22. Keeping the Catholics at Arms Length

Here’s a question we can ask:

If Chief Peopeomoxmox of Waillatpu, “The Village of Wild Rye Grass,” had installed the new Catholic arrivals of November 6, 1847 on his side of the Columbia River, instead of leaving them beneath the land of ancestral spirits on waterless Rattlesnake Ridge, would there still be wild rye grass in Waillatpu?

Whitman Memorial, Waillatpu

That’s cheatgrass, salsify and tumble mustard.

None of this stuff:

The valley is simply pretty short of it today.

See any there?

This is an image from Touchet, another of his villages and a major battlefield in the Cayuse War of January, 1848. The answer: No, these are all invasive grasses.

Could these new spiritual cruise missiles (Oblate priests) have kept the peace? Or were they too new in the country? (Please look to the right for a temporary table of contents to this story. I’ll make a better one for you soon.) Too often, history is the story of people: who came, who was there, who did what to whom, who built what, who knocked it down, that kind of thing. But what about the grass? Here, have another look:

This grass is taller than a man. Isn’t that significant? Shouldn’t there be a history of humans among their fellow creatures, in place of just a history of humans? Doesn’t it come to that in the end, anyway?

Thing is, the Oblates were not the only French people in town that day. A large group of Canadians lived there as well, in what was called “Frenchtown,” but was really part of Waillatpu and Touchet. Most of the Canadians were married to Cayuse women. In a matrilineal society, that counted for a lot. Not only that, but in Cayuse culture women had the responsibility for grieving for their husbands and sons lost in battle, and taking in captive young men to replace them, after beating them to subdue them. It was a way of creating kinship ties across cultures, that bound more and more people more and more closely to Waillatpu, where houses were scattered like grass. When the Oblates rode into town asking for a place to set up a mission, Cayuse culture was the local law. The Canadians were a part of it and living in this community of grasses so tall a man could hide within them, or at least stand among them as equals.

Ironically, it was the Canadians who made sure that there is some grass left there at all.

Great Basin Wild Rye Seeded at the Frenchtown Historic Site, Walla Walla Valley

Of course, these particular Canadians are US Americans now, and the grass had to be seeded today, yet it is fascinating nonetheless that the one place in the Walla Walla where this important grass is still in something like its original state is where those Cayuse-Canadian children’s children’s children have planted it. Perhaps Peopeomoxmox…

Peopeomoxmox, Chief of the Rye Grass

… was worried about inviting too many people to live within his grass. If the Canadians were there because of marriage (in other words for what they could add to the grassland village) and the Methodists were ignoring the village and serving new immigrants instead (in fact cutting down those important village residents, the grasses, to plant wheat, potatoes, watermelon and corn), I can imagine the chief being concerned that these new Catholics might also separate his people from the grass without bringing any benefit. His son had recently been murdered in California, despite his Christian faith, even though he had gone as a cross-cultural ambassador. What Peopeomoxmox needed was a replacement. What he got, in the history of the grass, was not a grass son, a spiritual son, but red-seeded cheatgrass left by cattle.

Cheat Grass in the Walla Walla. You Can Eat Rye Grass Seeds, but You Can’t Eat This Stuff.

The human history of this moment is that the Cayuse were already growing sick from measles brought by refugees from Pandosy’s caravan, ones who had taken a shortcut due to ill health and terror. Terror: discovering that your loving Christian husband was a rapist and a murderer, when it came to Native people, that kind of thing. The unstated history, however, is that grass was disappearing from te valley at the same time as the children, under the plows of the Canadians and the Methodists. I can imagine that both were a form of displacement. If the grass, the Canadians and the Oblates could all be kept separate, however, by sending the Oblates off across the water, where they could be hemmed in water and by a harsh desert hill few ever dared to cross unless on a spirit quest, in a little corner where the rye grass kept to a narrow band down by the river, it would be like that other technology Peopeomoxmox knew so well, as chief of the first people to master it in the Pacific Northwest: the horse. The Oblates were being put out to pasture. One could retrieve them when necessary. Until then, they were wealth: money in the grass, so to speak.

So, that was Pandosy’s position. On one side of the Yakima River were the Horse Heaven Hills, a Yakama horse pasture. The Yakama were Peopeomoxmox’s cousins and were, at the time, being led by a man half Yakama and half Walla Walla, Kamiakin.

The Horse Heaven Hills at Kiona, just upriver from Chamna

On the other side of the river, where Pandosy was, was a fish camp ā€” after the fish were gone for the year. So, pretty much a desert, too, but an attractive one. Look at the contrast of environments below!

Note as well the Salmon Jumping in June. Pandosy arrived much later in the year.

It was a place where people (and salmon) came and went (as horses did from pasture, according to the will of their masters.) Given that by that point all missionaries in the region had made it clear that what they wanted was to train the Cayuse (and all other peoples) to become sedentary, live in permanent villages, and become farmers, perhaps the chief was making one last effort to assert his authority by offering Pandosy water and boundaries, in a village but without any people, in a dry land that he wished to be otherwise off limits to him. The land would see to it. Effectively, Pandosy was bound. Any will he thought he had, had already been taken away.

The Horse Heaven Hills from the Flooded Eastern Tip of Chamna

And here’s the thing: perhaps it worked. Perhaps Peopeomoxmox lost everything: his valley, his village, his people, his son, and his own life, yet in the end Pandosy, the youngest of the Oblates, was transformed by his exile in a kind of pasture for humans. If that is so, we are standing here today because of the wisdom of a man who lived in a village of grasses as tall as a man. It’s certainly not the case along the Walla Walla River at Touchet:

Rye Grass Has Been Replaced by Alfalfa in Touchet

This alfalfa is grown to raise seed. The swallows are feeding on the expensive specialized bees brought in to pollinate it.

Yes, the locals speed. They flashed past me like nobody’s business.

The swallows are roaming free, just as the Cayuse used to do, although they are not native in these numbers and are housed downtown, in a hill cut in half to make room for the train.

Urban Blight in the Walla Walla Valley

It would be a complete replacement, if it were not for this:

These are artefacts from a time of the coming together of peoples.

They are colonial objects as much as those swallows, those bees and that alfalfa. All have responded to the land, and yet the US-Canadians are doing more: they are honouring the most spiritual people of the Cayuse homeland, the rye grasses. Human nature being what it is, I suspect this was a gift from the Canadians’ Cayuse wives to their children. I also suspect that their husbands were wise enough to honour that. American settlers, on the other hand, had other priorities:

They were intent on re-imagining the land as a place they knew from far away. For that, they needed technological interventions and ecosystem replacements (or shall we say simplifications.) They succeeded. In his exile, held in place by the land that Peopeomoxmox understood so well because, as an Indigenous man, he was the lan, Pandosy did notsucceed Or did he?


I will explore his journey in the next few posts. Stay tuned!

2 replies »

    • Thank you so much! It is so inspiring to hear when my efforts have come across and been helpful. Some days (like today), I surprise myself by going way out beyond the fences… it’s great that you’re out there with me in the grass! Blessings, Harold


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.