Book Review: A “Coast Salish Punk” Tells Her Own Story

There are many reasons white narratives have long shaped our understanding of Native history and even contemporary Native lives. One, of course, is the lack of pre-contact writings by Indigenous people. Another is the suppression of Native voices during the white conquest of the two American continents. A third is the presumptuousness of even sympathetic white writers—from James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826) to Margaret Craven (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, 1967)—in depicting Native life while featuring white protagonists.

A fourth, less-obvious reason is the concentration of a white-dominated publishing industry in the Northeastern part of the United States, where few of the country’s 7 million Indigenous people live.

One result of the U. S. government’s early cruelty toward pre-existing populations, including the vile Indian Removal Act of 1830, was a concentration of Native people west of the Mississippi, where the writers among them had fewer chances to hobnob and network with editors and agents.

Sunset on Puget Sound, Edward Curtis, courtesy of Northwestern University Libraries, Digital Collections

Fortunately, the development of the internet, the assertion of marginalized voices in recent years, and a rising awareness of the need to expand and diversify the American literary conversation have led to more Native authors being published today than ever before. And the writing they’re publishing is less concerned with elder wisdom or lamentations for the devastation wrought by white conquest than sharp-eyed critique of contemporary life.

While elder wisdom and lamentations still inform this new work, the writing is wider-ranging and harder-hitting, bolder and yet subtler, more engaged with the broader culture while retaining a personal connection to the histories and customs of particular tribes and regions.

A prime example is Red Paint, a memoir by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, whose subtitle—The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk—tells you right away it isn’t a conventional narrative. Although LaPointe has spent her life on her ancestors’ traditional lands, she has lived most of it within the American cities and cultures laid on top of them. In fact, at times her story becomes a Schliemann-like excavation of artifacts from the many historical periods in her native Northwest.

Author image from inside the book.

LaPointe isn’t interested in being a representative Indian, however, or even an interpreter or defender for her ancestors. Although, in places, she explores the lives and struggles of those who came before her, she mostly tells her own story—one that includes sexual and substance abuse, homelessness and rootlessness, betrayal and loss, but also hopefulness, friendship, love, and underground music.

LaPointe’s referents are as likely to be the Twin Peaks TV show or the punk group Bikini Kill as the healers of her mother’s Lushootseed tribe or the Chinook ancestor who survived her people’s destruction by marrying a white man. She isn’t seeking a return to some mythic past but rather a home, a permanence, a self-definition that seems to have eluded not only her but her people.

After finding the reservation trailer she lived in as a child in ruins, for example, she muses on what a permanent home for someone like her might be. “Reservations should not have been a permanent home,” she writes. “Like trailers, like campgrounds, like prisons or hospitals, they felt temporary, like some place you go between places. I realized I wasn’t sure what permanence looked like, because we weren’t meant to survive. My family, my tribe, my ancestors, we were something temporary to the settlers, something that would eventually go away.”

Later in the book, after visiting an even older abode, she realizes she’s sick of trying to fit a white world’s expectations of what a Native American woman should be:

“I was tired of being brave. I would rather be something else. Carefree? An aging millennial. Someone who enjoys listening to the Cranberries and Cyndi Lauper on road trips down the coast. Call me a writer. Call me a riot grrrl. Call me Coast Salish or poet. Call me a girl who loves Nick Cave, and night swimming, and ramen, and old Bikini Kill records. I no longer wish to be called resilient. Call me reckless, impatient, and emotional. Even Indigenous. Call me anything other than survivor. I am so many more things than brave.”

In the end, Red Paint is mainly what any good memoir should be: an exploration of the self—how it’s built from intention, experience, malice, carelessness, heritage, family, love, and belief, as well as the accidents that impact each of us as we navigate our broken world.

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Related links:

“Coast Salish People & Languages” from Seattle’s Burke Museum (scroll down for a map of the Coast Salish lands)

Edward Curtis’s early 20th-century photographs of the Coast Salish people (click on any picture to enlarge the image)

Information (& an artist’s drawing) on a Coast Salish tribes/Western Washington University plans to build a Coast Salish-style longhouse

Institute of American Indian Arts (where LaPointe earned her MFA)

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe website

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Red Paint

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

Counterpoint (Berkeley, CA)

2022

$25 (hardcover)

Pine Pollen and Canopy Tears: Keen Observations of a Northwest Forest by an Iowa Essayist

Sometimes the sharpest observations of a place come from individuals who don’t reside there—people who visit not as tourists but as temporary observers, seeking understanding rather than snapshots.

