On Sacred Ground
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On Sacred Ground

The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature

Nicholas O�Connell

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eBook - ePub

On Sacred Ground

The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature

Nicholas O�Connell

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On Sacred Ground explores the literature of the Northwest, the area that extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and from the forty-ninth parallel to the Siskiyou Mountains. The Northwest exhibits astonishing geographical diversity and yet the entire bioregion shares a similarity of climate, flora, and fauna.

For Nicholas O�Connell, the effects of nature on everyday Northwest life carry over to the region's literature. Although Northwest writers address a number of subjects, the relationship between people and place proves the dominant one, and that has been true since the first tribes settled the region and began telling stories about it, thousands of years ago. Indeed, it is the common thread linking Chief Seattle to Theodore Roethke, Narscissa Whitman to Ursula K. Le Guin, Joaquin Miller to Ivan Doig, Marilynne Robinson to Jack London, Betty MacDonald to Gary Snyder.

Tracing the history of Pacific Northwest literary works--from Native American myths to the accounts of explorers and settlers, the effusions of the romantics, the sharply etched stories of the realists, the mystic visions of Northwest poets, and the contemporary explosion of Northwest poetry and prose--O�Connell shows how the most important contribution of Northwest writers to American literature is their articulation of a more spiritual human relationship with landscape. Pacific Northwest writers and storytellers see the Northwest not just as a source of material wealth but as a spiritual homeland, a place to lead a rich and fulfilling life within the whole context of creation. And just as the relationship between people and place serves as the unifying feature of Northwest literature, so also does literature itself possess a perhaps unique ability to transform a landscape into a sacred place.

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1 / Early Native American Stories

