I mentioned in my last post that during my weekend in Lyle, I exchanged phone numbers with some Yakama fishermen so that next time I went out to the Columbia River Gorge, I could give them a heads up and they could get a fish for me to buy.
I was surprised when, on the long drive home, I received a text that said, “Next time you come through, can you hit up your local food bank, bring us some food n water, we will give you free salmon? Could sure use the help. Thank you.” I had to read it twice to make sure I understood. Then my heart broke.
I tried to imagine the desperation that would cause someone to make themselves so vulnerable to a total stranger. I worried about them all that night and could hardly sleep.
In the meantime, a fellow Cherokee had started a group post on facebook. She had been contacted by someone from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who needed food and water. She was asking if any of us wanted to donate. Monday morning I responded and said thanks for thinking of me, but I had found another group that needed help, and would be putting my effort there instead. She replied with the obvious: let’s combine efforts. Another person in the group chat suggested making it an official effort of the Mt. Hood Cherokees. We all thought it was a great idea. Someone recommended starting a GoFundMe site. Soon after, there was a Cherokee Council meeting where we discussed whether to collect and deliver donations as a Cherokee-sponsored project, and the Council voted in favor. Someone was needed to set up a GoFundMe site. I volunteered.
Like a cyclone, it spun up, spun fast, and is still spinning! So is my head!!
Monday afternoon I couldn’t stand it anymore and went shopping. I had texted back to ask the fishing group what they needed and got a list that included rice, pasta, batteries, juice, cleaning supplies, hygiene supplies, dogfood, blankets, fruits and vegetables that didn’t need refrigeration. I went to Grocery Outlet and Winco – stretch my dollars as far as they could go, and packed the Jeep full. I bought everything I could think of: toothpaste and toothbrushes, macaroni and cheese, canned beans, onions, potatoes, carrots, a bag of clementines, boxes of cereal, laundry detergent, duct tape (who doesn’t need duct tape?!), and as much water as I could fit in. I heard there were several elders out there, and bought denture adhesive. Seriously, everything I could think of.
I also called the Yakama Nation and no one answered, so I left a message. The last thing Indians need is yet another outsider thinking they know what’s best for them. I wanted to avoid stepping on toes, disrupting some kind of administrative procedure, etc. Mostly I wanted someone to tell me how to help respectfully. No one called me back, so I went on instinct.
That evening I came up with something for a GoFundMe page. I’ve never done that before, wasn’t sure how to write it up, what goal to set, etc. I did a little research. The GoFundMe website is really supportive and provides all kinds of tips, videos, and how-to instructions.
Tuesday I made the two-hour drive right back to Lyle, Washington. I showed up late morning and woke up the couple who had contacted me. Turns out the fishing is better at night, so they sleep late. Oops. Once they had shaken the cobwebs from their heads, they helped me unload the Jeep. “Look hon!” the woman said and pointed to cases of water as her man came out of the trailer. “We’ve got water!” That almost made me cry right there.
The man insisted on giving me fish, when I had just purchased a big salmon a few days earlier. I tried to suggest that he keep the fish and sell them, but he said he had been hoping to give me salmon. I realized that he wasn’t prepared to take hand-outs. And I don’t blame him. I accepted three small fish (I had brought the cooler with me, in the case that this would happen) with sincere thanks.
Now, just so you know, what I’m calling a “small” salmon is about 20 inches (51 cm) long, and a “big” salmon is about 32 inches (81 cm) long. No matter what their size, a fresh salmon is freeging delicious. I had already eaten some of that first fish. I had carved the rest into steaks and had frozen them. I now had three more! Good thing I love fish. The three new ones weren’t cleaned, so when I got them home I de-scaled and then cleaned them. I am terrible at it. I honestly don’t think I’ve cleaned a fish in 20 years and barely remembered what to do. Luckily, it’s not complicated. I fried an entire fish for dinner that night. I couldn’t eat the whole thing of course. Luckily Tara stopped by the next day and ate the leftovers. I gave one to Cherokee and Blackfoot friends of mine, and froze the third.
It turns out this group of people are mostly all part of one family. The woman I spoke with counted out about 8 other family groups around them, people living in tents and camp trailers. The Yakama Nation maintains a public bathroom there, with showers. However the water is not suitable for drinking, so they have been filtering it. That’s why they needed water. They make their living fishing, so they can’t live on the Yakama reservation, which is 1 1/2 hours away, and nowhere near the river. The land belongs to them, and they live and work there. Buyers in the area know they are there, and come to them to buy fish. They also rely on travel and tourism to sell fish, and that has evaporated.
