By Roy L Hales
I just had an interesting conversation with John Boyd, the Associate Producer of “Who Are My People?” He is a Native American, whose ancestral roots go deep into the Northwest via his Elwha Klallam/Arrow Lakes ancesors, but John tells me the film he has co-written is not about “Indians” though several Native American elders and communities are the film’s subjects. “It could just as easily have described the disappearance of so many middle class homes from Muncie, Indiana – where Boyd taught English at the University – or the present confrontation between the inhabitants of Boulevard and the industrial scale wind farms that threaten to encircle it. The central questions revolve around what is truly important: The success of big corporations? Or clean air; the environment and ordinary people? What does all this have to with me? What is sacred? Who are my People?
When he spoke of sacred spots, Boyd mentioned a place that his paternal family used to fish along the Columbia River in Washington state. That was before the Grand Coulee dam was built that blocked the salmon’s migration upstream. There was a draw down of the Lake Roosevelt reservoir in the early 1970′s and it revealed the Kettle Falls on the Columbia River. An important fishing site of Boyd’s paternal family and other tribal communities.
“I had never seen my father emote, like the day we went back to visit,” Boyd said. “He remembered the times he had gone there with his parents, grandparents and cousins.” Sacred sites should be more than memories of the few”, adds Boyd.
Boyd has not seen the sacred sites depicted in the film. He has never been to California. His family were fishermen along the Elwha River, in Washington, for generations before the dam went in. The Elwha dam brought a measure of prosperity to the Olympic Peninsula: jobs, power, development. It also killed the fishing, and nearly the tribe to which he belongs, by destroying their food supply–and then came the Depression, which saw Native and non-native peoples both dependent upon the river’s remaining bounty. The salmon would still spawn below the dam, but the eggs were more easily washed away when they released runoffs.
Filmmaker Robert Lundahl refers to what happened to Boyd’s people as a form of genocide. He was referring to not only the deprivation of the Native inhabitants of the area through starvation, but through the desecration of over 9000 years of Native American burials, many of which were were paved over when the modern city of Port Angeles and its then 4 paper mills were built. John Boyd confirmed this, saying that many graves were beneath the pulp mill, but the genocide he speaks of is depriving his people of the right to fish ”in usual and accustomed grounds,” off reservation, as was guaranteed by the Treaty of Point No Point, which the Elwha Klallams signed with the Washington Territorial Governor in 1855.
Disregarding the treaty, through which the US government obtained the Elwha Klallam’s lands, the authorities made fishing illegal. Some of Boyd’s family were jailed because of this. Elder Bea Charles describes, in Lundahl’s film“Unconquering the Last Frontier,” how they had to tie a string around the fish and “drag it through the field to keep it away from the game warden, so they would have something to eat.” His people were forced to adopt a diet of spam, cheese and other foods the US Department of Agriculture supplied. Then came the “fish wars” of the 1970’s, popularized at the time by actor Marlon Brando and others, on national television. Tribes across Western Washington stood up to the State Police, who would beat them with billy clubs in the streams. The Elwha Klallam, along with other Native peoples reasserted their Treaty right to fish. The treaties were upheld by the historic Boalt Decision in 1976. Now one of John Boyd’s son is a commercial fisherman.
John found his inclinations were to study the writings of Shakespeare and Dunne. He obtained his Master’s degree and, much as he loved to hike and surf, now spends a great of his time in front of a computer.
Foreclosed Home, Muncie, Indiana.
As we spoke about the confrontation between Big Solar and Wind and Native peoples in “Who Are My People?” John compared it to the way that industrial development is thrust into the poorer districts of cities (where people are least likely to “cause trouble”). He talked about the many empty homes in Muncie, whose middle class occupants fell victim to the schemes of financial institutions. He compares companies like Pattern Energy (Ocotillo Wind) and Brightsource (Ivanpah Solar) to Olympic Power and Light, which dammed the Elwha in 1912.
The tale of his people on the Elwha was made somewhat more positive in 2012 as the dams on the Elwha began to be removed, in the largest dam removal and ecosystem restoration project in the nation. But it took almost 100 years and 300 million dollars. And the Elwha Klallam have not yet been fully compensated for the tragedies they were forced to endure. Will it take 100 years to remove the hardware from the Obama Administration’s current solar and wind build-out of renewable energy across the Western deserts? Long after new technologies like solar collecting window panes become available? And the fragile, old growth desert, which sinks as much carbon as a northern grassland prairie ecosystem, may take thousands of years to recover, if it does at all.
It’s easy to damage our communities and the environments and lands on which they depend–for spirituality, culture and sustenance, without a thought for what the future might hold.
Boyd explains, “It is not about our (Native Americans) rights but the inherent right for people (our communities) to exist in an environment that is at times hospitable but at times contrary to survival of species… yet, as our communities continue to be, persevere, exist, and prosper, there is a contingent that must conquer…act in the “best interest” of all people. So, what is best is not necessarily what is the most appropriate… especially when it defines resource utilization. Historically, and politically, public interest was at the forefront, and only recently has ‘corporate’ interest gained favor.”
He said “Who Are My People?” is not about being Indians. It is about being people.
Thrown turbine blade at Ocotillo – Jim Pelley photo