Think of Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who toured America for nine months in 1831 and produced Democracy in America, a two-volume collection of his observations that is still one of the best depictions of the young country in the early 19th century.

Essayist Tom Montgomery Fate’s birthplace and touchstone for interactions with a new world isn’t France but rather Iowa, a flat land full of cornfields where the highest point has an elevation of only 1,670 feet. Yet when Fate was invited to spend two weeks at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest near Oregon’s Cascade Range in 2017—“to write and walk, and meet a few scientists—hydrologists, botanists, biologists”—he brought with him the same essential tools de Tocqueville traveled with: a keen eye, a discerning mind, and a facility with words.

Image from the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest website

In the essay Fate wrote about the experience, “Travel that Takes You Home” (which is included in his new collection of essays about places he has visited around the world, The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries, Ice Cube Press, 2022), he delineates in precise language and telling detail not only the important research Andrews scientists are doing on things like the evergreen canopy’s protection of ground-level plants from the extremes of climate change, but also the ways in which exposure to a Northwest forest might affect our understanding of what it means to be human.

Here, for example, is Fate’s description of pausing by a creek on a rainy day:

Now I’m sitting on a flat rock in the hard rain listening to the creek. This is my job: to sit in the rain and listen. Were it a deeper stream without rocks or deadfalls or much current, and full of sediment, it would be quiet and still (and more Midwestern). Lookout Creek is crazy fast from three days of rain, and full of rocks and boulders and deadfalls, and so it has a lot to say. Over time, the gurgling water will tumble and dissolve rock, and rot logs and leaves and carry them downstream, along with trout and pine pollen and needles and cones, and bits of moss and lichen. Over time it will reshape its bed and banks and habitat, physically describing its character and history in this forest. Over time it will reflect and respond to climate change and other challenges posed by human beings. Over time, as with all streams and rivers, it will measure and reveal both our culpability and response ability as a species. Over time it will measure who we are.

Over time. That’s two words. Not “overtime.” Not hours or numbers, but a river of light and darkness, of heat and cold. Over time, things change. Some change is dramatic—what ecologists call “a disturbance”—like the rotting 400-year-old Douglas-fir that fell across the creek 30 years ago during a flood. The crashing tree ripped a wide gash in the canopy, prompting slower, less dramatic change below: a thick stand of Alder trees sprung up on the gravel bar amid the flood of new light. When the Doug-fir fell, its bole and branches obstructed and partly dammed the creek, forming a deep pool—where, over time, native trout came to live, and to wait and watch for midges and flies to light on the water.

Waiting and watching. Over time. To stand by a river and go. That rainy day I lingered by the water all afternoon, scrambling around on the slippery rocks like the child I once was—completely lost in the moment—and hoping to see something: a bird, or a snake, or a beetle, or a frog, or anyone who might re-member me, and remind me how I belong.

What might be a common environment to a native Northwesterner, Fate sees as new and full of unique character. He observes not only the pine but the pine pollen, not only the fallen log but the tear it rips in the canopy.

Fate’s new collection is full of such trenchant observations of places like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and, yes, Iowa. It’s also full of deeper contemplations of our connections not only to place but also to family, faith, nature, and vulnerable populations.

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To read an earlier, online version of Fate’s Northwest essay, visit the About Place Journal website.

To attend a virtual event at which Fate will read from and discuss his new book, sign up here. You can read more about the event here. It takes place at 5 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, July 20, and registration is required.

To purchase Fate’s book, simply click here or ask your local bookstore to order The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries by Tom Montgomery Fate.

For more on Fate and his other books and essays, go to his website, TomFate.com.

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Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five other books of creative nonfiction, including Cabin Fever, a nature memoir (Beacon Press), and Steady and Trembling, a spiritual memoir (Chalice Press). A regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, his essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Orion, The Iowa Review, Christian Century, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and many others.  Dozens of his essays have also aired on NPR, PRI and Chicago Public Radio.

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The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries

Tom Montgomery Fate

Ice Cube Press

2022

$19.99 

Persistence and Adaptation: Asian American Identity and News in the Pacific Northwest

Image courtesy of @tirachardz

The awful rise in attacks on Asian Americans in recent months has reminded me how horribly Chinese immigrants were treated in the Pacific Northwest in the latter half of the 19th century, as well as how difficult it has been through the years for local Asian Americans to be heard on issues affecting them.