In January 1854, the Puget Sound region was at the brink of war. Settlers streamed into the lowlands, gobbling up land for farms, houses, and businesses. Native tribes felt pinched by the encroachments. Some welcomed the settlers. Others talked about killing them. An uneasy equilibrium threatened to erupt into open warfare.
Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, a dapper West Point graduate, arrived in Seattle to try to end the conflict. He enlisted the help of David S. Maynard, the local Indian agent, and Chief Seattle, a leader of the Duwamish tribe, to bring together the 120 settlers and and 1,200 natives to talk peace. Stevens spoke first, encouraging the native peoples to sell the bulk of their land and retreat onto reservations.
Chief Seattle then rose to address the crowd. At six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a deep chest, he cut an impressive figure. As the crowd turned to him, he began a speech that has become the most famous document in American Indian literature. He warned the whites not to deal harshly with the local tribes in the upcoming treaty negotiations, nor to limit their ability to travel throughout the local landscape. He argued that the natives considered the shores of Puget Sound to be their homeland and a sacred space. He emphasized that wherever his people went in this country, they were walking on sacred ground.
“Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.”
“Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with the memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred…” (Grant 1891, 433-36).
Henry A. Smith, a local physician and land developer, recorded the speech and eventually published the text of it in the Seattle Sunday Star in 1887. The speech grew in popularity and influence, as it seemed to express the essense of the natives’ attitude toward the local landscape and served as a model of ecological philosophy. University of Texas English professor William Arrowsmith read a version of it at the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Mythologist Joseph Campbell and other well-known figures such as Prince Phillip quoted from it. Today, excerpts from Chief Seattle's speech pop up everywhere from the backs of T-shirts to exhibits at the San Diego Zoo.
There remains much controversy about the extent to which Smith embellished the chief's words, and when and even if the speech took place (Furtwangler 1997), but most contemporary Indian peoples and many experts accept it as authentic. For them, it represents the clearest and most eloquent statement of the natives’ attitude toward the American landscape. It makes explicit what is implicit in many of the Northwest's tribal stories: the natives saw the land as a sacred entity, entitled to reverence and respect.
“The words [Seattle] spoke were authentic,” said Vi Hilbert, an Upper Skagit elder and the author of Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound (1985). “The man who wrote the speech didn't understand the language, but he heard the philosophy. The philosophy practiced by all of our leaders is present in that speech” (Hilbert 2000).
Seattle's speech is the most famous expression of this philosophy, but it also informs Northwest Indian myths, including those collected by Hilbert and others. These fascinating accounts of the antics of coyote, Raven, Mink, Pheasant, Wolf, Deer, Elk, Mouse, and other creatures provided the tribes with entertainment during the long winter months, but also served as instruction, emphasizing among other things the spiritual side of the landscape. As Ella Clark writes in the introduction to her Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest: “‘To the Indian in his native state,’ said Martin Sampson, an Indian grandfather of the Puget Sound region, ‘everything had life or spirit; the earth, the rocks, trees, ferns, as well as birds and animals, even the hail which fell from the sky, had a spirit and a language and song of its own and might be an inspiration to a warrior'” (Clark 1953, 7).
Because the native tribes believed that the earth was animate—down to every rock, tree, animal, and human being—they had to exercise caution in how they approached every aspect of their world. Many of the native stories describe the complicated rituals and taboos surrounding everyday activities such as hunting and gathering food, especially Pacific salmon, the staple of many of the tribes’ diet.
The Northwest stands out from other parts of the United States for the sheer volume and range of its native stories. The region was the site of one of the richest flowerings of aboriginal culture in the entire continent. The vibrancy and complexity of this native culture drew the attention of Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology, who recorded many of the myths, arts, and customs of these amazing tribes. The myths transcribed by Boas and others became an irreplaceable record of the culture of the region's early inhabitants and one of the most valuable sources of native stories anywhere.
In addition to this wealth of transcribed myths and other materials, the Northwest also remains the home of many contemporary tribal cultures. Many Indian peoples continue the oral traditions of their ancestors, recounting stories of Raven, Mink, Coyote, Pheasant, Killer Whale, Ice, and Grizzly Bear. Wars, disease, and alcoholism ravaged many of these tribes, but enough people survived and adapted to provide living examples of native culture. Hilbert, for example, travels around the country reciting stories in Lushootseed, her native language. The vitality of contemporary Northwest native culture ensures that it will continue as a living tradition, even if it has changed considerably over the years.
Unlike most “high” and complex aboriginal cultures, the Northwest coast tribes were hunter-gatherers, not agricultural people. They subsisted primarily on the many species of salmon—king, silver, sock-eye, chum, and pink—that ran in the local streams and rivers. They also caught halibut, cod, candlefish, whales, sea otters, seals, sea lions, birds, and many other kinds of marine life. Interior tribes hunted deer, elk, buffalo, and other species while supplementing their diet with salmon. Indeed, the Columbia and its tributaries provided a vast migration route for salmon into the interior of the region. Many tribes took advantage of this and set up netting and spearing sites near falls and other areas where the salmon congregated.
