“I am sorry.”
Repeating the words four times, Mayor Paul Blackburn went to his knees Monday afternoon at Overlook Memorial Park in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day.
“I am so sorry for all the injustice that was done and all that continues. I‘m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Blackburn’s actions were part of an alternative event to the federally designated Columbus Day holiday, observing the Europeans’ arrival in the Americas more than 400 years ago.
Celilo Wyam tribal members Lana and Lila Jack sang, drummed and spoke, as did Clifford Allen of the Nez Perce, who invoked the spirit of the ancestors in asking the 50 people assembled to get in touch with their heritage and with the Columbia River.
Allen also suggested the more concrete step of reviewing school textbooks dealing with the history of native peoples, and getting them rewritten if necessary.
“We are not afraid of what happened. All we want is the truth to be taught,” Allen said.
Gorge Ecumenical Ministries organized the event, which started with Lana Jack’s prayer of respect for the Columbia River and the salmon, roots and berries of the plateau, which Jack said are inherently connected to native peoples.
“How many of you here remember Celilo Falls?” she asked. Two people raised their hands. “That says it right there, why we’re here to talk about Indigenous Peoples Day.” During the ceremony the Jacks presented Allen with a metal fish in thanks for his knowledge and service. The fish resembled the metal sculpture salmon leaping up the rocks of the fountain, and the fountain called to mind another place where salmon once thrived: Celilo Falls, inundated in 1957 but a sacred place that native people both revere and mourn.
“This is about the size of the 100-pound salmon that thrived on the river before the dams. It looks 100 pounds but it doesn’t weight that much,” Jack joked. “We have him (Allen) here, sharing his stories and knowledge. Not a minute goes by that I want to leave his side.”
It was an emotional moment among individuals from ancient indigenous Columbia plateau cultures, but what followed was another poignant moment between the tribal members and the top elected leader of Hood River.
Blackburn said, “In talking to Lana and my minister and talking to friends about what to say, here on this day, I don’t know what to say,” Blackburn said to native people present.
“The history is very long and the injustices very huge and I am painfully and well aware that. I stand here a straight, white American man and that the people I descend from took all this land from the people you descend from. And what do I say about that?” the mayor said. “That here we are and after today it will still be that way. I can’t give you all the land back but it seems like, back to math class, there is the necessary and the sufficient and those are two different things. And it’s not sufficient but I think it is necessary to say: I am sorry,” Blackburn said.
At that point he knelt in front of Lana Jack. For 30 seconds only the sounds of rushing water and passing traffic were heard.
“Wow. This is reconciliation that you are a part of right here and right now,” Jack said, and then burst into tears. Another 30 seconds passed before she spoke.
“I have spent a lot of time in prayer, seeking for my people a peaceful way and the only way is what just took place here, as we begin this journey now,” Jack said. “This is not a guilt thing. We are not here to guilt you. We are not here dressed up in our costumes so you can run around and play Halloween.
“We matter. Our ways matter, our songs matter, our drums, our longhouses, our river, our fish, our roots, our berries, they all have songs, they are all a part of us.”
Jack said, “The apology is huge. It sets in the spirit realm of things, a new motion to roll by.”
She invited Hispanic members of the assemblage to stand with the tribal members, “for their ancestors had their lands stolen, too.”
Allen said, “I feel the spirit of my grandma, and her mother, and her mother before,” and said everyone should seek out the connection they have to their ancestors, to learn from old ways.
“If you are connected to your mother by the cord, her mother and her mother is connected in the same way. Each generation in your past is connected by the cord. You have never been taught to learn from the generations,” Allen said.
He pointed to the tall oaks looming over the park to suggest a natural allegory for the meaning of Indigenous Peoples Day.
“The large trees thrive but they do not block out the smaller trees below,” he said. “The trees show us how to live. Our grandparents learned their ways many years ago. Those trees do not need to kill the smaller trees in order to live. They are welcome to live there. That is what the creator showed us. This is what (Lana Jack) was singing about, how it used to be many generations ago. It was our connection to the past. They don’t teach this in school: How are you connected to the past? It’s really simple, all of you at one time were physically connected to your mother. How were you at one time physically connected to your mother?”