Dances With Dave
by Dave McBee
I was sitting among the trees just above Shishi (pronounced Shy-shy), a beach on the Washington coast marking the northern end of Olympic National Park's coastal strip. Forty-some miles of beach, boulder fields, seal carcasses and starfish behind me; ahead, a ten mile walk up the hill, through the woods, and across the Makah Nation reservation to Neah Bay and the first of several buses home. That first bus would leave the next morning at 8:45, so I'd break camp at about 5:00. At least, in June, it's light at that time. Solstice was two days ago.
Shishi can be a real spooky place when there's no one else around. The last of the day-trippers left two or three hours ago, and one party of three coming up the coast passed through shortly thereafter. In casual discussion I'd asked about just how large their SUV was (they'd mentioned that they were going back to Seattle that night), but they weren't biting. So there I sat, watching the shadows get really long. When all you have to your west is the Pacific Ocean, shadows can get really long.
Then I heard loud, rowdy voices, and three couples, local Makah, from appearances, tumbled down the steep trail from above. One of the women checked out my tent and said she'd never seen its like. Her boyfriend walked right up, sat down right next to me, I mean, right next to me, and started asking questions. Who was I, and where was I from, and how did I like it here, harmless questions, really, but I got a bit unnerved by this stranger sitting next to me, asking so many questions about me. Eventually, his friends called out for him, and he went on down to the beach, out of view from my campsite among the gnarled trees.
I became concerned enough that I scribbled down all the information I could about this guy and his friends. I tucked this in a discreet corner of my backpack, sat and fretted.
The guy, Martin, returned, with a couple of beers, offered me one. I thanked him, declined, explaining to him that alcohol gives me the runs. He sat again, and started asking questions about living in a big city. He told me he'd tried it, once, but all it got him was three years in juvie hall. I finally realized that I was in no danger from him or his friends, and that his openness and bluntness were just ways that he was different from me. We talked for a time. He explained that his girlfriend wanted to watch the sunset, and so here they all were. I told him that I wanted to be out here for the solstice; he nodded in appreciation. He asked me at some point how I liked it here. I answered that this was "a good place." He repeated that, "a good place," and nodded.
By the time he headed back down to the beach I felt much more comfortable. An hour or so later, a woman park ranger stopped in, from the summer station a few miles down the beach. We chatted a bit about my trip, about her spotted owl research, and about working for the National Park Service. A short time after she headed back down the beach, Martin and his friends passed by, apparently leaving. "Hey, I thought you guys wanted to see the sunset?"
"That ranger threw us off the beach," Martin explained.
"Well, that sure was shitty," I offered. But Martin just shrugged and headed back up the trail with his friends.
On the third of the seven or eight buses from Neah Bay, I started talking with a woman who'd been onboard from the start. She was Makah, named Cheryl, and was on her way to visit relatives in Seattle. On the very first bus, I recall the bus driver asking her about an aid car he'd seen in front of a house of another relative of hers (it is a real small town) - she told the driver that the guy in question had drunk rubbing alcohol.
Our conversation started because we were both chiding a kid who got on board the bus outside of Sequim for not wearing his bike helmet. He'd been in a minor accident and had hamburgered himself up pretty well.
We eventually talked of Sasquatch, of the spirit world, of ghosts. We compared the olivella shells I'd gathered near the mouth of the Ozette River with the ones on the necklace she had tucked away. She told me of the rare black olivellas that were more highly prized (later research told me those were a species that occurred further offshore - harder to gather!)
At one point I had a question for her: I'd heard, for the past several years, that one was supposed to give money to the Makah when going to Shishi. But I'd only heard this from white folks, so I didn't know if it was guilt talking, or what. I could see from the map that Shishi was a part of the national park, but I knew that I passed through tribal land to reach the bus at Neah Bay. There was a sign at Isabelle Ida's, one of the last houses on the road that leads to Shishi, offering "self-contained camping," whatever that was. I'd heard from various sources that one should leave a gift of money with Isabelle, but I was always just passing quickly through at six in the morning. What was up with all that?
Yes, Cheryl told me, it was appropriate to make a donation to visit Shishi, as, though it may be on the map as being included in the national park, it was a Makah burial ground. She did offer that Isabelle died some time back, and that relatives had taken over the property. She didn't come right out and speak ill of these people, but she did tell me that she made a donation to the Makah Museum at Neah Bay in Isabelle's memory whenever she visited Shishi, and she thought that was an appropriate gift to the Makah. I like that idea.
We visited La Push, on the Washington coast, this past spring, staying at the cabins owned and operated by the Quileute Tribe. I had previously learned, from a Clallam County Transit driver who is also a Quileute, that the tribe has repeatedly voted down opening a casino on the reservation, choosing instead to expand the resort and cabins. They have consciously rejected the quick buck of gambling and the alcohol that accompanies it as negative influences on their people.
One of our walks along the beach concluded with a scramble up a crumbly mud cliff, and a wet slog through devil's-club, skunk cabbage, and salal to reach the road that would take us back to the cabins. As we neared town, we met a woman named Jewel, who was toting, among other works of art, a dream-catcher she had made. Jodie really liked it, but we had no money with us, so we had to let it pass.
Next, we met a local named Pat, who seemed more than a bit out of sorts. He did tell us that the only thing keeping him going was that there was going to be a drum circle that night, and that he was trying to hold on until then. He invited us; the very act of asking us seemed to start to bring him out of his funk.
He'd told us that the drum circle was potluck, and would be held at the La Push Community Center. While I was trying to figure out how we could fix anything for the potluck on the tiny hot plate at the cabin, Jodie and Kathy drove into Forks for groceries, and to pick up a sandwich platter at the local Subway.
By the time we made it to the drum circle, nearly everyone there had eaten, but those working in the kitchen made it a point to thank Jodie for the sandwiches. We found a table near the back, and tried to act inobtrusive.
A dozen or so men stood at the front of the gym, dressed in street clothes, holding small, tambourine-sized drums, which they beat as they sang in the Quileute language. All the drums, we were to discover, were made and painted by their owners. Most of the other people seated in a loose circle around the men accompanied them on their own drums. Everyone else clapped, or thumped the table tops. People would join the circle, either to talk about what the drum circle meant to them, or to bring up important tribal news.
Rather early on, one of the speakers noted that they had guests that evening, and invited us to introduce ourselves. We did so, saying, "Pat invited us." They all welcomed us, and at one point included us in one of their dances.
We noticed that whenever someone joined the circle to make their contribution, a song, a dance, or even a few words, one of the elders in the circle quietly handed that contributor some money. After that elder spoke, another member of the circle would hand him some folded bills, which he would inspect gravely, and stick in his pocket. After our dance, he came up to us and handed us each a buck and shook our hands.
I wish you could have seen the respect and care with which one of the teenaged boys, wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey, helped an woman probably in her seventies from her seat and into the circle, where she led a song. Then he escorted her back to her seat.
I wish you could have heard the silence when a woman got up and said that she had just been with the Quinaults, who had lost seven lives that month from alcohol-related accidents, and as she spoke of the need to unite against these these and other problems.
I wish you could have heard Pat talk haltingly about how much the drum circle meant to his holding on against his own demons.
I wish I had noticed when the concluding song strayed off into a few bars of "Sha-na-na-na, Sha-na-na-na, Hey-hey-hey, Good-bye!" But they'd stayed in rhythm, and I missed it. Jodie and Kathy caught it, and cracked up laughing, along with the guys in the circle.
Afterwards, Jodie found Jewel selling her wares, and bought the dream catcher.
Drum circle is held every Wednesday night, now at the new Quileute Community Center, about half a mile from the road's end at La Push.