The abundance of salmon and other foods, as well as a temperate maritime climate in the coastal regions, allowed the tribes leisure time for telling stories, carving totem poles, performing dramas, and developing the arts to an extent virtually unknown in any other area of North America. They were perhaps the only hunter-gatherers to achieve such a high level of cultural expression, excelling at painting, sculpture, woodworking, storytelling, drama, and other arts. They were able to devote a considerable amount of time to activities such as these because the natural world around them provided all they needed to live. As author Philip Drucker observes in Indians of the Northwest Coast: “The bounty of nature provided that which in most other parts of the world man must supply for himself through agriculture and stock raising: a surplus of foodstuffs so great that even a dense population had an abundance of leisure to devote to the improvement and elaboration of its cultural heritage” (Drucker 1963, 3).
The close relationship to landscape common of hunter-gatherers, combined with the leisure to pursue artistic activities, led to the development of a unique culture. Northwest Coast Indian art shows a highly developed awareness of the local landscape, with many of the paintings and carvings depicting indigenous species such as killer whales, salmon, bears, frogs, otters, etc. By filling their artworks with such local creatures and emphasizing the tribes’ interdependence with them, they created art that serves as an outstanding example of an ecologically inspired native art.
The quality, complexity, and sheer uniqueness of this art has impressed a number of interpreters, including Jarold Ramsey, a retired professor of English at the University of Rochester, and a leading figure in the field of Northwest Coast mythology. Ramsey, who grew up on a central Oregon ranch bordering the Warm Springs Reservation, warns that it's easy to sentimentalize American Indians’ attitude toward the land, but argues that they still have a lot to teach modern American culture about ecological wisdom.
As he notes in Reading the Fire: Essays in Traditional Indian Literatures of the Far West: “Yet our ecological crisis is real, however we may misrepresent it, and we clearly need, as the saying goes, all the help we can get. In particular we need, beyond the political and economic incentives to clean up our land, air, and water, to find ways to cultivate an imaginative awareness of man's beholden place in the natural order. We should be looking closely at what they have done to inculcate in themselves the full awareness of ecological interdependence” (Ramsey 1983, 60-61).
Ramsey sees the story “The Hunter Who Had Elk for a Guardian Spirit” (63-64) as an example of the way Native Americans used storytelling for ecological purposes. Pioneer ethnologist Jeremiah Curtin collected the tale on the Warm Springs Reservation in 1885. The story dramatizes the conflict between a young man's obligations to his father and to his obligations to Elk, his guardian spirit. It's a story about the age-old tension between generations, showing the parent's tendency to boast about the difficulty of life in the old days and gripe about how easy the younger generation has it. But it also illustrates specifically Indian concerns, such as the practice of taking a guardian spirit, the necessity of following the advice of this spirit, the taboo against taking anything more than necessary from the land.
The story opens by describing a boy who is a very good hunter. His father, however, claims that he was a much better hunter. He says a large elk attacked him during a hunt and scarred his forehead. In fact, the father is lying; he got the scar while gathering wood.
Then an elk visits the boy and tells him, “If you will serve me and hear what I say, I will be your master and will help you in every necessity. You must not be proud. You must not kill too many of any animal. I will be your guardian spirit.”
The boy accepts the elk's offer and with its help becomes a great hunter. He kills many animals—elk, bear, deer. But he takes only what he needs—no more. His father complains that the young man is not bringing in enough game; he claims he took many more animals when he was young. So the young man kills five herds of elk. Without knowing it, he nearly kills his guardian spirit, who falls into the lake. When the young man tries to retrieve the elk, they both sink.
When they touch bottom, the young man sees thousands of bear, deer, and elk, many of which he had shot. The great Elk then asks him, “Why did you go beyond what I commanded? Your father required more of you than he himself ever did. Do you see our people on both sides? These are they whom you have killed. You have inflicted many needless wounds on our people.”
The Elk reveals that the father lied about the scar. In fact, he got it from a wood chip, not from an elk. But this does not exonerate the son. He has committed a crime against the animal kingdom and he will be punished. The Elk will no longer serve as his guardian spirit.
After the Elk finishes, the young man returns home and has his wives bring his friends to his bedside. When they arrive, he tells them what happened. Shortly thereafter, the spirit leaves him and he dies.
The young man's death demonstrates the importance of obedience to the guardian spirit. The tragic tale emphasizes the primacy of the taboo against killing too much game, even if it conflicts with filial duties to parents.
“It's a story where two potential goods—the need for obedience to parents and the need to accept dictates of a spiritual guide—are in total collision,” said Ramsey (2000 interview). “The problem with the boy is that he tries to have it both ways. But the deed counts. He has killed wastefully and foolishly. He has violated his understanding with his spirit guardian. This is no simple childlike story. It points a way of imagining our position in the natural world and imagining the right kinds of action toward it.”
It is just such an imaginative awareness that figures so strongly in the stories, giving contemporary readers new ways of imagining the complex interdependence between human society and the natural world. The myths exhibit a depth and richness of ecological insight derived from thousands of years of residence in this corner of North America.
