Whose Feet: Opportunity & Uncertainty

May 26, 2012

Three months after its dedication, I stand at the foot of the John T. Williams Honor Totem. The totem has bold lines and bright colors, and its significance fills my eyes with tears. There is no mention here of how Mr. Williams died. Rather than proclaiming that he was felled by a police bullet, the totem simply honors the man’s life and Ditidaht heritage, and calls to mind his talent as a woodcarver. This simplicity seems both appropriate and lovely.

The totem does not acknowledge the police, but the police have acknowledged the totem. On the day the totem was raised, the Seattle Times quoted Deputy Chief Metz as saying: “I’m hoping that the raising of the pole will start the healing process between Seattle police and Native Americans…We’re out here to again help promote that healing process.”

Three months later, Seattle still needs healing, but our progress is uncertain. Our Police Department is now negotiating with the US Justice Department over what policy reforms will follow a federal investigation that uncovered a policing pattern of excessive force. The negotiation is happening behind closed doors, but the leaked news is not encouraging. There is indeed an opportunity here for healing – the kind of healing that comes from righting what is wrong – but it’s too soon to say whether Seattle will truly embrace reform.

The city’s future is not the only uncertainty on my mind today.  I am saddened by the fact that it took me three months to see the Honor Totem. I missed its dedication because my work is shifting towards a heavy overseas focus with much travel. This is nothing new – it’s actually an opportunity to return to a lifestyle that is my ‘norm.’ But my reflection on First Nations’ history was born here in Seattle, during a season of time when I was unusually stationery. So I can’t help but wonder, what will happen to this journey now?

As I travel, I will certainly see global indigenous rights issues with new eyes, and I will link my experiences to the questions of justice right here at home. Perhaps this path will morph in other ways that I haven’t yet foreseen. I am sure of only one thing: the Creator did not spark me on this journey just to see it crushed under the weight of an intense travel schedule. So I will continue my exploration, and I will persist in my soul-searching. This is what brings me here today honor Mr. Williams.


For my earlier blog entry on this subject, see ‘When Peace Hurts.’

Whose Feet: Everybody Dances

December 23, 2011

I wish I could show you a photo of this event, but I can’t. The storyteller said that if there is dancing during his sessions, then ‘everybody dances.’ So I smiled and clumsily complied. I didn’t take any photos of the kids, because I was too busy dancing.

When I explore my interconnections to the first peoples of the Puget Sound, I usually do my exploring alone. Last week’s storytelling event was different, because I was accompanied by my husband Brent and step-children Paige (13) and Grant (9). We joined up with a crowd of cocoa-sipping under-10s, and we enjoyed the Tsimshian stories of Ravenspeaker at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center.

I discovered that experiencing this event in the company of my family meant explaining some ugly truths in unusually gentle ways…

“Why does this longhouse look so new? I expected it to be a couple hundred years old.”

“Well … it’s because the old longhouses burned down about a hundred years ago. Some mean people set them on fire on purpose. So just imagine if our house burned down…We would have to rebuild it, and we would make a new house.”

“Oh yeah, and we could make it bigger and warmer and everything would look new!”


Experiencing this event in the company of my family also meant moving those ugly truths to the side. Just a little bit. Never forgetting the injustice, but creating more space for the celebration of cultural beauty. Relaxing enough to learn from the story of a girl called Knifehand, and watching kids’ eyes grow wide as they listen. Remembering that life offers not only a time to mourn, but also a time to dance. I do not want to miss out on the dancing.


I first visiting the  Duwamish Longhouse in Feb. 2010. To read about that encounter, check out ‘The Condo and the Longhouse.’

Whose Feet: America Discovers Columbus

November 10, 2011

I wouldn’t normally use my blog for a ‘book report,’ but every now and then comes a book that demands to be shared. One such book is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Author Charles C. Mann has managed to upend the mainstream Euro-American version of history.

Most of us recognize that Columbus didn’t actually ‘discover’ anything, since the first peoples of the Americas obviously knew all about the existence of these continents. It’s also probable that other eastern hemisphere travelers beat Columbus to American shores. But what most of us don’t know is that the Americas were truly a ‘happening place’ long before Columbus arrived.

This book reminds me of the paradigm-busting that Jesus Christ does in the biblical ‘sermon on the mount.’* You know, this is the part where Jesus challenges the conventional beliefs of his culture by saying:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you…if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Charles C. Mann doesn’t claim any divine authority. He doesn’t even claim 100% factual correctness. Even so, the effect on Euro-American readers is similarly mind-blowing. Mann compares and synthesizes a big range of research findings. Research is messy, so there is plenty of controversy – but the emerging evidence points to a history that is very different from what we usually hear.  Here’s my own unofficial sample of what’s offer:

You have heard accounts of American history that begin with the arrival of the Europeans. But research tells us that the first peoples of the Americas were already busy creating diverse, vibrant civilizations, full of political intrigue, economic innovation and constant social change.

You have heard that agriculture was invented in the Middle East, and that this was the key to human development. But research tells us that agriculture was also invented more or less simultaneously in Mesoamerica. The development of maize (corn) was an amazing feat of genetic engineering. One researcher estimates that 3/5 of the world’s cultivated crops were developed first in Mesoamerica.**

You have heard that some Pilgrims to New England received survival help from Native Americans who were ‘friendly.’ And maybe they were friendly. But research also suggests that these Native Americans were seeking to maneuver the Pilgrims to their own advantage in a sophisticated power play against rival nearby confederacies. In other words, they had their own complex political systems, already in progress.

You have heard that the Native Americans lost the above gamble because the Europeans had better weapons. But research now tells because the Europeans brought with them a smallpox pandemic that swept death across the Americas. One higher-end estimate suggests that smallpox killed 95% of the western hemisphere’s population.*** Hmm, no wonder the Europeans came out on top.

You have heard that the Americas were sparsely populated. But research now indicates that there were likely between 40 – 100 million people in the Americas when Columbus showed up.**** Mesoamerica and South America had hosted many large and densely populated cities. The Norte Chico civilization in the Andes was highly urbanized as early as 3000 B.C.

You probably learned in school that evidence of human habitation in the Americas goes back about 11,000 years. But research now tells us that the first peoples have probably been here for at least 20 – 30,000 years.***** It seems to me that this research is beginning to sound similar to some native peoples’ accounts, which state that they have been here since the beginning of time.

You have heard that Native Americans ‘lived lightly on the land,’ making scarcely any impact on the natural environment. And research tells us that in some cases, that was true. In other cases, it was utterly false. It now looks like the entire Amazon region may have been carefully cultivated and landscaped by its Native American inhabitants.

I could go on, but instead I urge you to grab a copy of the book and read 1491 for yourself. You may or may not agree with all the details, but I guarantee your perceptions will be stretched. It’s time for all of us in the Americas to ‘rediscover’ the myth of Columbus.


*The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 5 (TNIV)

**1491, p.197


****p.104, 148


Whose Feet: The Next Generation

May 30, 2011

Today I’m delighted to introduce a ‘guest blogger:’ my own step-daughter Paige Thompson!

Paige has just finished writing a paper on Makah Nation whaling rights for her seventh grade social studies class at Pacific Cascade Middle School in Issaquah. The assignment was to write a paper to take a position on a controversial issue from the recent past. Paige chose to research the legal battles surrounding Makah hunting of grey whales in the late 1990s.  Her paper was just turned in, so it has not yet been graded by her social studies teacher. But in the areas of cross-cultural empathy and personal courage, I’d say Paige gets an A!

Click here to read Paige’s paper: ‘A Way of Life’

Whose Feet: No Time for Mukilteo

April 24, 2011

I’ve been to Mukilteo twice now. Both times, I tried and failed to make time for a visit to the lighthouse. What interests me about the Mukilteo Lighthouse is not the lighthouse at all, despite its picturesque charm. I’m interested because that lighthouse sits atop a piece of land that is also known as Point Elliott, the site of the 1855 signing of the Point Elliott Treaty.

Through that treaty, 82 First Nations leaders ceded the lands between Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains that lie to the east, from south of where Seattle now sits all the way northwards to the Canadian border. In return, the USA promised ongoing hunting and fishing rights to the signatory tribes, and in some cases small reservations. Many feel that the treaty was imposed rather than fairly negotiated. Within a few decades, some key provisions were already being broken. I wanted to visit the Mukilteo Lighthouse to read the modest plaque commemorating the treaty, to reflect, to pray, and to mourn.

During my first visit to Mukilteo, I didn’t even succeed in seeing the lighthouse. I had a nearby scuba class to get to, you see, and the class ran late. The second time I visited Mukilteo, on a recent Sunday morning, I arrived too early. The fenced-in lighthouse site was open only from noon to 5, and I had arrived at 11 o’clock. I couldn’t wait around until noon, because I was on my way to a church meeting, and besides that I really needed to find a washroom! All I managed to do was photograph the lighthouse from outside the fence. The window sign proclaimed “We’re Open,” but in fact the whole area was closed up tight.

From time to time, significant reconciling events take place at this lighthouse. In August 2010, over 200 descendents of the treaty signers gathered at the lighthouse for an event called ‘Return to Muckl-te-oh.’ The descendents of prominent white pioneers stepped forward to apologize for the injustices of the recent past. This effort appears to be a very admirable step in the right direction. But aside from the handful of people involved in such reconciling events . . . where are the rest of us?

What keeps me from getting to the Mukilteo Lighthouse when it is open?  And what prevents thousands who drive past every day, en route to the Whidbey Island ferry, from stopping to ponder the treaty? Is it our American addition to busy-ness? Or our human tendency to avoid uncomfortable truths? Whatever the reason, I fear that bypassing Mukilteo, and places like it, perpetuates a gaping collective wound. Will we ever heal what ails us if we can’t find time for the significance of Mukilteo?


For the text of the Point Elliott Treaty, check out HistoryLink.org.

Whose Feet: What’s Changed?

March 24, 2011

It’s been almost five months since I wrote a blog entry. What happened? Well, nothing, really. I simply got waylaid by a doctoral dissertation. Most PhD candidates fail to do something important while writing up their research. In my case, I failed to blog. But even while the blog was on hiatus, I have continued to think about First Nations’ history – and the history of my own people.

 I began this reflection over a year ago. In that time, what has changed? What difference has it made?  What sort of impact have I achieved? Well, not much, really.  I have established some new friendships. I’ve encouraged a few like-minded souls. And I have made a very modest contribution to raising awareness among my network of friends and colleagues.

 So I ask myself again: What’s changed? And I think about it for a while.  And finally I answer: ME. I have changed, because I now see the world a little bit differently.  

 I’ve glimpsed a First Nations’ perspective on local events, such as the use of deadly force by police, the cleanup of the Duwamish Waterway, and the bizarre effects of the movie “Twilight” on the Quileute Nation.  I’ve been dismayed by how mainstream culture keeps native issues ‘off the radar.’ Even in discussions about ethnic diversity and reconciliation, the First Nations often go unmentioned.  Also, my own ethical frame of reference has expanded. When my extended family talks of ‘oil rights’ in the Dakotas, I now wonder not only about environmental risks. I also wonder how exactly a person can own the ‘rights’ to a resource found under land that once belonged to the Sioux. All in all, I’ve got a lot more questions than answers.

 I am only one person, but I am changing. It’s a start.

Whose Feet: Since Time Began

November 1, 2010

A wonderful thing has happened. A friend has pointed out that I made a mistake, and this brings me great joy. I know that I, with my European-American cultural background, make many mistakes in my attempts to learn about First Nations’ history. I also know that true learning means having friends and colleagues who are willing to correct me. So I am grateful to Lenore Three Stars for gently showing me the following error.

Back on January 19 of this year, while exploring the origins of the Salish peoples, I wrote that “they arrived here an estimated 11-12,000 years ago via land bridge from Siberia to Alaska.” Well, OK, that statement probably sounds fine to the ears of white anthropologists, since they are the ones who originated the theory. However, the land bridge theory may conflict with the understanding of the peoples themselves about who they are, and where they come from.

I am learning that each of the First Nations has its own belief about origins. Many of those beliefs are centered right here on North American soil. I recently visited the museum and cultural center of the Makah Nation, on the northwest tip of what is now called the Olympic Peninsula. One of the first points made in the history exhibit is that the Makah have inhabited those lands “since the beginning of time.”

Since time began.  I don’t know how the anthropologists reconcile this powerful history with their land bridge theory, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. If I must choose whose version of history to honor, I will honor the descendents of the people who lived it. And I will request again, with a little trepidation and a lot of joy, that my First Nations colleagues keep on telling me whenever I get it wrong.

With that in mind, the credit for all good things in today’s posting goes to Lenore. The accountability for any offenses rests with me, and you can reach me at MGarred5@hotmail.com. Many thanks.


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