Between Ribbon and Root

Hope and a history of tragedy live together in a Cowlitz woman's son.

Barbara Kenmille

His hands are grubby and his nails ragged, lined with honest and not-so-honest dirt. Right now he is scrabbling for something shoulder-deep in the wetlands we're visiting. Eventually, with a triumphant shout, he pulls his arm from the muck, waving an object that looks a lot like coyote scat or a desiccated apple in his dripping hand, “Wapato!” My Cowlitz Ashkenazi kid has just pulled up wapato. The very word an exclamation. His face is oriented to the sun, his skin as finely pored as a peach, and though he is now grown, a young man of twenty-four, I can remember clearly what a beautiful baby he was. Times with him are tough, lately. This baby shine melts my heart.

Let me tell you a bit about winter seed. Let me tell you about early winter walks with my son and the bitter root that is the fear I might lose him, about a tenuous but rooted faith that he can—like his people—dig deep and spring, even from dormancy. That he can pull sustenance from the muck. Once I had conviction that my child contained within him the seed of remembering, and so the seed of his own regeneration, but my faith is flagging.

Only recently granted its federal land, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe was until the year 2000 a non-recognized people. This means that only sixteen years ago, we were still neither formally recognized by the federal government nor bestowed any of the mixed blessings that entails. Nevertheless, we managed a successful tribal cohesion.

In late December 2014, I joined hundreds of my Cowlitz relatives to celebrate and bless a site you've probably passed while traveling on Interstate 5: Exit 16 at La Center, in Washington state. We gathered to celebrate a future reservation on soggy but treelined acreage just seconds from the freeway. You could hear its hum as the drums beat out a blessing for this place and this auspicious time.

You've seen it, no doubt, the sign that reads “Cowlitz Reservation” as you make your way north on I-5 to visit a Seattle relative, or back on I-5 to Portland from a nice paddle at Ridgefield, and you've wondered, perhaps, just what that newly minted reservation is about.

Or maybe you think you know precisely what that reservation is about, because you know a Vegas-style casino is going in there and has, in fact, broken ground. I wonder how you feel about that.

On Monday, March 9, 2015, Stanley Speaks, the regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, signed the final documents to establish our first-ever reservation. I was there then, too, and so were my ancestors. With the stroke of a pen, the federal government now holds in trust a 152-acre property in Clark County on behalf of the Cowlitz Tribe. It took twelve years for the signing, and in the meantime, there have been appeals from La Center's cardrooms, Clark County, and the City of Vancouver, to name only some of the dissent we've met along the way.

Though twelve years might seem like a long time to secure some land, the Cowlitz are used to protracted struggle. We have been actively engaged with the government for nearly 160 years, ever since we refused to negotiate a treaty with Washington's territorial governor Isaac Stevens in 1855.

I do wonder if you know, or were ever taught, the history of the Cowlitz people and what it has taken for us to settle in this lovely, postage stamp–sized, 152-acre site along I-5, a mere twenty minutes from Portland. I want you to know, because it gives me hope.

And while the Cowlitz have, indeed, broken ground on a large casino and plan to open its doors by 2017, that's scarcely what this newly reserved land is about.

Despite all odds, the Cowlitz—like so many indigenous peoples worldwide—have survived land grabs, contagion, trauma of all kinds, impoverishment, and policies meant to strip us of our land, our language, our lifeways, and our culture. Yet we root deeply, if quietly, always at the ready to spring up and thrive.

I worry that you might tire of hearing this story. Sometimes I am fearful that there are few ways a woman of Native descent can tell you what you're not interested in hearing or cannot see. But I will continue to tell because the telling might yield healing, as a seed bears root after years in the dark. I will continue to tell because you might just reach out your hand, having your own story of tenacity through the darkness.

Perhaps you will understand it from a mother's perspective.

Early in 2014, I wrote a promise to my foundering child, to “take my son out to study thirteen native plants seasonally. Go on long walks with him. Build on what works in him, his ability, not his disability. Love and create that which moves toward the positive in his character.” And so my son and I have commenced, seasonally, to walk.


Is it possible, even at the edge of apocalypse, to hope for such a collective, a deep-rooted remembering that saves us, and more?

