Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Crying Indian

Fellow blogger JenX defines my generation as the collection of “former latchkey kids born between 1961-81, at the intersection of faith and culture.” Her blog explores the cultural subtleties of Generation X with unusual passion and insight; unusual because many of us hardly even recognize ourselves as a coherent, identifiable group. In our youth, we often experienced some degree of identity crisis, but then again, perhaps our very struggle for identity IS one of the defining characteristics of our generation.

Inspired by Jen’s blog, I’ve begun to consider my own place in this phenomenon called Generation X.

Just the other day, I was reminded of an iconic image from our generation. Almost anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember the crying Indian from the Keep America Beautiful ads. A Native American man dressed in buckskin and a single feather overlooks a polluted cityscape choked with cars, trash, and smog while a teardrop rolls down his cheek. The narrator intones with stoic solemnity, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

The problem with the ad is that neither the Indian nor the teardrop were real. The teardrop was glycerin and the Indian was really an Italian-American who took the name Iron Eyes Cody. His real name was Espera Oscar DeCorti. Ginger Strand wrote a much more thorough and thought-provoking account of the true history behind the ad.

And yet this image, though largely false, still managed to stir up strong feelings for many people. It invoked a sense of the idyllic, mythic past of our nation and inspired many to express greater concern for the environment.

On a personal level, the crying Indian creates a sense of irony, forever trapped between negative and idealized stereotypes. As a young child in the 1970s, I was old enough to remember the lingering remnants of a deeply racist society. I still remember the difficulty my parents faced when trying to rent a house. In those days, people made little attempt to conceal their racist attitudes and overtly refused us housing simply for being Indian. I can still hear the insults in my mind and feel the sting of rejection. And still the 1970s produced a change in racial attitudes. Suddenly the popular culture turned, and being Indian became something to admire, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. One moment we were despised, and the next moment we were loved for being the “noble savages” of someone’s imagination. Imagine my confusion as a little boy when my ethnic identity was simultaneously hated and treated as an idealized myth. Both versions of popular mythology tend to isolate the human beings behind the label.

So for Jen, this is my version of a Generation X story, with a Native twist.

By the way, you can check out this version of the crying Indian ad. Here’s another one.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


My daughters and I went to the mountain this morning to pick huckleberries. My mom, Kaleb, and Shanoah also made the trip with us.

We follow a tradition going back thousands of years; the Spokane historically traveled to these mountains every summer to gather enough huckleberries to last all year. Nowadays, we simply collect enough berries to honor our traditions. We freeze them and save them for winter. Eating huckleberries at a winter feast is like having a mouthful of summer.

And for me, the huckleberries help me keep my traditions alive. My ancestors come alive during the ceremony dinners and when we gather our traditional foods. I feel close to the spirit in those moments, and hope to instill that feeling in my children.

A thunderstorm roared over the mountain at about 4:00 in the afternoon, drenching the hillside in rain. Thunderbolts cracked overhead and almost convinced us to abandon our mission. But when the storm passed, we discovered a hidden cache of berries, now sparkling amid crystal drops of water.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Peace Blessing

The Spokane Interfaith Council gathered a diverse representation of religions and cultures to ask a blessing of world peace. We convened at the summit of Mount Spokane, in part to honor the sacred traditions of the First People to inhabit this region, and in part to honor a request from the Venerable Geshe Thupten Phelgye. As an important part of the event, the Interfaith Council invited a representative of the Spokane people to offer a traditional blessing. I was honored to be the one who would fulfill their request.

As I considered the spiritual weight of the mountain, I felt compelled to share a prophetic story from our tradition:

"A fresh Spokane grave in the plague year 1782 held the remains of the little son of Yureerachen ('Circling Raven'), a shaman brother of the chief of the Upper Spokanes. Yureerachen, anguished at the death, blasphemed the Creator. 'Why,' he sobbed to his chieftan brother, 'did He take my son, who has committed no crime, and leave bad people on the earth?' One day his chieftan brother told him, 'All right, we will be as animals; we will disband our laws. First, you must go to the top of the [Spokane] mountain and fast four days and nights, then come back the fourth day just before noon. If you find no proof of our Creator, we will then disband our laws and live like animals.' Clad only in a breechcloth, Yureerachen went to the top of the mountain. He built a fire, prayed, beat sticks, cried, and sang. On the fourth day, before dawn, in a burst of light, he heard the voice of the Creator. 'Look down the mountain into the future of your people,' spoke the Creator. Overwhelmed, Yureerachen knew in an instant that he had to bring word of this vision to his people. But he also knew the time to do so was not at hand, for in mourning the recent loss of their loved ones, they would never believe him. What should he tell them?

"Yureerachen raced down the hill to affirm to his chieftan brother and the other people his own faith in the Creator. The rest of his story, a prophecy, he kept to himself until the time should come to reveal it. One day, about the year 1790, there was a defeaning blast, the air clouded, and the ground became covered with a flour pumicite. The people, well versed in stories of the earlier volcanic catastrophe, were stricken with fear by the 'dry snow' mantling the earth. It was as though an evil hand were completing a sinister cycle on earth, from ashes to ashes. They thought the end of the world was at hand.