Things have improved in recent decades but Americans and Canadians of Asian descent—who make up 9% of the population in Washington, 5% in Oregon, and an impressive 25% in British Columbia—are still underrepresented in the governments and news outlets in their regions.

Fortunately, in addition to more narrowly targeted newspapers, the Northwest now has three daily publications dedicated specifically to news and issues affecting Asian American residents: Asian Journal in Vancouver (BC), Northwest Asian Weekly in Seattle, and the The Asian Reporter in Portland.

Chinese man, unknown date, Washington State, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 7-6-22.

A Little History

Asians and Asian Americans have maintained a continual presence in the Pacific Northwest since the 1850s, when the first Chinese miners migrated north to Oregon and Washington from California. These miners were soon followed by others who worked in salmon canneries and logging camps as laborers or cooks, or ran small businesses.

When the railroads began to snake their way into the Northwest, Chinese workers helped to blast pathways and lay rails, earning a reputation for diligence, skill, and speed—as well as the enmity of white workers, who hated them for their willingness to do more for less and their skin color.

As the 19th century progressed, other Asian groups followed, arriving from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. Virtually all of these early Asian residents were young men willing to work hard for whatever they could earn.

By 1870, there were over 4,000 Asian immigrants in Idaho—a third of the population—as well as over 3,000 in Oregon, most of them Chinese. While there were fewer than 400 in Washington at that time, by 1880 that number had grown to over 3,000 too .

Despite being subject to targeted restrictions (such as special taxes and laws against marrying whites or owning property) and, in the mid-1880s, attacks by mobs, many of these residents remained in the area or returned when conditions improved. In other words, they persisted.

Drawing of an anti-Chinese riot in Seattle, 1886, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 7-6-22.

Even 1882’s vile Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration into the U. S. for 10 years, didn’t shake the determination of those already in the country to stay and make their living wherever and however they could.

Northwest residents of Japanese extraction, of course, were subject to another cruel law in 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced them to leave their homes, their farms, and their businesses to move to government-run internment camps. When World War II ended, many who went back to where they’d lived before the war had to start from scratch among neighbors who had greedily acquired the property they’d been forced to abandon.

While early Asian settlers in the Northwest sought both identity and protection in their own nation-of-origin-focused groups, a greater Asian American identification began to grow in the later part of the 20th century. In Seattle, for example, the former Chinatown was renamed the International District (over the objections of some Chinese leaders) to recognize the mingling of many Asian American groups in the area.

Image courtesy of RODNAE Productions

Newspapers

Although there have always been newspapers for Asian Americans from different groups (often published in languages other than English), it wasn’t until late in the 20th century that English-language papers focused on Asian Americans from all backgrounds began to appear in Northwest cities.

(For a fascinating look at the history of Asian-language newspapers in the United States, go to Kuei Chiu’s 2008 posting on the Chinese American Librarians Association website.)

Today, as the percentage of people in the Northwest who identify as Asian American continues to grow, the news sites dedicated to keeping them informed and representing their interests are good sources for all Northwesterners wanting to expand their understanding of their neighbors and their vision of the world.

Here are some useful links related to news and other writing by and about Asian Americans in the Northwest:

Northwest Asian Weekly, Seattle

The Asian Reporter, Portland

Asian Journal, Vancouver, BC

Ethnic and Special Interest Newspapers of the Pacific Northwest

Asian Language Newspapers in the United States: History Revisited” by Kuei Chiu

Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee website

AAPI Racial Justice Resources page, Seattle Rep (LOTS of good links here!)

The Fancydancing Voice of Sherman Alexie

When I was in the MFA program at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, a poetry professor assigned a book called The Business of Fancydancing (Hanging Loose Press, 1992) by a writer from my home state I’d never heard of: Sherman Alexie. When I turned the book over, the black-and-white on the back showed an enviably-young man in a checkered shirt beside a listing of journals he’d published in. Below was a quote from a front-page review in the New York Times that called the book “wide-ranging, dexterous and consistently capable of raising your neck hair.”

I don’t know that the book raised the hair anywhere on my body, but it did raise my consciousness and my sense of what poetry and short stories and writing of any kind can do and be. A Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian who seemed to love basketball as much as I did, Alexie not only knew how to explode expectations but how to challenge those who felt they had a right to impose them, and how to wrestle the language his people were forced to speak into forms and lines and juxtapositions that made it seem entirely new.

Here, for example, is a poem from that book called “Evolution”:

Buffalo Bill opens a pawn shop on the reservation
right across the border from the liquor store
and he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

and the Indians come running in with jewelry
television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit
it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. Buffalo Bill

takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it
all catalogued and filed in a storage room. The Indians
pawn their hands, saving their thumbs for last, they pawn

their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin
and when the last Indian has pawned everything
but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks

closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old
calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES
charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.

Sherman Alexie was not the first Native American writer to break through the white wall, but over the next 25 years he was certainly one of the most successful. And he did more to shine a light on the real lives of Indians in the Pacific Northwest than anyone else.

One year after Fancydancing, which contains a mix of poems and short stories, Alexie published his first all-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993). I didn’t need to see more than the title to know I’d love it and be challenged by it and feel uncomfortable reading it, all at once.

Sherman Alexie, author photo by the Wellpinit Watchdog, from The Business of Fancydancing.

Since that time, Alexie has published close to 20 books, including Ten Little Indians (a collection of stories set in and around Seattle; Grove Press, 2003), the young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (set in the NE part of Washington he grew up in; Little, Brown, 2007), and his latest, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (Hachette, 2017), one of the most compelling and heartbreaking memoirs I’ve ever read. He’s also written and co-produced films from his work, including the hugely popular Smoke Signals (1998).

Until he stopped doing tours a few years ago, his readings were must-see events, with Alexie not only giving distinctive voices to individual characters but acting out his stories to both hilarious and poignant effect.

Unfortunately, not long after his memoir came out, several women stepped forth to say he had sexually harassed them. Since that time, he has remained quiet and a number of institutions have renamed or recalled awards associated with him or ended promotion of his books.

The question now is how we recognize or appreciate or contextualize one of the most important Native American voices in Pacific Northwest history. If we read his books, are we condoning his behavior? If we don’t read his books, are we denying ourselves and those who come after us an important perspective on our region, culture, and collective history? Is there a statute of limitations?

I don’t have any answers. All I can say is that back near the end of the 20th century a voice spoke to me in a language and form I’d never heard or seen before, and I will always be grateful for how it opened me up. How it challenged me. And how it changed me for the better.

The Powell’s List of 40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest

Image from the Powell’s Books website

One of my goals for this site is to introduce readers to writing set in the Northwest that hasn’t reached a large audience, especially works by writers other than white men. To that end, I’m working on future reviews of exciting new literature as well as posts by myself and others about past writings that should be better known. But I don’t want to ignore iconic Northwest books.

So, to get a lot of great books onto the site quickly, here’s a link to a post the folks at Powell’s Books put together back in 2014 titled, “40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest.” The list is a bit male-, white-, and Oregon-centric, but, to be fair, it was produced eight years ago and the intention seems to have been to alert people to some of the biggies. Maybe the Powell’s staff will produce a follow-up with more-current works soon!

Their 40 selections are:

FICTION

Mink River
by Brian Doyle

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Night Dogs
by Kent Anderson

Heartsick
by Chelsea Cain

Trout Fishing in America
by Richard Brautigan

East of the Mountains
by David Guterson

Hard Rain Falling
by Don Carpenter

My Abandonment
by Peter Rock

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie

Last Go Round: A Real Western
by Ken Kesey

Black Hole
by Charles Burns

Sometimes a Great Notion
by Ken Kesey

Glaciers
by Alexis M. Smith

The River Why
by David James Duncan

Boneshaker
by Cherie Priest

Permeable Borders
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn

No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July

Ricochet River
by Robin Cody

The Motel Life
by Willy Vlautin

Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?
by G. M. Ford

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Ken Kesey

Dies the Fire
by S. M. Stirling

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie

Witchling
by Yasmine Galenorn

Ten
by Gretchen McNeil

Trask
by Don Berry

NONFICTION

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir
by Tobias Wolff

Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story
by Brent Walth

Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon
by Chuck Palahniuk

Hidden History of Portland, Oregon
by J. D. Chandler

Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place
by Robert Michael Pyle

Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest
by Stewart Holbrook

All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families
by Rene Denfeld

Of Walking in Rain
by Matt Love

Out of the Woods: Book Review of rough house by Tina Ontiveros

At the heart of rough house—Tina Ontiveros’s difficult yet moving memoir about growing up poor in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest and, when her family breaks apart, the brown dryness of The Dalles, Oregon—stand two people and a question.

