Words by Chandra Brown
Photos by Robin Carleton
Almost two months after protesters began to gather against the “black snake” – the Dakota Access oil Pipeline – a much smaller protest came to a reservoir on the Snake River, the largest tributary to the Columbia. At the Free the Snake flotilla, kayakers, fishermen, and tribal representatives called for the return of the salmon to the people and waters from which they are rapidly disappearing.
September 17, 2016
Snake River, eastern Washington
“Let the salmon lead us home now.” An organizer with a red ponytail and fisherman’s hat coos into his portable PA as the FREE THE SNAKE banner is pulled in, drawn off the surface of dark water. The protesters obediently point their bows upstream. I paddle back quickly, against a barely perceptible downstream current, ahead of the rest of the flotilla, my core chilled.
At the boat ramp at Swallows Park, I carry my little red kayak – one of only a handful of whitewater boats in the flotilla – up the concrete incline and drop it in the grass. Nearby: a folding table where two Indian women in gorgeous colors – rich blues and magenta and crimson – are preparing to serve fry bread and smoked salmon to paddlers soaked in Snake water. Rain still issues intermittently from a cement sky.
“What’s your name?” A surprisingly raspy little voice rises from the sidewalk. He’s on a tiny Radio Flyer tricycle and his name is Jaker. He’s just turned three, he’s barefoot, wearing a black tank top and shorts, and someone has Sharpied #NoDAPL on his forehead. His hair falls in rain-soaked clumps over the tattoo.
“My uncle has a dirt bike.” You don’t say. He puts on a giant full-face helmet to prove it.
I ask him if he’s cold, because I am, and he rattles a definitive “no.” I tell him my name and, curious, I take a seat on the bow of my boat.
He rolls his tricycle backwards toward to the edge of the grass adjacent to the hard-sloping boat ramp. No one says anything or lifts a finger to stop him. He’s not invisible, just free, and I’m transfixed. The women in their colors and long braids, with their salmon and fry bread, all free for the paddlers, all an expression of oneness, solidarity with those who have raised their voices today in opposition of the control, of these old dams, of the slow and quiet death of the Snake River; the women don’t raise an eye now toward Jaker as he slips toward the water. I bite my tongue. His bare feet are muddy with errant green grass clippings and the tiny pebbles that float atop pavement stuck between his toes. He rolls backward and when my eyes get big he lets out a throaty, mischievous giggle. Shaking his head and smiling, he pushes his tricycle back up the hill.
A cousin, possibly the same age as Jaker, wanders toward us and posits that familiar question that should inspire pause: “What are you doing?”
I tell her: right now, I’m being with you. I’m with you.
Two Army Corps park rangers approach, holding a pile of stickers. They are dressed like the park rangers I know, but this isn’t a National Park or State Park or BLM land. This is Lower Granite Lake – a controlled portion of a once wild river, managed and mowed over with parking lots, manicured grass, and corrugated boat ramp – and these bespectacled rangers have U.S. Army Corps of Engineers patches on the shoulders of their buff colored work shirts. The male ranger has sought out the kids and bends down to offer Jaker and his cousin a sticker: “Junior USACE Ranger.” Vaguely reminiscent of the kind you used to get from Smokey the Bear or from a National Park’s visitor center, but unquestionably different. The cousin declines, but Jaker takes a sticker and slaps it squarely upside down in the center of his chest.
Play it safe, Junior Ranger, the sticker says.
“My grandma’s house is green,” Jaker says.
His hand is on his chest, little fingers gingerly tapping that upside down gold foil sticker. The US Army Corps of Engineers: the builders, the managers, the controllers. And Jaker and his cousins, the protectors, the guardians. I watch his eyes: dark, like what lies in the inner folds of the earth; full, I imagine, with sorrowful history, collective memory, and hand-me-down wisdom.
Play it safe, Junior Ranger, get away from that water. It’s controlled, managed, held back and held still, to keep you safe. Flood control, spill control, crowd control. Control of slowly suffocating wild salmon: they’re barged – and safely! – around these dams and unloaded downstream like lumber, like wheat, like oil.
And that oil! It’s safe, Junior Ranger. It’s contained, funneled around your land and along, above, beside your water in one of only a few types of government-approved pipes, enthusiastically endorsed for this very purpose.
Don’t say anything, don’t do anything – don’t dance, pray, gather, or scream – for that will only stir the waters we work so hard to calm. Control the fire, control the flood, and come away from the edge, from that pipe, from that slow and dying river.
But you, Jaker, you’re not fighting. You’re telling me about your grandma’s green house, your uncle’s dirt bike. You’re telling me you’re not cold, when I can’t stop shivering.
Your older cousins from the Kalispel Reservation are freshly returned to eastern Washington from Standing Rock with their dugout canoe – The Boss, it’s called, in the Kalispel dialect of Salish – that sweet cedar, those coiling eddy lines burned into the hull. (“Our boat, it’s the one with the swirls.” The little girl had told me this morning, as she swung her head toward the water, toward her family in their canoe; her twin braids had followed to twirl through the damp and misty air.) The swirls like water, like current, like the deep-down whirling of whispers: don’t push it, play it safe, do your part, step aside. The Boss, with Missouri River water still seeping from the cracks in its floor, cigarette smoke and sage and the tears and songs of the Prairie still awash over its deck. Your Kalispel cousins paddle for cultural, spiritual, and ecological justice, paddling and singing and drumming, when all these slow and stagnant rivers, they seem to flow upstream. From one national artery to another, every pull of the paddle is a prayer.
Every pull a prayer.
Jaker’s trike drifts backward to the river again. He emits another throaty chuckle. His cousin rests her tiny hand on my shoulder, runs her dirty fingers along the contour of my lifejacket. Play it safe. We watch him, together, as he drags his bike back up the incline, only to tumble back down it again.
Chandra Brown is a Montana-based writer, river guide, and educator. Robin Carleton is a photographer based in Missoula, Montana.