The Yakama fishermen remain fairly isolated. Given the devastation that COVID-19 is having on tribes right now, they are in an excellent location for maximum protection. Except for me. I keep going into the world to pick up donations, shop for groceries, fill gas cans, and then going back to Lyle Point. The thought of potentially being responsible for their exposure makes me shudder. So even while I have been careful anyway, from the start of the pandemic, I am more careful now.
The donations on the GoFundMe site were coming in steadily, and as the site got shared around with friends and other Cherokees, people also started asking where to donate food and water. And they started asking what else is needed? The Warm Springs reservation asked for diapers and masks. The Yakama fishermen asked for blankets and gasoline for generators. We keep spreading the word and stuff keeps pouring in.
I’ve now made four trips out to the Yakama group at Lyle Point. The first times I made the drive I thought about how hard it would be for me to ask a stranger for food and water. I’m sure I would have to suffer a long time first, before I could do it. They are so grateful for everything. I told them about the website, which they wanted to see. I showed them what I had written. They were worried that I might have used their names, though I promised I would not. (Indians have learned not to trust promises right away) The woman read the whole donation page out loud for us. To my relief, they both said they liked what I had said. The man even said he liked the photo I used. (GoFundMe recommends using photos of the people in need, but those people must want to have their photos used.)
Each time I go out, I ask what else they need. The woman has asked the other groups camped out there, and says they are reluctant to ask for anything. She thinks they are too proud. “But they sure can use anything I give them!” she announced with a smile. I asked, after the third trip, if they were getting overwhelmed with goods. They said they were not, because they kept distributing the stuff through the camps. “Please keep coming back,” she said. And I look forward to that. I said in my first trips I tried to imagine their need, but now I just think about how happy I am to go to Lyle again. We don’t really know each other that well, but I’m eager to see them each time.
My days are suddenly full again – like the pre-pandemic days. Shopping, collecting donations, delivering, driving driving driving. Answering questions from the website. Thanking donors from the website. Posting updates. Coordinating with the people collecting for the Warm Springs tribes. Since my name is on the GoFundMe, I’ve been contacted through facebook messenger by people asking questions, and one woman – bless her soul – is Yakama and living in another location. She was checking to make sure I was following the trail of donations, to make sure they ended up with the right people. I was glad to get this contact, to know that others are looking out for them.
At Warm Springs it’s even worse because of greater population and the pandemic. Residents have been on boil-water notice for months because their aging water pipes burst and now have very low flow which causes contamination. It’s not enough water to really serve them, even if they do boil. In addition to that, COVID-19 cases are exploding and they don’t have the capacity they need to provide the amount of protection and service that they want to. I don’t know how many residents are there, but over 4000 are registered with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. It’s so upsetting I can hardly think about it. I’m not an activist really. I’m just a person who can’t stand not doing something, but I know I can’t handle large-scale action. Finding the Yakama fishing group of about 30 people is perfect for me to get my head around.
In this blog post I’m only talking about my window on this Cherokee project. And you should know it’s leaving out a lot of detail. There are lots of other people working every single day on different parts of it. People are driving to the Warm Springs reservation, which is just as long of a drive as it is for me to get to Lyle. One woman has been sewing masks like mad – see the photo! Another is doing all the coordination with the Confederated Tribes there. Another person is not Cherokee at all, but has a big network of people ready to help, and organized her own donation event at her house! The Great Spirit Church of Portland agreed to let Mt. Hood Cherokees use their 501(c)(3). It’s my very first look from the inside, on how a big help-project evolves. So far, it’s pretty clunky and stressful at times, and I’m grateful that all the people working on it just keeping smiling through the challenges and forgiving and supporting each other.
If you want to look at what I wrote and the photo I used, it’s the same information I gave you here, but I’ll put the link up anyway: https://www.gofundme.com/f/natives-helping-natives
I was expecting a couple hundred dollars at the most. As of this morning we have $3800 in donations, which we will use to keep the help channeled to where the people need it. I am astonished at the generosity of people, especially right now when so many are struggling. I finally got a call back from the Yakama Nation, who apologized for the delay and said they were daily dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. I explained what the Cherokees are doing and asked if there is anyone I need to coordinate with. The woman couldn’t think of anyone, but assured me that they were very aware of the group out at the river and aware that they are in need. She was glad to hear additional help was coming in.