One of the two is Ontiveros’s childhood self, revealed not only through her adult memories but also the stories her parents tell about her earliest years, some true, some exaggerated or made up altogether. The true stories come from her mother, the made-up ones from her father, Loyd, the second and more ambiguous of the book’s two main characters.

Loyd is an itinerant logger from a family of loggers at a time when Northwest logging is in decline. He drags his family from place to place, lodging them in various trailers and other inadequate shelters. Although he works hard, he falls off the wagon repeatedly, insists on controlling those around him, and strikes with his fists when he feels someone has crossed him, including the mother of his children. Loyd is the kind of person who squanders his life and drives away others, never able to stay on track for very long.

As Ontiveros writes at the end of her first chapter—a chapter in which we witness her father’s brutal way of teaching her to ride a bike—Loyd “left nothing much physical behind him on this earth. No poetry or paintings, no endowments or discoveries to share with humankind…Mostly his existence was primal flashes of intensity in different places, always a sense of adventure and danger. There was a sort of balance to his living, creativity and destruction in equal measure. Always harm. Always love.”

Image by Karen Arnold, publicdomainpictures.net

In many ways, Loyd is simply the product of the world he lives in, a world in which timber barons and corporations use and misuse a fungible and ultimately disposable cadre of rootless men to extract the riches of Northwest forests for personal gain. Like many men who make their living with their bodies, he tends to respond to the world in physical ways, particularly those that cause Ontiveros’s mother to leave him: “drinking, drugging, cheating, and hitting.”

But behind those physical responses lie deeper emotions often perverted by the way these men have grown up and lived and, as the last two words of the quote above suggest, those emotions can be expressed in positive ways, too. Which leads us to both the question at the book’s core—Why does Loyd’s daughter not only return to him again and again but choose to write a book about him?—as well as a possible answer.

“I lived in a small body then,” Ontiveros writes at the end of chapter three, “and when Loyd knelt down and talked to me, to show me the miracle of an unbroken sand dollar or a newly forming inlet, he looked like a man at prayer. What I mean to say is that he made me feel like I deserved to take up space. From his moments of careful attention, I learned to expect some small amount of worship from the world. From his violence, desperate apologies, and absences, I would discover that the same sparkling fires that fueled his creativity could burn out of control, leaving a landscape stripped of life. Loyd would hurt and fail me in a hundred ways, but first he taught me to wonder, gave me love without condition, and moments where I felt holy.”

Image by Michael N. McGregor

Ontiveros’s mother’s love for Loyd reaches a breaking point when he holds a gun to their adolescent son’s head. And Ontiveros reaches a similar point when he violates her trust in an especially vile manner. The violation and its aftermath are, in many ways, the book’s high point. After smoldering for half of the book’s 188-page length, Ontiveros’s writing suddenly catches fire as she finally faces the kind of man her father is. Out of that fire comes a deeper question: Can you continue to love a man who does a thing like that?

But something else is born in that fire too: The stronger woman Ontiveros will become, a woman who is not only able to see her father—and her mother—with clear eyes, but also to stand on her own, with her own strength; forge a life for herself out of tools her parents have inadvertently given her; and find a way to not only love but embrace the people she came from.

In the end, of course, the story doesn’t belong to Loyd, it belongs to his daughter, who has the choice to tell it in her own way. Although it is often a brutal story, it is told with love. And it is that love that allows Ontiveros to not only rise above the violence, misogyny, and suspicion often endemic to the world she came from, but also bring some acceptance to that world, helping us to understand it.

Contrary to popular belief, you can sometimes tell a lot about a book by its title. In addition to the double meaning of physical fun and difficult circumstances, it’s significant that rough house is printed in lower case. Ontiveros is shining a light on minor characters whose stories, though filled with poverty and violence, are worth telling—and worth reading—for what they reveal about the hardships many Americans face, as well as how those Americans—especially women, like Ontiveros—find a way forward despite the odds.

rough house

by Tina Ontiveros

Oregon State University Press

2020

$18.95

Buy your copy here.

Two other compelling books about Northwest women finding their way forward out of poverty, violence, and isolation (both set in Idaho):

Educated by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)–National Book Critics Circle Award finalist–“Beautiful and propulsive . . . Despite the singularity of [Westover’s] childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?”—Vogue

In the Wilderness by Kim Barnes (Doubleday, 1996)–Pulitzer Prize finalist–“In the Wilderness is the story of this poet’s journey toward adulthood, set against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as wondrous, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great Idaho forest itself.”–Amazon.com

When the River Ran Wild!–Excavating the Memories, Customs and Ways of the Mid-Columbia Tribes

Earlier this week, the winners of the 2022 Oregon Book Awards were announced. While the awards honor books by Oregon writers rather than books specifically about Oregon, a fair number of the award finalists are usually set in the state or explore some aspect of it.

