Author's note: I've kept the diction of this essay casual to remind readers that it was originally a talk--given on a sternwheel riverboat moored on the Willamette River, to an Oregon flyfisher's club on their 25th anniversary, while the salmon in the current beneath us were fighting for their political lives. Due to the salmon's desperate plight, this talk featured an equally desperate artistic act: my acapella singing debut. The flyfishers joined in. We rocked the river. I trust the salmon heard.
by David James Duncan
I'd like to think aloud about a single English word: the word "native." If this sounds to some like thin entertainment, let me lay that worry to rest: I am thin entertainment. I'm native entertainment, though. Maybe that's the trouble: my native land is the Columbia River Basin. Looking at my Basin's native salmon count, native big game and bird counts, native tree counts, Native American count, I see a thin native world fast growing thinner. That's why I want to think about this word now: if I wait much longer, native could become a verb meaning "to vanish."
A problematic use of the word "native" appeared on the bumpers of Columbia River Basin cars about a decade ago. Following the World Series Earthquake in San Francisco, a lot of San Andreas Fault-fried Californians came chugging up Interstate 5 into Oregon like, I don't know, a horde of U-Haul drivin', BMW-towin' Okies was how they struck me, all hoping the Global Environmental Apocalypse wouldn't be so advanced up in Oregon, with its lovely state bird, the meadowlark, and longlasting state flower, the tree-stump. When these masses arrived, thousands of old Oregon-license-plated rustbuckets began to greet them with a bumpersticker: "OREGON NATIVE," it said. I was intrigued. The stickers' owners obviously felt that being born on the same clearcut soil their vehicles were now polluting was a thing worth gloating over to the nouveau-Okies in the U-Hauls. Judging, however, by the hundreds of Oregon natives I'd known all my life, the only real difference between born-heres and newcomers was that the born-heres had spent more time turning the native landscape into an alien, non-native place. "Cascade Mountain Native," my Uncle Don could brag as he almost singlehandedly wiped out that Range's cougar population. "Montana Native," Grandpa Duncan could gloat as he helped convert his native Rockies into open-pit copper mines, or drove alien cattle up to overgraze the native hills, or rode off into wilderness to exterminate native grizzlies for the Cattleman's Association. Here's a factual, four-word statement that summarizes my whole problem with the bumpersticker definition:
BOB PACKWOOD, OREGON NATIVE.
Mere nativeness, for most of us, is nothing much to brag about. Even the best intentioned of us techno-industrial humans are mired in cash-driven, car-propelled lives. These lives render us so nonindigenous that the word "native" is an honor we must earn afresh, every day. Our individual words, actions and purchases either do, or do not, contribute to the health of what Aldo Leopold calls "the biotic community." For now it is these words, actions and purchases that make us, Indians included, most truly "native." I have longed all my life to go this definition one better--to become some kind of reborn Highland bhakti tribesman; to join a valid spiritual community; to live, in daily detail, a sustainable life. So far I manage to clean up the trash in my backyard troutstream, feed and house native birds, scare off housecats with a BB gun, annoy and occasionally scare off a few industrialists with a livid pen, and write some stories that attest to certain native truths. But those stories are published by a global media conglomerate, I own a car, a TV, a computer, my garden pretty much sucks, and my tribe is scattered to the winds. To call this a "native life" just diminishes the word. I believe we'll all, eventually, become natives of our places--that we'll have to, in order to remain alive. But it's going to take time. I dare say, lifetimes. In the meantime I want the word "native" to mean as much as it can. So it often cannot mean me.
