What shall I do with my old white skin?

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi, BIPOC

“If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up. You begin by stopping the torture and killing of the unprotected, by feeding the hungry so that they have the energy to think about what they want beyond food.

Adrienne Rich, LGBTQ+

 

Squinting into the world with newborn eyes, I didn’t ask to be born “white” any more than someone else asked to be born brown. I always thought white skin was basically boring, like bread dough. Having brown eyes in a blue-eyed family was my only distinguishing characteristic. My mother (source of those brown eyes) had almond shaped eyes, a Eurasian look descending from her father’s father’s father, a “black Swede.” Years later I wonder about Sami blood. And shall I get a DNA test to prove that I am (somewhere in the shroud of my history) not the oppressor?

And then what do I do with this white skin of mine? I have benefitted from it all my life, much of that time ignorant of the privilege whiteness conferred. In recent decades of humbling awareness, I continue to benefit without asking for that privilege or being able to return it to the historical storehouse from whence it came.

In 1950s America, we lived in white world. My grandfather lent my struggling parents money to buy a falling down house that sat on a corner lot big enough for chickens and a garden at the edge of Indianapolis. We were poor folks, growing our own food, my father driving milk truck and taxicab. But still: white. And he, a conscientious objector in the War, had gotten a master’s degree that after every veteran had been given first choice at jobs, he would finally parlay into a middle-class life for his wife and children. Because: white.

Nora School, 1952, the first wave of boomer babies enters first grade: thirty-five faces, none of them any color other than the “flesh” crayon in our little green and yellow boxes. White skin is all I see. Dick, Jane, and Sally—learning to read in a white child world. The school sits on Lenapé land, but there is no mention that whiteness is not first on the playground in the state of Indian/a. No one mentions the 1818 Treaty of St. Mary’s, or teaches me about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Mrs. Able, hair in a tight black bun, teaches us to sing, “One little, two little, three little Indians…” That November I appear on the still-new invention of television dressed as a pilgrim with a black paper collar and white hanky costume while other classmates sport construction paper feathers—all of us white. None of us knows what myth we are perpetuating: what this story omits or reveals. Local kids posing on an afternoon clown show: white.

We move north. My mother’s family immigrated from Sweden and Norway in the late 1800’s and settled into Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862, an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of treaty-betrayed Sioux. The battles ended with the surrender of 400 Dakota, and eventually 1600 Sioux captives, including women, children and elderly. Abraham Lincoln, far away in the nation’s capital, in the middle of signing the Emancipation Proclamation, also signed orders for execution by hanging of 38 Dakota men on the day after Christmas in 1862, the largest one-day mass execution in US history. The rest of the captured Indians were herded onto an island in the Mississippi River where disease and neglect took hundreds of them before survivors were banished into western territories. This is a complex story, with rage on both sides, and the desperation of genocidal wrong-doing.

The Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, commemorates this turning point, showing an “Indian brave” riding by a field where a settler is plowing his land with his musket and powder resting on a tree stump. I know this seal well, because in 1958, when I was twelve and Minnesota statehood was one hundred, I spent hours on my hands and knees on the gymnasium stage of Beacon Heights Elementary School carefully applying tempera paint to a five foot replica of this drawing that would hang (no pun intended) behind the all-white student body as we made pageantry out of our families’ pioneering arrivals onto the lands of the Dakota and Anishinaabe. Because: white.

My father’s family arrived in “the New World” before the American Revolution, founding a town in Connecticut in 1739 on the land of the Narragansett, Mohegans, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Abenaki and Pequot. A man of his time, Nathaniel Baldwin was surely a white supremacist whose breath was a pestilence worse than a musket. He and his wife Abigail exhaled diseases capable of decimating whole tribeEmpowered by the Doctrine of Discovery of 1493, signed in Europe among kings and popes, they believed any land not occupied by Christians to be available for colonization. Because: white.

There was a time in my earlier adulthood when I perused my genealogy and not finding slaveholders or Cavalry relaxed into the fantasy of being among “the good white people.” There is no relaxing. Because: white.

In 1908, Nathaniel’s descendant, Leo Baldwin, a newly ordained Methodist clergy, homesteaded with his wife Mary, in western Montana on territory of the Amskapi Piikani, in Nitsitapii, the Blackfeet Confederacy. He was charged to start churches and to teach at the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School. The conditions at the school challenged his theology and sense of justice. He helped to close it in 1910, because he could, because: white.

My father was born into this valley in 1920, raised there, and though he lived his adult life in other states, he returned to the family homestead time and again, and his ashes rest in that soil. I was born there in 1946, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of genocide, perpetrator of marginalization, singer of the missing “ten little Indian boys.” No matter how conscientiously I try to live, I live on land stolen by my ancestors. And I live within an ongoing theft that has never been rectified.

It’s like this: imagine a diamond ring comes down the family line: it belonged to my mother, a gift from her mother, who got it from her father who got it from his uncle who bought it from another uncle who fought in the Civil War, who stole it off the dead finger of Confederate soldier who had a letter from his wife in his pocket… so it could have been returned, but it wasn’t. For generations the ring has been passed along as an heirloom, but none of that makes it not stolen.

So “we” can’t just move on, and “they” can’t just get over it because WHITE has always been the lie and DIVERSITY has always been the truth. And here we are: living in the time of Black Lives Matter, and BIPOC and LBGTQ+ reckoning. Finally. Systems of supremacy and consequent oppression in all forms—racial, ethnic, economic, religious, gender, even human-centric–must now be justly accounted for and reconciled if people of any color are to survive within the matrix of creation.

So, here is the question I am standing in: How can seven generations of guilt intersect with seven generations of trauma in healing ways?

I do not have an answer. But I am willing to bring my lineage of prejudice, and privilege to the  the fire; to that holy space “out beyond notions of wrong-doing and right-doing.” I am committed with the rest of my days to “empower the most powerless and build from the ground up.”

 

To be continued…

Summer Salmon Fishing

Fall has come to the Pacific Northwest. Our dry summer is history. Snow is beginning to accumulate on the mountain tops and area rivers are rising. The latter fact is good news for our migrating salmon—many (though, not all) small headwater creeks now have enough cool water for these magnificent, iconic creatures to complete their egg laying journeys. Once the eggs are laid and fertilized, they rest in gravel bars all winter before hatching in the spring as tiny alevin with yoke sacks on their necks. And the great salmon cycle begins again.

As a keystone species (essential to the health of our region), nothing about the salmon/human interaction in the Northwest is simple. Their shrinking numbers depend increasingly on shoreline restoration. Unfortunately, lack of funding for habitat restoration is woefully inadequate. Couple that with the problem of stormwater runoff, dams on tributaries, and logging practices, it is a wonder that we still have a salmon run. According to Washington’s State of Salmon in Watersheds report issued January 2021, a trend of warming waters and habitat degradation are the principal problems. The report says that 10 of the 14 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead runs in the state are not improving and five are “in crisis”.

So, why fish?

Fishing with my dad was one of the first ways I explored the natural world. When I was only six years old, we waded in cold Colorado mountain streams seeking the elusive native cutthroat trout. I loved the excitement, the connection to nature, and, of course, the camaraderie with my father. Fishing became synonymous with adventure for me. And it has remained so.

This drawing is up on my wall. I love the reminder of my dad’s spirit. He passed away in 2013.

However, fishing and fishing resources have changed dramatically over the 65+years since Dad taught me to fish. Yes, we had licenses and limits back then. And my family always ate the trout we caught. But now, of course,  the catch limits of every state have gotten stricter as the resource has dwindled.

In my home state of Washington, our Department of Fish and Wildlife is doing its best job to manage the salmon fisheries despite many challenges. So, I trust that my small impact on the fisheries IS part of a larger plan to keep a healthy fishing resource.

It thrills my wild heart to have a chance to “think like a salmon”. What is the right bait, the correct shore, the correct time of day, and the correct technique for safely landing them? Their magnificence connects me directly to the ecosystem and people of this land—both now and in the past. Also, by being responsible for all facets of catching, cleaning, and eating them, I have a much better understanding of my decision to remain a carnivore at this time.

Wearing my down jacket on an October morning, I stand on the empty shore of Bush Point. Looking across Puget Sound, I see the stately Olympic Mountains. Looking towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I can see the San Juan Islands and all the way into Canada on a clear day. I remember all those mornings of summer past— watching the arrival of dawn on the mountains or peering through the fog, feeling the camaraderie of my fishing buddies, and experiencing the occasional excitement of a tug on my line. It is a remarkable, expansive place to fish, even with the shoreline homes right behind us.

A quiet July morning fishing at Bush Point.

Another, not so warm, July morning fishing at Bush Point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salmon season on the west side of our island has been closed for three weeks now. It was a great season—the first time in four years that I caught my limit of two fish/day (once) and the first time my grandson caught a salmon. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that nearly 2.9 million wild pink salmon(also called humpbacks) arrived in Puget Sound in 2021. There were other species, too—cohos(silver) and Chinook(king)—but the vast majority this year were pink salmon.

Our grandson with his “pink” salmon on a July morning.

Those millions of salmon streaming by the island are now inland on the last leg of their precarious journeys from the open ocean. How do they know which stream to return to? Is the water cold enough? Where have they been the last 3-4 years? Do they really care if my lure has Smelly Jelly on it? Why do they sometimes hit a pink lure and sometimes a chartreuse lure? So many questions, so few answers—just an ongoing exploration of curiosity and awareness.

Fishing with my grandson

In the tradition of family fishing, it is a great joy to me that our 16-year-old grandson, Jaden, loves to fish. Every single morning of his annual summer visit with us this July, he got up at 6 a.m. so we could fish for 2-3 hours. Unfortunately, his vacation occurred at the beginning of the summer run, so very few people were catching fish while he was here. But Jaden persisted. On his last morning, 30 minutes before we had to leave for the airport, he caught his salmon! He was getting high fived by all the guys on the beach—a rite of passage into manhood that could not have happened if only his grandmother was there.

Jaden’s salmon being admired by some of the “old salts” who fish Bush Point.

 My friend and skilled fisherwoman, Pip, is our salmon-catching mentor. Jaden followed her teaching: land the fish, give thanks for its life, and kill it quickly to eliminate suffering. He gutted the fish himself and later fileted it back at Pip’s fishing station. And he did not miss his plane! His persistence and determination were admirable.

Jaden fishing with Pip

Recording the date, type of fish, “wild” or “hatchery” on his fishing license. Identifying what you catch and being sure it is legal is important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fileting the fish back at Pip’s garage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After he left, I joined Pip on the beach once a week. She who fished every day caught over 5 dozen salmon. My salmon card reported only six fish, but it was plenty to share with friends and put some into the freezer for winter nights when we need a reminder of summer’s bounty.

Ann cleaning her female fish full of eggs back at her home.

Carrying the fish innards and unused portions back down to the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing is wasted when fishing. Within minutes of arriving to throw innards into the water, the gulls arrived. What the gulls don’t get, the crabs do!

Standing on the empty shore now, I marvel at the bigness, the mystery, and the excitement of nature’s cycles in my region. And, above all, I give profound gratitude for the privilege of living in a region that still has salmon runs.