The Source of The Declaration of Independence

The Source of The Declaration of Independence

Photo by Rory Finney

Freedom is what makes America America. As we approach our nation’s 250th birthday, we should take a respectful look at where this ideal of freedom came from.

The Story Chair at Ti’lomikh Falls (featured above) overlooks the pool, the womb of the Great Animal that is the World. Here, a Takelma elder managed the salmon fishery so that no one went hungry—an obligation to share food that gave birth to Jefferson’s Right to Life.

Thomas Jefferson was famous for borrowing big ideas and shaping them to his own purpose. His great buildings were Venetian, in the style of Andrea Palladio. His fine recipes were French, gathered by one of his slaves on a trip to Paris. His Discovery Doctrine, which opened the American West to conquest, was drawn from papal bulls of the 1490s. His Bible was his own edition, sliced with a razor to remove supernatural forces and to separate church and state. And then there’s his greatest contribution:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Where did Jefferson borrow that?

Jefferson’s wonderful words empowered a glorious new nation, but we also know that he owned other people, and they lived as it pleased him. So, until about a year and a half ago, it was pretty much taken for granted that the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence were borrowed from European Enlightenment figures, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But then anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow published The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity, an enormously influential book that demonstrates that people with brains, creativity, and stories equal to ours have been creating different kinds of civilizations worldwide for more than 10,000 years. These two free-thinking academics assembled striking evidence that our ideals of personal freedom enshrined in the Declaration of Independence did not evolve in Europe but were inspired by European conversations with the Native Peoples of America.

Father Pierre Biard, a theology professor assigned to evangelize the Algonquian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, made the case succinctly in 1608 when he reported back to France:

[The Mi’kmaq] consider themselves better than the French: “For,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbors.”

Graeber and Wengrow show that this obligation to feed others was a fundamental responsibility across ancient America. The genius of Jefferson was to translate that universal responsibility to feed people as the new Americans’ fundamental right, the Right to Life. The Right to Liberty can be derived directly from the Native American Vision Quest, a solo journey into the great expanse of nature to find one’s own special story. The Pursuit of Happiness can be traced to ancient rituals like the communal Feather Dance at the Winter Solstice.

We should remember that European lives at that time were reigned by kings and clergy and private property—and even the kings were always at war. For the ordinary person, a lifetime of toil in fields or factories could not guarantee even the right to pleasures as simple as catching fish or gathering food, let alone the ability to find and live one’s own story. Ordinary Native Americans had a level of freedom that Europeans could only dream of—a very subversive dream.

The next question is where and how the original American ideals of freedom actually started. Graeber and Wengrow reference the 1,000-year-old Iroquois Confederacy, America’s oldest recognized democratic tradition. But the true origin is probably thousands of years older: a stone seat called “The Story Chair” at the base of Ti’lomikh Falls on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. The Story Chair is the keystone of the Takelma Salmon Ceremony, the fundamental ritual of sharing salmon for mutually assured survival.

The last keeper of this ancient story—and the last Takelma elder to take her seat on The Story Chair—was Agnes Baker Pilgrim, “Grandma Aggie,” who died in 2019 at age 95. What Grandma taught me is that almost everything I had learned about Native Americans was wrong. Now, in honor of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, I propose that The Story Chair should become Oregon’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.

An Unbroken Chain

The Salmon Ceremony was practiced for hundreds of generations and included Gwisgwashan (Frances Johnson). In 1933, she directed George Baker to The Story Chair. In 2012, Baker’s daughter, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, spoke from the Chair: “This must be carried on to save the Salmon Nation, the swimmers in the water. Not just here on the Rogue River, but all over the world. I am that voice. You are that voice.” Watch Grandma’s historic video here.

Pictured here are Gwisgwashan (Frances Johnson) and her niece, Evaline Baker (mother of Agnes).

Who Was Grandma Aggie?

Grandma Aggie was a beacon of kindness, a walking and talking Statue of Liberty. She was the Chair of the Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, a group that traveled the world blessing people, places, and water most of all. “We are all water babies!” she would say. “We’re all indigenous to the earth.” “Human beings are not invaders, we are participants.” “The greatest distance in the world is between the human mind and the human heart.”