Soon, I’ll be posting a review of one of this year’s finalist, rough house by Tina Ontiveros (this site’s first book review), but today I’m thinking of a wonderful and unique award winner I picked up at the ceremony a few years ago.

The book, written by George W. Aguilar, Sr., a descendant of Chinook Indians who lived, fished, and traded along the Columbia River for centuries, is called When the River Ran Wild!: Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation. The subtitle makes it sound like an academic text, but Aquilar’s book is so much more than that.

While he quotes from some academic sources–such as Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown’s classic look at the Columbia Chinook, The Chinook Indians: Traders of Lower Columbia (University of Oklahoma Press, 1976)–Aquilar’s main sources of information are other descendants of the Columbia tribes. And his intention isn’t to add to the historical record so much as give his people a sense of their own traditions, customs, and, yes, history.

“In a recent visit to Wolford Canyon, where I was brought up,” he writes, “there was only silence. The memories remain, but the echoes of the canyon are calm. No children play in the springwater pools. No sweathouse fires heat the rocks. No deer hides are soaking. No buckskin tanning. No gardens. No wheat or hay growing. The fields are now teeming with juniper trees where the golden heads of wheat once swayed to the whispers of the wind.”

To replace that silence, Aguilar excavates the memories of people he knows and others whose reminiscences have been recorded. Out of these and his own experiences, he weaves a kind of handbook for Chinook descendants like himself, especially the younger generations of the 21st century, who have no contact with anyone who lived by the old ways.

In the midst of chapters that explore the Chinooks’ traditional foods (both plants and animals), religions and beliefs, myths and legends, and warfare, Aguilar includes set pieces on practices such as the sweathouse, meat drying, the use of traditional nets, and something known as “butt slapping,” a way for native fishermen on platforms over the Columbia River to indicate which fish they’ve caught they want to keep for themselves.

The chapter on salmon fishing on the Columbia is worth the book’s cost alone. Not only does Aguilar evoke the heyday of Celilo Falls, he also talks about salmon runs, salmon festivals, fishing techniques, and customs that regulated how and where the salmon were fished for.

In other sections, he writes about the other species the Chinook relied on–Pacific lamprey, crayfish, sturgeon, smelt–and gives an exhaustive list of the plants they ate or used in other ways, as well as how they prepared them.

Beginning with his own experiences in forced boarding schools and government programs ,like one in the 1950s that attempted to get younger Indians to move off the reservation into cities, Aguilar takes us through the hardships his people have had to endure while also celebrating the endurance of a vibrant culture in danger of being completely lost.

One of the most important aspects of Aguilar’s project is his naming of individual tribal members, past and present–names that have been left out of the history books. He traces the lineage of individual names, tells us how names have been given, and looks at the meanings of those names. He is careful to name important local figures who are unknown to the general public and tell their stories too.

“The River People are the Northwest Klickitat and the Eastern-speaking Chinookan Kiksht,” Aguilar writes. “They are the Wascos, the Cascades, the Wishxams, the Clackamas, the Multnomahs, the Hood Rivers, the Skamanias, the Skilloots, and others who lived in villages on both sides of the Wilmaɬ, the Columbia River.”

By naming and writing for the descendants of these people–his people–Aquilar is trying to make sure they and their ways are not forgotten.

When the River Ran Wild!

Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation

by George W. Aguilar, Sr.

Published by Oregon Historical Press, in association with the University of Washington Press

2005

$24.95

Buy it here.

Northwest “Cowboys and Indians” Partnering to Protect the Environment

I spent some time away last week catching up on reading I’d missed, including Naomi Klein’s provocative exploration of the link between globalization and climate change, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). You can read about the arguments and evidence Klein presents in this important book here. What I want to focus on is what she says about those who are fighting for clean air and water in the Pacific Northwest.