"Yureerachen felt it was the proper time to prophesy. First, he calmed his people with assurances that the Creator was not ending their existence on earth. 'Soon,' he said, 'there will come from the rising sun a different kind of man from any you have yet seen, who will bring with them a book, and will teach you everything, and after that the world will fall to pieces.' When the people pressed him for details, he said white men would come."

*Ruby, Robert H. & Brown, John A., The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun. Norman, Oklahoma: 1970.

I recited the story in my own words, and emphasized the grief and anger felt by the bereaved father. Who among us has never experienced that kind of loss, or suffered anger and doubt? When my own father died, I certainly felt a similar level of anger toward the Creator.

And yet, as we stand upon the sacred mountain of my ancestors, we remember that the old chief re-discovered the Creator in the midst of his bereavement and allowed him to heal his anger and loss. We also remember that our prayers for peace will never become reality unless we arrive at a similar place of inward acceptance and peace. By releasing old hurts and anger, we allow a space for the peace to enter.

After the blessing, we had the opportunity to visit and take pictures.

Our group photograph was taken near the Vista House on the summit of Mount Spokane.

Of course, how could I stand at such a picturesque location and not provide my readers with another version of "the Barry?"

I tried to teach Geshe-la to make my famous pose, but in the end, the sun only hurt his eyes. As I struggled to focus the camera, he squinted in pain and cried, "Hurry!" Finally, he broke the pose and burst into a full belly laugh. Instead of capturing the somber, contemplative stereotype of a Buddhist monk, I captured his unrehearsed and unpretentious laughter (top photograph).

After the blesssing, Rhonda and I had a chance to appreciate the natural beauty of the mountain. This blue butterfly was for me something of a final touch to a perfect morning.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Geshe Thupten Phelgye

The Venerable Geshe Thupten Phelgye is a Buddhist monk and a member of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile. He has been working as the Buddhist ambassador to the Sulha Peace Project in the Middle East under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Known affectionately as Geshe-la, Phelgye traveled to Spokane in part through the Interfaith Council. Geshe-la also visited Vision Mountain near Tum Tum, Washington and re-consecrated a Buddhist stupa.

My friends from the mountain invited me to participate in an intercultural ceremony combining Tibetan and Native American spiritualities. I sang with the Dancing Horses drum and assisted my uncle Pat Moses with a traditional Spokane blessing of the land.

Both Geshe-la and my uncle Pat spoke about the honor and reverence they feel for the living creatures of the Earth.

Candace Finity helped to replace the Tibetan prayer flags on the stupa.

Francesca Firstwater has been a guardian of the stupa for several years.

Geshe-la also helped to replace the prayer flags.

Friends gathered to take down the poles and replace the flags.

A stupa is a place of Buddhist devotion where saintly relics are often kept. Geshe-la re-arranged many of the offerings left by the faithful and curious alike.

Geshe-la instructed Francesca regarding the proper arrangement of the stupa.

As Geshe-la chanted during the re-consecration ceremony, I felt myself transported spiritually to other places. Something about the tone of his voice remined me of Casimiro from the Amazon.

In the late afternoon, we gathered near Edward's longhouse for an intercultural ceremony.

Geshe-la spoke about his compassion for all living beings.

My uncle Pat also spoke about his respect the animals and the earth.

At the end of the evening, we sang at the drum and Geshe-la even led some of the verses. At one point he commented regarding his admiration for Native American cultures because of their similarity to Tibetan culture. "We are separated by many thousands of miles and years, but we are the same," he said.

For more information, you can read an article about Geshe-la published by the Spokesman.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


This photograph of my grandfather Gib Eli from the collection of Father Thomas Connolly, SJ. This digital copy came to me through the research efforts of my newfound cousin Chad Hamill. Something about the photograph stirs a feeling of sadness and recognition in me.

Meeting Chad re-opened many old questions about my personal and family history. Why didn't I get to know my grandfather when he was alive? How would things be different if I had known the living man instead of a handful of old photographs and second-hand stories? I'm grateful for the pictures I do receive, but sometimes I wish he were here to give me direction and advice.

But then maybe my wish comes true in more ways than I know. As a child, I was once startled awake by the sight of a tall man kneeling by my bedside. He wore a hat just like the one in this photograph. He looked up once and then vanished into my dreams. Another time, I listened to stories from a person who knew him well, and he seemed so familiar. Even the stories of his humor reminded me of myself.

Perhaps he is more present than I realize.

By the way, the title of this blog is modified from the original Salish. The word for a paternal grandfather is "sxepe," but a young person or child would say "hapa" or "heppa." A different word applies for a maternal grandfather: "sile."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chad Hamill

Some readers may recall that back in January of this year, I stumbled upon a paper regarding my grandfather and the spiritual traditions of the Plateau Salish people. Since that time, I was able to contact the author and learn more about the origins of his writing.