What makes her attitude even more remarkable is that Grandma Aggie grew up when it was forbidden for her to speak her own language or practice her own religion. Signs on nearby stores read: “No dogs or Indians,” as though her people were nonhuman. Over the course of her lifetime, even her reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, was eliminated by Congress and only grudgingly brought back with a few acres of land.

As a result of this lifelong assault on her very identity, she could have been broken or raging or both. Instead, she was radiant. She said she took all her anger and all the parts of herself that she didn’t like and put that old self in a box and buried it. Yet as proud as she was of her lineage—she had the three traditional black vertical lines of the Takelma tattooed on her chin and took the name Taowhywee (Morningstar)—she was by no means exclusive. In fact, she was inclusive in the extreme. She’d say, “If you can adopt a highway, you can adopt a grandmother!” My mother gave me funny looks when I mentioned Grandma, but she was in many ways closer to me than my own grandmothers. We shared years of stories and adventures, some recounted in this magazine.

The only time I saw Grandma really angry was when she spoke about Pope Benedict and her desire for justice. She and her fellow Indigenous grandmothers went to the Vatican to protest the papal bull of 1493 that put “the wrath of Almighty God and the blessed apostles Peter and Paul” behind the killing of her people. The Pope wouldn’t grant an audience. The righteous grandmothers couldn’t even get arrested.

The Story Behind Our Right to Life

Thousands of years ago, at the beginning of Takelma time, Daldal, The Great Dragonfly, saw hacked-up human bodies floating downriver on what is now called the Rogue River. So he flew upstream to find the source of the conflict: the narrow pool at the base of Ti’lomikh Falls. The pool is about 21 feet deep, and the walls of the pool are vertical bedrock with nowhere for fish to hide. Held back by the force of the falls, countless salmon stacked up against the bedrock. So thick were the salmon that a spear could hardly miss. And so, in the natural course of things, so many people came to the pool that they began spearing each other; that is, until the bodies floated down and The Great Dragonfly flew up.

Daldal said that salmon could only be caught with a dipnet, to protect both the fish and the people. The best seat at the pool—The Story Chair—was then reserved for an elder who would decide when it was time to catch the first fish of the spring and how many fish could be caught, ensuring that no one would ever go hungry. That first fish was then divided among all the people as a sacrament, and its skin and bones were returned by divers to the bottom of the pool. This was an act of reciprocity to ensure that salmon would always come back—and that the salmon would always be shared among all the people.

Takelma means “People of the River,” and their principle food was salmon, which we now recognize as the keystone species of the Pacific Northwest. The Salmon Ceremony—the obligation to protect and to share—is a fundamental story. The Story Chair is a keystone of that story and America’s first Right.

Picture here are George Baker (father of Agnes) on The Story Chair (photographed by John Peabody Harrington) in 1933, and Grandma Aggie in 2012.

Great Aunt Gwisgwashan

Grandma Aggie was told the story of the Salmon Ceremony by her great aunt Gwisgwashan—also known as Mrs. Frances Johnson—another legendary Takelma figure. Gwisgwashan participated in the Salmon Ceremony during the 1840s and witnessed the ancient rituals enacted at The Story Chair. Then gold was discovered in 1850; miners rushed in by the thousands, and the Rogue Indian Wars war broke out. The Takelma had lived on the land for thousands of years, but the Discovery Doctrine gave the new American pioneers their own legal right to it. Both sides fought like hell.

Gwisgwashan fought in the Battle of Hungry Hill under the command of a Takelma leader known as Queen Mary, who yelled orders from horseback. Queen Mary’s Takelma band took on a larger and much more heavily armed combined force of gold miners (who called themselves Exterminators) and the US Army. The Takelma not only repelled their adversaries, they surrounded them and created time for the women and children to escape downriver. Gwisgwashan later recounted, “Boy, those bullets sounded funny when they fly by your head! Hwhoooo … Hwhoooo … Hwhoooo! That night I danced with a white man’s scalp on a stick.”

