The Ceremony at the Heart of "Salmon Nation"

The Ceremony at the Heart of "Salmon Nation"

About 18 months ago, an extraordinary woman came to my home on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. At age 83, Agnes Baker Pilgrim is the oldest living Takelma Indian and chair of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. “Grandma Aggie” had recently returned from Dharamsala, India, where the grandmothers met with the Dalai Lama. Using a satellite link, they simultaneously addressed some 3,000 environmentalists gathered for the annual Bioneers Conference in Marin County, California, where Spencer Beebe was outlining Salmon Nation. If one person represents the heart of Salmon Nation, it is Grandma Aggie, keeper of the Takelma Sacred Salmon Ceremony.

Grandma Aggie’s bloodline is to the chiefs and medicine women of the Takelma, but she was born about 200 miles north of the Takelma homeland on the Rogue, at the reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, where her people were herded at gunpoint during the 1850s. Many were killed during that “Trail of Tears,” and her tribe lost its identity. Among other things, she’s been a logger, a singer, a bouncer, a jail barber, and a stock-car racer. She’s been married three times, given birth to six children, and has 18 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren, and the most beautiful great-great-granddaughter one can imagine. She has adopted countless more. The Siletz consider her a “living treasure.” She considers herself a grandmother to the world.

Grandma Aggie has witnessed her proud history all but destroyed. She has seen her warriors, unable to fight back, struggle with myriad physical manifestations of oppression. She has buried husbands and sons. Yet somehow she grows stronger in her mission to heal her people and the planet. In 1970 she took the Takelma name Taowhywee (Morning Star). She then left Siletz because Takelma means People of the River, and her river is the Rogue. In 1994 she helped re-create the Salmon Ceremony on National Park Service land along a tributary to the Rogue called the Applegate River. In a ceremony in 2005, the Maoris added the traditional three vertical tattoos to her chin, and to the chin of her daughter Nadine.

Grandma Aggie came to visit me in 2007 because my friend Thomas Doty and I were fairly sure that the waterfall at the base of my property was the actual site of the ancient Salmon Ceremony, a place once known as Ti’lomikh. According to a Takelma creation story, the Great Dragonfly Daldal noticed bodies floating down the Rogue River from Ti’lomikh. Daldal shot an arrow straight into the air, which then came down and split him in two, creating another being. Daldal and his new brother then flew upriver, creating the plants and animals we recognize today. When Daldal reached Ti’lomikh, he gave the humans a ceremony to remind them that the lives of the people, the river, and the salmon are forever intertwined. This happened before Mount Mazama blew up and formed Crater Lake, 7,000 years ago. Ti’lomikh was a place of peace and the center of a story older than the Abrahamic religions.

Owning the land that contains the path to someone else’s sacred site is a potentially awkward situation, especially when the land was originally taken by brute force and dishonesty. But when I stepped ashore from my white-water kayak eight years ago, I knew only that this land was for sale and that it had been ripped up by gold miners. I was hurting from the breakup of my family, and I felt ripped up as well. This land and I spoke to each other. For six years I lived in Ashland, half an hour away, working evenings and weekends to restore the health of the land, to heal its wounds. And I paid off the mortgage as fast as I could so that no one could ever take the land from me.

When I heard about the Salmon Ceremony, it was like learning about the history of my adopted child. I commissioned Doty, a historian and storyteller, to write about it. I learned that Takelma sacred sites were natural places. There was a large village on both sides of the river, but the centerpiece of the site was a natural stone seat at the base of the falls called the “story chair,” where the village elder would wait to net the first salmon of the spring run. In the days it took for the first fish to dry in the sun, no other fish would be taken in order to allow the salmon to make their way upstream. After this first fish was dried, it was divided among the people, and divers returned its bones and skin to the bottom of the pool below the falls. Doty learned about the ceremony at Ti’lomikh in field notes archived at the Smithsonian by a linguist named John Peabody Harrington. For 20 years, Doty had been looking for the story chair to prove that my land was indeed the site of the Salmon Ceremony.

When Grandma Aggie came to visit, she sat in my living room and listened patiently as Doty read from Harrington’s notes about the story chair. After he finished, there was a pause; then Grandma Aggie informed us that Doty had been reading about Harrington’s meeting with her father, George Baker, who came down from Siletz. She had a photo that Harrington had taken of her father on a rock in the river, but until that moment she hadn’t fully appreciated what it meant. She entrusted me with a copy of the photo, and a couple of weeks later, I put on a wet suit and life jacket and, holding the photo in a plastic bag, I waded the swift channel toward the falls to find the chair, hidden in plain sight.

Shortly thereafter, Grandma Aggie got to work restoring the Salmon Ceremony to Ti’lomikh, which first required a cultural officer from Siletz to authenticate the find. When Robert Kentta came to visit, he had no doubts about the find but was not enthusiastic, especially because the proposed ceremony would be open to the public. He worried that the site would be vandalized. “But why?” I asked.