As it turns out, the author Chad Hamill is my distant relative through our common ancestor Jim Elijah, whom I mentioned here and here. Jim was the father of my grandfather Gib Eli, mentioned here, here, here, and here. Chad’s personal genealogical quest led him back to the Spokane country and gave rise to an interest in our cultural and spiritual heritage. Through a series of spirit-led connections, he came into contact with Father Connolly, who was a close personal friend of my grandfather Gib Eli.

Father provided much of the information for the paper, and is now writing a more detailed book regarding his memories of my grandfather.

Within the last few weeks, Chad came to Spokane to assist with the book and arranged a personal meeting with me. Since then, we’ve spoken face to face on at least four separate occasions and shared an instant kinship. The rest of the story belongs to Chad and Father Connolly, so I suppose we'll just have to wait for the book.

On a personal level, what does this mean to me? For one, my head is swimming with new information regarding my grandfather. What is more, I’m continually reminded of the powerful, invisible bonds that draw people together from across worlds, cultures, and distant generations. These voices speak to us from the past and influence the course of events yet unborn. After everything, the power behind this meeting is a mystery, and no doubt the only appropriate response is humility.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Spirit and Song

Anthony called yesterday evening from prison.

More than six years ago he left my home under stressful circumstances to pursue a life of insanity. He wandered the path of addiction, never progressing much beyond one jail sentence or another. In his mind, he broke free of my restrictions as a parent, only to find himself captive to genuine prison walls made of concrete and razor wire.

In spite of our previous conflicts, he still calls me about once a week. I can't help but think my parenting made some positive impact in his life.

Before this last month or so, I never thought he listened to anything I said. Back in the day, I dragged him to ceremonies on the Spokane Reservation hoping some spiritual teaching would penetrate his rebellion. In those days, I sang and danced for his life, while he rolled his eyes. It seemed he could never escape fast enough when the ceremony door opened and he found himself free to resume his chosen life.

But yesterday evening, he called to say he is leading a sweat lodge ceremony in the prison this upcoming weekend. He said, "My brothers in the lodge are pitiful. They didn't get the same teachings as me." Then he asked me to confirm a few of the songs we used to sing in the lodge all those years ago.

"Which ones?" I asked. He responded by singing one of my father's songs in perfect, beautiful form. Not only did he sing the correct notes, but his inflection reminded me of my own father's voice. As he reflected my father's legacy to me, I choked back tears. "Yes, you got it right," I managed to say. All these years I wondered if he retained anything I taught him, and there he confirmed the most sacred of teachings in the form of a song. My father once remarked that his songs were the greatest inheritance he could leave his children, and now I know for certain that his legacy will survive at least one more generation.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


One of the big disappointments of our high school reunion was the music. The DJ was a young kid who apparently forgot to consider his audience. While he jammed out to the current rap hits, those of us who wanted 80s music stood around looking bored. You would think a DJ would come prepared with the requested music, but not in this case.

We finally complained enough and got a few good 80s tunes, but even most of those were re-mixed versions rather than the originals.

The night was finally redeemed when our classmates voted for the best dancers of the reunion. Tim Tyvan and I tied for second place (I believe Jason Zerba won first). To break the tie, Tim challenged me to a dance-off. I was embarrassed as hell, but I couldn't just walk away. I spent too many high school days shrinking into the shadows and playing small rather than living for the moment. In the end, I think Tim was funnier than me, but I gave him a run for his money. He claims that I won, and I claim that he won. In either case, we made the memory of a decade.

High School Friends

Carrie James and I attended many high school dances together. We went to prom, and after she went away to Pacific Lutheran University, I drove to Seattle and attended her college homecoming dance. (No, I will not post our prom picture online).

David Ohler brings light into the old high school auditorium/theater.

This was the one place at school that changed the least during the recent renovations. In fact, this was my favorite part of the tour; it brought back memories of school plays we did back in the day, such as Bye Bye Birdie, the Mousetrap, and others.

Michaelle Barber returned from Colorado to attend our reunion. I forgot how much fun she is to have around; she's hilarious.

Brook Strang, David Ohler, Venus Delcambre, Carrie James, Kim Ostendorf, Shannon Ziudema, Linda Busch, and me.

John Leppert and I attended the LDS high school seminary back in the day.


The old smoke stack is visible through the new addition windows.

The attendees view a wall commemorating Rogers alumni.

During my teenage years, I attended Rogers High School in northeast Spokane and graduated with the Class of '89. This year we held our 20 year class reunion.

This morning, a few of us gathered in the newly renovated school building for a tour. The old facade of the building remains the same, along with the old smoke stack, but almost everything else changed. A massive addition dominates the new design and features towering steel beams and modern plate glass. It was difficult to feel nostalgic or sentimental when nothing looked, felt, or even smelled the same.

My grandmother atteded Rogers in the 1940s, and both my parents graduated from Rogers, my father in 1968, and my mother in 1970. None of them would recognize their high school today.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Dakota and I spent some good father-and-son time downtown for the annual Independence Day fireworks display. We first sat under a tree at the edge of the park, but then we saw Paul and Angela and sat with their family. I told Paul I would post my favorite pictures of the event.


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