First Peoples

31. Humans and Bears and History

As I hope my post yesterday made clear, traditional Indigenous cultures are as dynamic as European ones and European ones are as constant as traditional Indigenous ones.

We can have a sentence like mine one above, which is a bit dry, really. It would blind us to go on like that too long. There’s no land there, and language that can lead us into the land is simply missing. We can just point, but wouldn’t an image be better?

Coyote Rocks in the Southern Yakama

If you know the traditional stories, you know what these rocks are saying, although perhaps not in words.

I am thinking it might be useful to give at least this small explanation of my writing method in this history. Words are tricky things. It would be a shame if they limited what we know or might know.

On the other hand, we can have writing like General O. O. Howard’s Christian stories of Great Indian Chiefs for boys, like this:

The Savage Cayuses, Yet.

Apparently, exercising one’s own laws in one’s own sovereign nation and defending one’s people from genocidal attack is savagery. This from the man who hunted down the Nez Perce in 1871, when the volunteers just failed.

It would be terrible to go on like that too long,, as neither the land nor the aspirations of its people are included, Howard’s conceptions of law apply only to his own concepts of Christian obedience, and his native people are portrayed as children (and he and the church together make a benevolent father — God, in other words).

The didn’t work. Let’s not go there anymore.

We can have stories like this Yakama one:

Creation of the Yakima World


In the beginning of the world, all the water. Whee-me-me-ow-ah, the Great Chief Above, lived up in the sky all alone. When he decided to make the world, he went down to the shallow places in the water and began to throw up great handfuls of mud that became land. 

He piled some of the mud so high that it froze hard and made the mountains. When the rain came, it turned into ice and snow on top of the high mountains. Some of the mud was hardened into rocks. Since that time the rocks have not changed — they have only become harder. The Great Chief Above made trees grow on the earth, and also roots and berries. He made a man out of a ball of mud and told him to take fish from the waters, and deer and other game from the forests. When the man became lonely, the Great Chief Above made a woman to be his companion and taught her how to dress skins, how to find bark and roots, and how to make baskets out of them. He taught her which berries to gather for food and how to pick them and dry them. He showed her how to cook the salmon and the game that the man brought. 

Once when the woman was asleep, she had a dream, and in it she wondered what more she could do to please the man. She prayed to the Great Chief Above for help. He answered her prayer by blowing his breath on her and giving her something which she could not see or hear, smell or touch. This invisible something was preserved in a basket. Through it, the first woman taught her daughters and granddaughters the designs and skills which had been taught her. 

But in spite of all the things the Great Chief Above did for them, the new people quarrelled. They bickered so much that Mother Earth was angry, and in her anger she shook the mountains so hard that those hanging over the narrow part of Big River fell down. The rocks, falling into the water, dammed the stream and also made rapids and waterfalls. Many people and animals were killed and buried under the rocks and mountains. 

Someday the Great Chief Above will overturn those mountains and rocks. Then the spirits that once lived in the bones buried there will go back into them. At present those spirits live in the tops of the mountains, watching their children on the earth and waiting for the great change which is to come. The voices of these spirits can be heard in the mountains at all times. Mourners who wail for their dead hear spirit voices reply, and thus they know that their lost ones are always near. 

We did not know all this by ourselves; we were told it by our fathers and grandfathers, who learned it from their fathers and grandfathers. No one knows when the Great Chief Above will overturn the mountains. But we do know this: the spirits will return only to the remains of people who in life kept the beliefs of their grandfathers. Only their bones will be preserved under the mountains. 

* Reported by Ella Clark in 1953


Oral Memory, Geological History, Cultural Practice and a Bit of Christianity All Together

Too bad that this synthesis is delivered as a legend, as if documented textual sources or the kind of texts they reproduce themselves as are the only meaningful records. There is force and bondage in that. Still, it is one experience to hear this story told on the land below and another to view it on a screen.

The Yakama Homeland Today

This image shows the same story, but without the human ability to bridge it into time.

If we’re going to talk about humans, talking about the land helps. If we are going to talk about the land, including humans helps. That seems to make some kind of sense. Still, standing there in the wind off the volcano, with the smell of new-mown hay is another thing altogether. Surely, that is part of the story, too. Otherwise, what are our bodies? Nothing?

To bridge stories into time in another way, we can have a popularized scientific telling of at least part of the “legend” above:

Ice Age floods were first identified by J Harlen Bretz in 1923. Since that time the source for most of the floods has been linked to periodic outbursts from Glacial Lake Missoula (Figure 1), although floods came from other sources as well (e.g., Lake Columbia and perhaps subglacial outbursts). Glacial Lake Missoula, which contained up to 500 cubic miles of water, formed where the Cordilleran Ice Sheet blocked the Clark Fork River valley near the Idaho-Montana border (Figure 1). Floods from Lake Missoula may have occurred every few dozen years by the periodic floating and sudden failure of the ice dam. As many as 100 separate flood events have been proposed for the last glaciation, which lasted between 14,000 and 20,000 calendar years ago. Prior to this time, other major glaciations occurred at about 100,000 year intervals for at least the last million years, some of which produced similar cataclysmic outburst floods.


This is useful,, but what if your cultural memory is that 14,000 years, as the Yakama one is? Then what? Then it can’t be separated from the Manhattan Project, which stirred up the loess laid down in the Columbia Basin by the flood mentioned above, which, drenched with radiation now, is still blowing around in the wind.

I saw it coming and slipped off the road at the entrance to one of the reactors to let it blow past. The car shook. It was eerie. It was a great dark spirit. I shook with it.

Natural history is not enough.

There’s also a fictional approach. For example:

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard by [Elmore Leonard]

If you open it up, you’ll find stories like this:

This stuff is the bread and butter of a culture that lives on fictions. Its stereotypes, however, the stock-and-trade of oral story-telling, have a bite we don’t see in the Yakama “legend.” Read on:

There is neither land nor people in this blend of story-telling tropes. It’s hard to imagine actually arriving at the land or her people this way. You will arrive in FaceBook, though, where algorithms will tell you who your friends are. Sure.

If no cultures are static, if all cultures are dynamic, and if the way that cultures tell of people and the world change how the world is seen, perhaps it would be useful to embrace all of it, with a bit of love and humour, acknowledging both the story-telling and its limits at the same time. Maybe that starts like this:

Some women gathering blueberries in the mountains above the Similkameen River today pile the kids in the sedan, drive up the switchbacks on the road to Vancouver, park the car up by Sunday Summit, pile out, and spend the afternoon picking berries in the scrub at the side of the road. 150 years ago, they would have moved camp and spent a month up there. That might have been better for keeping kids in touch with the land, but that’s not how technology works. Now it’s keeping kids in touch with the land + a Chevrolet. Bears do pretty much the same thing.

And continues like this:

Bear: (Standing up on her hind legs and sniffing the air.) We do?

Oh, yes. Many times I’ve seen you there grazing berries in the ditch.

Bear: (Settling back down.) Well, yeah. They’re sweet and juicy there. Besides, they don’t grow much anywhere else.

Oh, come on. There are berries all over the mountains, shoo.

Bear: (Charging.) Shoo, yourself. (We run.) Ha ha ha ha!

OK, you can have this whole ditch, for three kilometres, just you.

Bear: Thanks. (Settling into the shrubberies.) What with fire suppression, mining, ranching and industrial logging, berries only grow along the roads, you know. That’s where the light is. Everything else is dark and gloomy.

 (Peeking out from behind the protective cover of a Chevrolet.) Gloomy?

Bear: (Tossing a lost FORD hubcap with remarkable accuracy.) Too much technology. Gloomy as all hell. (Sniffing the air.) What this forest needs is a good burning. Clear it out. Give a bear a decent view. (Sniffing some more.) Say, you wouldn’t have some of those chocolate chip cookies there in that Chevrolet now, would you? (A bit like the Imperial Tribesmen of the Cayuse riding into Wishram.) Maybe in a picnic basket in the trunk?

Bear culture, after all, is not static, either.

Young Black Bear in the Kinnikinnic

Doubtlessly, my approach appears random at times as I try to unsettle narrative forms to allow the land to speak, but I think that’s only because I’m trying to make cracks to let the light in. The alternative is to poison the land, either this way…

Military Reactor Complex and Weeds, Hanford

… or this:

Beautiful Washington State

Simply, it’s not Washington State but Teanaway above the upper reaches of the Yakima River. This is the horse pasture of the Klickitat Fish Camp just south of Lake Cle-Elum. It’s a lot of other things, too, of course, some of them as attached to the land as this looks, but one thing it is not is Washington State. That’s an administrative and military concept. If we’re going to use that alone, if we are going to identify the land with the administrative concept, then we have to return to the White Man’s Burden I showed you above and we’re going to have to look at a land shaped and maintained by force and racial specialness. Washington State certainly contains these energies (and a lot more, much of it peaceful and positive), but this is the land, and it has its own power and it own stories. That feels right to me. In terms of the story I’m telling here, Father Pandosy was either here as Chief Owhi’s slave in the Autumn of 1848, or at the Icicle Fishery Camp, now under the city of Leavenworth. To talk about this as Washington alone is to force British Columbian Cascadians to have a story only with Canada. That is a kind of bondage. And we’re a lot more than a people pushed out of Washington. Put it this way:

Lunching on the Esker

In my country, there are many stories of human families with bear ancestors, and a long history of people and bears sharing habitat. We have lived together for a long time. Yes, “we.”