Another way to sneak up on a word's meaning is to find its antonym. For the "Average American"--those bland creatures Gallup and Harris always manage to locate before conducting their opinion polls--the opposite of "native" is probably a word such as "foreigner," "alien," or "immigrant." If Gallup interviewed a bunch of us Western flyfishing freaks, though, they'd learn to their amazement that the opposite of the word "native" is a hatchery trout! Surprises like this are one of the things I love about nativeness: our homes, our loves, our obsessions refract and color everything, region by region, human by human, like light when it enters a prism. Gallup thinks a scud is something Iraqis fire at Israelis. My fish-nut friends know it's a fly we fire into surface film to deceive trout. Gallup thinks a sage is either a smart Oriental fella or David Carradine dressed as one. We know it as a fragrant desert bush and overpriced line of flyrods. Who's right about scuds and sage? Who's wrong? Is it a question of right or wrong? It just may be: because Gallup Thinking--the sort of generalized knowledge gained from public opinion polls and PR firms--is the opposite of the detailed, hands-on knowledge that involves us in native life. And Gallup Think governs the nation.
Gallup Think strikes me as wrong in spirit even when it's mathematically correct. Gallup Think, for instance, assumes that public opinion has value and ought to pack a wallop. But Native Knowledge has shown me that I've never caught a fish, cut and stacked a cord of firewood, or grown a garden on opinion yet. Gallup Think assumes that our samenesses define us in some crucial way. Native Knowledge demonstrates, on the other hand, that our samenesses are largely uninformative, and that it's our peculiarities that define us.
When my father played baseball, for example, he pitched three-quarter arm, and had an odd motion that gave his pitches weirder stuff. He casts trout flies with the same three-quarter-arm motion now. I threw overhand in baseball, and cast flies that way now. According to Gallup Think, the two of us fishing a lake are just two guys fishing a lake. But Native Knowledge, zooming in for detail, reveals that Dad, with his loopy delivery, puts a wind-knot in his leader on every cast, hence weakens it, hence snaps off every sizable fish that hits his fly, while my knot-free leader and I bring home the dinner. That (sorry Dad!) is the defining importance of a native peculiarity.
Another Gallup Think flaw: if 68% of Americans, with a 4% margin of error, say that a scud is a missile, is it any less a trout-fly? And if 54% of the Columbia Basin's residents say that they prefer cheap electricity to the existence of native salmon, are our salmon any less worth saving for that? In my particular overhand-castin' hatchery-trout-hatin' scud of a native opinion, any such 54% can go sit on the pencils they filled out their poll with. If we're talking about the survival of native species, so can the 99%. Fishermen and women are, first and foremost, catchers and connoisseurs of fish. Hell, we're named after 'em. A native fisher's physical, mental and spiritual connection to his native fish comprises what the ancient Hindus call a dharma--a way of life. And it's absurd, it's an insult, to think one's dharma should change simply because the majority of a Gallup-polled populace wants to save a nickle on their kilowatts. We people of the fish have our own poles, thank you. We have learned via bamboo, fiberglass and graphite that all native species are worth saving, that all native species are interwoven and interdependent, and that if a mere human majority states a preference that would exterminate a species, all it means is that the chuckleheads conducting the poll ought to have asked better questions.
Think about it. To ask some poor overworked cluck, point blank, whether he wants to spend more of his inadequate paycheck on electricity in order to help a few salmon over a dam shows about as much tact, on the part of the pollster, as a drunk asking for spare change while he pisses on your shoes. The Columbia River Salmon Poll I'd like to see might begin by asking the populace whether they love animals and birds, including their pets, and other humans, including their children; it might then ask whether they'd be willing to pay a doctor or vet to keep those children and pets alive; next it would ask whether they realize that the Columbia is the great doctor and vet to the life of our entire region; then it would ask if they realize that our generation is presiding over a biological holocaust--a third of the native plant and animal species on the planet annihilated in our brief lifetimes; it would ask if they knew that nothing like this has ever happened, that even the end of the dinosaurs did not compare; it would ask how long they think they can live with the food chain, the atmosphere, the Web of Life in tatters; it would ask how long people are living now in tattered places like Ehtiopia, industrialized China, Honduras and Haiti, lowland Brazil; then when it got to the money question, my Salmon Poll might phrase it: "Would you be willing to sacrifice a few annual dollars in order to protect your life, your children's lives, your entire biotic community, the very Web of Life, beginning with the Columbia and its vanishing salmon?"
