“Peace and renewal. That is what Cha’lak’at’sit has always meant to the Chalat. The river was a gift from K’wati, who intended it to provide for our people. Whatever we decide now must be done with traditional Hoh belief in mind.”
Jay Raven rubbed his aching right shoulder, doing his best to pay attention to his uncle. At thirty, Jay was in the best shape of his life, but that didn’t mean he was Superman. “I was certain he’d say that,” he whispered to his brother, who stood next to him on the banks of the Cha’lak’at’sit—or, as the non-Natives called it, the Hoh River—near where it fed into the Pacific Ocean in Western Washington. “Our uncle and the rest of the elders will always see everything in the context of the past.”
Floyd jerked his head at the cedar canoe they’d pulled onto the gravel shore after bringing their uncle to where the Narrow Roaring Creek stretch began. “They’re going to be at this for hours. At least we’ll be moving with the river’s flow when we head back.”
“Fighting the current about did me in. Thanks for the help.”
“No sweat, bro. I knew you couldn’t get Uncle here on your own. I wish he’d sit down.”
So did Jay, but Uncle Talio was doing what he believed he’d been born to do.
“Seeing so many of the Chalat here today fills me with gratitude.” Uncle Talio moved in a semicircle, connecting with the over one hundred Hoh Native Americans who’d come for the meeting. “This shows that the decision we’ve been asked to make means a great deal to you.” He shifted position, leaning more of his weight on his cane. “Before I read the request from Dr. Anthony Gilsdorf, I’ll do my best to make sure everyone grasps the ramifications should we decide to have anything to do with the anthropologist.”
It had rained last night and, judging by the sodden clouds, Jay figured another downpour wasn’t far off. He’d grown up in and around Olympic National Forest. He didn’t quite have webbed feet, but as he’d told the woman he’d naïvely thought he’d spend his life with, one reason he’d left the Northwest rainforest was so he wouldn’t grow gills.
Leaving hadn’t lasted long, but he’d changed during those years while the forest remained the same. A thousand years after his death, this wet realm would endure. Ancient moss-studded Sitka spruce and western hemlock would still rise above mats of vine maples and fern. Maybe he should let it absorb him as it had his uncle and other members of the small tribe.
Only he couldn’t.
“Until whites ventured inland from the ocean,” Uncle Talio continued, “the river and the land around it was home to us and the other tribes. But even then our ancient way of life had been threatened by the newcomers’ diseases. Now what remains of the Chalat live near the mouth of the river we love, even as it slowly steals what little land we still have.”
“Did he have to bring this up?” Floyd muttered. “That anthropologist’s request has nothing to do with erosion.”
Jay smelled booze on Floyd’s breath, but Floyd wasn’t drunk. As many times as he’d attempted to get Floyd sober, he recognized the signs.
When Uncle Talio was acting in his role as a tribal Old People, he tended to sound as if he barely understood English, but just because he’d grown up speaking Quinault didn’t mean he was cut off from the twenty-first century. He simply preferred to live in the past.
Jay’s shoulders weren’t the only part of his body that ached. His back threatened to knot, and his knees were tender from supporting his weight the whole time Uncle Talio, Floyd and he had been in the canoe. As an Olympic National Park ranger, he was accustomed to spending his days on his feet, not struggling with the seldom-used but well-maintained canoe.
That’s what he was, he reminded himself as Uncle Talio held up a deerskin decorated with the tribe’s symbol of a stylized eagle and a salmon—a forest ranger. He was proud of who he was, he just didn’t want his heritage to define everything.
Uncle Talio swayed but caught himself. Concerned, Jay made his way around the Hoh who’d been standing in front of him. He unfolded the lawn chair he’d brought along and braced it as his uncle sat down.
He became aware of the river grumbling and laughing behind him and the darkening skies. A distant rumble had him looking for lightning, but he didn’t see anything. The land on either side of the river was open, but the forested mountains trapped the members of the small gathering. In some respects, he felt less claustrophobic when he was surrounded by thick vegetation than when he had a glimpse of space. It hadn’t always been like this. He’d loved growing up with a temperate-zone rainforest for his playground.
Something to his right and down the riverbank a couple hundred feet caught his attention. He recognized a salmon carcass. The thunder continued, slowly getting louder. A toddler clung to her father’s legs while the older Hoh nodded and occasionally exchanged glances. They were looking for signs that Thunderbird was in the forest. Thunderbird, yet another of the legends his uncle had shared with him while he was growing up.