As I grapple with the problem of my own and my people's history, I have come to believe that the preservation of the Cowlitz and the sustenance of our community relies on a persistent enactment of the motions of the everyday and upon a quiet lived awareness, one I have grown to understand can bring a seed of cultural continuity up from the ground and back into the light. Perhaps it can even bring a child back to light. Mine is with me right now, just over two decades old, and suffering.


Cowlitz people were not agriculturalists. They were gatherers, relying on a seasonal bounty of root, fish, and berry. Their lives were characterized by seasonal migrations, long walks to where the food lay just below the snow's melt, chasing spring up the mountain.

This is, in part, why my son and I now walk. To find edible and usually indigenous plants, which are surprisingly abundant in almost every Portland nook, cranny, and yard.

In this, he always knows the way. He knows where the blooms are, where the berries burst, where the brand-new growth is ready to eat. Our walks have taken us deep into Forest Park, to a culvert off North Willamette Boulevard, to a neighbor's rock wall in order to grab an especially lush bunch of little bittercress.

When he's not gathering plants, my boy is less sure-sighted. More likely to drink. To argue. To fight. To be beaten. To disappear.

Our walks allow for time to flow and time to be forgotten. There's little to be said and much to be accomplished. Together, we can do what our people have always done, and together, we remember.

A beloved spiritual elder in the Cowlitz Tribe, Tanna Engdahl, recently said that nothing of cultural significance for the Cowlitz has gone away; it is simply dormant, waiting like winter seed to spring back to life with lived experience, and remembering.

My child, too, is dormant. In 1956, American author Tillie Olsen wrote a story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” about a lost child. Coming off war years, and living in the shadow and threat of the Cold War, Olsen spins a fiction in which a child lies helpless, flat before the iron. The story is unflinching in its study of the deep impact of familial, inheritable trauma and the shadow of violence and war. Olsen writes, “You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.” As yet, my child is not beyond me. But I cannot be certain.

Because he is dormant, I only rarely get glimpses of the bright and shiny baby he once was, full of promise, growing into each new day. How to revive him? Can a mother hope to accomplish such a thing? Olsen writes of the age-old struggle and the pressures upon a mother to save her child, the impossibility of it, penning, “When is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.”

Our children, yours and mine, lie before the iron. The brutality of the twentieth century has melted into the almost apocalyptic milieu of the twenty-first, in which the specter of the atom bomb has been replaced by the very real and rapid melting of our planet, while we stumbled along claiming that no such disaster existed until minutes ago.

This is a very tough world to be raised in. My child is a child of the apocalypse. September 11 exploded before him when he was eight years old. I still feel his heart beat against mine, remember the nights cradling his fear and sweat and weight in my arms, helpless to explain.

This same child is the genetic combination of my Ashkenazi ex-husband and me. If you are familiar with epigenetics, then you know that life circumstances— those of our grandmothers, those of our selves—can turn certain genes on or off. Trauma has a role to play in surfacing certain phenotypic expressions. Say, mental illness. Alcoholism. But the expression can be positive, too—like a keen eye for the subtle shapes and colors that differentiate plants.

Suffice it to say, this child has a heavy load of genocide, strict survival, danced imagination, and a present-day melting of the imagination, competing as it is with video games and strip malls, but still competing valiantly with the remembered collective.

For he is a child that has been raised with remembering. Though an urban-dwelling Indian, he's an enrolled Cowlitz citizen. Throughout his childhood I sent him to camps where he sweat at Lummi with his reservation cousins and swam with orca around a sound where his ancestors paddled war canoes and paddle them to this day, down to the shores of St. Johns where we now live.

And he is a child with a breathtaking genius for plants. Sent at mid-childhood to the Environmental Middle School as part of my mad repatriating urban effort to keep him in touch with his Native self, he was charged with learning twenty native plants a year. He learned each plant in a hot minute and continues to learn nearly every plant of the region, clear to this day. Pojar's handbook, Gunther's Ethnobotany, sundry mushroom texts—he has kept them all for years, dog-eared and dirt-black with use. Last spring he asked to borrow the kayak so he could flit to Deer Island in search of morels. In spring and fall, I rarely see him, and when I do he's covered in mud and twigs, having spent the day foraging for as many edible plants as he can find. There's a demand for delicious local foods here in Portland's culinary paradise, and the boy—also an entrepreneur—is on it.

