This is the story we need to tell
Natives live in a vast amount of land, now called America. The Yakama people view their world then and today as "Ichi tiichum iwa nimi" (this land is a part of us). This phrase is a Yakama compass. People are not perfect and sometimes we make mistakes. This phrase and the religion, songs, and ceremonies orientate us. We must remember our promise to speak for the resources that cannot speak for themselves. It is a reminder that by caring for the resources, then eating them, they become a part of us, so that we may be stronger. Yet, in school, this is not a perspective shared. Schools and societies have often glossed over the policies to extract resources, land, and spread disease. They don't talk about still taking fish away from Natives, including the Yakama people. I get it though. Sometimes, you just want a good story about a Native gal saving a white settler or guiding an expedition. However, there are dangers to not looking at our whole history and present.
So, let’s settle in for a little more information about Natives that live in the land now called America. What are the number of Natives? According to the National Congress of American Indians, "There are 567 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages) in the United States" (NCAI, Tribal Nations & the United States: An Introduction). If this is new to you then you will recognize that sometimes the names of tribes are similar to nearby cities or rivers. Within the now called, Washington State, there are 29 federally recognized tribes, and this Washington State Tribal Directory includes names of tribes and their contact information (Governor's Office of Indian Affairs).
Natives have our own creation stories and theories about being on this land. For Yakamas, we even have stories of when the Missoula floods came through. This oral history account of a major geological event is told by many elders. My great-grandmother talked about how when she was little, the government came and told her how they would teach her great things at school. They began the lesson about Noah’s ark and she replied, “Oh, we had a flood on Yakama lands too, our people went here and here.” They did not want to listen. So she shared with each generation that in some part, "They sent us to school to teach us what we already knew." That was over 70 years ago when she was in school, but the schools still do not address that part of our history. In fact, you have entire campaigns that attempt to shorten our timeline on these lands. After decades of claims largely built upon faulty scientific theories and institutional racism, our ancestor, Techaminsh Oytpamanatityt, was returned to the Natives of the Pacific Northwest (see Techaminsh Oytpamanatityt, Ancient One, or Kennewick Man).
Often Native stories are about the connection, history, and knowledge of the land. Sometimes, I read this information. The gift of being able to settle in and read information is something I will continue with you, dear friend.
Imagine we get in the car together. You buckle up and we begin our journey. In Yakama land, as we move to the freeway we can see the path of floods etched in the hillside. These are called Touchet beds. Each flood has a distinctive mark. The point in sharing this is to state that there were hills and mountains taller than the floods reached. Thereby, giving sanctuary to Native people.
We travel along and can see these large rocks sticking up from the ground. Some of these are called erratic structures brought in from the Missoula floods. This is one of many examples of history and a long term relationship with the resources among Native people. This is a history that is often deleted from history books. Do you want to know how they were supplemented? Our families and our tribes. In many Native families, they looked over every book and assignment for inaccuracies.
The danger of theories such as the land bridge theory is it seeks to marginalize the native role with resources, by simply eliminating our existence for a period of time. By re-setting the clock, all of a sudden the war, genocide, boarding school and policies to limit resources are more justifiable.
Sharing our Homelands
Let’s briefly summarize contact with non-Natives. Imagine living peacefully with your family and along come some visitors. Well, alright, we can share. Here is some space and some food in our homelands. Fast-forward 160 years and the room we let non-Natives borrow has vastly expanded. They took our kids and sent them away to learn another language. We wake up and rather than just space to the refrigerator they have marked off the entire kitchen and determined that now we must prove we utilized the kitchen in their language and in their written record.
Also, imagine if you are not allowed to go to all the places or stores we use to go to get food. We have to show documentation for which stores we went to. Oh, it does not matter if we have burials nearby that store, they claim, that does not prove you utilized that area. Does this sound preposterous? Well, this is the daily life of Natives.
We have been fighting in court, pretty much after a mild break from our Indian Wars. You will read non-Native historians describe that the Yakama War just fizzled out. However, many authors bypass crucial policy. Sometimes, it is difficult for people to connect both past and present day Native life.
Treaty of 1855
These bridges need to build for understanding because many do not live through the attacks on our Native way of life. The Treaty of 1855 was ratified four years later (12 Stat 951), which reaffirmed our rights. Then a break for the civil war. Oh look at this, they want to block our access to the river and ability to get fish. So, off to court, we went. We were in Supreme Court in 1905 (in which the Supreme Court ruled in Yakama Nation’s favor).
