It’s a game of tides, this river of ours — its ebb and flow and the nocturnal whimsies of moon and deep weeping currents. And storm. Or perhaps a bluebird day, when the skies are fine and deep and translucent.
Everything happens here if you simply wait a while. If you follow the Tao of big water.
A new culture descended here about 200 years ago: those Finns, Swedes and Norwegians, some Irish, some English and, lest we forget, the Chinese, though they got stuck with most of the dirty work.
We were a country of immigrants. They came in great numbers, from every ethnicity, and they came for profit, for opportunity, for gain. There was plenty to pass around. These newcomers simply had to take it from the people who had lived here from time beyond memory.
Quickly enough, the Bostons logged out the magnificent virgin forests and fished for the tens of millions of shimmering silver salmon that rushed up the great Columbia River in such numbers that the Corps of Discovery, in 1805, stared in disbelief.
And the Native peoples, the Chinook and their brethren, also stared and wondered as their way of life was shattered like split firewood. They fell into oblivion, or the next thing to it. These white men, these pioneers from far away, displaced thousands of years of relative comfort, a lifestyle and philosophy older than the Buddha or Jesus Christ. The Chinook evaporated in such massive numbers that, by the last part of the 19th century, the pride of the few remaining souls deteriorated like the morning fog that clings to the riverbanks and pushes westerly into the great gray ocean, then burns away.
Sharing the Tyee
On a recent Friday at high noon, descendants of that great nation gathered below Fort Columbia State Park and threw a celebration for their talisman: the Tyee or Chinook salmon. Tony Johnson, chairman of these proud First Peoples, proclaimed the gathering as an way to honor the powerful fish that fueled their economy for 10,000 years. It was a remembrance. It was a how-do-you-do to summer and those many-faceted blessings.
Think about it: 10,000 years! Stitching together a culture. Defending a culture. Honoring ancestors and keeping alive those legends and stories and a spiritualism that defines human beings as significant. By any social standard, this was a viable civilization living in a green paradise. This was their home!
Today, on that tide that rounds Scarborough Hill, the hereditary real estate of Chief Comcomly — around that same rocky bulkhead — came a handsome cedar vessel carved by these same folks that had prided themselves for centuries on a brand of extraordinary craftsmanship — on the artful, practical execution of a water vessel we call a canoe.
Johnson beckoned the vessel home. He intoned an ancient greeting song in his ancestor’s language. And if you weren’t impressed, you weren’t there. And from the hold of that lovely vessel, the canoe men and women carried in a spring Chinook on a plank draped with cedar boughs.
The tribe carried it up the hill to the gathering place, and after more ceremony (the young people feed the slain Tyee salmonberries) the fish was filleted, staked and seared before an open pit fire that radiated the warmth of the annual reunion. The fish was then shared with guests and with the Nation.
The Nation will rise again
Pride is like a tide. It ebbs and floods. It dances and parries. We see it in art, in literature, in winning baseball teams. And when it peaks, it is as powerful as that big flood tide that we see twice a day on the Columbia.
It arrived that Friday in that historic cove on the river these people call “Wimahl.” And there was hope and expectation that one day these First Peoples would be whole again — that the tribe would be whole again.
Of course, civilizations rise and fall. Of course, those in power seldom hang on to the principles and ethics that brought them power and comfort. It happened in Egypt and Syria, in England and Spain. It happened everywhere on this fragile planet. Sooner or later it will happen in America. That is why a great nation protects the free press. That is why there is social protest and dissenting voices. That is why we remember Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks and Sitting Bull.
And that is why there will be a renaissance for these peoples, the Chinook.
Praise this fish. Share its flesh and bounty. Reverently lower the bones back into the great river. Send the message into the deep ocean waters. The salmon will rise again and return in great numbers. The Nation will rise again. They are the Chinook. They have renewed pride. And they shall overcome.