I Know You Broke the River

In 1995, Spokane commissioned local Native American writer Sherman Alexie to write a poem that would be set in stone as public art. The lyrics of “That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump” wind in a spiral, a labyrinth for the reader. It once was more hidden from high foot traffic and now is amid the more recent installations of Native history above the Spokane Falls along a busy path, part of a plaza called “A Place of Truths.” Here – between Alexie’s haunting poem, the iron fisherpeople crafted by Jeff Ferguson, and photo displays about the destructive force of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Native people’s way of life – here, there is a reckoning. At last, in 2019, roughly 140 years after Colonel George Wright and his troops ravaged all the native communities surrounding Spokane and forced a “treaty” that left the tribes with a fraction of their original land, our citizens and visitors are seeing a move toward a more complete history.

It’s heartening – and disheartening all at once. Now, finally, we gain some perspective. But why has it taken this long to recognize the selfishness and vain ambitions of the whites who tore through the region, leaving skeletons of horses on the riverbanks, burning storehouses of grain, hanging men above the creeks?

I walk the poem’s pathway, stopping to question what is Coyote and what does it represent. I ponder possibilities, wonder how far I am from Alexie’s intentions or the instinctive grasping that his people naturally might have.

More than once, I pause at “he smashed a paw across the river,” and “I know you broke the river because of love.”

I tried to tie it to my research on Jesuits and other would-be “saviors” who came with good hearts perhaps, but also with their own agendas, and knowingly or not, were part of a legacy of pain that the Natives still endure today.

That in itself is a white person’s perspective, isn’t it? Trying to find the answers, wanting to point to solutions.

“White men don’t always love their own mothers so how could they love this river?”

I don’t know, Coyote, I don’t know. But I will walk the labyrinth again, and I will visit the river’s edge to the west and to the east and, and rather than answers, I will simply look for truth.


This reflection is part of a walking meditation project for a graduate course, “Contemporary Strategies to Counter Hate,” at Gonzaga University. Other walking meditations include:

Beware of Suspicious Activity

Trespassing at Muir Hill

Finding Chief Garry at an Urban Spring

The River Speaks

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