Twenty-four years ago, my father took me to a stream in British Columbia where the water flowed red with tulmn (red ochre). Before that, he learned about the tulmn deposit from a Yakama tribal elder who ironically, traveled hundreds of miles outside of her direct cultural area to collect the red earth from that specific stream bed.
To be honest, I once regarded the tulmn river as a curiosity of nature or an interesting side show to our vacation. However, after my father passed, I felt an inexplicable longing to return. In time, I came to realize that my father showed me something important that I failed to appreciate in my youth.
Years passed, but I never got the chance to return, until now.
This week, a close friend helped me remember the general location, and my friends from the Colville Tribes arranged transportation for my daughters and me.
When we arrived in the general area, nothing looked the same as I remembered. So much can change in a quarter of a century. In particular, human development can alter the course of nature and cause the water to flow in other directions. Plants and trees can appear where once only grass grew.
At one point, the environment looked so unfamiliar that we almost turned back. But in the end, we finally parked the car, searched on foot, and quickly found a small pool of red water sitting amid the cattails and skunk cabbage. Perhaps the water flows in springtime, but now in September, the stream was reduced to a collection of muddy bogs. We were able to skim small amounts of red earth from the upper layer of the tulmn deposits.
Everything seemed different than I remember, but it was quite emotional for me to return to the sacred red ochre stream of my father.
Skunk cabbage grows near the red ochre.
Red pools of water.
tulmnetkʷ is a word I have never seen or heard, but Salish languages allow for the creation of new words based on many possible suffixes and prefixes that can be added to a root. In this case, I used tulmn (red ochre) as the base, and added the suffix -etkʷ, meaning water. Based on this combination, tulmnetkʷ would mean 'red ochre water.'