Friday, January 13, 2006

Saint Paul's Mission at Kettle Falls

Years ago, my father lived in the small town of Kettle Falls, Washington, not far from the historic falls and Saint Paul's Catholic Mission.

Kettle Falls holds at least two painful memories for Native Americans in this area. The first was connected to Saint Paul's Mission. Soon after Catholic missionaries arrived in this area, they built a mission above the falls named for Saint Paul and began converting Native people to the religion of Rome. The priests denounced the ancient spiritual ways of the Indian people and forced many of them to abandon the old ways. Oral histories passed down from tribal elders recall how the priests forced many people to bury their medicine bundles and other sacred relics under the new church. Many many of them got sick, went crazy, or even died without their connection to the spiritual medicines of the past. Still others died of the white men's diseases.

It's interesting to note that Kettle Falls was a sacred site to Native peoples for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The decision of Roman Catholic missionaries to build a mission or church over an indigenous sacred site echoes a pattern of cultural domination followed by the church from the earlies times. It's no different than building the Chatres Cathedral in France over ancient sites dedicated to the goddess, or building the Basilica of Guadalupe over the ancient Aztec temple dedicated to the mother goddess.

The second painful memory at Kettle Falls is directly tied to the construction of Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s. The dam was viewed as a triumph of American engineering, and yet it completely destroyed the entire economic system of indigenous people throughout the region who depended on the falls for salmon. Furthermore, the United States displaced entire villages along the shores of the Columbia River without providing compensation of remuneration of any kind. As the floodwaters engulfed the falls, Native Americans gathered for a "Ceremony of Tears" to bid farewell to a spiritual elder who had fed the people for thousands of years. Today, the falls remain silent beneath the surface of "Lake Roosevelt." It feels like a tomb for a forgotten way of life.

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