29. Weaponizing the West: Part 1

Yesterday, I spoke about how the mobility provided by horses allowed the Cayuse to translate their lush grasslands into dominance over the Central Columbia and to exact tribute in the form of baskets, mats, fish, roots and clothing. That’s not the whole story, though. To step aside from that point of view and speak of the land and the people as one within a unified spiritual universe that was the grassland…

Umtanum Creek (Yakima River Gorge)

…however, basically the horse turned the grassland into movement and made human into its weapons, which is to say an extension of its power. In return, the Cayuse offered protection. I really, really doubt it went quite like this:

Cayuse Warrior: Give me that fish.

Umatilla Fisherman: But I just caught it. Risked life and limb over the water. What are you going to give me in return?

Cayuse Warrior, high on his horse: Protection.

Umatilla Fisherman: From what?

Cayuse Warrior: (Brandishing his rifle.) From me.


Umatilla Fisherman: Oh. OK.

(The fish gives one last sad flap.)

I say this because from the point of view in which land and people are one, the land below is partly a person …


and this …

David Young Chief, 1900

is partly the land. That’s not a modern European or American concept, which is to say not the concept of a conquering or colonizing people. They think like this:

On the portions of the rocky stratum left by the chafing waters, in wearing out numerous channels below the present situation of the Shutes, were the flag huts of one hundred Wallawalla fishermen. They were taking salmon with scoop nets and bone pointed spears. These people are filthy and naked. Some sat by fires swallowing roasted salmon; others greasing themselves with the oil of that fish; others were dressing and drying them; others stood down on the projections in the chasms, sweeping their nets in the foaming waters; untaught, unelevated, least intelligent, least improvable human nature! It was not deemed safe to remain long among these savages, who had begun to examine my packs with more interest than strictly honest intentions towards them seemed to require, and I took to the trail again on a fast trot.

Thomas J. Farnham. History of Oregon Territory.

Do you see that? He sees 100 people, either eating (and why not?) or hard at work at dangerous and skilled occupations, harvesting, alone, as he says elsewhere, enough food for the entire city of New York to have lunch (about 320,000 people!), but can only think of their customs, curiosity and tolls, gesture of trade and respect, as animal in nature. At the same time, he didn’t recognize the wealth of a land that supported large populations. Here’s how he described the country around Wallula, for instance:

Desert describes it as well as it does the wastes of Arabia. 

Thomas J. Farnham. History of Oregon Territory.

He did not see that cultural, social and spiritual understandings bound people, the land and the water tightly together. For some, the power between them was the salmon. For others, the horse. For others, individual spirit guides or ancestral stories, which are, essentially, social maps of the land. There are consequences. If, for example, you are from a people for whom that shamans are intermediaries with the spirit world…

Whirlwind, a Cayuse Shaman

…and and for whom the plants and animals on Earth are spirits…

An Eagle Lugs a Trout Home in Conconully (During the Loup Loup Fire)

…which you, as a weak human, must work with in order to survive,

Remnants of the Village Garden at the Wishram Fishery

Spiritual beings kept close and cared for… is that not, in other terms, prayer?

… then the addition of a horse as the new intermediary is going to have some serious consequences, too. Suddenly, the human-horse relationship is paramount, and given the violence and general territorial expansion and even slave-taking that went along with it, essential. Being static on a piece of land was no longer a defence, not in a world that had become all movement as plains and Great Basin and pueblo peoples all shifted their territories under the pressure of colonial expansion (and the horse). A fisher had none of that, but was vulnerable to it.

Celilo Falls, 1890s

Not a good spot for a horse.

The protection you could offer, then, as a portable shamanic workshop, as horse-and-human, an extended grassland…

Portable Grassland Posing for a Photo

…can offer a Wishram fisherman…

Cello Falls, 1950s

… was worth payment. Especially when a couple other protocols were in place:

  • The land (and the water) gave food for people.
  • So did the plants and animals.
  • The people of the land did not stand in the way of these gifts but passed them on. It was a general principle that guests were fed and that whoever had the food (or the stuff in Farnham’s pack, presumably) shared it.
  • These relationships of gift-giving were managed by various food chiefs, skilled people deemed most able to direct activities for the season. These included gathering chiefs (women), hunting chiefs, and a salmon chief.
  • The salmon chief was tasked with giving the salmon as gifts, first to those people most in need and then to everyone.

