15,000 years ago if not earlier, a great migration of humans traveled from Central Asia through Siberia, and whether by ocean or land bridge moved across the Bering Straight into present day Alaska. From here these First Americans established coastal communities South to what is now Oregon and Washington. The forests and waters of the Pacific Northwest were rich in resources for these hunter-gatherers, and over the millennia the tribes ventured further south and east as they explored new vistas.
Now it is interesting to understand the psychology and sociology of tribes who hunt and forage for their subsistence, which is entirely different from agricultural based societies. Below we see a magnificent photograph of dancers from the Qagyuhl Tribe in British Columbia. The famed photographer Edward Curtis captured this in 1914.
For Shamanic hunting cultures who are killing and eating animals all the time, a spiritual reconciliation takes center stage in the ritual life of the clan. The animals they encountered are personified as divinities, and here we can see a glorious display of their ‘Winter Dance”. Not only animals, but all the food procured for the tribe is viewed as sacred gifts from the Creator, and these cultures have beautifully developed aesthetic rituals that are central activities around which the life of the people revolved.
In a world of great natural bounty, the Northwest Coastal Peoples were able to develop comfortable and sophisticated societies marked by elaborate ceremonial life and spectacular art created to celebrate the history and lineage of their clans and their relationship to the universe.
Tragically, the European settlers’ invasion into the Americas completed decimated these First Peoples, and most of the tribes are extinct. However, some of the old ways are still honored and respected, and here is a tale of one such ritual in which we recently participated.
The Wild Huckleberry
Continuing our story, some of the coastal dwellers explored the Columbia River, and settled East of the Cascade Mountains into what is today called the Columbia Plateau. Our home in Hood River is centrally located along the Columbia River, with Mount Adams to the North and Mount Hood to the South. Here live the Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakama Nations, and their economies were based on fishing, hunting, gathering, and inter-tribal trading of such items as fish products, baskets, dogs and horses. Below is a photograph of some Yakama Tribal members in attendance at a gathering in 1903.
It is important to understand that these cultures were semi-nomadic and the seasons drew them to various parts of the plateau. In the winter, people lived along interior rivers in villages of tule-mat lodges, and subsisted on dried foods. In early March they trekked to root grounds and camped with neighboring Indians. In May salmon began to travel up the Columbia River, and the Yakama moved to the lower Columbia to catch and preserve the fish. In the fall they went into the Cascade Mountains to pick berries and hunt, while drying their food for the winter.
In accordance with a profound connectedness these people felt to their environment, they gave thanks for their foods through spiritual ceremonies.
The Huckleberry regions west of Mount Adams in South-Central Washington have long been the center of ceremony for many native tribes, including the Sahaptin language speakers who lived all along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Before the autumn harvest season select people with special knowledge and skill were chosen for the first gathering of berries. Ceremonial leaders prayed and fasted to ensure the tribe’s success during harvest. After the group returned, a feast and ritual was held after which the rest of the tribal families would travel to the traditional berry fields where they would stay until early October. Many tribes of the mid-Columbia would gather at the Sawtooth Berry Fields where they could relax and visit with friends and relatives of other tribes before the fall salmon fishing season began.
A Methodist missionary described the 1843 berry season as “one great holy-day for the Indians, who preferred to spend their summer Sundays in the meadows of ‘Indian Heaven’ instead of listening to sermons that promised a Christian paradise”.
Northwest tribes made special combs of wood or salmon backbones to strip huckleberries off the bushes. They dried the berries in the sun or smoked them and then mashed them into cakes and wrapped these in leaves or bark for storage.
In 1868, Robert Brown wrote that great numbers of huckleberry cakes were drying on roofs and platforms “supervised by some ancient hag, whose hands and arms are dyed pink with them”. Women or their families often “owned” the berry grounds, and all the fields were named with trails connecting them.
Much to the dismay of the early missionaries, Henry Brewer of the Mount Adams Mission in Washington reported that… “the absence of our Indian converts so long a time during the berry season being surrounded as they are by every possible bad example, and separated from the watchful care of their teachers, in many cases proves very injurious to their piety.”
Unfortunately, the lack of understanding and respect for the sacred traditions of another culture, especially one that is strange and different from our own, is still present with us even today.
For these tribes, the huckleberry was seen as containing great power. Tribal members have a special word for the huckleberry in the Sahaptin language. The word for huckleberry is “Wiwnu”, and means the “chief” of all the berries.
“We have communion with God with the huckleberry like the white man uses wine”.
Yakama Tribal Member
Other oral traditions state that the huckleberries “know everything; they do nothing wrong”. The Sahaptin tribes believe that as long tribal members showed respect for Wiwnu, giving thanks for this sacred food while taking only what was needed, that the berries would return each year to provide them with more food.
Mount Adams (Pahto) as seen from the Berry Fields (author 2014)
To thank the Creator for these foods the tribes had “First Foods” feasts. These ceremonies were held throughout the year before the food for that season was to be harvested. Although each food had its own first foods ceremony, all of the first foods were served at each feast. Foods are always served in the same order. They include foods traditionally considered “men’s foods” (water, salmon, and deer), followed by traditionally “women’s foods.” (cous-roots, and huckleberry) The foods are served in this order because it represents the order of the harvest of these foods. During the late summer, the first foods feast for huckleberry is held. The ritual value can be seen through the use of these same foods across many generations. These foods were important enough to be included in the 1855 treaties for protection, and are still an integral part of many of the tribes’ spiritual and cultural ceremonies today.
Before returning to the river valleys for the winter, Yakama women periodically set fire to the sub-alpine meadows to prevent the growth of trees. The precise methods and patterns of aboriginal burning remain poorly understood, but ethnographic research has clearly documented the practice. In addition to creating open areas conducive to early successional plants like huckleberry, intentional burning and natural fires produced zones of increased natural productivity that drew deer and elk within range and furnished fresh pasture for Indian horses. Without regular burning, the berry fields would gradually shrink as forest reclaimed the clearings. Setting fire to the meadows thus became one of the Yakama’s obligations to Wiwnu. Elder Hazel Miller still remembers the wisdom of her ancestors. “God told people to burn the forest and the huckleberries would grow,” she declared, “so people have been doing this ever since. This is what my old people told me.”
Huckleberries gathered 2014
There is something magical that takes place when you get to know your own ‘holy land’. You don’t need to travel to India or Israel. Your particular holy land is right in your own backyard, and it is ultimately right within your own heart. Wherever you find yourself, take time to slow down and get to know your own special place. Perhaps you live by the ocean and can attune yourself with the waves and the Presence. Or sow a seed, and watch the majesty of life and the Mystery unfold.
There are countless ways to experience the Awe and Wonder, and to practice ritual in your life. Living in Hood River, Oregon, our huckleberry harvest reminded us that these ceremonies have been going on for thousands of years, and it is good to bring awareness to the simple yet profound fact that this divine creation provides such generous bounty that sustains us all.
For this I am grateful and give thanks.