Blocking access to our resources, our ability to feed our children the food our ancestors ate is a horrible feeling. It begins as an emptiness in your stomach and builds a shooting sensation up to your throat. This is the part where we make a choice. How do we respond? Do we sit back and let this happen? Well, looking at the history of court cases Yakamas have been through and the court cases and voices of Natives across America. We feel the need to voice opinions and speak against this ill-treatment. Being threatened about our rights is not something to be taken lightly.
A few years ago, as a mother getting ready to harvest asum (eel-like lamprey) for a memorial ceremony for my brother when the State of Oregon threatened to give us a citation and take all of our fish. The state had an open case against another Yakama fisher and they had indeed taken their fish
To people that are not familiar with Yakama culture there would appear to be a choice. Maybe this seems like an Oh big deal type of thing to some. We believe that our resources are directly connected to our health. We believe that continuing to fish in the rivers of our ancestors directly connects us with the pathways to the afterlife. We believe in the reserved rights that our people set forth when they signed the Treaties.
Sometimes, it is about balance and sometimes we do enjoy other foods. However, there are systematic and continuous attacks on our ability to feed ourselves. I have witnessed this first hand when the State spends taxpayer money to justify taking fish from Natives.
These types of attacks are suffocating. It feels like our necks are closed off. The lack of fish has changed and shifted our entire relationship structures in our families. Our suicide rates have skyrocketed. Sometimes, our people feel disconnected. The role of our young male children shifted in just one generation. When my father was a child he would go with his brothers to the creek or river to get dinner. Children today have limited opportunities to have this daily role. It is often during spring or summer breaks when they can be at the river for an extended time. The creeks that were flush with trout are limited.
The time that Native families are able to go and continue our way of gathering, hunting or fishing life is often objected on social media posts about “saw a bunch of Indians hunting/fishing/gathering.” That is when we do not have the state attempting to thwart the process.
Attempting to interrupt our traditional fishing, hunting and gathering is similar to standing up in the middle of a wedding ceremony and shouting “I object!”
How does one react to such an interruption? Sometimes, there is confusion, anger, or humor. Sometimes, there is the person that leans over to the other person, they might not even know and ask "What is going on?" Well, that question is the core of gaining knowledge. It won't happen if we avoid eye contact or look nervously at our phones.
Ichi tiichum iwa niimi - this land is a part of us.
Let this be our response. Let it ring loud or soft, let it be said over and over in academic publications and social media. Tell all your friends and family. Remind ourselves that no matter what negative viewpoints are said, we know the truth and that is we have a relationship with the resources that span thousands of years.
Maybe you are here because you want to gain understanding. Maybe you are here because you want to be able to explain. So, let’s think about why these actions are taken.
Western society often gives stereotypical and limited history books that elevate the pilgrim experience above the life of Natives.
This puts Natives in a paradigm in which we feel attacked, invisible or stuck. Well now, is the time to address the historical inaccuracies. We speak up to educate our children, neighbors and our communities.
Since I previously mentioned the repatriation of our Ancient One, our funeral ceremonies often last three days. There is a lot of discussion and family meetings that take place for our ceremonies. In Western society, the most talked about ceremony is often the wedding. You can see shelves of wedding books and magazines. There are entire careers and business that cater to wedding ceremonies. With Natives, one of our biggest ceremonies is the funeral. That means three days of feeding people. Where do you think the food comes from? The salmon, deer, roots and berries and other foods are donated by family or friends in the tribe. There are no RSVPs. The cooks just have to have enough.
So, when we hear harsh criticism from our house guests’ great-grandkids, we should first go to a place of trying to acknowledge that there is little more to understand and share about Natives. In courtrooms, on social media, in passing by our neighbors. Alas, the journey to explain our birthrights continues and as we move along this journey.
We need to continue on
Despite that fact that some may think we blame the current non-Native generation (we don’t always blame) or that we just go out to fish and hunt for no reason (we are continuing the life of our ancestors), we need to continue on.
We need to tell stories of our people
We need to keep telling the stories of our people. Keep educating our youth, their peers, teachers, neighbors, and friends. Maybe our stories have different princes and princesses. The reason is that we are instilling this history, policy, and voice with our younger generation. So long as we continue to hunt, fish, and gather where our ancestors did, our once upon a time is still happening on Native land called America.
Ichi tiichum iwa niimi (This land is a part of us).