Eye to Eye

Eye to Eye

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March 31, 2012

When I traveled to the central coast of Washington state each summer in the 1990s, there was a small room attached to the Quileute senior center that served as the museum for the tribe . On display were artifacts — mostly baskets — that depicted large canoes of Quileute in pursuit of Humpback whales. Now days, they no longer hunt whales, but still fish salmon and halibut.

Perhaps more amazing than harpooning whales on the open ocean from hand-carved cedar canoes, was the ancient Quileute practice of constructing communal structures using two hundred foot long logs — thick as a man is tall — as clear-span ridge beams, by using earthen ramps, cedar fiber ropes, and human muscle power. Both required elaborate preparation and organizing.

My friend Benny, who was part Hoh, once told me stories of growing up there during and after World War Two. The Hoh res had no road, and was reachable only by friends who came in boats, but the Quileute res had a road that connected their village of LaPush with the Olympic rainforest logging town of Forks. Still, by war’s end, the Quileute had no electricity or phones.

Benny remembered fondly those days as a kid when everyone gathered for a potluck each night after hunting, fishing and gathering all day, to share food and stories around a campfire until they drifted off to their beds. He also recalled happily the time as a teenager when the Bureau of Indian Affairs offered the Quileute electricity if they would dig holes for the cedar poles that would connect LaPush by copper wire to Forks. This big project of digging miles of post holes, that began each day with a hike in the woods together — often catching a glimpse of bears, elk, and other wildlife — and was interrupted by a picnic mid-day, concluded with berry-picking and wood-gathering on their way home–another highlight of cooperative effort in his youth.

But Benny also recalled the changes that happened as his friends and relatives acquired refrigerators and radios that allowed them to keep surplus food and eat by incandescent light in their homes while listening to radio programs. Slowly, fewer and fewer gathered around the campfire to hear the stories that had been told there for thousands of years.

About this time of subtle social change, Benny learned to scuba dive at the Quileute Coast Guard Station, and started borrowing gear to watch the Gray whales each spring and fall when they stopped at LaPush to rub the barnacles off their bellies on the perfectly-sloped, gravelly beach. Most times, Benny just sat on the bottom blowing bubbles from his diving mask and looking eye-to-eye with his mammalian cousins who’d stopped in on their semi-annual migrations, as they’d done at this rocky shore they’d shared with the Quileute for hundreds of generations.

Ten years back, when Benny returned to the other world to share stories with his ancestors, I remembered these stories he told me over the phone one morning, while holding his drum and the photo I’d sent him of the new canoe carved by his childhood friend at LaPush. He was thinking of maybe going back for a visit during the great gathering of tribal ocean paddlers from Canada and Washington that I told him I’d seen advertised while camping out there on vacation.

I don’t know if he made it back, but I like to think that he’s happy more people are starting to appreciate the values of cooperation, reciprocity, and sharing he grew up with. It would make him feel good.

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