A Sense of Place. That’s the theme of next week’s BMCC Arts and Culture Festival, a week of music, writing, film, and community discussion. It’s also the theme of Yamhill County’s Terroir Arts and Culture Festival in McMinnville the following weekend. In fact, a sense of place is what has put Northwest literature on the map for readers everywhere.
So I wasn’t surprised to notice in the Spring issue of “Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place” that nine of the contributors have read at Pendleton Center for the Arts First Draft Writers’ Series. Or are about to read: Vince Wixon will be here on Thursday. We pay pretty close attention to place in Umatilla County. How could we not, living where we do?
This year BMCC has invited me to be the festival’s artist-in-residence. My novel “All Coyote’s Children” is set on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and from the time I published my first book, “Above the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land,” place has been an essential part of my writing. I’ll be giving readings and hoping for the kind of lively Q and A sessions we have at First Draft. And on Thursday at noon I’ll be joining Rich Wandschneider and Pamela Reese to think out loud about home, about making a home in this place.
I’m especially looking forward to this discussion because I am searching for answers. This place we love, this incredible Northwest — in fact, this entire continent and the South American continent as well — was already “home” to many, many people when my ancestors arrived. And my ancestors’ relationship to place — conquest, control — led to a whole lot of suffering for those people.
I thought I knew quite a lot about that suffering. Sand Creek, the Trail(s) of Tears. Boarding schools. “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Allotment Acts. Termination. But in the community room at Pendleton Public Library, while doing background research for “All Coyote’s Children,” I was stunned to find these words, written by Oregon’s first historian, Herbert Howe Bancroft: “The quick extermination of the aborigines may be regarded as a blessing both to the red race and to the white.”
How do I — how do any of us — live with that?
We have begun, at last, to try. To make amends. But is issuing an official if half-hearted government apology, or starting public events with an oral land acknowledgment and supporting the return of as much homeland as possible to Native peoples — is that enough?
I’m here, and Europe can’t take me back. I’d have to split myself into too many pieces. And like you, I love this sage-steppe land, the shadows of the Blues.
Who wouldn’t love the river of my childhood home, the Clearwater? The most beautiful river in the world, I think, every time I drive along that canyon. Or the Wallowa country, where I was privileged to live for over a decade. The high desert east and south of us, the stunning shapes and shades of the Palouse.
But I know what happened in these places. So how can I live here with integrity? How can I be “home”?
Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” has one suggestion. If our ancestors came as immigrants to this continent, she says, we can never become indigenous. “No amount of time or caring changes history or substitutes with soul-deep fusion with the land.” But like contemporary immigrants, we can become “naturalized.” Rather than seeing the earth primarily as a resource to exploit, we can learn to have a deeper — and reciprocal — relationship with the plants and animals and peoples of this place. We can learn what they have to teach us and accept our responsibilities to them as well as the gifts they give us.
Impossibly idealistic? Maybe.
But my Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla neighbors don’t call such ideas pie in the sky. They call it First Foods. If we’re lucky we get invited to the huckleberry feast.
I’m still searching for my own way forward. But I hope the title of this column — words I heard spoken in Harney County, in the center of all that space — will someday prove true. “You can get anywhere from here.”