The last few days, I have been trying to demonstrate what colonial history might have looked like when Indigenous law still ruled the Pacific Northwest. People have been here for something like 16,000 years. The land has taught them over that time. I’m curious what the land will say if we give more people voice, not all of them human.
It’s good to know who people are. These marmots, for instance.
In terms of Euroamerican culture, talk like this is considered a regression. It is called pre-modern thinking, and is dismissed on the argument that it goes back on the gains of modern, individual culture. As if that hadn’t been invented here in other forms thousands of years ago!
Mule Deer at Skeetchestn
Last week, I suggested that the Cayuse chief Peopeomoxmox was cautious around a new bunch of Catholics who arrived late in 1847. His caution was warranted. A few weeks later the region was at war and the U.S. Army forbade all white men from the country east of the Cascade Range, north of the Columbia River and east to the Blue Mountains. The Army figured they were the problem. Some were, ones who honoured their personal freedom above all other values and use it to inflame native people and then punish them for their response. Fully modern stuff!
It would take a good forty years for the US Army to sort that out. In the meantime, the Army tried to keep things calm. Even the new Oblate priests were disobediant. Bunch of anarchists, really. The US Army didn’t consider that this lot only took orders from God, not even from their bishop, Augustine Magloire Blanchet. The Army, with its notions of chain of comman, looked to him. The Oblates looked to him, too, an were enraged. He wanted them to serve the French Canadians in Oregon. They wanted to move freely among the Cayuse and the Yakama. They had come to save souls, not to take Sunday confessions. Blanchet was worried about the survival of the Canadians in Oregon, and about the survival of Catholicism at all in a society that demonized them as agents of European powers.
He would rather have been in Montreal.
The priests, who were European, won that struggle — for a time, anyway — because it was a wartime situation. For example, before either his studies or his training were complete, the young acolyte Charles Marie Pandosy was hastily ordained as a priest at Fort Nez Percé, and was sent to Chamna. The hastiness of it all was going to haunt him for his whole life, as he really wasn’t properly trained. His lack of obedience separated him from the Church and from nascent American society, made him a slave and yet, strangely enough, bought him some freedom at the same time. Soon, he would be at war with the Church, even while trying to further its goals to save souls before they all died. Oh-oh. There’s grumbling from the wings. Yes, Father?
Pandosy: I’m not a slave.
Well, you did give up your will to the Church.
And your masculinity. Marie. What kind of second name is that?
Pandosy: God came into the world through Marie. What’s wrong with that? I am his vessel.
This belonging thing is important to you. Weren’t you soon the property of Chief Owhi?
Pandosy: I was his guest.
This is a good point to introduce another actor in this ritual drama: Chief Owhi of the Kittitas.
He had good reason to look so depressed. The advance of the Americans had stripped him of his identity as the land.
He was amputated: turned into an individual. That all came down in 1855. Back in 1848, he had some rights to the Chamna fish camp where Peopeomoxmox sent Pandosy to cool his heels. Here’s a map of Owhi’s Territory, more or less (in black):
Ah, another actor is getting ready to step on. Let’s meet him, too.
Well, sort of “chief” of the Yakama. His power came from his mother. He might have been chief, but it was contested and he had to continually work at maintaining his honorary position. At the same time, he had to deal with the newly-arrived Americans, who saw a man as chief, in a model of their own social organization. They didn’t see what was really there: a whole community, through the female line. Kamiakin’s male line came through Peopeomoxmox’s people. A separation o people into separate nations is not the clearest way to look at these histories.
Now, to continue:
Father, you weren’t Owhi’s guest at Chamna. You were Kamiakin’s. Or Peopeomoxmox’s. Owhi was just jealous.
Pandosy: And worried. They all wanted God to come to them.
But you couldn’t leave. That’s not freedom.
Pandosy: Not at all. I was there in disobedience to American law. I served a higher purpose. I was in God’s hands.
By an American definition, that is a slave.
Pandosy: By mine, it’s a free man, but (blushing) too proud for his own good.
Pandosy: (Grumbles.) And hungry.
And ordained so that when you were murdered you would be made into a saint.
Pandosy: You don’t know that.
Can you deny it?
Pandosy: (Grumbles) No.
This little drama is a response to the difficulty of writing a book of history that can only be written by walking back and forth across the land and thinking. Waillatpu, for one, is in the eye of the sea of wheat grass, fescue, porcupine grass, giant rye, needle-and-thread grass, sagebrush and antelope brush that extends from the fire forests of the Chilcotin Plateau under the Rainbow, Ulgatchuz and Itcha volcanoes, south through a series of inlands fjords, into the Great Basin. That’s home to me. Sticking to a history of “Canada” won’t do. This is a history of grass. Forget the map, though. That’s a colonial object. We’re talking about this:
We’re talking about this, too:
Oh, what’s this? Why, hello.
Grassland: You got some Visine®? I think I got some grit in my eye. Do you mind taking a look? Please.
Oooh, would you look at that! That’s a priest on a horse.
Grassland: Pull it out! Pull it out!
(We shrug and heave and ho.)
Nope. He moves around too much. That’s a skittery pony, that is.
Grassland: Well, what use are you then? And I raised you all these years!
Yeah, well, that’s the thing. If I go up on the hill above my house, and walk through the two-metre-high Great Basin giant rye grass where the sky touches the dry, cracked face of the earth, the grass sings out in my fingers with the notes of a xylophone.
When deer pass through it, it knocks against their bones in a rhythmic, off-centred music. To some, the grass sings; to others, it’s just a plant you walk through on your way to somewhere else. So, how do you write a history about that? Perhaps you just introduce her to your friends.
When the Canadian poet Penn Kemp came to Vernon and stayed in the Caetani house, once the seat of an Italian noble family in exile and now an arts centre with trees wrapped in knitted vests, I set out to rescue her from art.
“Come on, Penn,” I said, “there’s someone I want you to meet.”
(I drove her to a road on The Commonage, a grassland that was stolen from the syilx by a clever ruse, parked the car on the gravel, and led her to the ditch on the other side.)
“Penn,” I said, “Meet Giant Rye. Giant Rye, meet Penn.”
“Oh, you’re beautiful,” said Penn.
(Giant Rye towered above her.)
“Run your fingers through her,” I said.
(Penn reached out. The grass sang.)
On the highway above us, a freight truck roared past, hauling asparagus and green peppers from Mexico. It’s noisy an of dubious worth, yet at night the wind tinkles in it, under the stars. If you brush through it then, it tethers you to them. That’s something to love forever. So, that’s the point. For reasons of his own and the reasons of Peopeomoxmox, Kamiakin and Owhi, Pandosy was kept away from other white men at a crucial moment in history. His history is not theirs, in the same way that he spent his time with people like this:
He was alone out there with his God, and way out of his depth.