Beware of Suspicious Activity

It’s almost dark and I’m trekking down a riverside path I do not know, anxious to get to the water’s edge at a clearing – a spot close to the horrors that took place 163 years ago as the U.S. army battled to claim the land already inhabited by Native Spokans. In my haste, I leave my phone in my car, and decide I don’t care, although I know I will want it for taking photos. A brown post in the trail through riparian bushes and low-hanging trees has a ripped notice posted from the Sherriff’s office: “Be alert of suspicious activity. Watch out for one another.” I contemplate returning to get my phone, but the full moon is rising and I don’t want to waste time.

The opening in the trees yields to a horseshoe bend in the river. A wide section of dry riverbed is covered by rocks scattered across a cracking earth, thirsty plants dotting the otherwise brown and gray landscape with sage-green accents. Across the river, the other bank is treelined, and beyond that is a steady flow of traffic on the interstate, and semi-trucks pulling in to the weigh station. Above it all, the full moon rises still, over purplish hills, peeking over the trees and dancing on the water.

I can’t properly pronoun Spokane in Salish (“Sp’q’n’i”) but I try. “Spo-kah-NEE,” I whisper at first. Louder, “Spo-kah-NEE.” Then yelling, “Spo-kah-NEE.”

I find myself talking to the spirits of dead Indians, and I’m wishing for some mystical connection, knowing that I simply look and sound like some crazy white woman who needs to go home. I thought about how the Spokans came to this spot to protect their land and way of life, and here they watched the brutal torture and slaughter of their horses by white men, some of whom were repulsed by carrying out the orders. How long must they have heard the cries and moans of suffering as they tried to sleep? A sign saying “Be alert of suspicious activity,” – had it been posted in Salish as a warning of the white man’s ways – couldn’t have prevented what ultimately took place.  

With that realization, I begin the trek away from the water, back through the brush, picking up the pace.

“Watch out for one another,” the poster also said.

Yes, I say to the Spokan spirits, “Watch out for one another.”

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:

The River Speaks

Trespassing at Muir Hill

I Know You Broke the River

Finding Chief Garry at an Urban Spring

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

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