Gwisgwashan survived the war and the 200-mile Takelma Trail of Tears to the Siletz Reservation. In 1906, Gwisgwashan recorded the story of the Salmon Ceremony in her native Takelma on wax rolls and translated the ancient language for an ethnographer named Edward Sapir, who published the stories in Takelma Texts. In 1933, when she was 98, Gwisgwashan guided the Smithsonian’s John Peabody Harrington to Ti’lomikh, where he wrote extensive field notes and photographed George Baker (Grandma Aggie’s father, seen above) on The Story Chair.

In 2006, Grandma Aggie came to my home on the Rogue River in the search of The Story Chair. A mutual friend, the Native American storyteller Thomas Doty, had brought Harrington’s field notes from the Smithsonian, and he read them aloud. That’s when Grandma realized that the rock her dad was sitting on in a family photograph was The Story Chair. She entrusted me with the photograph, and I ventured out into the river and found it easily. It was, after all, the centerpiece of a very large public gathering. Six years later, from a hospital bed where she was recovering from pneumonia, the 87-year-old Grandma asked me to take her to The Story Chair, which is in the middle of a Class IV rapid. So, I gathered a raft team of fellow Olympic athletes for her perilous journey, and Grandma Aggie blessed us all from the Chair.

The ethnographer Edward Sapir concluded that the Takelma must have been warlike because Gwisgwashan fought like a mama grizzly bear and was one of only a handful of Takelma speakers still alive. But another way to approach the same stories is to ask why both Gwisgwashan and Grandma Aggie risked so much, fought so hard, endured so much, and lived so long so they could keep their story alive. One answer, borrowed from Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, is for their dead to not have died in vain: that the Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness should not perish from the earth.

Capturing a Vision

In May 2013, Grandma Aggie awoke with a vision of a bridge in the shape of a giant dragonfly. On February 24, 2014, she announced where the Dragonfly Bridge should cross the river. On April 14, she returned to the spot to draw her vision of a bicycle bridge with Jim Waddell, an engineer and artist. With them were Stephen Kiesling and Thomas Doty, who helped rediscover The Story Chair.

The First Takelma Storyteller

The story of The Story Chair was created by someone as knowledgeable about her world as Jefferson was about his. She knew she was an animal among animals. She knew her world was entirely alive.

That first storyteller also knew that all living things have their own rituals: the changing of seasons, the shedding of acorns, the dances of birds, the spawning of salmon. She knew what made her kind special: the ability to turn rituals into stories and quickly adapt to the living world. She knew that cooperative environmental stewardship creates an abundance of food, which means freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The storyteller also saw the great irony behind the success of her people. She saw that the rapidly changing fabric of stories made her a danger to everything and everyone, including herself. People fight for the thrill and the status brought by victory. So, to maintain abundant food and freedom as the human population grew, she realized her people needed an overarching story from lessons learned the hard way. Such a story had to be grounded in a reliable ritual that guaranteed peaceful attendance: the Salmon Ceremony.

Such a universal story couldn’t come from any person; even the wisest elder can only see what’s in front of her. To unite everyone, the storyteller chose a fellow hunter, famous for her ability to see in all directions at once—a beautiful, flying metaphor for wisdom: the dragonfly.

The fundamental story had to be set at the most special place for the People of the River: the womb of the Great Animal that is the World, the pool at Ti’lomikh Falls. The ultimate source of the story had to be the living earth herself, a stone seat that required a lifetime around the pool to gain the knowledge and the responsibility and the trust to be able to manage the fishery for all: The Story Chair.

The Right to Liberty

Another ancient Takelma ceremony is the Vision Quest, a solo journey to a sacred seat of one’s own choosing—typically a remote and spectacular spot, such as one of the overlooks at what is now called Crater Lake. The point of the solo quest is not to endure some great hardship, be told what to do by some deity, or fight off a demon. Instead, a Vision Quest is an opening of oneself in the great expanse of nature to find one’s own special story within the grand scheme of a living world. This original Right to Liberty is about dreams, visions, and purpose, and also tranquility and peace of mind.