It is not unreasonable to presume that by assuming the dangerous role of movement in a changing world, the people of the river were able to fulfil their social and spiritual roles of staying put, and honouring the protection they received. That is not at all the same as a protection racket.

Al Capone, Busted.

It wasn’t about the personal accumulation of power and its distribution.

Marlon Brando Pretending to Be a Horse Thief of sorts

If that seems unclear, maybe a contemporary view of the fishery will clear up the power difference:

Lone Pine Replacement Fishery Facing Down the Dalles Dam

Falls No More. In terms of the land or the river, this is not a positive development.

If that doesn’t clear it up, maybe a view of strangeness will. In the image below, a woman contemplates Horse Thief Butte above the Columbia River, while Horse Thief Butte, the village site that housed 40,000 people from as far away as the Tsilqhot’in and California every summer, contemplates her.

The village site was, largely, in behind. These bluffs were, in part, a burial site.

That’s not the only spiritual energy flowing through this place at the centre of the Northwest. Take a look at Mount Hood. She plays her tricks, too. In the image below, she is rising white with snow above the horizon over the back of the Butte. The Butte in the foreground is replicating her energy on a smaller scale. The stack of stones I showed you back in 2014 repeats it on a smaller scale yet. No doubt, this scale continues down to the size of a grain of sand or a flake of snow.

Note Wy’east in the background.

Here’s the thing, though. Here’s the same image 1/10th of a second later, 1/2 of one ASA stop higher.

No Wy’east! Now, isn’t she a sneaky one. Now you can see, perhaps, the joke that the dark cliff in the foreground is sharing with the ridge of the Butte in the back. Legend says this Butte was named by … well, heck, read for yourself:

“Oral history states that the park received its former name — Horsethief Lake State Park — from workers in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who developed the site. The workers thought the terrain was similar to that of horsethief hideouts in popular 1950s Hollywood westerns. The abundance of horses kept on the premises by local Indians apparently gave the workers their inspiration.”

Yeah, sure, except the greatest horse thief of them all was Coyote (Sen’klip or Spilyáy), the trickster, and this is either his butte or that of that other great trickster, Hare.

Hare, on the South Side of Horsethief Butte

Rump up, ears high, nose pointing downhill and East to the narrows.

Or both. As for the spiritual technology, humans are part of the spiritual lens. The problem, though, is that there are people who move more than you do (Americans and British, for instance), who have better weapons and have you locked into a system of trade that exchanges part of your spiritual power, beavers, the water keepers, for weapons and prestige items. It was bittersweet. A Napoleon-era musket and some powder and shot was useful for both offence and defence, and British China, Chinese beads, royal or presidential medals, aristocratic clothing and top hats were important ritual items for maintaining or negotiating status, at least for a time…

The Hawaiians at Fort Vancouver Found Such Rituals Useful, too.

… but everything falls out of style eventually.

Yes, Even This

(Thank God)

In the end, one huge effect of the fur trade was the divorce of land from water. You might have a horse, which moves well over land, but water is removed from it. No amount of ritual symbolism could fully counteract that or keep the river-grass bond alive when others just ignored it.

Well, it’s still very much alive, but lacks the force of arms.

What was originally land-and-water, what in Nysilxcen (to the North of the Columbia) is stilled called tumulcwulaxw, which is still a representation of the life force, the timixw, had in the sense of social power become land, which was defined as property and could be defended by deadly force, as a representation of a person instead of being a community negotiated for by alliance. And what do you do with land alone? You can move across it, but where to? Nowhere that out-maneuvers the slave-position into which the Americans and British have placed the land-human-water alliance, the tumulcwulaxw, to put it into a syilx context, because the American use of force constrained it in that role.

Land Bondage

The Horsethief Butte village site, plundered by artefact seekers. The river dammed. Land flooded. And a railway. These are all one of the properties of land-water separation and the transformation of land into property and water into a resource, ie a property belonging to a cross-continental people who will always outnumber people to whom this is a land-human-water alliance.

So did the British use of law in British Columbia. What the Cayuse could do, was to look for the real spiritual power of the newcomers. It was obviously not the horse alone.


Next, the new bid for power.

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.