32. The Land Talks

Technology that works with the land is not one of force. This is not always immediately obvious in a culture built around action. This action includes the obvious, such as the active realignment of natural features…

Breakwater at the Mouth of the Columbia

The US Army Corps of Engineers built this structure to try to clear the sandbar out of the mouth of the Columbia that has plagued shipping since the first European discovery of this great river, which has no estuary and just dumps straight into the sea. The collision of energies deposits sands for many miles north and south of the river, but also make a shifting underwater barrier within the river mouth itself, where mingling sand, river flow, tide changes and storm have sunk many hundreds of ships. It didn’t work. In fact, it intensified the bar.

… and the less obvious, such as just the act of arrival and settlement, which is itself an act that starts with absence. Then one is there, with no story other than this journey and the discoveries that come with it. One can be fooled into thinking that one’s actions are independent from those of the land, even that one organizes it.

Fort Spokane, on the Spokane River

This military site at the mouth of the Spokane River was garrisoned to ensure the compliance of the Spokane people using the period of transferring their land for the use of settlers. Ironically, American settlers along the Middle Columbia tore it down for lumber in anger at the US Federal Government infrastructure failures. The government response to that poverty was to remove settlers from along the Columbia and transform their communities into Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam, with the goal of settling Black sharecroppers from the South and providing electricity for Seattle. The land, however, was teaching people how to live within its means, a lesson not yet learned.

These active solutions, not being land-based, have resolved nothing within human-land conversations, because they effectively ended human participation in the conversation and turned the land wild, in an image of the ignorance of settlement. Every year, wildfires rage through Northern Washington, ones caused in part by removing the Spokane people from land like this. The encroaching forest in the upper stretches of the photograph are indicative of that. In the language of an active, non land-based culture, they are viewed as “natural succession,” much in the way the replacement of the Spokanes with settlers is. It is certainly a conversation with the land, but not a very equal one. In this conversation, the land guides people with water, humanly-suitable land, rain, snow and sun, as it always has. In return, what is being asked of the land, an independent state the same as the moment of settlement, is delivered in a form that then calls up the original military act of taming and settlement.

Their are other ways to talk. For example, in the Similkameen River Gorge east of Chopaka, the river flows in the bed of an ancient flood channel that used to drain the Okanagan Valley down towards the Columbia. The formative energies are gone, yet the river continues to flow within them. Have a look:

Similkameen Gorge

The ancient Similkameen Trail was higher up, away from the water. It had cliffs to clear. The river, meanwhile, deposits sand in back eddies.

The railroad punched through more than a century ago is now a walking trail, built to accentuate a human visual sense: we experience the river by walking above it, experiencing it as human bodies do while in active movement: as a line. We go there for beauty now, not walking through the sagebrush or picking our way along a shore (or swimming upstream!), but on the bed of a railroad through the sagebrush. The land is something “off the trail.” It is the trail that is in the land, and so we say we are, too, but it’s really history we are walking, a history that never experienced the land, until we, as settlers, showed up. Even when we settle in, it is often the same:

House in The Similkameen Gorge

Not the most successful settlement. Note that it has no local means of support: the money that makes inhabitation possible here does not come from here. What’s more, it’s unsustainable; it’s plot is actually actively falling into the river. In addition, in order to build it, the land had to be engineered. Even more telling, the house is unsustainable in itself, built of inappropriate materials for a hot climate, weathering terribly, and too expensive and difficult to maintain. The land is slowly erasing this rudeness. In turn, the people in this house enjoy isolation and beauty and the river, as if they are the only people in the world. That’s the settler dream.

On the ancient trail, the land was present as well. The trail was shaped by more local interaction of human bodies with land. Any shaping of it was cognitive, which was as much a shaping of humans. The result is what you see in the image below:

Silt Bluffs Near Nighthawk

We have some choices here, to see this silt bluff as a resource to be mined, to see it as the bed of an ancient post-glacial lake, cut away when the ice dam that created it down in the gorge broke, or to see it as the Smelqmex did, as an ancient story of Senk’lip’s (aka Coyote’s) transformation of the land into a humanly-inhabitable space, a story that is not in the past but still here. Perhaps you can see Senk’lip’s face in the cliff? If so, you might have placed it there, or you and the land might have done it together.

No-one who is a keeper of Senk’lip’s story would lift a finger to harm these cliffs. The story is ecologically complex as well.

Plants, stones and the movement of water are all created by the active force of the cliffs, which is to say that the glaciers are still making them. For a people who remember the glaciers here, and this lake, that is pretty significant. It is, however, not an act of settlement.

Perhaps a journey to Toppenish, in the Yakama Illahie, will help make that more clear. Here’s a slope near the western edge of the Horse Heaven Hills, the old horse pasture of the Yakama.

The foreground might be a bird sanctuary now, but the highway to Oregon takes precedence. Some pretty heavy bush-whacking machinery has been brought in to beat those willows back, even though they shelter an important part of the Yakama story. These are the dilemmas of a settler culture.

To really see the grass, it helps to get closer.

Pretty Healthy, Really.