The Pursuit of Happiness

A third ceremony in the Takelma tradition is the Feather Dance, which involves months-long preparation of regalia for a 10-day celebration around the winter solstice. Given the obvious evidence that humans are social animals—our babies die without touch, and the aged shrivel without friends—it is not too much of a stretch to see the Feather Dance as a communal root of the Pursuit of Happiness. In any case, the Takelma had no forts, walls, or shackles, and the people knew how to live off the land. While there were mortal enemies to be avoided, there was also the guarantee of food. So if a person wanted even more pleasure than the Feather Dance provided, they were generally free to pursue happiness somewhere else.

A History Told by Exterminators

The Native American story that I grew up with—and maybe you did, too—is that the very first people who came to America were hunter-gatherers who followed their prey across a temporary land bridge over the Bering Sea. In other words, these first hunter-gatherers were essentially prehuman. Certainly, the first archaeologists at Ti’lomikh treated them as such. In 1933, Luther Cressman, the father of Oregon archaeology, used a plow to locate Takelma graves downstream from my property and sold tickets to finance the removal of the bones and artifacts. He published a paper suggesting that some of the graves and pit houses were more than 4,000 years old and noted that not much had changed through the millennia. The implication and a common belief is that a few people lived here for a very long time in this spectacularly beautiful place, but they didn’t amount to anything.

Some 70 years after that excavation, two separate cultural surveys were mandated by the US Army Corps of Engineers before removing an old hydroelectric dam on my property just upstream of what is now Ti’lomikh Falls. Those two surveys found nothing of historical significance other than a ditch dug by gold miners (which had cut through the old Takelma village site). So, at the same time Grandma Aggie showed up at my door looking for The Story Chair, our federal, state, local, and even tribal jurisdictions all signed off on a plan that involved carving another huge ditch through the old village site with giant excavators because nothing of historic significance had ever happened here.

The next year, when the dam was removed, the excavators waited until the Salmon Ceremony was completed before carving through the old village, and Grandma didn’t say a word to stop them. Removing the dam was much more important to her than worrying about old bones or artifacts—and the village site had already been obliterated by miners. Nevertheless, she had every right to be extremely angry; instead, she blessed the excavators for helping to restore the precious salmon.

Setting the Future

In 2016, Grandma Aggie met with Governor Kate Brown to launch Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2018, a monument to the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon was designed for Ti’lomikh Falls. A whitewater park was also designed in a river channel dug by miners. In 2022, Governor Brown proposed the whitewater site to Los Angeles for the 2028 Olympics. Ultimately, Ti’lomikh Falls should become Oregon’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.

An Older Story

Grandma Aggie insisted that her people had lived at Ti’lomikh for 22,000 years, which seemed unlikely to me because the oldest known human remains in Oregon are dated at 15,000 years old. But recently discovered footprints in New Mexico have been dated between 21,000 and 23,000 BCE. Increasingly, archaeologists now believe that the first humans paddled from Asia to the Pacific Northwest by boat. The chance of finding physical remains along the coast is nil because the sea level has risen some 300 feet. Nevertheless, paddling here—as opposed to following game across a bridge—suggests that the first people came here for the same reasons that brought European Americans tens of thousands of years later: The first Americans were creating and following stories of adventure and freedom.

A new hypothesis proposed in 2007 may also help explain America’s ancient responsibility to share food. According to what’s called the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis, the Earth passed through the tail of a comet about 12,850 years ago, and huge fireballs hit the ice cap. Sea levels rose and temperatures plunged, creating a period of extinction that lasted hundreds of years and is now marked by a black line in the sediment. The mastodons and other mega fauna in America starved, but humans survived in isolated groups and likely did so because of their ability to adapt quickly with new stories. Along the Rogue River, people sunk their pit house three or four feet into the ground and kept them stuffed with dried salmon and acorns. They burned the forest to keep the forest clear for hunting but also perhaps because one never knew when the next fireball might hit. Most importantly, they created living rituals to always share food and maintain peace. This is a hypothesis—a story, not a fact—but it seems to be becoming a theory.

One surprising fact is that is wasn’t the discovery of gold that finished off the Takelma. Gold lay on the ground at Ti’lomikh (which is now the City of Gold Hill), and the Takelma travelled and knew very well the end result of the love of gold. (When the first European fur trapper arrived at Ti’lomikh in 1826, he found china in the pit houses, and we found tobacco growing here that was native to the Andes). What really happened is that gold miners from California passed through Ti’lomikh in 1850, and the Takelma killed them and threw their gold back in the river. When the US Army arrived to investigate, the Takelma claimed not to know that gold was valuable. They said they only wanted the leather bags. But the obvious truth is that the Takelma knew they would be doomed as soon as the presence of gold became known. The Takelma had ancient living rituals for protecting Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The European Americans had only borrowed words written for a new nation that didn’t yet practice them.

Sadly, Grandma Aggie’s Salmon Ceremony at Ti’lomikh Falls ended in 2014. One reason is that fishing is not permitted in the falls and dipnet fishing is not permitted in Oregon. The fish had to be bought from the Columbia River and then 1,000 people showed up. They all got fed—a miracle like the loaves and fishes—but the small group of volunteers got tired of working so hard. The larger problem was revealed by us scuba diving to the bottom of the pool, where we found a single salmon and a pair of oars. Forty million dollars has been spent on removing dams from the Rogue and millions more have been spent on habitat restoration, but none of that has changed human behavior. An ancient Takelma elder on The Story Chair might leave the salmon in peace until they recover.

Separating Church and State

Takelma villages didn’t have churches—they had sweat lodges. The Takelma men lived in sweat lodges, and the women had their own separate lodges. Like churches, sweat lodges were places for praying and singing and storytelling but also sweating. The rounds of intense heating followed by jumping into the river were not only physically healing but dispelled passions—creating a euphoria that likely helped the Takelma maintain a stable and relatively peaceful society.

While each village had a leader called a Tyee, he didn’t have much authority to tell others what to do. The example of Queen Mary suggests that women and men shared responsibilities, even in wartime.

Reasons for Hope

Today it is fairly common knowledge that ancient Athens and Sparta were once equal

powers, even though Athens now has world-famous ruins and almost nothing remains at Sparta. Perhaps a similar understanding can be taught about European Americans and Native Americans. The European Americans arrived with a much richer material culture, but their lives were neither as free nor as happy as the Native Americans. Nowadays, with eight billion people on earth, we need models of freedom and happiness without such a rich material culture. A more honest history is a good place to start. Progress is being made.

In 2007, the United Nations condemned the Discovery Doctrine as unjust and racist and created The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since then, the US government, as well as many American churches, have joined the chorus. Pope Francis recently apologized for the horrors of the Canadian residential schools for Indigenous children, and he may one day apologize for the papal bulls that helped set it all in motion.

Here on the Rogue River, the name Ti’lomikh Falls was federally restored in 2010, and the City of Gold Hill officially apologized to Native Americans in 2016. That same year, Grandma Aggie and I met with Governor Kate Brown, who created Oregon’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day a couple of years later. During that time, the state also funded the design of a whitewater park at Ti’lomikh Falls in a channel known as Mugger’s Alley—a channel dug by miners in the 1870s and used for a flour mill in the 1890s. The bedrock channel has the length, flow, and vertical drop of an Olympic slalom venue. The natural play spot will run for free, forever, and help create an economy not built on extracting anything from the river but happiness. Grandma’s grand dream was a “Dragonfly Bridge” for bicycles and pedestrians so visitors won’t need cars.

Last year, Governor Brown recommended Ti’lomikh Falls to the Los Angeles Olympic Committee as the whitewater venue for the 2028 Olympics. For me personally, bringing the Olympics to Oregon would be the fulfillment of an Olympic dream 48 years after the 1980 Moscow Boycott. Grandma Aggie signed our Olympic flag at the Salmon Ceremony with the promise that the project would help salmon, and the design will do just that. The LAOC is now contemplating the proposal. Both the Olympics and the Salmon Ceremony are ancient stories created as an alternative to war. The confluence of Oregon’s first Olympic venue and a ceremony protected for everyone in a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a new story worthy of The Story Chair.

25 Years of Total Aliveness

Stephen Kiesling’s stories about Grandma Aggie include: “The Ceremony at the Heart of Salmon Nation” (May 2008); “Bringing Grandma Home” (Dec. 2014); and “Create First Nations Day” (Oct. 2015).

If you would like to help with the Ti’lomikh project, contact Stephen at [email protected].

Chair credit Rory Finney

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