Wapato is lush beside the berm that separates the fields where elk graze—they sneak under the elk-proof fencing along the boundary of the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge—from a wetland the Corps of Engineers created when they breached a section of a dike along the Columbia River. Wapato has large arrow-shaped leaves, great wide shovels that curl gracefully, in huge deep green patches one beside the next with stalks of white flowers rising above them. The fields are what decolonization looks like: though their existence here is convoluted, a result of actions and reactions to a history of commerce, greed and miscalculation along with environmental degradation. This week I walked in the refuge near sunset, overwhelmed by those lush leaves and the harvest they promise.
Sagittaria latifolia, wapato in Chinook wawa, are tubers that Chinook and other Natives traded, an important food all along the river. They look like and taste like small potatoes, and grow in North America, northern Europe and Asia in patches across acres. If the local dike hadn’t been degraded and then breached because of increased maritime traffic, the wetland nursery for juvenile salmon and this habitat for the wapato wouldn’t exist. The Chinook people, a Nation fighting for recognition now, had a large village at the curve of the river between Cathlamet and Skamokawa. They were important foods, Greg Archuleta, cultural educator for Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde told the Confluence Project, but now it absorbs metals and other pollutants.
The return of an important wild food source is decolonization. Food is braided into our culture and our Native ways, who we are, just as our language is. Place names here, like Cathlamet, Skamokawa, Elochoman, and Wahkiakum call us to remember the Nation every time we see them.
It’s been unseasonably cool since I’ve returned from Oklahoma from the Dhegiha Language Preservation Conference at Quapaw, and then Kihekah Steh Powwow at Skiatook, where former chief Johnny Red Eagle was honored. August was Santa Fe Indian Market, when talented Osages including Jessica Moore Harjo, Dante Biss-Grayson, Addie Roanhorse, Alex Ponca Stock, Rox Red Corn Mudge and Dow Redcorn, Erica Pretty Eagle Cozad and Chelsea Tayrien Hicks radiated Osage excellence.
Marx Cassidy (Osage/Kaw) recently released “How Long,” a new single produced with grants from the Osage Nation Foundation and NDN Collective Radical Imagination. I had the good fortune to see its filming in Portland. “How Long,”is part of 2Sacred, an album to be released in November,a testament to the difficulties in coming out, of not being accepted, when “love is a battlefield.” A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Cassidy’s support for 2SLGBTQ+ folks is palpable.
Cassidy writes, “If I can make art that even one queer or trans person hears, or sees, and they stay alive and love themselves and their identity more because of it, mission accomplished.” The video for the single, “How Long” includes a collection of photographs of Osages and other Natives who identify as or are allies of 2SLGBTQ+ people. These are a striking, joyful affirmation.
August has been a good month for Osages. These aren’t all of our accomplishments, but is offered in celebration of the contributions that each of us makes in our own ways. I’m thinking of you, Tammy Mason Lux, winner of the Ice Cream Cone Crown, and everyone who offers kindnesses every day.
Note: You can learn about and support the Chinook Nation’s fight for recognition here: