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The Morning After Lasts Ten Thousand Years

  • Written by Janet Thomas

Thank you to Boyd Pratt and the San Juan Island Library for hosting Lummi leader, Timothy Ballew Sr. at the Grange last evening. It was two hours of deep history from here on San Juan Island, where the Lummi lived and fished and farmed for thousands of years. Ballew remembers his fishing experiences as a youth at the south end of the island where the salmon leaped and danced in abundance “like raindrops in the waters.” The Lummi built Longhouses here to which they returned every year. They buried their dead here in sacred ceremony.

Before the arrival of the white colonials, life was seasonal throughout the Salish Sea. Peaceful, too. Nobody could own the seasons and it was the seasons that defined where, when, and how of life was lived. It was a vital partnership with nature and between tribes. These days it’s tourist season that defines the times. But there is an odd continuing of tradition: approximately half of the homes are lived in only half of the time. Only difference is the culture and the reasons why.

At a recent hearing regarding a new “boutique’ hotel in Friday Harbor, there was continual reference to “historical preservation.” But it is a “preservation” approach that only goes back to the first white people and their buildings. It is racist. It is self-serving. It utterly ignores the preservation of what was real—the integrity of nature, tribal culture, and deep history. And it is an all-too common theme. At American Camp, when the rabbits were gassed, and the raptors disappeared, and the fox started to starve, it was all on behalf of restoring the prairie to the way it was when the first white people arrived. There can be nothing at all historical about a boutique hotel. It reeks of elitism and we already have plenty of that on the rise. How about preserving the last integrity of historical vista in Friday Harbor?

Timothy Ballew Sr. spoke gently about his peoples’ experience as well as his own and about the losses that have defined the Lummi Tribes’ history—as well as the gains. “You guys need us,” he said. “And we need you.” He spoke about the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual losses the Lummi experienced through the colonization of place and people. He spoke also about the strength of his people and their intimate spiritual connection to the endless gifts and guidance of nature. He spoke about the wisdom and accuracy of past prophecies and the ways in which the animals spoke to the people. When he was asked about future prophecies, he paused in reflection, then spoke just a few words, “Ask the orca,” he said.

The Southern Residents orca whales were here long before the Lummi. Throughout history, the orca whales’ influence counseled, celebrated, healed, inspired and guided tribal communities throughout the Salish Sea. There are stories of how they accompanied the canoes carrying the dead to burial. They were seen as offshore families whose lives reflected both the life and the spirit of their onshore relatives. And they are now facing imminent extinction. Those simple words, “Ask the orcas,” say it all. As they go, so go we.

There were other insights too, from Timothy Ballew, Sr. He spoke to the divide within the Lummi tribe regarding the relocation of “Lolita” from captivity in Florida and her return as “Tokitae” to contained waters off Orcas Island. He does not agree with it. And neither do others in the Lummi Tribe. After all these decades, Florida is her home, he said. Bringing her to an unfamiliar, isolated place, away from all she has connected to over so many years, could be cruel.

My mind goes automatically to those who would benefit through having a new object of tourism in these waters. Another object of intrusive research and exploitation. Another way to self-aggrandize themselves at the cost of the well-being of an already exploited orca whale. “Freedom” is easy to say. But for “Lolita,” it might not be so easy to feel—particularly when it is not freedom at all.

Timothy Ballew Jr. addressed all the complexities of culture and colonialism quietly, thoughtfully and insightfully. His vast experience encompasses his life as a community fisherman, his position as Tribal Chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, his career in law enforcement with the Lummi Nation, and his teaching at the Northwest Indian College. And within it all is his wisdom. “Ask the orcas,” he said. And I wonder if we have the wisdom to do so.



Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

Last modified onMonday, 20 August 2018 14:46

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