Gathering of the People

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer September 25, 2013 12:53 pm

Women identified as Patty and Owl Feather bless bald eagle feathers as part of the Give-away ceremony in which tribe members who died in the past year are honored. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Women identified as Patty and Owl Feather bless bald eagle feathers as part of the Give-away ceremony in which tribe members who died in the past year are honored. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Driving rain couldn’t keep local Native Americans from their annual Gathering of the People powwow east of Agness last weekend.

Scores of Indians representing numerous tribes — Chetco, Tututin, Chasta Costa and Hupa, among others — camped in a grassy field next to the Rogue River to begin their celebrations Friday.

For some, the gathering served as a reunion. Many were there to honor those who have died in the past year. For a man named Willy, it was all about the spiritual connectedness among people.

Willy, whose great-grandmother was of Chetco origin, brought two hand-carved dug-out canoes, draped in cedar, ferns and juniper.

“Her spirit is driving me to do what I’m doing,” he said of his 18-foot cedar boats, cut from the same tree. “Canoes are a driving force of bringing unity. It’s all about ceremony.”

Across the field, under looming gray clouds, a woman named Patty thoughtfully tied bald eagle feathers to a tall staff while a woman called Owl Feather blew the smoke on those feathers from a sage smudge stick.

Patty lost her son last year and was honoring his death in the Give-away ceremony, or Potlatch ritual.

That ceremony involves donating useful or loved possessions to share with others less fortunate. It is also a sign that the giver was willing to make a sacrifice by surrendering a gift with no regrets. The understanding among Native People is that, when one shares all that one has so the people may live, honour and abundance is brought to the giver.

Part of the ritual involves accepting the families of tribe members who have died back into the circle.

The tribes spent about an hour piling items in the center area of the camp. Mothers — from the oldest to youngest — were honored with gifts. Then everyone was invited to take items of their choosing from the piles left in the field: clothing, medicine bags, blankets, smudge sticks and art among them.

Those who have taken items then thank the family.

A few vendors hunkered down from the rain, weaving local grasses and rafia into decorative baskets, sewing deerskin moccasins, or stringing porcupine quills and beads into ornate jewelry. Smoke rose from the massive barbecue near which a group of teens shucked corn; the sweet smell of fry bread and sausage gravy wafted over the crowd.

Later in the day, ceremonial dancers — always with the steady beat of handmade drums — showed their appreciation for all that surrounded them, and songs and whoops and laughter and cheers rang through the valley.

Sunday, Willy was ready for a ceremony of his own — but one to unite all people, as well.

Those who brought canoes placed the 200-pound crafts into the Rogue River and floated out into an eddy, forming a horseshoe. Willy’s new boat was in the center, facing downstream, and those aboard it danced in honor of the people, here and beyond; and the welcoming of this canoe to water.

“We are honoring the wood of the canoe,” he explained with a wide smile as the rain fell. “It represents all who were killed in the river, from the Rogue to the Illinois Valley and everywhere in between. The canoe brings the medicines and heals the anger, the illness, the jealousy so we can love ourselves inside. That aura’s brought inside.”

Willy laughed, and reached his arms skyward toward the thinning clouds and pelting rain.

“It’s cleansing,” he said. “So cleansing.”