If you have a visit to Olympic National Park in your vacation plans. I have a notable detour for you to consider, I promise it will be worth the extra effort and drive. The Makah Museum on the Makah tribal reservation at Neah Bay is a very impressive place.
It is a something that every person should see at least once. The Makah Nation has done a wonderful job in displaying the treasures found in the excavation of the village of Ozette where five long houses were buried in a mud slide somewhere in the 18th century.
The objects found represent a way of life virtually untouched by European lifestyle, a life very different than anything we know. The Makah historians are very welcoming and friendly during my visit they answered my many questions with great thought, knowledge and, in my opinion, great patience.
Plan to spend some time there read and absorb everything, please, you will not be sorry. I beg you also to read the letters, reports from a BIA agent to his boss in Washington DC. Of all the treasures they have, it was these letters that had the greatest impact on me. When I was there they were framed and hanging blandly on the wall, easily overlooked but probably the greatest lesson I have ever learned came from those short letters. If they are not there please ask if you might read them.
It is hard to wrap my mind around this life altering experience, so I can tell you the story. I will begin with the background.
I grew up living down the hill from my great grandparents. My great grandmother Filucia was born and grew up in a place now called Skidgate in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, Canada. She was Haida. In her time children of the Haida people were sent to enforced boarding school, in her case, run by the Catholic church. She never spoke of that time, but there she learned to read and write in English, developed a life long love for art, and she learned how cruel and viscous people could be.
As a role model my tiny great grandmother was the best, role models like her do not come around often. She could and did hunt, dress and preserve her own deer. Each year she would take the carefully tanned hide and make beautiful moccasins complete with expert bead work lovingly sewn on. She was as capable as the most experienced captain at running and the navigation of boats. She had often accompanied my great grandfather on trips between Puget Sound and Alaska hauling freight on barges behind a tug boat. She read and understood the waters as if they were part of her and she passed this on. She sewed most of my cloths with precision and detail usually reserved for the most elegant and exclusive boutiques. It caused the other children to believe my family was rich and I was spoiled. I let them think this because in the time and place I came from people looked down on you if your cloths were hand made. She understood the nature of the salmon and their habits in ways that are lost these days. She knew the plants of the forest like old friends and which ones were able to help people in some way. She passed on this knowledge, I only wish I remembered half of it.
But she was a woman of great contradictions, fearless and knowledgeable but prone to strange terrors that could best be described by a term we know as post traumatic stress disorder. One of her most glaring fears was her stark reaction to ministers of any faith. These men did nothing to her, they were kind hearted souls,well meaning, often confused beyond words that this woman of incredible talent, bravery and skill was absolutely terrified of them. It was my great grandfather who told me why this was, that during her days in boarding school the punishment for even minor infractions was very harsh. How, regardless of her desire, she had never been able to control this raging panic she felt even if she knew in her head these men offered no threat. Over time I learned of the circumstances the original nations had experienced at the hands and policies of the United States and Canadian Governments. I wondered what kind of evil minds could have perpetrated these horrible crimes against other human beings. How could men and women who believed in god ever believe what they were doing was even close to being anything but harmful?
This knowledge and these questions gave me a peculiar set of filters through which I viewed the world. I grew up questioning everything people took as fact. I quietly questioned all authority and wanted proof before I believed anything. I spent a lot of time and effort carefully deciding what the truth was, and how I wished to live that truth. Because I had spent so much effort on forming my opinions and hacking my own trail through the forest of life, I believed with all my heart, I had it right and that anybody with a different opinion had just not thought it out or was somehow mentally deficient, I felt terribly superior. It was with this attitude, at the age of 24, that I found myself on the door step of the Makah museum an impromptu trip of fossil hunting had ended in with a giant rainstorm. The owner of a small store suggested it was a wonderful way to pass a rainy afternoon.
It was amazing, for me, I gained new respect not only for the Makah Nation but my own ancestors and the profound knowledge and skill they had for creating the tools of their lives from the very same natural world I now lived in. I wondered again at the evil minds that had conspired to attempt to destroy these cultures with their thousands of years of knowledge about the natural world gained from the careful observation of the world in which we live.
My answer soon came as I walked into a small side room that spoke of the beginning days of assimilation and boarding schools. The evil mind in this case held an attitude much like my own. The BIA agent in charge of this nation genially cared about the people he had been sent to "help". It was a culture and a way of life, a belief system, a way of being so alien to anything he knew he did not, in anyway understand it. The nature of the existence of the Makah nation was so outside of anything he believed were the facts of life he could not accept anything about it. He was a progressive of his day, conservatives of that time tended to openly promote total extermination. He subscribed to the belief that "retraining" was better. Teaching them, what he believed, were the superior ways of his own European based culture. The Nation for it's part was equally mystified by his ways and why it was in their interests to pay attention to anything they had to show them or take under advisement any of his ideas.
The BIA agent decided these highly intelligent people were mentally deficient and must be treated like children, told them what to do, and enforced his beliefs in an unyielding and sometimes vicous way. He sought out and attempted to crush every tiny bit of their culture and way of life, because he wholeheartedly believed it was in their best interest. That they disagreed just proved to him they were not capable of thinking for them selves. I will not go into the gory details here, I will just say that it was a great struggle that left the Makah way of life wounded but not fatally so, like their friends the plants and animals of this wild western edge of the continent they are tough and resilient. Finding the Ozette long houses just made it easier to make their way back to their own culture, their ancestors had blazed a trail for them to follow.
There are very few in this day and age that will disagree that it was a struggle that never should have happened. If only we could step into the future and view the consequences of our own actions we might, even in this supposedly enlightened age, do things much differently.
As I read these letters I began to see my own mind set, my belief in the superiority of my views and way of life play out in a most horrible way. That anybody who did not agree with me just wasn't very smart. It occurred to me that maybe everybody gave just as much thought to things but the view through their eyes, their experiences and thoughts led them to another perspective. I left much changed from when I had arrived. For the first time I became a student willing to learn from every experience and every person I met. Willing to share and receive information and experiences with others even if it the way they viewed it and used it or discarded it was not the way I would have. Life became a great and fascinating lifelong learning experience that never ceases to amaze me. For that I am most grateful.
I have the Makah tribe and their willingness to share the great treasure, a gift from their ancestors given by a winter storm to thank for that.
Here is the Makah History Museum website so that you may find the hours of operation and costs of admission as well as directions to their location.