native american

Ten years gone; a return to Nespelem

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I went back to the Nespelem Cemetery Monday, this time without a camera. The last time I came through was ten years ago, after a visit to the Okanogan Family Faire (aka ‘barter faire’) in Tonasket. Having grown up knowing the story of Chief Joseph and having just read Lucullus McWhorter’s ‘Yellow Wolf’ I felt compelled to visit and pay my respects in the act of pursuing my avocation of cemetery/memorial photographer.

1778187052_7571f87d3d_zWhen I arrived at Joseph’s grave back then I was regretful. Other visitors had thought to bring an offering, some of which were so appropriate and intentioned their inclusion bespoke the wisdom of the giver. A ranger from the Naches Ranger District had left a collar badge from their uniform. Others had left polished stones, coins, braids of sweet grass, toy horses, and small red cloth bundles. On Yellow Wolf’s grave –the resting place of a supernaturally powerful warrior– someone had left an open pen knife, the stainless blade alive with potential even among green and tarnished coins. I had nothing to offer, and ultimately continued on my way leaving only words in the wind. When I got back to Seattle my wife and I separated for good.

I carried my failure with me. Having visited their resting places did not absolve me of my admiration of these men. I marked the debt in my mental ledger.

GrandCouleeStatueMy brother, stepfather, and I undertook a trip to the Grand Coulee Dam as a sort of homage to Woody Guthrie, to culminate in the last viewing of the laser light show of the season. Grand Coulee Dam is just 14 miles from the Nespelem Cemetery where Joseph and so pitifully few of his heroic original band lie in repose. I’d get to get some bugs on my car, hang with my boys, grub on fine small-town vittles, and satisfy my debt if I could talk my companions into it. Rather than risk this addition to our itinerary being seen as one of my habitual photographic wanderings through country graveyards I fairly insisted on it, and was rewarded with enthusiastic support.

The cemetery hadn’t gotten up and wandered off in the ten years since my footprints marked this land. North side of Nespelem on high ground. In so small a town at times streets could be mistaken for driveways. You have to know where you are going and be at least marginally brave.

Joseph’s memorial stone is unmistakable if only from the well-worn path of visitors leading respectfully around the corner of a row of unmarked graves and on to the collection of offerings at its foot. The people had continued to leave bright stones, coins, horse figurines, and trinkets for him but this time I saw where one had placed a hand mirror face-down over where his head presumably lies. Another had left two long horsehair braids; someone else a silver concho bracelet.

I felt a little pressure to walk with my companions. The conversations I needed to have were short, however. Tearing the filter off of a strong tobacco cigarette I wedged it between a gleaming river stone and the weathered white marble of his marker, with words in the wind marking the fulfillment and renewal of a debt of respect. For Yellow Wolf too, so the smell of fresh tobacco would blow in the wind with him.

1777335837_7f44427cc3_zAmong the photos from my last visit certain friends and relatives of those whose memorials were included left questions or comments on those photos; some not insignificantly resentful. Going so regularly in places full of private pain…so full of the dichotomy of spirit and mortality…one learns not only to walk carefully but to transform oneself into a recognizable agent of respect: to walk in a state of unintentioned mindfulness. It is not the bones you risk offending but the broken hearts of living human beings and the spirits, whose persistence around and among us you have by being a ledger-keeper and tobacco-offerer long ago accepted. When you speak aloud the names mutely inscribed before you you do not do so lightly. You do so with gratitude, with admiration, with commiseration, with respect. If you are a photographer you have come to take, so to satisfy your conscience you transform the taking into an act of reverence.

I hated that, despite the priestly care I take to travel lightly and kindly in such places, I was unable to assuage the pain of these friends and relatives: pain I had inadvertently caused. At the time I was far away from that hillside in Nespelem so all I had to offer them was words in the wind: cold comfort indeed delivered digitally and without context. This too I marked in my mental ledger as a debt: either to be repaid if possible or to further spur my conscience to right action going forward.

It was with this in mind that I went to say the names of  Elroy James Shavehead, a natural athlete with a big smile and heart; Thomas L. Waters, known to loved ones as “Babycakes”, from a far-flung and long-loving family; the coyote doctor Pow-U-Ton-Ow-Wit, and to signify my respect and peaceful intentions with a tobacco offering nestled among the other remembrances left for them. If past is prologue someone somewhere on down the line will search the internet for mention of these men and find this post. If as before that person is a loved one I hope they will understand that when informed of it I accepted and carried my obligation to these men and their families as if they were my own kin. I returned to make it clear to any and all that my mind was clean: that my coming and going were that of the silent mourner whose passing is known but to God.


The final words of Siksika chief Crow Foot

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Siksika chief Crow Foot
Siksika chief Crow Foot

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

-Crow Foot, 1890

Nez Perce woman Penahwenonmi on magical immunity from bullets

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He-me-ne-mox-mox, Yellow Wolf of the 'Invincible 20' of the Nez Perce War; 1877.
He-me-ne-mox-mox, Yellow Wolf of the ‘Invincible 20’ of the Nez Perce War; 1877.

“There were seven Nez Perces whose bodies from shoulders down were bulletproof. All were killed by shots in the neck. One of these warriors was Sarpsis Ilppilp, son of Chief Yellow Bull, killed in the battle of the Big Hole. A strand of the wampum necklace he wore was cut by the bullet that killed him. One of these men who received bullets on his body showed black spots the size of a dime.”

Two Moons also held faith in this immunity against enemy bullets. He tells how he saw Sarpsis Ilppilp and two companions, Wahlitits and Strong Eagle, ride the battle line at White Bird Canyon without incurring any injury from the shots rained upon them by the soldiers. On another occasion, he said, Sarpsis loosened his belt and permitted several bullets, some of them misshapen as if they had hit an impenetrable surface, to fall to the ground. His red flannel shirt showed perforations, but no bullet had broken the skin.”

-Penahwenonmi (Helping Another); fm. Yellow Wolf: His Own Story. Lucullus McWhorter, 1991.

Yellow Wolf is buried in the Nespelem Cemetery in Nespelem, WA (pictured here). The grave of Chief Joseph is visible in the background at left.

Cadete (Mescalero Apache) on Indian & White culture

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Mescalero Apache Chief Cadete
Mescalero Apache Chief Cadete

In the main Western culture has had a poor record of pausing in conquest long enough to record the views of vanquished foes. We have always sent soldiers to dismantle cultures in the way of ‘manifest destiny,’ so too often it is the hard country of military dispatches in which the death songs of whole peoples echo down through the years. Perhaps we catch so much of the rich intonation and meaning in Cadete’s words because Capt. Cremony was both a journalist by training and a fluent speaker of Apache, indeed the first white man to learn the language.

Here Mescalero Apache chief Cadete offers not the expected maudlin call to the old ways, but an incisive comparative analysis of Western and Apache cultures.

“You desire our children to learn from books, and say, that because you have done so, you are able to build all those big houses, and sail over the sea, and talk with each other at any distance, and do many wonderful things; now, let me tell you what we think. You begin when you are little to work hard, and work until you are men in order to begin fresh work. You say that you work hard in order to learn how to work well. After you get to be men, then you say, the labor of life commences; then too, you build big houses, big ships, big towns, and everything else in proportion. Then, after you have got them all, you die and leave them behind. Now, we call that slavery. You are slaves from the time you begin to talk until you die; but we are free as air. We never work, but the Mexicans and others work for us. Our wants are few and easily supplied. The river, the wood and plain yield all that we require, and we will not be slaves; nor will we send our children to your schools, where they only learn to become like yourselves.”

– Mescalero Apache Chief Cadete,
as related to Capt. John C. Cremony“The Apache Race,”Overland Monthly, Vol. I (September, 1868), 207.

Appalachian rock art an interconnected retelling of Native cosmology in three dimensions, even over vast distances

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Ah, I love even the whiff of an idea like this! UTK anthropology professor Jan Simek postulates:

“The cosmological divisions of the universe were mapped onto the physical landscape using the relief of the Cumberland Plateau as a topographic canvas,” said Simek.

The location of each set of petroglyphs –surface, mixed surface & cave, and cave– was seen to correlate to the represented figure’s role in the Native cosmology of 6,000 years ago. Figures associated with life, light &c were found in open-air sites, whereas figures associated with darkness and death were found in caves. ‘Life figures’ were often painted red –a color the Native folk associated with life– whereas ‘death figures’ were often painted black, the color associated with death.

“This layered universe was a stage for a variety of actors that included heroes, monsters and creatures that could cross between the levels,” Simek said

For Dr. Simek –a professor at the University of Tennessee: Knoxville– this insight represents the culmination of a life’s work. Read the rest here.

At the grave of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, also called Joseph

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A horse, some apples, and a medicine bundle. Photographed October 2007.

I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If an Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If a white man breaks the law, punish him also.

Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself — and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike — brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers’ hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people…

Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, ‘Thunder Rolling Down The Mountain’; spoken upon his visit to Washington DC, 1879.

Sand bars forming at the mouth of the Elwha River

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I’ve been following the recovery of the Elwha River since the removal of its dams last year. This report, the positive result, and the promise that this positive result will continue are at once scientifically important to the re-wilding movement and heartwarming:

…A combination of lakes created by the dams being completely drained and heavy rains over the past few months have sent pulses of caramel-colored sediment into the azure waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and have started to form the sandbars, which are often clearly visible from the air.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated it would be this visual,” Shaffer said.

“It’s just striking.”

Scientists on the project estimate the two dams held back 25 million cubic yards of sand, silt, cobble and gravel.

Only about 10 percent of that has found its way to the mouth of the river or into the Strait, said Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist with Washington Sea Grant and one of a small army of researchers surveying beaches on either side of the Elwha’s gaping maw to see where the sediment is going.

“We still think that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sediment delivery,” Miller said…

Read the rest of the article at The Oregonian.