But that's too wordy for a poll. That's the trouble with the Web of Life. Even in tatters, It has an unpollably large number of beautiful living parts. You can't invoke those parts with numbers, or even with words, really. Yet if you don't invoke the Web's beautiful parts, mere numbers, evoking nothing, can make the choice of lifelessness over Life sound like good economic strategy.
So there's my beef with Gallup. The pollsters' lowest common denominator conclusions pretend to be the "voice of democracy." But even in the age of polls we remain living, breathing, eating, defecating parts of the Web of Life. Our utter dependence upon that Web remains the basic economic, political, scientific and poetic fact. The voice of every species in the Web remains the one truly democratic voice. Most of these voices--native salmon and ancient tree voices, for instance--speak no louder as they're being annihilated than they do in health. But my favorite political argument, all my life, has been that we must remain native enough to speak for and represent salmon and trees--which is to say, our greater physical selves--as powerfully as we speak for our financial selves.
How to speak for the other life-forms of our greater physical selves effectively: there's a crucial native question. I heard the CNN newscaster, David Goodnow, speak of my native salmon once. "Some strains of Columbia River salmon appear to be in trouble," he announced to the nation. "Only one sockeye salmon made it back to Idaho's Snake River this year," he added, a full six months after that sockeye, having found no mate, became cat food. I turned up the volume anyway, waiting to see how CNN would play it. But the story was already over! "Dollars and Sense is up next," Goodnow said, then out popped a Nissan ad. And every half hour for the rest of the night CNN repeated the very same salmon sound-byte, followed by the very same ad, till even I, a native fish fanatic, got the feeling that the solution to the Columbia River mess was to kiss off the salmon, paint the car red, and rename it the "Nissan Sockeye."
On a single TV station, not long ago, I watched the bloated bodies of hundreds of murdered civilians float down an African river, wash over a postcard-pretty waterfall, and the very next instant, no warning, a range of North American mountains framed a $29,900 car I was supposed to feel in a mood to buy. When real bodies in rivers flow into lust for cars, when a real woman's slashed throat leads to hunger for a taco, when the opening of a beer can causes greased babes in bikinis to writhe before us, who knows, the extinction of species might lead to multiple orgasms. What can any would-be native make of the TV news-team, shooting its orthodontically-flawless cathode smile into us as it says: "Good evening. America's greatest scientists adjourned a week-long meeting at the Miami Convention Center last night and concluded that the entire eastern seaboard is an ecological dead zone. Over to you, Tammy."
"Thanks, Ralph. Well, the reptiles are happy in Iowa today. They just found out that, thanks to erosion, petrochemical farming, and the plundering of the aquifer, the whole state will be a desert by the year 2020. Now here's Bob with the weather." "Okay Tammy. Thank you. Well, it's warming up in Iowa!"
What can anyone do with such disembodied, non-specific, no hands, no experience knowledge? TV has made Ted Turner rich enough to horde some very nice acreage in Montana, New Mexico and Patagonia. But can it help the rest of us save anything, anywhere, ever? And if it can't, what kind of knowledge can?
In researching my latest novel--which is just a search, in the form of story, for contemporary ways to live with greater regard for the entire biotic community--I read of a contemporary band of natives, down in South America's Colombia, who spoke to me on my river of the same name:
Colombia's Makuna tribe are a neolithic people--grass and tree-bark clothing; hand-made hunting and fishing tools. That makes me nervous in searching for cultural models, since I don't believe we'll be surrendering what technology has given us any time soon. I do believe, however, that compassion will, of necessity, become the basis of every technological decision we make. And the Makuna live in a way that dissolves the Industrial World's usual compassionless split between nature and culture, between product and conscience, between animals and people, between bad daily work and good daily beliefs.
