Who is a Person?

Oh, here’s a person:

Photo on 12-11-05 at 4.19 PM

Your writer says hi.

When you get a whole bunch of persons together you get people. Like this:


Plateau Men Fishing, Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, c.1950 Source

So, that’s a group of persons, and when they get together their interactions are called social. I talked about s’lahal, the bone game, the other day. That’s social:


Lummi Men Hard at a Game of S’lahal, c. 1930

But, wait. The story of S’lahal is told in this amazing book…


You can read about it. It has its own very beautiful website here: It’s outwardly about a shaman and a priest who learn to blend their faiths in the Plateau, through song, but it’s also about social groups. In short, every person in the Plateau is a member of a social group which includes not only his or her guardian spirit but the entire world of spirits that manifest themselves as the animals and plants of the earth.


Bald Eagle Above Okanagan Lake

Look at all those spirit creatures on the far valley wall, too, eh.

Humans are one of these forms of materially present spirits.

One Young Woman from Every State of the USA Pours a Jug of Water Over the Grand Coulee Dam

And this is how the world ended. I didn’t say spirit was all sweetness and light.

Here’s, I guess, the other side of this s’lahal game called Damming the Great River of the West:


Colville Women Gathered for the Ceremony of Tears, to Commemorate the End of the World, 1940

Every game needs two teams.

Thing is, there were other teams.

Nkmp Sockeye, Okanagan Falls

Luckily for them, the Okanogan River joins the Columbia below Grand Coulee Dam.  The Skoelpi salmon of Kettle Falls were not so lucky.

The game of S’lahal is played with these spirits, with songs that are often created by these spirits. In short, every S’lahal player had a social group that included family, tribe, nation, and all the animals and plants and rivers and mountains of the world. Even pine pitch and stumps. And this bunch:

Buck and Canada Geese on the Impounded Columbia West of Kettle Falls

There’s no need to get all romantic about this and abandon all Western knowledge to imitate an old culture of nature spirits (it would not, however, be dishonourable, either, in any way, short of the romanticizing, but that’s easy to peel away), but there’s a beautiful point here. In the Plateau cultures, it was not that human social culture arose from the gathering of people and their interactions, or communications. That is a Western cultural idea. In its place, what the people learned on the Grasslands was to survive by paying very close attention to the world and working within its forms. The primary social relationship was dual: with the creatures and forces of the world, on the one hand, and with family and other people on the other. Communication was a unifying force that brought these two human orientations together. Song was one way. This was another:

Mara Lake

These words are another. And these:

Raven at Lolo Lake

The old mammoth hunting ground and bulb gathering ground on the Camas Prairie between the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon Rivers.

Even in Western thought, before humans became specialized at living in concrete, asphalt, steel, plastic, brick and glass environments punctuated with slave groupings of plants and rogue invaders called weeds or graffiti artists, humans derived their languages from observations of the world, because they lived and worked in the world and had to understand it well. The language I am writing in here, and which you are reading, English, has its roots in that mode of being, and didn’t start catastrophically deviating from it until a couple decades ago. This is the language of goose girls and cowherds, fishers, crofters, charcoal burners, salmon poachers, beechnut gatherers and kids herding pigs with a stick and sheep with a crook. I’m proud of that.


Mallards Leaving Town

Some kid still thrashing through a swamp after duck down is glad to see them.

Not just that, I’m glad. It means that the separation of people from the world is not a Western cultural thing. It is a consequence of environments, continually at war with the social knowledge living energetically within language, trying to be born with every sentence, like this, perhaps:

It spells that the cutting of men and women from their home is not a bond knotted around all people of the West. It is a town warring with the bonds within its words and the spells between them, birthing anew with every knot in every telling.

Pregnant Whale, Wedding Rocks, Makah Illahie

Think of it. You create a whale by slowly wearing away the rock with the action of your own hand until the whale is there, and then you let the sea wear it away over centuries, taking that attention away and dissolving it into the water, to insure that whales will come, rich and pregnant with calves, for hundreds of years. When the art is gone? It’s never gone. It’s in the sea. It’s in the whales.

Today, many academics work hard and brilliantly at deconstructing the tendency of language to become ordinary, by dispelling the ordinariness of words. Deconstruction, though, is a French philosophical enterprise, and this is English we’re talking about here. Next time, I’ll illustrate the power of construction and reconstruction that is within English: a magical language, a language of practical application of materialized spirits, an Indigenous language a lot like the Sahaptin and Salishan of the Plateau, that, too, can reclaim its ancestral strength in a modern world. Anything less is an abandonment of ethics. We’ll be chatting about that soon, too. Until then, here’s some people to hang out with, without all this chatter!P2100892And these mergansers, too!

P2100734 And, yeah, I missed the shot of the eagle careening around this tree, as surprised to see me as I was to see her.P2110011

But the tree is just as fine a person to meet as the sun comes late over the hill.

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