Getting Our Land Back 6: Skookum Wawa

Skookum Wawa, in the jargon, Wawa, that sprang up at the intersection of Spanish, Nootka, Chinook, Kalapuyan, Tsinuk, Salishan, Sahaptin, English, French and Russian culture on the Northeast Coast of the Pacific, means “Strong Talk.” If we are going to get our land back from colonialism, here between California and Alaska, and if we’re going to work with others doing this work across the continent and the world, we need to start with some strong talk. This is the sixth post in this series. You can read the other five here:

Becoming the Flow

The Local and the Universal

Rivers of Place

Returning the Land

A Land of Stories

And now, Skookum Wawa.

In the last post, I spoke about stories being written on the land, rather than simply etched in maps, and hinted at three things:

expressions of settler culture repeat the moment of claiming at the heart of settlement;

Plowing, Sowing, Irrigation, Weed-killing and Harvest: Reclaiming Eden Outside of Pasco (Walla Walla, Sinkiuse, Yakama)



a human body can be used to read more robust maps than those of European tradition, ones that actually map the silence of bodily witness that is the goal of settler culture yet frustrates it as a final barrier;

Wasp and Ant, Lapwai (Nimiipu’u)

it is possible to have both lands at the same time.

Split Rock (Sinlahekin/Smalqmx)

Simultaneously an ancient story, a geological monument, and a new discovery.

Wawa was such a meeting place. Its principles are solid. To meet the land one has to actually one do what I have done for eight years now in this blog: meet the land.

Umatilla Ridge (Sinkiuse)

Spectacle Lake (Syilx/Smalqmx)


You can meet in in its large stories…

White Bird Canyon (Nimiipu’u)

… or in its intimate ones …

Huckleberries (Hoh)


… but the first principle is to approach the land with a simple question: “What are you doing?” The answer is already there, unlocked by the question. Approaching the land with an explanation learned elsewhere or drawn from the body of scientific knowledge is acceptable, but only if it is integrated into the observation and respect of that initial question. Whatever the land is doing …

Upper White Bird Canyon (Nimiipu’u)

… can only be discovered from the land. Once you have learned the land in this way, the question is available to use elsewhere. Here is the Cascadian poet, David Wagoner, demonstrating the principle in his poem “Advice to the Orchestra”:

Notice that he applies the principle more generally, taking the principle from the land back to European tradition. That was the state of the conversation at its best in the post-modern period of American culture on the Pacific Shore. On such foundations, it is now time to go further, and to include the land, not just human observers, as actors in conversations. It is, after all, how humans move through the land, by question and response, that looks like this:

Looking Over Big Eddy on the Kooskooskie from its Ancient House Site (Nimiipu’u)

Flows like this catch not only fish but humans. It would be narcissism to think that the choice was ours. It was the Earth’s, but not in human ways. This is Skookum Wawa: strong talk. It takes courage to set oneself aside as the ‘owner’ of one’s body and one’s life in favour of being an actor in the Earth’s life, and then to speak as the Earth speaks through you.


Next: The Price

and then: The Canadian Experience of Oregon

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