I’ve always enjoyed driving the country roads through the Palouse territory south of Spokane – especially in summer when the wheat is growing and blowing in the breeze. On one such trip, I came upon a spot at Hangman Creek where a brown historical marker bid me to pull off the road. It was the monument marking the hanging of Qualchan and 6 other Indians by Col. George Wright during the Indian Wars of 1858. At the time, it was news to me, and disturbing.
At least a decade later, I left home on another summer evening to go find that spot on purpose. It’s not necessarily easy to find – either digitally or on a printed map. I was fairly certain I’d find the way, and as the remaining sun left for the day, I did. We pulled in as the horizon was pink behind the pine trees, and the first thing we noticed was the flowers – two pots of red and white geraniums. I was surprised to discover they were real; someone is visiting regularly with water to keep them alive. Behind the stone was also a small trash can and a bag in it, convenient for tidying up the area after careless people leave their traces behind.
But someone has left a number of thoughtful gifts at what had become a memorial at the base of the monument. Lying on a tapestry were sage, feathers, jewelry, a cigarette, rolling papers, beads, and carefully arranged pinecones. We search the car for anything appropriate to leave as a token of our respect, and found a beautiful rock we had picked up on an earlier drive.
My teenager wanted to know more of the context for this event, and pondered aloud why it is that people have historically been so eager to assert authority over others. We discussed those tough topics on the eave of the fourth of July when so many Americans will celebrate the nation’s independence from the control of another. Ironic how eager the colonial settlers were to establish freedom for themselves and so quickly take others captive.
Before heading back toward civilization for late summer-night ice cream, I stopped at the creek and simply listened. I heard an owl, a bullfrog, a marmot, and a few varieties of birds. It was a perfectly peaceful moment tied to a moment wrought with hate.
And that brings be to the title of his course: “Contemporary Strategies for Countering Hate.” I must admit that I thought it was a misnomer – “hate” having become a term used freely in the last few years of social activism around racial injustice. Would it really be about “hate”? I wondered. But after six weeks of throwing myself headlong into research of the Native American community in Spokane – the Jesuit archives, state records, countless history sources, missionary diaries, and contemporary research on documents written more than a century ago – I conclude that yes, it is about hate.
Nothing but hate could propel a man like Col. Wright to commit the atrocities he did. And while missionaries, Protestant and Catholic alike – certainly would have avowed to do what they did out of love, there was hatred for what they believed to be repulsive customs of the indigenous people. What could prompt Governor Isaac Stephens to befriend chiefs like Spokane Garry, to the point of writing friendly letters back and forth, and then to turn his back on them for the sake of property lines? What would cause the wealthy businessmen to commercialize a beautiful riverfront already inhabited for centuries by other people? One could argue that greed was the impetus, not hate, but what is greed other than hating the very idea that someone else could profit from something you want?
I’m grateful for the incredible learning that has taken place through this course. The texts, the honest discussions with classmates, the vulnerable discussion board posts, and the depth of research I was able to do with support from a research mate and a liaison from the Native community. The learning has been intellectually challenging, emotionally taxing, and socially demanding. There is no way to unlearn what has been grasped, no way to erase the truth exposing all the partial perspectives in the American story we’ve grown up believing.
There is no going back. Only forward. The walking meditations to the site of Spokane Garry’s school at Drumheller Springs, the kayaking meditations on the Spokane River, the drives and walks to breathe in the air at the locations of atrocities all around my city – these will continue.
I hope some day there will be more makeshift memorials with gifts of respect at the locations where current-day monuments only tell part of a story. Onward toward truth in place of life, toward love instead of hate.
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: