Salmon Wisdom and the Planetary Heart – Bearing Witness to the Power of Song

Be a Part of Our Story - Wisdom of the Elders
Wisdom of the Elders supports the healing of historic trauma and empowers the passing forward of Indigenous Science & Arts – Photograph by Treothe at Northwest Indian Storytelling Festival

The personal, communal and planetary rarely fuse in an event of delight rooted in peacemaking and when it does – lets share the joy! Gotta share Valentine’s night with you all! We joined a fundraiser for Wisdom of the Elders with Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary). Wisdom of the Elders is a truly high-class organization that works to support the best of the teachings and culture of First Nations and to foster mentorships and support of youth. They work at developing Indigenous food systems, Indigenous Science and the Arts including Documentary Radio and Filmmaking, the Northwest Indian Storytelling Festival and much more.

Here in the Northwest Coast Salmon are at the center of the ecology and culture. One of the International Council of 13 Grandmothers, a Takelma Elder here in Oregon, who has opened up the traditional teachings and ceremonies honoring the water and salmon is Agnes Pilgrim Baker. We shared a good part of an Earth Day (that the Earth & Spirit Council had organized) with her recently at the time that Friends of Celilo Falls was taking off. She shared an incredibly beautiful feeling with words that her first prayer everywhere she travels is for the water.

Christopher Yarrow, Peter’s son began participating in ceremony with Grandmother Agnes and she pointed him toward Rose High Bear who cofounded Wisdom of the Elders, who has become a mentor and friend. In following the teachings he has been receiving he decided to organize the event to honor and support the work of his spiritual elders. Link to Wisdom of Elders Native Climate Series Indiegogo (A beautiful video preview of this work was shown at the event)

The event was held at Augustana Lutheran Church here in Portland, OR – a name that immediately caught our attention. Our Great Grandmother Anna Augusta Bjorkman, who immigrated to Turtle Island in 1892 from Sweden and built the house my mother grew up in, which gave us many early childhood memories, shared in the building of a church with the same name in Cambridge, MA. After marrying in the church she was traveling with her new husband to a job in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city and they located in Oakland, where I was born before our family returned to Oregon. (Coincidentally my father’s family first made a trip to Oregon in 1906 as well). The concert was on her Birthday Eve, a birthday that is shared with my daughter, and her namesake, River Anna Joy!

In my earliest memories of music we had pretty much 3 kinds of music in the house. My father was a fan of jazz – Rosand Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet and the classical jazz-fusion of the Swingle Singers. My mom always played Peter, Paul & Mary. Period. And then we listened to classical on the radio. Peter has played the Winterfolk fund raiser which supports Sisters of the Road Café (an amazing restaurant that serves the homeless and others with empowering dignity and personability) a couple of times recently and has blown us away each time with the huge heart he opens up and brings everyone together through.

Before the music started, in good Indian Country fashion, there was a blanket giveaway – Rose High Bear and Don Motanic gave Mark Knutson, pastor of the church a Four Directions Pendleton Blanket in honor of his work to support elders and children. Later a blanket was also presented to Peter. The church is quite ecumenical and hosts a native congregation of over 50 native members. There is an active campaign to embrace the children and the name of every member age 21 or younger was up on the wall of the church in big letters.

Peter likes to start his shows with a song a Portlander has co-composed – Music Speaks Louder than Words. He paused the song, left the stage PA system and did an Occupy style Mic Check teaching everybody the chorus and then opened a conversation about what happens, what we experience, when we sing, when we voice together – it is peace when we find ourselves vibrating with music together with friends and strangers alike. Music has the power to create peace. (If you have never seen The Singing Revolution – check it out – it tells the story of a people, Estonians, colonized for most of the last 500 years achieving their liberation non violently through singing together)

The Singing Revolution Film preview

Peter Yarrow performing Music Speaks Louder than Words at the Tom Paxton Celebration

Among the stories that came out was reflection on the March on Washington where Peter Paul and Mary sang in 1963. The experience of singing with quarter of a million people (everyone knew the songs and joined in) is an experience that changed his life and that he lived to witness change our nation. On the 50th anniversary of the event he was joined on stage by Paul, his daughter and two families whose lives have been devastated by the essential unfinished work of caring for our youth. His is a belief that war and violence are rooted in childhood neglect and harm resulting in longing in the wounded to do harm. When the weakest and most vulnerable among us are loved we have the possibility of ending war and violence. A personal friend of Peter’s was among those who lost a child at the Newtown school-shooting massacre. He had been invited to join with the families in their grief work. On stage singing a song asking nine essential questions was this family from Newtown and the family of Trevon Martin – singing Blowin in the Wind. An amazing array of musicians from many streams of culture joined him this evening including Ural Thomas whose voice is otherworldly.

Blowin in the Wind sung at the March on Washington 1963

The evening was in part dedicated to the memories of non-violent leaders who have passed over – Pete Seeger, Mary Travers and Nelson Mandela. He was with Pete Seeger on the last day of his life. He shared that he flew to New York directly from the Middle East where he has been working on a cross wall music peace project. He is organizing World Class musicians together with local Palestinian and Israeli musicians in music festival that happens simultaneously on each side of the wall allowing the apartheid style wall to be broken with music – a work he was able to share with Pete – his deepest of mentors. Pete’s song, If I Had a Hammer, was one of the songs sung at the March on Washington.

He quipped at one point “Those that sing together, cry together, get arrested together, they stay together!” At the Nelson Mandela memorial that was held at the National Cathedral in Washington DC he sang a song that he had written for Nelson while he was still imprisoned on Robbin Island. He was proudly able to recount the movement in which Peter, Paul and Mary were all arrested, during that time in which 1000’s were arrested in front of the South African Embassy, which is part of what built the political pressure for a condition of sanctions against SA being lifted, which was the release of Mandela from prison. He shared this story with most of the members of the current American Administration and Congress present and got an enthusiastic thumbs up from Biden. (Here we go again – with First Nation led efforts at stopping the Keystone pipeline and fracking – huge civil disobedience planned for next month – March 2014).

These stories made us think of the history in this country that coalesced the folk music movement in Greenwich Village in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It was the practice on Sunday’s for all the people to join up in the park and sing together. Songs of the people were being freely taught and shared. Right Wingers got uncomfortable with the strength of this and passed a law banning public singing in parks. They sent in the goons and began violently arresting young and old alike – and the people came up with a brilliant song to sing – the national anthem. When that got on TV the law was quickly repealed, but the importance of the music was affirmed.

One World Children's Chorus with Peter Yarrow at benefit for Wisdom
One World Children’s Chorus & leader Aaron Nigel Smith with Peter Yarrow at benefit for Wisdom

Mary Travers was honored in singing a song about embracing those who are different from us – Don’t Laugh at Me. Operation Respect is a non-profit Peter has founded to support Anti Bullying cultures for children. He asked us all to think of the roots of war as rooted in the quality of the experience of all of our children.

Woodrow “Woody” Morrison Jr, Haida Elder and Wisdom Board Member brought out a beautiful set of stories about working with our feelings and with our ancestors. He sang a Raven song as it traveled through the stages of grief and honoring which restore our sense of wholeness and aliveness in our living. A heartfelt and beautiful transition into the second half of the evening.

The gathering ended with Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, the song that Peter said is our real national anthem. It is a song that ultimately speaks an existential truth, and yet with over 400 broken treaties in the US leaves us with feelings of ambiguity and unfinished work. He played free with the second verse adding lines about ending fracking and finding ourselves beyond property and with the wisdom of our elders. Here is a short clip.

At the end of the show we did not want to leave and went down to main floor of other beaming folk. An elder woman kept repeating “That was so good, that was so good” We shook hands and thanked some of the musicians. Chatted with a videographer friend about a project we are working on about Douglas Fir and the history of its existence, migrations, speciation and the edges of its habitats in sky islands, and it largest incarnation – in Coos County. As we talked about the memory of genetic diversities that are often centered not only in existent watersheds – but ancestral watersheds of the landscape he pondered a bit and remembered an old saying about how water remembers everywhere it has been, and that people say you never quite feel like you are at home until you drink the water from the place of your birth. Waters remember us. Hmmm… something like the journey of Salmon.


Add yours →

  1. Yes!!!! Treothe, thanks for your fabulous sharing of a timely and profound event, and all the related streams of love……

  2. You are very welcome Ari… great to experience so many positive streams weaving together…

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