In 1948, maybe 1953, certain earlier, my brother Gilberto, when he was a 11 or 12 year old member of our migrant farmworker family that had travelled north and landed in Yakama lands to work the land, met White Swan. White Swan was then old, very old, deep in the winter season of his life. White Swan’s face was so wrinkled, crevasses, ravines, rivulets, rivers etched into his face.
White Swan walked if slowly, still glowing with the power of his roots, without help, He would walk close to where we lived, a former soldier’s barracks converted into a migrant camp, alongside an field that was separated from our camp by a barbed wire fence that held horses captive.I would see him, too, and he would come over and smile at me as I pulled stalks of grass that I hand-fed to a horse.
White Swan shared two very important stories about the web of life with Gilberto. Gilberto said that White Swan took him walking across the fields, some open with horses and others pocked marked by telephone poles and wires that criss-crossed overhead where in summer and autumn became heavy with hops, luscious green honey-combed buds used to intoxicate the senses in liquid form.
White Swan told Gilberto that at one time he could get on a canoe and get anywhere in the misspelled Yakima valley. White Swan could row all the way from where Zillah now stood to the migrant camps where we had met him. He could ride on the waters of creeks that fed off and into the once fierce Yakama river. The Yakama’s river even in the 1960s still was rich with salmon and other fish. I saw Yakama men build small platforms that they would place at the foot of the river water falls and rapids and, standing upon them with a pole that had a round net, catch salmon jumping up the river’s source into the mountains where Selah, Ellensburg and other towns built along this powerful river.
White Swan told Gilberto that the Yakama river and its creeks and tributaries connected all life in the valley all the way to the mountains and into the oceans. The salmon were the sister and brother carrying messages of survival and adaptability. We indian humans were like salmon, White Swan told Gilberto. We cross worlds, we can live and thrive and grow old, ancient wise in bitter oceans of frogetfulness ruled by those who never pay mind to the present or the past and do not care about their future. And then like salmon make our way back to the sweet waters of the Yakama river, to make love, convulsing from the pleasure of the long journey, the battle to live, love and protect the future, and start the journey once again from sweet water to bitter water. This relationship between humans, the rivers, the fish, other humans and other creatures and plants would die because of human greed to accumulate more than they can use and ignore the seasons, the water and the salmon.
Gilberto walked alongside White Swan who led him along a path of soft sand, gravels, rocks and big stones over which the waters of the Yakama would flow. Gilberto walked all the way from the migrant camp to the Yakama river with White Swan. There the Yakama river still flowed strong. White Swan said the water was sick because of human greed and lack of consideration. He said there was trash, rust from cars and other industrial items dumped either at the shores or right into the waters of the Yakama. He warned about the danger to his health if he swam too much in its waters or ate too much fish caught from its body. The water was nothing like from his days, White Swan said. And he was sure that both the waters and the humans would be restored, helped, become healthy again.
White Swan would also pull stalks of green grass and feed the horse and spoke to me about the places he had come from…