For the better part of an hour, Uncle Talio alternated between the tribe’s history and recent changes brought about because the government had agreed to let the Hoh purchase thirty-seven acres in the national park. The land was away from the river’s flood zone, and new houses were being built there. Uncle Talio didn’t mention that he’d remained in the house his father had built, a house Jay wanted to keep from falling down around his uncle’s ears.
You could help, he silently told Floyd. Stay sober long enough to get on the roof with me.
He could hire his brother. Floyd could certainly use the money, but what if he used it to buy booze instead of paying the rent for the singlewide trailer in Forks? Floyd would wind up homeless, again.
Frustrated, he closed his eyes. Alcoholism was a disease. It wasn’t as if Floyd wanted to be a drunk. Still—
“The request from the university professor was delivered to our director,” Uncle Talio said. “Ned, would you please read the letter?”
A heavyset man with graying black hair and deep creases around his mouth and eyes positioned himself near Uncle Talio. Ned Hudson pushed his glasses higher on his nose, took several sheets of paper out of the large envelope he was carrying and unfolded them. Like Uncle Talio, Ned spoke softly. In contrast to Talio Raven, he never missed an opportunity to express his opinion.
“Have you decided how you’re going to vote?” Floyd whispered.
Truth was, Jay didn’t know enough about what Dr. Gilsdorf was proposing to have an opinion, but even if he did, he wasn’t sure he’d express it. Decision-making should be left up to those who would be most impacted by it, not by an outsider.
“Dr. Anthony Gilsdorf is an anthropology professor in the California university system,” Ned began. “He wants our cooperation and assistance while he researches the possibility that our ancestors, and the ancestors of other local tribes, established settlements at a distance from the waterways.”
Sharp thunderclaps stopped Ned. When the sounds fell away, Ned started reading. Dr. Gilsdorf was in the process of submitting a grant application based on his premise that the recent discovery of bone and stone barbs from hunting weapons miles from the Hoh River was proof that ancient Native Americans had ventured far inland.
“In historic times,” Ned read, “there were at least seven permanent settlements along the Hoh River. Locating and documenting those sites and others deep within the Olympic Forest is vital.”
Floyd nudged him again. “You see what our uncle’s doing?”
Jay studied Uncle Talio. The older man clutched the deerskin to his chest, with the symbols next to him. His eyes were closed, his mouth moving. The river continued its endless run behind him, and the murky clouds had stripped most of the color from his features. He looked not old so much as timeless, part of his environment. The wind had tangled his longish hair, making him appear a little wild. Just the same, Jay had no doubt his uncle, the man who’d raised him, was at peace.
Praying to his guardian spirit.
Jay looked up, half expecting to see Eagle overhead.
“I know what’s on your mind,” Floyd whispered. “How does it happen? Damn it, how…”
How could a sixty-something man communicate with a winged predator? Because Uncle Talio’s belief went that deep. Because Eagle and Uncle Talio had connected in ways Jay would never experience.
It took Ned several minutes to get through the multi-page request. Dr. Gilsdorf stressed the public’s right to understand indigenous populations and anthropology’s responsibility to collect, analyze and share all possible information—with him taking the lead.
“We don’t owe him anything,” one of the older men muttered. “We don’t dare have outsiders nosing around where they don’t have a right.”
Jay’s stomach knotted. It didn’t matter that he no longer lived and breathed his heritage—he was still a Hoh. If anything was sacred, it was Grandparents Cave.
“Here’s Dr. Gilsdorf’s pitch,” Ned said. “The grant is limited to the professor’s expenses for four months. Any assistance he receives from local Native Americans will have to be donated. Of course he hopes he’s convinced us of the necessity for this essential project, but whether we do or don’t, he’ll be there. So there you have it.” Ned shrugged. “We’ve had anthropologists and archeologists here before.”
“But he’s the first to intend to focus on the interior,” a woman said.
“Tell him to stay the hell out of our business,” Floyd grumbled.
“It isn’t that easy,” Ned replied. “We don’t own the forest. The federal government does.”
And I work for the government, Jay silently added.
“We have two options,” Ned said. “Either we can pretend to cooperate or we turn down his request for assistance.” He’d barely gotten the words out when thunder sounded.
“What about you, Jay?” Ned pulled his jacket against his neck. “If your supervisor orders you to work with him, you’d have to, right?”
“That won’t happen. With all the budget cutbacks, I’m already working overtime.” He rammed his hands in his back jeans pockets. It was starting to drizzle. Well-accustomed to western Washington’s weather, he’d worn a rain jacket. What he wasn’t looking forward to was getting Uncle Talio into the canoe and back home in a downpour.
Uncle Talio pointed his cane at Jay. “My nephew is searching for his truth. He walks in a world I don’t. I can’t tell him what to do any more than I can order my spirit to guide us in the right direction.”