A few game trails, not a lot o cheatgrass, not too much sagebrush, and some healthy old growth grass. Horses are not native to this grassland, and it cannot sustain them in large numbers, whether they are Yakama or not.

Just a few miles south, it is a different story.

A Wasteland

No bunchgrass at all, no flowering plants, only cheatgrass and big sage.

This is not an ecosystem but a conversation between people, horses and cars. In other words, it is a collision between bodies (in American culture, what is called sentimental attachment or the past)…

Image from the Yakima Valley Museum.

…and technology, just like the rail line and house in the Similkameen, in complex displays of prestige and power, or at least a conversation between them and the land and non place-based American culture in general.

Image from the Yakima Valley Museum.

The desire to honour horses and given them the freedom of a brand new world outside of human domination, another piece of settler culture in disguise…

Photo: Gaylord Mink. Source:

The introduction of gasoline powered vehicles in the early 1900s forever changed the relationship between the Yakama people and their horses. As people throughout the area turned to cars and trucks for their transportation, horses were no longer essential. Consequently, their economic value decreased rapidly. Unable to support large numbers of horses, tribal and non-tribal people throughout central Washington released horses of all breeds onto the land. Some of the feral horses migrated into the closed portions of the Reservation where they were able to survive and reproduce.

… has had a profound impact on the land:

Throughout most of the horse-dominated areas of the Reservation, native bunch grasses have been unable to withstand severe overgrazing and have been replaced by the highly-invasive annual cheat grass. Although cheat grass provides horses with lush growth during late winter and early spring, the plants flower and die by early summer leaving the area brown and dry. Heavy year-around grazing of this dry landscape by increasing numbers of horses has resulted in large areas that are kept nearly devoid of edible plants for several months each year. Water and wind erode these areas and deposit the sediment into streams that are essential to spawning salmon on a large portion of the Reservation. When the horse population increases significant damage also occurs in traditional root digging areas.

Horses, newcomers to this land, are a kind of wildfire all of their own and the carrier of profound human desires. The Yakama are now trying to manage all that, with respect for the horses, the land and the people all in one mix. It’s not much different with cattle. Here’s a bunch of them near Goldendale:

Barren Land

This is an unsustainable industry. The green in the foreground is planted along the highway to control the erosion the grazing has caused over 180 years. By this point in the story, the cattle are finding almost nothing to eat. These kind of pressures have impacted human societies for all this period.

The solutions vary from poverty …

Hardly a Solution

Pandosy’s old mission lands at Mnassatas

…to urbanization, like this…

Downtown Wenatchee

Once a road, always a road, it seems.

…and this…

Farming Near Marysville

Yes, farming. The goal is, in part, to enable farmers to get some value out of their land in a time in which ranching goes not pay. That it does not pay because the land cannot sustain it is not mentioned. All that is left of the land is elevation and wind. Only when looked at as something apart from its history could this be called green energy, or clean energy.

With all that in mind, then, I’d like to reconsider the run-the-gauntlet welcome given to new Cayuse slaves at the moment they become domesticated to the grassland within the ancient hunting practices of the Wanapum people below Rattlesnake Ridge. A stone blind sits in the wall of one of the canyons leading up from the White Bluff Fan to the highlands of Rattlesnake Mountain and the Setah Creek Pass into the Yakima Basin. It is an otherwise exposed and steep wall. The land directs where both deer and people cross. In fact, it brings them together.

Rattlesnake Ridge

These are similar water paths to the ones I showed you in the Similkameen near the beginning of this post.

If a deer was coming up to the river, it had to pass there: less than a metre from a hunter with his spear. This concept of narrowing a broad land down into the short, violent thrust of a hand, matches the ritual beating which the women, who formed the Cayuse (and Sioux) lines, gave to their new slaves. Not only that, but both the Wanapum and the Cayuse are river people. In such a context, this practice of welcoming men home in two long lines resembles a fish weir on a spawning channel. In a weir, two long lines of stakes, interwoven with branches, bring the breadth of a river down to a point. Fish and human society meet there, exactly at the point where the fish are ready to hand.

There were many styles of fish weirs. This is one. At Sqwetnikwt, in the Okanagan Valley, the upstream side of the weir was lined with baskets. The salmon jumping over the weir delivered themselves straightaway into containers, in which they could be carried away.

In the Cayuse case, the slaves arrived in woven huts, made out of water weeds, in the grass.

Image made after the Cayuse were displaced to the Warm Springs Reserve

And, truly, they were welcomed. There were always men missing on the return from a raid, but slaves could fill the ranks and keep the weir tight, so to speak, or the weave of the village, so it could continue to comb life from the water and the grass. Only then, could they become human, or fully adult people. Before that, they were “ignorant people” or children, who needed to be educated into the right ways. To put that in less cooperative terms, ones familiar to settler culture, they were “wild”, and even “wild animals” needing to be tamed, not to human society but to human-and-grassland society. Oh, look, here’s one of those wild animals now:

Father Charles Marie Pandosy

And he thought he was taming the Cayuse!


As we continue with our story of Father Pandosy, a little more background on war and peace in land-and-spirit-based cultures might help. I will take you there next. After that, I think we can rejoin traditional history without getting hypnotized by its narratives.

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