Klein devotes a long section to Northwest activists in a chapter she calls “Blockadia” (her word for the spontaneous protests against fossil fuel extraction and transportation happening around the world). After praising a coalition of Northwest Indigenous and non-Native groups that prevented huge rigs from reaching the landscape-desecrating Alberta tar sands (a “Cowboys and Indians alliance,” one activist called it), she adds:

“Indeed, the oil and coal industries are no doubt cursing the day that they ever encountered the Pacific Northwest–Oregon, Washington State, and British Columbia. There the sector has had to confront a powerful combination of resurgent Indigenous Nations, farmers, and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil, and a great many relative newcomers who have chosen to live in that part of the world because of its natural beauty. It is also, significantly, a region where the local environmental movement never fully succumbed to the temptations of the corporate partnership model, and where there is a long and radical history of land-based direct action to stop clear-cut logging and dirty mining.” (p. 319)

It’s good to see a writer recognizing not only the current work being done in the Northwest in regards to environmental and justice issues but also the past. Klein is careful to note the importance of Indigenous people in many of these battles. The Nez Perce took the lead in the fight to prevent the tar sands rigs from using a vital secondary roadway in Idaho and Montana. And the Lummi people led the effort to block a coal-exporting terminal near Bellingham, Washington, which, in 2017, ended the multi-year attempts of coal extractors to build a facility in the Northwest to export coal to Asia.

Much of the Northwest’s early history is a history of devastating extraction: the logging of old growth timber, the over-fishing and canning for export of tons and tons of salmon, the removal from the ground of everything from coal to copper to gold. But Northwest history is also full of stories of brave opposition to these activities: tree-sitters and salmon restoration advocates and protestors who have blocked the digging of new mines.

As Klein says about a coalition that worked to stop the building of a pipeline across British Columbia, Northwesterners are well aware of how fortunate we are to still have access to pristine natural environments. We’re also aware that we have lost too many of those environments already–and that those who put personal enrichment above preservation of the planet are always seeking to profit from (and pollute) those that are left.

For further reading:

To Think Like a Mountain: Environmental Challenges in the American West by Niels S. Nokkentved (Washington State University Press, 2019)

The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands, edited by Erika Allen Wolters and Brent S. Steel (Oregon State University Press, 2020) The digital version of this book is free through OSU’s Open Educational Resources.

Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway by Robert M. Wilson (University of Washington Press, 2012)

Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia by Jonathan Peyton (University of British Columbia Press, 2017)

Stories with Trees in Them: Norman Maclean and the Real Northwest

A lot of my writing on this site so far has been focused on Washington and Oregon as the core states in what we call the Pacific Northwest, but the writer most associated with Northwest writing is probably a Montanan–Norman Maclean–in part because Maclean’s two books, A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire are consciously about Northwest life: traditional Northwest life, iconic Northwest life, what we might call real Northwest life, for there’s nothing more Northwestern than his main subjects: fishing and trees.

But Maclean wrote about more than fishing and trees, of course–more even than family and fire. As James R. Frakes, who reviewed Young Men and Fire for the New York Times, wrote:

You can learn a lot from this book: detail-crammed pages on the special qualities of logging boots, on the delicate differences between ‘general and specials’ and ‘counter flies,’ on fighting forest fires, on the lost art of horse- and mule-packing, on cribbage, on draw poker, on iambic pentameter, and on ‘walking whorehouses.’ Also a lot about Montana, where drinking beer doesn’t count as drinking, where they don’t care whether the whiskey is much good if they can get strawberry pop for a chaser, and where being acquitted of killing a sheepherder isn’t the same as being innocent.

One of Maclean’s most important contributions to the literary world is his deft blending of fiction, memoir, and narrative nonfiction into something that is far more compelling and profound than if he had stayed in his lane, so to speak, trying to write only one of the three, as most writers are cautioned to do today. The one other writer I can think of who does something similar, though in a very different way, is W. G. Sebold.

Of course, Sebold wrote about places that have a long and valued literary tradition whereas Maclean wrote about a place the literary gatekeepers in New York and elsewhere gave little credence to. (Even the Frakes paragraph quoted above can be read as somewhat condescending.) As he relates in his Acknowledgements in River, Maclean had difficulty finding a publisher for his stories not only because he finished his collection when he was already in his 70s but also because they “turned out to be Western stories–as one publisher said in returning them, ‘These stories have trees in them.'”

In the end, it was the University of Chicago, where Maclean had been a professor for decades–teaching classes, creating programs, and helping students instead of doing his own creative writing–that published both of his books. Although the second one, Young Men and Fire, which he hadn’t quite finished when he died at 87 in 1990, dealt even more completely with trees (and those who fight the fires that threaten them), it won a National Book Critics Circle Award–a sign not that New York had embraced the Northwest but that readers had (and some of the wiser critics listened to them).

It was Robert Redford’s 1992 movie version of A River Runs Through It that transformed its central story from one readers loved into one embraced by the larger American culture. It was the Redford movie that made Maclean a household name. And it was his movie that turned western Montana into a mythical flyfishing paradise, leading to influx of wannabe fishermen and the buying up of former ranches and other rural lands.

But Maclean’s real Northwest, his traditional Northwest, his truly iconic Northwest is only approximated in Redford’s film. To find it, understand it, savor it, you have to dive into his books.

Note: For a deeper look at Maclean’s life and the real-life stories behind those in A River Runs Through It, check out his son John Maclean’s beautifully evocative and highly informative 2021 memoir, Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River

Here are some links:

The University of Chicago Press’s Norman Maclean bio

Norman Maclean’s obituary in The Chicago Tribune

A Timothy Egan column on Wallace Stegner’s battle for recognition beyond being just a “Western writer” (with a great quote on the same subject from Maclean)

A good review of John Maclean’s Home Waters (with interesting information on the effect of Redford’s movie on western Montana) by a Montana reviewer

Feeling Wild and Lyrical: Jack Kerouac Spends a Night in Seattle

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
(image from Wikipedia)

In the summer of 1956, at the suggestion of Oregon-born poet Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac hitchhiked up the Pacific coast to Washington State to live in solitude as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Mount Baker National Forest. He was hoping to detox from alcohol, women, drugs, and all of the other things that kept him from writing. In the end, he stayed only two months and the solitude almost drove him crazy.

Kerouac described the experience at length in his 1965 book Desolation Angels, but the excerpt here, about passing through Seattle on his way to the lookout, comes from The Dharma Bums, published seven years earlier. I like it not only for the freshness of his description of my hometown but also because the area around First Avenue was still very much the way he depicts it when I was was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Gateway to Alaska and the Orient is Seattle,” 1950s, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 3-16-22.

Kerouac on Seattle:

Then, while he sat in the main room, I went topdeck as the ferry pulled out in a cold drizzle to dig and enjoy Puget Sound. It was one hour sailing to the Port of Seattle and I found a half-pint of vodka stuck in the deck rail concealed under a Time magazine and just casually drank it and opened my rucksack and took out my warm sweater to go under my rain jacket and paced up and down all alone on the cold fog-swept deck feeling wild and lyrical. And suddenly I saw the Northwest was a great deal more than the little vision I had of it of Japhy in my mind. It was miles and miles of unbelievable mountains grooking on all horizons in the wild broken clouds, Mount Olympus and Mount Baker, a giant orange sash in the gloom over the Pacific-ward skies that led I knew toward the Hokkaido Siberian desolations of the world. I huddled against the bridgehouse hearing the Mark Twain talk of the skipper and the wheelman inside. In the deepened dusk fog ahead the big red neons saying: PORT OF SEATTLE. And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it. It was exactly like he’d said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging. The ferry nosed in at the pier on Alaskan Way and immediately I saw the totem poles in old stores and the ancient 1880-style switch goat with sleepy firemen chug chugging up and down the waterfront spur like a scene from my old dreams, the old Casey Jones locomotive of America, the only one I ever saw that old outside of Western movies, but actually working and hauling boxcars in the smoky gloom of the magic city.

I immediately went to a good clean skid row hotel, the Hotel Stevens, got a room for the night for a dollar seventy-five and had a hot tub bath and a good long sleep and in the morning I shaved and walked out First Avenue and accidentally found all kinds of Goodwill stores with wonderful sweaters and red underwear for sale and I had a big breakfast with five-cent coffee in the crowded market morning with blue sky and clouds scudding overhead and waters of Puget Sound sparkling and dancing under old piers. It was real true Northwest. At noon I checked out of the hotel, with my new wool socks and bandanas and things all packed in gladly, and walked out to 99 a few miles out of town and got many short rides.

Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northwest horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp.

Mount Baker, 1940s, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 3-16-22.

One year after Kerouac’s mountaintop experience, On the Road was published and his life was never the same again. Nor was his writing. Even The Dharma Bums, published just one year later, lacks the verve and swing of the book that made him famous. But even a lesser book can have its highlights–and Kerouac’s views of the Pacific Northwest when it was still considered the edge of nowhere are some of my favorite passages in all of his works.