A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The Republican health care bill is dead. Good riddance. The bill was so harsh that even Donald Trump called the House version “mean.” And yet, this legislation was stopped at a time when Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency. How?
The answer is ordinary people, acting without a lot of credit.
After the election, millions of Americans launched a resistance that has slowed or stopped many of Trump’s awful policies. They showed up at town halls and airports. They contacted politicians and advertisers on right-wing media sites, educated themselves and their neighbors, filed to run in local elections, brought food, blessed the water, and sat down in bank lobbies and in congressional offices.
Though they achieved much, few will receive any acknowledgement for the efforts. Most were just doing the behind-the-scenes work that gets stuff done.
I’m thinking about these unheralded heroes as I prepare to leave with the Suquamish Tribe on this year’s canoe journey. This annual event is also built on the work a lot of people do with little fanfare.
Every year, the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest set out on a journey ranging from days to weeks, depending on the year’s destination. They paddle through ancient waters, traverse riptides, waves, and wind in the ocean and inland seas, stopping each night on land belonging to one of the coastal tribes.
I am not Native, but because I collaborated for some years with the Suquamish Tribe, I was invited in 2012 to paddle with them, and I continue to do so. It’s an honor I don’t take lightly.
For most, the journey is about reclaiming traditional culture and connecting the tribes. For some, it’s a deeply personal odyssey, as each confronts fatigue and their own demons during the long hours on the water.
And it’s a lesson in gratitude for each person who chooses to show up and contribute to reaching the destination.
People contribute in many ways: the singer who lifts the spirits of tired paddlers, the young person who stays up late cleaning after a meal, and the elder who wakes early to make the coffee. Sometimes, it’s just a joke at the right moment to break the tension.
No one person can make it happen alone. Each small effort adds up, making it possible to to carry an 11-person cedar canoe overhead above the high-tide line, or to feed 3,000 people using only camp stoves. At the end of each day, paddles are raised, and one person from each canoe asks representatives of the hosting tribe for permission to come ashore. The next morning, paddlers from that tribe join the flotilla on its way forward. Over the course of weeks, thousands join in, some by canoe, others by support boat, car, or truck.
During that time, almost no money changes hands—the currency is hard work, generosity, and gratitude. And it is enough. The only celebrities are elders with long histories of contributing to the common good—but only a few.
The final destination may be a reservation within sight of Seattle, or one along the inland passage in Canada. But in each case, the journey ends in a traditional potlatch where each tribe offers songs, dances, and gifts to the hosts and others present.
The host tribe not only provides meals and space for thousands to camp, but also showers the visitors with gifts. And there is an abundance of appreciation and praise for those who made extra efforts or achieved personal milestones.
As we prepare to leave on this year’s journey, I wonder what we in larger society have done to likewise thank the millions who are standing up for the common good in the wake of the election? How could we bring the sort of humility, generosity, and gratitude that is part of the canoe journey to all our work?
We might start by breaking out of the celebrity culture, which values power grabs, wealth, and superficiality. We could humbly accept the wide range of gifts people have to offer, and acknowledge everyone who steps forward for all they do to make the world a better place.