Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Becoming Native

Last evening my husband and I attended the Sharing Our Responsibilities Totem Pole Blessing.
 Xwe’chi’eXen is what the Lummi People call their sacred landscape, but it is also the area for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal which, if built, would become North America's largest coal export site. According to their website, the Kwel hoy’ Totem Pole journey,  September 15-29, 2013, started in the Powder River Basin and will follow the coal train route through Indian Country, up to Xwe’chi’eXen. Please read all about this journey on the totempolejourney.com website.

Listening to the Lummi and other Tribal speakers caused me to stop and reflect on what it is that makes one person a native of the land and another an intruder. My ancestors came from many different places. Unlike someone who can claim connection to some one country or clan or tribe, I am a little bit of many things. My father claimed to be full blooded Italian but his parents, my paternal grandparents, did not claim to be of the same descent! My grandmother came from northern Italy around Genoa and she was a blue eyed blond. My grandfather, who died before I was born, came from Palermo and he was dark skinned with black hair and brown eyes. They did not speak the same language or practice the same religion. And that is just one side of the family.

My maternal grandparents were even more mixed. There is one line traceable from early American settlements back to England, while other lines go back to Germany or Ireland, and still others are simply unknown. My father's family came here to find a better life. Some were persecuted for religious reasons and others for economic ones. Part of my mother's family moved to the northwest from the south after the civil war. Others arrived with waves of immigrants.

I was born and raised in Oregon. I consider myself to be a native Oregonian. But when I listen to the Lummi or other American First Nation People, I recognize that my roots are very shallow- but still, there is no other place that I can refer to as my homeland.

A number of people I know have taken journeys to visit the lands of their ancestors, going to Sweden or Germany or Italy. I have never had any longing to visit Europe. I don't know why, but I do know that the place where I live feels more like my homeland than any other place I can think of. When I listen to people talk about the Columbia River Bio-Region or about Cascadia, I feel a connection that is deeper than any connection that my ancestors might have had to a place somewhere far across the ocean.  The mountains, the fir trees, the ocean, the rivers and even the rains speak to me. I like the weather cool with a soft mist in the morning or evening. 

Last night as I listened to Jewell James, the master carver who spoke at the Totem Pole Blessing Ceremony, I felt with him a connection to this place that Tribal People consider their sacred homeland. I felt the urgent need to protect this place from the greed of corporate desires. I was relieved to hear that in the treaties that were written with the US government, Tribal people wrote in the need to protect the water and the land. I am hoping along with all who gathered that the treaties can be a force to protect our land and water from more abuse.

The story is told among the Tribal People regarding the gifts of first foods from the Creator. These gifts were water, salmon, huckleberries and roots. As a way to show thanks and to assure their survival, the people were told by the Creator to care for these gifts. When they were forced to enter into treaties, the leaders of the people refused to sign without the protections they needed written in for these gifts that meant life to them. In our day the treaties are threatened yet again and with them the gifts that represent life for all people and creatures of this part of the world.

I think that just maybe, the best chance of protecting Cascadia from coal trains, and export terminals and other environmental disasters will be to join the Tribal People of the region, allowing them to lead, and listening to their voices.

I believe that maybe, if a person lives in one place long enough and allows the spirit of the land to touch them by being open to the native stories, people, creatures, plants, and water ways, then that person can become native enough to say "this is my homeland too."

Along with other Natives I choose to protect this place, Cascadia, my homeland.  Thank you Lummi Nation for taking the lead.
                             Picture from totempolejourney.com.
                             (I found myself and my husband in this picture.)

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