The River Speaks

… But the people hold their tongues

The June evening is warm, the sky clear, the Spokane River calm. Near one of the tributary’s seven dams, I put my modern, carefully engineered craft into the water, its greens and purples jumping off the river’s blues. I, in my matching purple PFD, couldn’t be further from the realities of the indigenous people who lived along this river. Just pointing out the obvious.

As I drift lazily along, watching the sun’s final rays touch the day lilies on the banks, I ponder that. On separate journeys, I’ve visited the markers along this river’s edge that tell a story of Indians and of white settlers, of chiefs and colonels, braves and majors, vying for rights to the land. One glorifies the miners who joined the troops, not far from the graveyard of 800 tortured horses. An installation downtown portrays fishing as a way of life for the Native people, and the suffering they endured after settlers dammed the river. I rest on the water between those two locations, listening for the stories the river could tell.

The Spokane River’s banks have seen bloodshed and destruction. They’ve hosted conversations and heard edicts. They’ve held logs for an old, tired, displaced leader to rest on, weary of the struggle to protect his land, burdened by letting his people down. The water has given life to the flora and fauna, has washed wounds, cleaned hands, cooled burning skin. But those stories could be lost – forgotten as new tales emerge from the tides of summer play, paddlers with coolers, youth jumping from rope swings, boaters hauling skis, lovers watching the sunset reflect on the evening glass.

But more than the fear of the stories being lost of the indigenous people who’ve already passed to the next life, I worry about the silenced stories of the people who still live.

Three times in one week, I looked into the eyes of individuals whose skin is darker than mine, whose ancestors are not colonists, as they shared how often they do not speak, how many times they hesitate, how many times they don’t say clearly what they want because it may provoke a white person. They are South American, Black American, Native American. Each, in their own way, suffers from questioning the validity or the potential repercussions of what they want to say.

There is no monument on the river for these stories. No inscription carved in stone, erected on a hill, marked on a map.

I exit my kayak clumsily. Haul it up the embankment, load it on the car, drive home. And in bed, I sleep fitfully, the stories broiling, wanting to be screamed into reality for all to hear.


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

I Know You Broke the River

Finding Chief Garry at an Urban Spring

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