We gathered in a campground overlooking the mighty Columbia, just north of the place where the Spokane joins it. My family and friend were four of the small handful of white faces in a crowd of Spokane, Colville, Yakima and Okanagan tribespeople. There was a river expert who had paddled upstream from the mouth of the Columbia to its headwaters in Canada. There were organizers telling the crowd about other projects relating to coal and air quality. But the main purpose of the gathering on Saturday was prayer. We prayed for the river.
If a congregation forgets to pray for its sick and dying members, we would say something was amiss. Yet do we look to the sick and dying parts of creation with the same prayerful sharing of sorrows? Too often, the non-human world does not receive our prayers. This gathering at the Two Rivers Campground was an exception to that trend. A bell rang rhythmically as two men sang. Speakers greeted the crowd in a language I did not know. A woman led us in singing Amazing Grace, first in Salish, then in English. I stood and spoke briefly about the rite of baptism being a calling to love all water. When the time came to bless the meal, fresh Chinook salmon and local corn, we spoke a common Catholic table prayer and many people crossed themselves. All our supposed difference faded away in the common act of prayer.
But under the harmony of prayer was also a lament. Stories of what would now be epic harvests of salmon came from elders in many tribes. They told of homeland and sacred sites flooded over by the building of the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. The Columbia River Treaty of 1964, signed by the U.S and Canada, made no effort to consult tribes or first nation peoples. There was no provision for the thousand and thousands of people made instantly homeless, crop-less and salmon-less in an instant. Poverty has plagued the region ever since.
The question drummed in my head like a loud heartbeat: what is a white woman like me to do here? Part of me wanted to openly weep, to join the grief so powerful even if 50 years old. Part of me wanted to kneel and ask forgiveness, both of the tribal peoples and of the river itself. I chose to simply participate in the act of communal prayer, standing up in my pastor’s collar (someone asked if I had been in a car accident and had a neck brace!).
One thing we can do is put action behind our prayers. The Columbia Treaty is being re-negotiated. We who are now people of Eastern Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Canada, and certainly those of us who are people of faith, can speak up for decisions that promote the health of the whole ecosystem. We must not defend policy that only benefits a few. Let these rivers of blessing once again burst with life.