The stories include a variety of animals and mythical creatures, including trickster figures Raven and Coyote. These two characters were especially popular because they simultaneously entertained and instructed. Listeners could laugh at the antics of Coyote or Raven and still learn important lessons about tribal taboos, rituals, and history. Some of the most elaborate of these rituals dealt with catching and preparing salmon. Philip Drucker notes in Indians of the Northwest Coast: “All the Northwest Coast groups had long lists of regulations and prohibitions referring to the Salmon-people in order to continue to maintain good relations with these important beings” (Drucker 1963, 155).
The following Coyote myth describes some of the taboos and ritual practices associated with salmon fishing. Franz Boas collected this and many other myths in 1890 and 1891 at Bay Center in Washington State. He recorded them from Charles Cultee, one of the last remaining members of the Chinook tribe. Cultee spoke not only Chinook, but also Chehalis and the Katlamet dialect. He also provided extensive commentary on the myths and tribal languages. Boas was delighted to find so helpful a source. “My work of translating and explaining the texts was greatly facilitated by Cultee's remarkable intelligence,” he said (Boas 1894, 6). “After he had once grasped what I wanted, he explained to me the grammatical structure of the sentences by means of examples, and elucidated the sense of difficult periods.”
In addition to helping Boas understand these languages, Cultee proved a gifted raconteur. His versions of the stories are more detailed and complete than many found elsewhere. Cultee told Boas a wide variety of myths, including those concerning the rituals for catching and preparing salmon. The following Coyote myth describes such a ritual. As is often the case in this genre, Coyote is greedy, lustful, and lazy and suffers for these faults. His antics demonstrate a negative example, entertaining and instructing the listeners. As Ramsey observes in the essay “The Indian Literature of Oregon”:
Coyote's outrageous sexual antics, his selfishness, his general irresponsibility in the stories allowed the “good citizens” of the tribe to affirm the systems of norms and punishment that Coyote is forever comically running afoul of; at the same time they could vicariously delight and find release in his irresponsible freedom. My point is that through the “heroic” mediation of Coyote the Trickster, the people could have their morality both ways. They knew that his scheming but always reckless pursuit of women, wealth, and status would come to no good end, according to tribal values, but before that end arrived they could richly enjoy themselves, as if on holiday! (Ramsey 1979,15)
Even if Coyote is not a “role model” in the contemporary sense, even if he does not represent an admirable pattern of behavior, the structure of the tale as a whole teaches that following a set of prescribed rituals will result in better catches of salmon.
At the start of the story, Coyote goes to a creek where he catches some salmon. He then brings a salmon back to his house where he cuts it open immediately, steams it, and eats it. The next day, he returns to the creek but catches nothing. He becomes angry and defecates so that he can question his excrement about his inability to bring in the salmon. The excrement responds:
“Oh, you with your bandy legs, you have no sense. When the first silver-side salmon is killed, it must not be cut. It must be split along its back and roasted. It must not be steamed. Only when they go upriver, then they may be steamed” (Boas 1894, 101).
Coyote returns to the creek the next day, follows the procedure explained by his excrement, and catches fish again. Each day that he fishes, however, he continues to violate taboos unknown to him, and so he must defecate, then consult his excrement about what he has done wrong and how he can continue catching fish. Though the story is comical and scatalogical, it reinforces the importance of following the complicated set of rituals concerning the salmon. At the end of the myth, Coyote concludes that if the tribes want to catch salmon, they must do so in the prescribed way. “The Indians shall always do in the same manner…. Thus shall be the taboos for all generations of people” (106).
By his antics and buffoonery, Coyote uncovers the various taboos and rituals associated with salmon fishing. Though such practices may seem arbitrary, they had as their goal the conservation and perpetuation of the salmon as a species. The tribes considered the salmon a separate people who lived in houses under the ocean. By following such rituals, the tribes hoped to encourage the return of these salmon people, upon whom they depended for their survival.
In this and many other tales, ecological themes are explicit. It is clear in the preceding myth that the storyteller wishes to communicate a certain point about how to treat a given species, in this case salmon. In other tales, however, the ecological emphasis is implicit. At the start of many tales, for example, the speaker describes a time when people and animals spoke the same language and easily understood each other. “In those days when the earth was young, trees were scarce; the land at large was open and easy to go over; there was no moon, no sun, and the people lived in a...

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Citation styles for On Sacred Ground
APA 6 Citation
O�Connell, N. (2011). On Sacred Ground ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/723441/on-sacred-ground-the-spirit-of-place-in-pacific-northwest-literature-pdf (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
O�Connell, Nicholas. (2011) 2011. On Sacred Ground. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/723441/on-sacred-ground-the-spirit-of-place-in-pacific-northwest-literature-pdf.
Harvard Citation
O�Connell, N. (2011) On Sacred Ground. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/723441/on-sacred-ground-the-spirit-of-place-in-pacific-northwest-literature-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
O�Connell, Nicholas. On Sacred Ground. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.