Now “conservation officers” shoot them when they come into town looking for their traditional foods, as they try to continue to evolve within these relationships, treating our communities as part of their cultural worlds. Aren’t they? Aren’t their migration patterns the same as traditional Indigenous ones, moving between climactic zones to harvest different crops as the seasons change? Isn’t the war on bears an anti-Indigenous war? Isn’t it the same with the historical horseman and trader Jack Spawn? Here’s a poem I’ve been writing about that boy from Goldendale…

Road Near Goldendale

Yakama stories of Wy’east and the Brides of the Sun remember the eruptions of these volcanoes, some of which blew apart completely. Jack’s don’t.

… who opened up British Columbia to cattle in 1860 and went on to run a store in the Klickitat after his cattle ate all the grass in a few short years:

 Behind us, the Old Man River

is mixed with antifreeze and injected into the earth’s bones, our mother. 
Where there were once mountains banking the sea’s silver people, 

there is a black surf of oil breaking on the edge of the world, 
railcars burning as they cross Vieux Quebec, 

long lines of fire threading in all directions, 
stitching the colour blocks of death’s quilt together:

black squares, black triangles and black rectangles 
blocked up into black stars and hung all down the rivers,

pouring it into ships and tanking it across the molten comets
that are pulled up onto the shore pines by the moon and drawn back.

To us on this side of Le Monti it’s the boy Jack Splawn
wintering his Spanish cattle in the Kittitas all over again, 

claiming that grass in the wind belonged to all men and pistol whipping 
the land’s son for insisting that swimming longhorns 

across the estuary as the salmon were gathering 
for the dart up to the big rocks that his ancestors had fished for 12,000 years 

would foul it and he had to pay 10 cents a head for the privilege. 
He understood perfectly in his bones’ red gills that the first 

cattle to graze the wild wheat grass are also the last.
Even Leonard has it pressed onto vinyl. He’s still singing it, too, 

high up there on the ladder of song, riding a cayuse 
with a bright sash around his waist, with bells 

on his bridle to remind him of la belle pays. They jangle and bounce 
on the pitched trails down to la champs pays, the grassland country,

with the stars above his head and the bright waters of the land
reflecting in the eyes of his sons and his daughters. 

Here’s Jack:

In 1908, he was the Democratic Candidate for Governor

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, which is why I’m looking to break it open and let the land speak its connections instead (and our connections with it), but if you can humour me for a moment, here is Splawn’s friend Nick, who shopped at his store…


…as you will see in this passage of my poem about Oil’s Black Queen:

 This side of le monti, her suitors are the reincarnation of Nick the Austrian, 
who speared a Wanapum man’s wife on his stick,

was punched in the face and said nada
but rode the next day to the snubbed-off bunchgrass 

Jack and his bunch of vaqueros had already grazed to dust, 
bought a cup of sugar and a packet of strychnine,

rode it home and offered it to the wronged Wanapum with coffee,
then bragged of it the next day, in the sun’s blind, even as Smohalla 

the Prophet danced on the bars of the river and the heart of the drum 
cried out under the hands of his people to bring the man back to life, 

who had been poisoned like a wild dog. Know Nick. He lives on. He is eternal. 
The Queen laps him out of a cup, 

staining her pale lips black and her tongue slipping out through them, 
dark as a wasp. There is no room in her penthouse 

for speaking with the mouth of the earth 
or being the moon rising over the black feathers of the trees 

that are magpie sleeping, with one eye closed to the day 
and one as white as milk, open to the night. 

She sees you. Do not try to hide. She sees you 
and knows where you are in her nest, and look, 

she brings you a beetle, iridescent, and squawks.
Will you open your beak to receive it? 

Will you accept the gift and speak jewels? 
Magpie is waiting. 

These are contemporary stories, with deep roots. We are either part of the land’s people or not. I know I am. It was a journey both short and long. I’m hoping to guide you there, too, however imperfectly I can.


Next: The Story of Skaha Lake, in more detail this time.

2 replies »

  1. Re: The Yakima story. If we see things as “only a legend,” it may indicate that we don’t understand many other pieces of writing or oral history, e.g., the Apocalypse of St. John, which they story resembles in many ways.


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 )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.