The child has a genius, and the child has the burden of trauma too. In Olsen's “I Stand Here Ironing,” the daughter in question “has much to her; and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear. Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it?”

But what does bloom, in winter? Like my boy and me, Henry David Thoreau was another winter walker. Thoreau had full faith in a seed in its dormancy, in its eventual bloom and the “equally mysterious origins for it.” In his beautiful late essay “The Succession of Forest Trees,” he writes: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders. I shall even believe that the millennium is at hand, and that the reign of justice is about to commence, when people plant the seeds of these things.”

And while Thoreau had full faith in a seed as a “perfect alchemist,” able to “transmute substances without end,” he was entirely skeptical of humans beings' ability to recognize a seed for what it represents, preferring, instead, to “stare by the hour to see a juggler draw ribbons from his throat, though he tells them it is all deception.” Surely, Thoreau concludes, “men love darkness more than light.”

But those who read Thoreau know that much with Thoreau is provocation. He never lost hope that men would turn from the ribbon to the root.

My child is poised between ribbon and root. How to know which way he will tip? Can a mother hope to influence the sway?

But once there was a time when the roots of the season could be gathered, and a people gathered. I'd like to believe that in such gathering there is an age-old redemption. That the pulling of the wapato root, any root, can bring my child back to solid ground.

Cowlitz elder Clifford Wilson said wistfully in an interview that “when my mother was alive we always used to have those foods around. Bitter roots or picaya. They dig those with an iron digger.” And he said of those gathering times that the people would come from everywhere, to play stick games. Even a horse track was assembled for racing. It was the best of times, of gathering when the roots were deep and the berries ripe.

Is it possible, even at the edge of apocalypse, to hope for such a collective, a deep-rooted remembering that saves us, and more?

So let him be, this mixed-race, mixed-up child of the apocalypse. But I cannot. The weight of remembering is upon me, and so it us incumbent upon him. The seed he carries contains within it the miracle of potential regeneration, potential remembering of who and what all humans once were: mighty and few, the wanderers and gatherers of earth's bounty, living with precious little and living with what was precious. Nourished, fed, and with time to exercise that which mattered most.

Just as my son's Cowlitz ancestors wintered over decades and decades, I hold fast to the hope that even in our early winter walk, when the landscape seems desolate, some root is already planted deep and drawing sustenance, ready for an awakening.

So let the reservation spring back to life, and upon it the bells and whistles of civilization, the ribbons pulled from throats. See and be drawn to the Vegas lights, but recall that much has transpired to lead us here to the ground that once again and always belonged to a people whose lives are utterly altered and yet, through some sleight of the cosmic hand, regenerate into the light, a light from many sources, that shines in all its complexity.


Culture, Environment, Family, History, Identity, Land, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Place, Values


5 comments have been posted.

Hello my dear Christine. What a powerfully written essay from the heart! I have cherished our moments together and after reading this I remember why. much love to you on your journey.

Jeff Haber | March 2019 |

Thank for your sharing. Your thoughts and words are always insightful, thoughtful and appreciated.

Dan Meyer | March 2019 |

Thank you, Christine Dupres, for this essay. Keep writing. Keep telling.This was moving and profound.

K.C. Pedersen | May 2016 | Washington State

We "later" Americans, we immigrants, also have our "beginnings," our memories of our families coming to the land the native Americans already inhabited. But our memories are tainted by the way we abused and stole from the folks who were already here and who welcomed us at first, until they realized we weren't "friendly." We can't undo what those first European Americans did, but we can remember and speak up as new immigrants ask for asylum and acceptance. I hope we do a better job at welcoming our newest immigrants. What makes our country unique and strong is the many people who bring their world views, talents, and ways of coping with life with them. We all benefit.

Sandi Brinkman | May 2016 | Portland

Chris! Thank you for a moving, almost gut wrenching glimpse into the struggle of your family, your tribe. Your depictions of the root, providing sustenance, often not visible...wondering if it's deep enough and if it will ever be drunk from. I believe it is. It may not be according to your mama's heart wish timeline, but I have faith for you that it's there. Love on all fronts. Christine

Christine Borchert | April 2016 | Portland

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Between Ribbon and Root