“My great-great grandfather was shot by miners,” he replied, exasperated. He pointed upriver toward Table Rock. “There was a massacre up there.” As we spoke, it became clear that all the land is sacred and alive with stories, which have been consciously and systematically obliterated, along with the tribal languages. In the cultural officer’s estimation, this sort of effort to bring back the old stories was as likely to rub salt into old wounds as it was to heal anything.

Some of my neighbors were equally worried. “The Indians will take your land,” they told me.

But Grandma Aggie is a force of nature, and when she is moving forward, there is really no option but to move with her. Native Americans began to drop by to scout the site for fire pits and camping. As the date of the Salmon Ceremony approached, a lodge builder named Gary Vanderwall and I waded out to the island nearest the chair and found a circle of sand amidst the boulders, perfect for a sweat lodge. Smack in the center of the circle, Vanderwall found a stone tool. All around us were lava rocks from Mount Mazama, the sacred stones known as “grandfathers” that are heated in the fire for a sweat lodge. As a pair of osprey circled overhead, there was a palpable sense of taking part in something that had happened here thousands of times before.

The heart of the Salmon Ceremony is the dive from a rock outcropping above the story chair into the pool below the falls. Every few years a rafter drowns in this pool. But diving into a flow of 2,000 cubic feet per second to reach a bottom was a rite of passage, done because the survival of the people through the winter depended on the salmon.

The day before the ceremony, we put a man in a life jacket, tied to a rope, in the pool — and the force of the water against the tight rope sucked him under. We were very lucky to pull him back, and we learned that the divers would have to leap beyond a submerged rock outcropping that extended several feet into the pool.

By Friday night a couple of hundred people were camped along the river in tents and teepees, and on Saturday morning, hundreds more arrived as Grandma Aggie and two of her daughters began cooking three wild salmon on redwood planks around an alder fire. The ceremony and the weekend meals for everyone were free — paid for by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, and Grandma Aggie’s many friends.

As Grandma Aggie cooked, the divers and I did a sweat-lodge ritual of purification led by a Sun Dancer named Randy Austin from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. Four teenage boys prepared to return some of the salmon bones and skin into the slack water away from the falls, and two other young men and I prepared for our dive into the pool.

A sweat lodge is a powerful ceremony for cleansing and centering. To sweat beside the falls in a ceremony led by someone baring chest scars from the hooks of the Sun Dance was something different for me. They sang and prayed in their people’s language. I thought of my former tenant, my age, who drowned here two years earlier. I remembered being trapped under the falls in my kayak, thinking I would never see my children again. I thought of my children now, who really didn’t like all the people camped on our land. I wondered if any of this would actually help the fish or the people. I wondered about the rocks in the river and was really glad that the young Native Americans would be diving first.

As luck would have it, our local search-and-rescue team was doing its annual white-water rescue training. For the first ceremonial dive in 150 years, we would have a dozen firefighters in wet suits on hand to pull us out.

Around noon we proceeded back to the fire pit, where Grandma Aggie was slicing salmon. In silence we ate it with the others, then put the bones and skin into a beautiful ceremonial bowl carved by a man named Gray Eagle. Our hands were covered first in cedar boughs, then in remains of the fish; we were blessed by Grandma and, to the sound of drums, we proceeded back to the falls.

First to dive into the calm waters were the four boys. They left the salmon bones at the bottom of the river as they prayed for the return of the salmon. When they returned to us, they were radiant. Finally, we three older divers helped each other cross the swift channel to the rock of the story chair above the churning pool.

The first to dive looked like an athlete. He knelt before the chair for a long time before climbing up to the rock outcropping for the first ceremonial dive in 150 years. A natural leader, he dove and disappeared. He was down a long time. Maybe he’s reached the bottom, I thought. Finally, with a whoop of triumph, he emerged downstream, narrowly avoiding being swept over the rocks. The second diver was more hesitant, jumping feet first and coming up quickly. And then it was my turn. Saying a prayer, I dove, plunging fast into bright, clear water that bubbled like champagne. In the sheer bliss of the moment, I forgot what I was supposed to do. Then, shocked by how fast I was moving and how deep the water was, I regained focus, let go of my offering, and swam as hard as I could to the surface and up to the hands of my fellow divers.

The only people who were not completely happy were those on the search-and-rescue team, who had looked forward to fishing us out. Victorious, we smoked a ceremonial pipe with Randy Austin and returned to the gathering, where we were blessed by Grandma Aggie. And somehow during these proceedings, I seem to have been adopted by her family, who began planning an even bigger Salmon Ceremony for 2008.

One postscript: Although hundreds of Native Americans had camped out on my land for two days and nights, when they left, the land was cleaner than before they arrived. The only new additions were two sweat lodges and a pair of bald eagles that perched for the rest of the week in a cottonwood above Grandma Aggie’s cooking fire. I’d never seen them before.

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.