The Makuna maintain that humans, animals, plants, all of nature, is part of a great Oneness. Our ancestors, they say, were magical fish who came ashore along the rivers and turned two-legged. As these first land beings began to sing and conduct their lives, everything in the world began to be created: hills and forests; animal and bird people; insect and fish people. But--here's the twist I love--this creation process is ongoing. The making of the world is no past-tense event, as funda- mentalists and Big Bangers would have it. The world, say the Makuna, is still being created: our words and actions still determine the nature of the hills and forests, still help create, sustain, or destroy the animal, fish and bird people.
We share a spiritual essence, the Makuna say, with the swimming, flying and four-legged people. They live in communities, just as we do, with their own chiefs (picture a bull elk) and shamans (picture an old coyote, a raven, a horned owl). They have dance houses and birth houses, songs and rites, and material possessions, as we do. (We think easily of feathers and fur as possessions, but remember, too, the nests and dens, and the carefully maintained territories; remember the salmon's virtual ownership of the herring, the seal's of the salmon, the trout's of the mayfly, the osprey's of the trout). Fish, according to the Makuna, even have ceremonial paints and ritual ornaments, which they don, as we do, for certain crucial occasions. (Consider the endangered coho, justly named "silver" during its life in the ocean, but donning fangs, greens and crimsons for the sex-driven return to its birth house.)
I'll cut to the quick: according to the Makuna, our essential oneness with other species is not just a source of vague mystical pleasure, or of cool ripped-off Indian images for hip writers and artists. Our oneness is the source of an enormous obligation. We depend on fish, animal, and bird people to eat and live. In return, the fish, animal and bird people depend on us to spiritually enact, daily, the hidden oneness of all life. Anytime humans eat, anytime we gather, anytime we make merry or celebrate in our world, we have an obligation to offer "spirit food" to the winged, fish and animal people, that they may celebrate in their worlds. And if we fail to make such offerings--if we do not spiritually share with the other species--they quickly die. So say the Makuna.
I confess my modern bias: the words "spirit food" make me think of peyote and coca cults, hallucinogenic jungle brews, hopelessly neolithic people, "primitives." But what does the word "primitive" mean? A shaman of my coast, Gary Snyder, reminds us that the root of the word "primitive" is "primary." "Primitive" things are the most basic and essential things: things like water, earth, fire, air, food, shelter, nurture; things we very soon die without. So what about "primitive beliefs?" Are they equally primary? Equally indispensible? Fish, say the Makuna, consume spirit food, and need us two-leggeds to offer them such food. What does this notion mean?
Trying the idea out in my own native landscape, I thought of the huge chinook salmon of the Columbia--June hogs, we used to call them: sixty, eighty, even hundred-pound salmon that swam the entire river from the Pacific clear up into eastern British Columbia, fighting the pre-dam run-off, mightiest currents of the year. And those chinook ate nothing --or nothing physical--the whole nine hundred mile way. Non-food. Ghost-food. Spirit food. Is there a better name for what sustained them? And the humans of their day, the native tribes, did in fact offer elaborate gifts, dances and feasts to honor their coming. Were these rites the ingredient that sustained those magnificent salmon? This is a stretch for us VISA-carded jet-propelled Info-Agers, I know. But maybe there's a falls or dam we need to leap here in order to enter our native place. The Makuna insist that we must offer "spirit food" to keep the bird, fish and animal people healthy. We squirm at the archaic sound of the idea. But what industrial man offered the June chinooks instead was Grand Coulee Dam. And now those beautiful salmon are extinct. Is there some primitive i.e. primary i.e essential wisdom we're overlooking that could prevent the extinction of what remains?
I sense two things here. Both sound silly to the rationalistic half of my brain. But I feel in my native heart and bones, first of all, that most of us drastically underestimate--with tragic results for our fish, forests, rivers, wildlife and greater selves--just how primitive we still are: how basic, despite our modernity; how dependent on the company of native plants, animals, earth, water, air. And the second thing I feel we underestimate--again with tragic results--is just how spiritually alive and capable we are.
It's a prickly topic, spirituality. Sloppy or pedantical talk about God is obnoxious and dangerous, and those who parade such talk have knocked the religion clean out of a lot of us. But reverence for life is not religion. Reverence for life is the basis of compassion, and of biological health. This is why, much as it may embarrass those of us trained in the agnostic sciences, I believe that every life-loving human on earth has an obligation to remain both primitive enough, and reverent enough, to stand up and say to any kind of public:
Trees and mountains are holy. Rain and rivers are holy. Salmon are holy.
For this reason alone I will fight with all my might to keep them alive.
This is not an argument, not a number, not a polled opinion. It's just naked, native belief. But if we put our full conviction in such belief, if we feel no embarrassment over it, if we stand up and stand by it again and again, we might begin to discover some spirit-power in ourselves, and shoot it from there into our friends and kids, and into our scientific research, our art, our music or writing, and from there on out into beautiful but threatened laws such as the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, and thence into our homelands, watersheds, native country, and native co-inhabitants. Economic, political and scientific arguments, alone, just aren't cutting it. Our salmon people are leaving us. And so many other natives--finned, furred, winged and two-legged--have already gone.
What is spirit food for us industrial-indigenous halfbreeds? What is a modern day spirit offering? I'd say that now, as ever, it's anything we truly value. Our energy, our focus, the hours of our days. Anything we respect so much that, as we pour it out on the fish, bird and animals' behalf, we kind of hate to see it go. Maybe single malt scotches from the literalists among us. Prayers and mantras from the mystics. Money, time and trouble from the capitalists and activists. Unflinching accuracy, no matter the political climate, from the scientists. Stories from people like me. The big blockade to change is lack of passion. And the birth house of passion is the heart. A spirit offering, then, is anything we can offer with a whole heart--any song, dance, phone call, plea, letter, insight, gift or prayer that helps determine the way we, and other humans, continue to create our world, rivers, hills, forests, and fellow creatures.
It feels awkward (I know, I've done it) to just stand up and do a "spirit thing." But so does the Web of Life find our lethal industry, stupidity and greed awkward. And even a hokey spirit offering expresses a dream, a hope, a moment's love for another life-form. If we don't get to work with the tools at hand, we may never get to work. On that note, I'd like to try my own hokey hand at a spirit offering.
Ever get a song stuck in your head when you're out fishing? Sure. It's a fishing universal. And did you ever hate the song that got stuck? Sure. That's universal, too. But did you ever get a song you hate stuck in your head for thirty years? I did. So that's the raw material of my spirit offering. Industrial Man has fucked up so bad that a lot of the native work to be done over the next few centuries is going to be repair work. My spirit offering today is a repaired song.
That this song got riveted to my brain was hardly an accident. The Army Corps and all manner of other Industrial Gladiators have bronzed its lyrics to the concrete walls of dams, tourist centers, factories and parks all over the Columbia River Basin, and Northwest public school kids, including me in the fourth grade, get its irresistable melody and idiotic words implanted in their brains like hatchery-fish DNA a full decade before they know what terms like "brainwash" or "cooptation" mean. But the worst reason the song stays stuck in my head is that I love the guy who wrote it. He had an off-day, is all. Working on commission from the Bonneville Power Administration, Woody Guthrie--a wonderful songwriter, and one of our guys, dammit, not one of theirs!--whipped off an evil spirit offering after admiring a new dam (Grand Coulee, as a matter of fact), never suspecting the rash of bronzes that would one day immortalize his sweet face and no-brainer lyrics; bronzes that might as well read:
LOVABLE AMERICAN FOLK HERO SINGS WHOLE-HEARTED APPROVAL OF RAMPANT INDUSTRIALIZATION OF ENTIRE COLUMBIA RIVER DRAINAGE!
I have therefore made a few alterations to Woody's song.
I doubt we'll see my version bronzed on any new dams--though when the old dams start to come down we might see a few lines spray-painted on the rubble. I can't sing worth a dam either. But it's reverence, not aesthetics, that rules the realm of the Spirit Offering. There's no copyright on this thing, so feel free to quote it, xerox it, graffiti it on public school walls, de-program your coopted kids with it. I'm the crassest kind of rookie in the shaman department, but I do offer this repair job with all the sincerity in me to the native salmon and steelhead people of the Columbia River birth-houses. Are you with me, Idaho sockeyes? Here goes:
I got skunked on the Dee-schutes with one of my pals,
So we stayed in a motel to avoid the state cops
But I'd just drifted off when my spirit awoke
"Dave," the voice said, "this idn't no joke.
