Today, our beautiful Columbia River Gorge burns. Ash falls from a jaundiced sky, choking our lungs with the stupidity of mankind. I fight the urge to mourn - the Gorge has been here since time immemorial, and will be here, recovering, long after we have wiped our species out of existence.
The Columbia River - N'Chi Wana, "The Big River," to the Columbia River Indians - began its life more than 12 million years ago. The River watched, taught, and provided for, the first people who arrived on this continent from Siberia, and lived in such harmony with their environment that no archaeological trace exists to discern exactly how long ago that was. (Well, and also because the Army Corps of Engineers destroyed the site in the name of progress.) We do know that, beginning more than 15,000 years ago, this was the site of Wy-am, a great cultural center and the longest continuously inhabited settlement on the North American continent. Annually, native people traveled from as far away as Alaska, the American Southwest and the Great Plains for trade and ceremony.
Here, steep canyon walls climb to heights of 4,000 feet alongside the continent’s fourth largest river that rises and falls with Pacific Ocean tides and mountain snowmelt cascading over densly forested cliffs in one of the world’s largest, most dramatic, concentrations of waterfalls.
And, it was here that Ermina Goudy Edsall, a descendant of North America's first people, taught her granddaughter, Mary, their oral history, and the importance of it.
“It is a law for Indian people that we must hand down our oral history,” Mary asserts.
“Thousands of years of my family history are written in stone on the Columbia River.” Mary once told me, “and my grandmother knew what each of those petroglyphs meant. She showed me the past, present, and future of our people on the walls of the Columbia River Gorge.”
At the age of four, Mary was led down a trail to the Columbia River's edge by her grandmother, aunts and other women elders. For hundreds of years their people had dealt with troubled children in this way.
“You must stay here and listen to the River until you learn a song,” they told her, wrapping a thick Pendleton blanket around her tiny shoulders. “Only after the River teaches you a song will you be allowed to return.” They sat her down where she could feel the rocks and hear the water.
Mary stayed, alone by the River all day and through the cold night, drawing her blanket tightly around her. On the second day she walked back to her aunt’s house and sang, for the elders gathered in the kitchen, the song the River taught her. It was an ancient Wasco song she could not have known.
Aunt Agnes beckoned Mary to her side. “You will now be known as N’Chi-Wana, The Big River,” she told Mary, “because there will come a day in your life when you will cut a path through the soul of this country as big as the Columbia River.”
Faith and Outlaws is that story.
And though the story is informed by an oral history so powerful that neither genocide nor forest fire can extinguish its truth, I wanted to acknowledge what ignorance set ablaze in the Gorge this past weekend.
(I took the photo above, of Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, one week before a 15 year-old threw a firecracker off a cliff on the Eagle Creek Trail burning 33,000 acres.)