Native Wisdom

With the wind blowing hard, the lights flickering and the internet down, I’m reminded of the wisdom of Natives living for thousands of years in this land before the European invasion.

The snow paths that we had carved to cars and dog’s pasture are blown shut, and our Josephy Center, Davis Body Shop, and Vemco Fabrication are closed for the day. There are certainly others, but that’s what I got early from Facebook, before my internet went down.

Miraculously, the radio still brings news from Portland, and the news is that I-84, the big East-West Interstate, is closed from Troutdale to The Dalles, and from Pendleton to Baker City. We also learned that there is snow atop the fire remains in the Denver suburbs, and that it is raining in Portland.

That is comforting. It is supposed to rain in Portland at this time of year. And snow in the Cascades and Blues, the Rockies and Sierras. In Indian times, before the white invasion, tribes hunkered along the milder, rainy coasts. I guess that the whale hunters had done their work in other seasons, and the blubber was preserving berries and other foods gathered in milder times.

Inland, where we live, the people followed the seasons, and by this time were safe in their wikiups along the Snake, Imnaha, and Grande Ronde Rivers. They had dried fish and dried roots and berries and game, and they could catch fish—maybe whitefish and sturgeon—on wintertime rivers. When they got horses and cows, the livestock traveled with the people. And when the white settlers came with their livestock and tried to winter them here in the upper valley, the Nez Perce advised them to go low in winter months.

But settlers persisted, and built houses and barns and harvested hay against winter. Over 150 years we’ve learned to heat and light houses, make and plow roads for engine driven cars and trucks. We buy our food in stores and bring it home to refrigerators and freezers to keep it cold and fresh in warm rooms heated by electricity, oil, or wood. But, you say, the road between food centers in Portland and Hermiston to here is closed today. The answer: It will open soon—or at least tomorrow, and we have enough food for today.

We have fixes for everything. I am not suggesting that we go back to hunting and gathering, or that we become seasonal nomads. But there are lessons in the old wisdom that we can apply today. We do not have to build in fires’ paths, along rivers and streams that flood—or seacoasts where water is rising. We can build wiser and smaller, become less dependent on power generation. We can get around the dams and the destruction they’ve brought, graze light enough to feed us and heavy enough to slow fires. We can live with fire and wind and snow, listen to the elements rather than constantly trying to twist them to our purposes with dams and manmade lakes and rivers.

Some people are reaching back to old wisdom. Fire folks and water and fish people are talking Native now. There are buffalo again—and coho salmon and now the lamprey. Indians are now part of leadership and conversation at Corps of Engineers and National Parks.

But we have miles to go and more to learn. Years ago, Charles Wilkinson, a lawyer who studied Indians and water, said that the American Southwest had become a fiction built on air conditioning and other peoples’ water. Yet we continue to “grow” the region, stuffing more people into the air conditioning dependent Southwest. We are still drilling wells and sinking land in California, still fighting to keep dams holding water and barges floating the Snake River.

The lights are still on, the internet is working, and the winds might be dying down. But it is good to remember that the Nez Perce saw good reason to winter in lower—and warmer—climes.

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photo credit, City of Joseph, Mary B. Fort

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