Sunday, May 15, 2005

Truth and Reconciliation

The weekend of May 5-6-7 2005 was a landmark for the city of Port Angeles and the Elwha Klallam Tribe. Naomi Tutu spent those 3 days touring the Tse- Whitzen village site and speaking with local people.

Naomi, Reverend Charlie Mays, Mike Dougherty, and John Brewer as well as a select few friends from town attended our Traditional Foods Dinner. They ate the familiar salmon, clams and oysters.

Mike came to my table and asked me to show him how to eat the chitons that we call in english Chinese Slippers. They grow on the big rocks in the salt water. They look like the shoes that the Chinese wore when they first came here.

The chitons have little shells along their back that make me think of dinosaurs. You remove the shells and run your thumb along the body and remove the innards. Then you can eat the meat. I cleaned it for everyone.

I thought how different this must be for people who don't hunt or gather their own food. They don't have to bloody their hands with death. Everyone was respectful and ate what was put in front of them. It must have been a totally new experience for everyone.

I told how we started these dinners. Our ceremonies had been outlawed by Washington State and the US Government. In the 70's and 80's I tried to start the First Salmon Ceremonies. People weren't ready at that time.

Most of our people are Christian now. They still have that instinctive fear of being jailed for practicing our ceremonies. I softened my approach and had a "dinner" instead of a ceremony. We thank the Creator for all the foods provided.

The Center for World Indigenous Studies has found that Pacific Northwest Indians have evolved along with their environment. We get the most calcium from the chitons I mentioned.

We ask the elders if there is anything they would like us to get for them. One asked for seal. We had it at the next dinner. It was the first time that many of us had eaten it. It was delicious.

I told our Creation Story, the flood story and how we came to develop a symbiotic relationship with our environment.

Naomi had to leave early to fascilitate a meeting with Tribal members and three members of the city council and members of the Multicultural Taskforce. The hour was spent with each person stating what they wanted the other side to hear.

Naomi's speech that night for the whole community centered on the development of the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in South Africa. She mentioned that morning's tour of Tsewhitzen. She was told that pipes had been laid by the mill. During excavation human skulls were found below, alongside and on top of pipes. There was no way that the mill could not have known they were there.

This atrocity reminded Naomi of one with her people. Many people were "disappeared" during apartheid. After it was over they found mass graves of people who had been tortured and killed.

She said one mother wanted to identify her son herself. He was 15 years old. She had just bought him a new pair of tennis shoes. He had disappeared a few days later.

When a new mass grave had been found the young mother went to the site looking for her son. Bodies were stacked on top of each other. She recognized her son by his new tennis shoes. I was crying and could hear sobs behind me.

She told stories of the men who had participated in the torture and murders. After apartheid the Truth and Reconcilliation commission was formed. Men who were charged with committing atrocities were brought before the commission. If the told the truth of what they did, they would be pardoned.

It seemed that most could not own up to what they had done. Many held offices in their churches and had families and were considered pillars of their community. They did not want their families and community to know of that horrible part of their life. I cannot think of a word to describe the ghastly things they had done to other people.

Naomi said that the people who won their case over missing relatives were given the choice to set the compensation. They asked for schools and clinics for their village. Naomi's stories told of how low humanity could fall and the nobility we can reach.

The gift she left with me is hope. She said that the city of Port Angeles and the Elwha Klallam Reservation is one community. She said we are ahead of the curve because we are talking with each other.

The next step is to get the Washington State Department of Transportation to come out to the Reservation and talk with community members. They are hiding behind the government to government farce that they have abused. They said they are meeting with the Tribe's Business Committee.

The members of the Tribe are the governing body, not the Business Committee. The government to government relationship is between the Tribes and the federal government. It is being misused and misinterpreted here.

Dialogue between the people of Port Angeles and members of the Elwha Klallam Tribe has begun. Coverups and abuses will be harder to contain.