"The song brags up the river an' that part deserves fame.
Then he sang:
"When I fled from the Dust Bowl an' first saw your dams
"Those same mighty dams stopped the great salmon runs
"Big Douglas fir stumps where your channel cuts through
"Your water-use laws are a huge public con
"The Yakima, Snake an' the Willamette too
"Meanwhile upriver on the great Hanford Reach
"Here's a salmon's-eye-view chorus:
"Now industry grinds Mama Earth into hash
So we fixed it:
"Rain on Mountain makes River--that's The Law on this Earth.
"The sunlight, the winds, the great rivers shall last.
I admit it feels crazy to stand here "spirit-singing" for the disappearance of anything as unarguable-looking as a dam. But there is honor in certain forms of craziness. And logic. And geologic. Appearances are deceiving. The Columbia and her salmon, we singers need to remind ourselves, are as old as rainfall, mountains and gravity. Whereas Grand Coulee Dam is the same approximate age as most of us. And I sure as hell feel mortal and removable as hell.
Mortal as I am, I remember an immortal day one October just after I'd learned to drive, when I headed up the lower Columbia Gorge in my '55 Buick, found the longest sandbar in sight, walked the whole long finger of it out into midriver, and stood alone, waist-deep, Indian Summer, the evening air all glowing. Throwing spinners, hooking nothing. But who cared? Because just at dusk, all over the Columbia's vast surface, like no one who missed it can conceive today, every salmon I couldn't catch started jumping and boiling--great chinooks and bright coho; sockeyes and huge Idaho steelhead, too, in those days. The dams were in place, the extinctions had begun, but during the late '60s salmon runs the whole top of the river would still become a miles-wide cauldron, native fish rolling and leaping, crimson rings and silver roils all over the surface, both directions, far as the eye could see. For those who'll never see them in their rightfully vast numbers--and hear them: the sound was as incredible as the sight!--these words are just elegies to things foreign to experience. But what filled the river was a kind of being. And it was godlike. Heroically decisive life, pouring in from the ocean no matter what industrial madness barred its way, giving its life to create its continuation.
Something wondrous still passes, at the last salmons' coming, from the fish-people to us two-leggeds. They feed our hearts the very image of self-sacrifice; they feed our bodies with their bodies; they take a message from our inland mountains far out to sea, and bring their ocean message back to our mountains. Migration remains the needle and birds and salmon the thread whose comings and goings, in and out, sew the pieces of this region into a whole. When the great salmon runs would pour up the Columbia, the Spirit of the Basin, the very Oneness of which the Makuna speak, would fill its lungs and breathe. That I can't give the hard science behind this doesn't mean it's woowoo. Hard science deals with the physical; peace, joy, and oneness are metaphysical. That I can't give the economic value doesn't devalue it, either. To place economic value on a moment's love, joy, or wonder is a pimp's job, not a river-lover's.
The Columbia that Industrial Man has given us is dying. Those tributaries least touched by man, thrive. The finned, winged, and four-leggeds watch us, awaiting the world we do or do not create. Make your offerings, campadres. Columbia, Grand Ronde, Deschutes, Pend Oreille, Clearwater, Bitterroot, Salmon, Snake, Yakima, Umatilla, Klickitat, Willamette, Clackamas, Kalama, Blackfoot. Roll on.
David James Duncan is the author of The River Why, The Brothers K, and River Teeth. He lives with his family in the Columbia River headwaters, where he's at work on a contemporary "divine comedy" novel called Letters from God and a nonfiction book on the post-Western West called How the Pacific Makes Love to the Rockies. A version of this essay also appeared in the Winter1998 issue of Orion, 195 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230.
©1999 Talking Leaves