytelling has been used by the Coast Salish for thousands of years, and remains an important means to pass down the traditional values and lessons. Indeed, for centuries it was the only was for tribes to pass down language. While many people think of stories as entertainment, the Coast Salish use stories to teach. In their telling, native American stories convey lessons ranging from how to behave, to how to stay safe, even the proper way to treat the environment. And according to Mr. Fernandes, stories are a far more powerful teaching tool than books.'
"Reading and writing live in the head," he liked to says. "Stories take that message and move it to the heart." The strength of the Native American stories lies in their layers. On the surface a story may appear to be about a bear or a blue jay. Each listening then might reveal something new: how the starts were formed or why the salmon swim upstream. Soon the listener moves past these layers and reaches the heart of the message. This may be the importance of helping one another or why to be kind to animals or another key tribal value. And such lessons can then never become forgotten, because they become part of you."
The iconic Totem poles of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Animal spirits are carved lovingly here.

"Charlie Wind once told me we must keep animals on Earth, for they know everything: how to keep warm, predict the storms, live in darkness or blazing sun, how to navigate the skies, to organize societies, how to make chemicals and fireproof skins. The animals know Earth as we do not." - The Talking Earth, by Jean Craighead George, about a Seminole girl who goes into the wilderness and finds its wisdom after doubting the old ways.

A sign here talks about the knowledge passed down for centuries.
What plants are safe to eat, and what are useful as medicines. I think of how much of this information is available at our fingertips, yet how disconnected we are too from natural remedies.

An NPR article reported on the death at age 93 of Emily Johnson Dickerson, part of the Chickasaw Nation, a tribe in the southern part of central Oklahoma with 55,000 members.

"The people who still speak Chickasaw — now in their 60s and 70s — started learning English when they were forced to go to boarding schools for Indians or local public schools. Dickerson didn't learn another language because, Joshua Hinson [director of the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program] says, she didn't need English. She was from a traditional community, Kali-Homma', and didn't work in a wage economy.

She lived like our ancestors did a long time ago," Hinson says. "What's important in Chickasaw is quite different than [what's important] in English. ... For her, she saw a world from a Chickasaw worldview, without the interference of English at all."

Can we be less dependent on the wage economy, living more frugally, being kinder to the earth and its inhabitants, and not having an economy based so heavily on industries like gambling and poor paying retail jobs selling cheap imported goods, far too many carelessly discarded in landfills? That is all part of my American dream.

Closing with a passage from one of my favorite storytellers, Louise Erdrich, from her novel, The Round House,

"During the old days, when Indians could not practice their religion - well, actually not such old days: pre-1978 - the round house had been used for ceremonies. People pretended it was a social dance hall or brought their Bibles for gatherings. In those days the headlights of the priest's car coming down the long road glared in the southern window. By the time the priest or the BIA superintendent arrived, the water drums and eagle feathers and the medicine bags and the birchbark scrolls and sacred pipes were in a couple of motorboats halfway across the lake. The Bible was out and people were reading aloud from Ecclesiastes. Why that part of the Bible? I'd once asked Mooshum. Chapter 1, verse 4, he said. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever. We think that way too."

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