“What does your spirit say?” an elderly woman with gray braids asked. “You’ve been praying to it.”
Uncle Talio stood. The auto accident had taken a toll on his physical body but hadn’t diminished his intellect. “I’m not here to sway my people’s decision. That’s never been my way. If you want to grasp what thoughts my spirit has handed to me, I’ll tell you, but you each have to make your own decision.” He nodded at several members of his audience, Jay included.
“He isn’t going to say we have to do everything possible to protect Grandparents Cave,” Floyd whispered. “He’ll never advocate for violence.”
“I hope it won’t come to that,” Jay muttered. But it might.
“Everyone with Chalat blood has the ability to connect with his or her spirit,” Uncle Talio continued. “Our grandparents and grandparents’ grandparents lived their lives according to their spirits’ wisdom.”
Although Uncle Talio stopped talking, Jay knew he wasn’t finished. His uncle wasn’t determined to make up people’s minds for them, but when he believed in something, he didn’t let go.
“The spirits are with us today.” Uncle Talio indicated the sky.
“It’s just thunder,” Floyd said. “He’s going to turn this into a history lesson when we have an important decision to make. Are you as tired of the whole spirits thing as I am?”
He was. Floyd didn’t live with Uncle Talio, which meant his brother didn’t have the ‘whole spirits thing’ as Floyd called it constantly hanging over him.
The thunderclap sounded as if it was directly overhead and was so loud it hurt Jay’s ears.
“T’ist’ilal.” A look of peace came over Uncle Talio’s features. “Thunderbird wants us to heed his wisdom as we make our decision.”
Floyd shook his head. “Does Thunderbird flip coins?”
Maybe Floyd had had more to drink than Jay had thought, because cold sober his brother would never show disrespect around their uncle.
“Who is T’ist’ilal to us?” Uncle Talio asked. “Thunderbird is one of the great ones. He lived in a lair beneath the Blue Glacier and loved whale meat. When he was hungry, he flew down to the sea, swooped and grabbed a whale as if it weighed no more than a salmon.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Floyd muttered. “And if you buy that, I have a bridge to sell you.”
“Sometimes,” Uncle Talio continued, “the whale would struggle out of Thunderbird’s grasp. When that happened, the whale fell to earth and died. It then changed into the great Whale Rocks near the ocean. Sometimes, Thunderbird grew tired from carrying the whale and set it down. The whale would thrash its tail, knocking down many trees.”
“And,” Ned said, “those actions helped form the land where the Hoh have always lived.”
Thankfully, Floyd didn’t say anything. No matter how many times Jay fought his uncle’s efforts to pull the past into the present, he never fully succeeded. Maybe today’s storm and the Thunderbird legend were simply coincidence, but what if there was something to it?
His ancestors believed Thunderbird, or T’ist’ilal, was one of the creators. The Hoh had been charged with protecting the land. However, forces beyond their control had spelled the end to their ancient way of life. These days the Hoh clung to a few acres. Grandparents Cave meant a great deal not just to the Hoh but every Northwest tribe. No one would let Dr. Gilsdorf get close to it.
Someone might resort to violence to keep that from happening.
Jay looked around for something to take his mind off the possibility. Uncle Talio was staring at him.
“Thunderbird does many things,” the man said. “Is many things. We can’t forget any of them.”
Jay sucked in more wet air. “What can’t we forget?”
“Thunderbird and Yakanon speak to each other of death,” Uncle Talio said. “Many times like when one of them sees something that has died”—he pointed at the fish carcass—“their conversation remains between them, but sometimes Yakanon hears news in the wind about the death of a soulless one. Because only Thunderbird comprehends Yakanon, Thunderbird agrees to pass on Yakanon’s message.”
A few people were trying to protect themselves from the downpour, but most stared at Jay.
Yakanon wasn’t real! The spirit or force or whatever the Old People chose to label it was a fairy tale. Part of his ancestors’ attempt to give order and reason to what they hadn’t understood.
Ned laid his hand on Uncle Talio’s shoulder. “Is that what you’re hearing today?” Ned asked. “Yakanon, through Thunderbird, is warning of such a death?”
Uncle Talio stepped toward Jay. “I hear thunder and stand in a storm. Those things remind me of what I learned from my elders, and I feel compelled to pass on that wisdom. Whether someone believes as I do or walks his own way is up to him.”
He tilted his head back. Rain washed his face. “If you believe this is simply a storm, that’s your decision. But if you believe, as I do, that Yakanon is looking into the future, then you must ask yourself who doesn’t have a soul.”