Is There a Place Called Home for the Children of America?
by Mary Sojourner
“You must leave your home and go forth from your country. The children of Buddha all practice this way.” — The thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices
My friend and I head for the Olympic Rain Forest. We never arrive. Somewhere around Sequim, he feels the northwest pulling him as far as it will be possible for two humans to go. Beyond that point there are cormorants and orcas. There is a blue-black horizon and light fading down into the sea. There is air vibrant with salt.
We stop along the way to where we can go no further. I walk to the water’s edge and scoop handfuls of liquid mineral. I touch my forehead, my heart and belly with wet fingers. I take away a gray-white pebble flecked with mica.
At the Makah Cultural & Research Center, I learn that the people regard the knowledge in that place as “a canoe” carrying them, and a “war club” shattering assumptions and prejudices. I learn that their real name is kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx which means People who live by the rocks and the seagulls. Makah is a name given to them by another First Nation. It means generous with food.
My friend and I walk through this place that is a canoe and a war club. Much of the weaving and pottery, toys and weapons, cooking and burying objects were found during the excavation of Ozette Village. We look into the cases together. We say little.
He and I sit in a reconstructed cedar longhouse. It is dark. The air is fragrant. The only sound is soft chanting from hidden stereo speakers. After we go out into the hall, my friend says, “I was there.” I nod. “Me too, everything else gone away.”
We drive out to the trail that will take us to the furthest northwestern point of what never really was The United States of America. We walk through prismatic air that shatters the gray light into particles of green. We stand on a cedar platform a hundred feet above dark sandstone and silver spray.
You will not find the kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx name for this place on any map. You will find instead, “Cape Flattery” and when you research the name you will find this:
… on Sunday, March 22, Captain Cook saw, between a low cape and a steep island just off the cape, “a small opening which flattered us with the hopes of finding an harbour”. The hopes lessened as the ships drew nearer. Cook decided that the opening was closed by low land and turned the ships away. He named the point of land Cape Flattery …
… Cook’s activities at Nootka actually had a far greater impact on the future history of Washington than his brief excursion past Cape Flattery. He and his crew were able to trade with the Nootka Indians for sea otter furs, which were highly coveted by Asian and European merchants. When Cook’s expedition finally returned to England following his death … news of the wealth available on the Northwest Coast inspired the fur trade that brought many more Europeans and Americans to the Pacific Northwest…
I look down on the dark fingers of sandstone, on the cormorants gliding in and out of the darker caves. There is a dwarfed cedar to my right. Salt spray beads on its boughs. I know I will write about what I see. And I know I will write that the fur trade brought genocide and I will not call the place “Cape Flattery.”
The day after we return, I email the Makah Cultural & Research Center and ask to know the kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx name for the furthest northwestern point. A woman writes back:
I hope I understood your question right and that you are asking for the word in our language that describes or names Cape Flattery. If that is the case, the name kwih dich chah uhtx IS the name we use to loosely mean the area of the Cape. — Vickie B.
I see that the people and the place have the same name. The people and the place are the same.
You must leave your home and go forth from your country. The children of Buddha all practice this way. The kwih dich chah uhtx go forth from “Cape Flattery.” They travel in a great canoe. They carry war clubs of knowledge. They circle out from “Cape Flattery” and return to kwih dich chah uhtx. The kwih dich chah uhtx come home to kwih dich chah uhtx.
Over two years since I stood on kwih dich chah uhtx, I stood at a podium in a classroom at a big Arizona state university. The founder of the literary magazine Superstition Review had brought me in to give a reading in a series on “place”. There were perhaps twenty people in the audience, mostly magazine interns and writing students in their early twenties and seven or eight women and men forty-five and older.
I began by asking them to think about a place or places that were dear to them, and/or with which they were connected. “It doesn’t have to be a wild place. It can be a inner city street intersection, a coffee shop, a playground from your childhood. Let’s take a minute and let our awareness drift from this room to that place.”
A few people nodded, but I felt a flatness in the group. I was surprised. In twenty years of reading and talking about place, I’d never felt quite that blunted response.
I waited, then asked. “How many of you have a dear place, or a place with which you feel connected?” Seven hands went up. I was stunned. I’ve never had more than one person in a group not have “place” — and I’ve taught this in inner city schools. I saw that all but one of the people who had raised their hands were older.
The room was quiet. I asked the ones without a place to take a minute or two to notice how they felt. I saw that each of them looked shell-shocked. “Would you be willing to tell us how you feel?” Two young women and a young guy put up their hands.
The first woman shook her head as though she was shaking off pain. “I feel terribly uneasy. How can this be? How did I not know this before?”
The guy said, “This makes me feel really weird. But more than that, I feel really sad. Something is wrong.” The other young woman nodded. “Yes, sad, uneasy, I need to think about this. And, like Jenny, how could I have not known this?”
A few people spoke about their places. Through all their words, the three who had talked about not having place continued to look unmoored. I felt how the sacred mountains that shadow my home are in my cells. I remembered three years of exile and that I did not know who I was. I remembered the kwih dich chah uhtx living at the farthest western reach of my country.
How, if they do not have a home, can the children of America go out of their country? How can they practice what is necessary? To what alien land would they return?
Mary Sojourner is the author of the novel Going Through Ghosts (University of Nevada Press, 2010) and the memoir She Bets Her Life (Seal Press, 2009), among her many books. She is a National Public Radio commentator and the author of numerous essays, columns, and op-eds for dozens of publications. Sojourner is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, where her columns appear on the third Friday of every month.