The Common Good
September-October 1995

A Ritual Recovered

by Jon Magnuson | September-October 1995


O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made
them all; the earth is full of thy creatures.

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both great and small. -PSALM 104:24-25

I'd heard about the incident days before. Interested, but busy with the usual list of daily tasks for urban living, I thought little of it until

an evening telephone call. It was from a friend who works with an Indian tribe in Washington, a few hours north from the university neighborhood where my family and I have lived for the last 10 years. He had witnessed the event, offering further details. It's come to haunt me with lingering images of tragedy, compassion, and mystery.

In late February, during a week of intermittent rains, a 30-foot minke whale became stranded on the shores of Lummi Island, 90 miles north of Seattle. The media made minimal notice of the event, probably because the island is an isolated, beautiful, protected geography inside the jurisdiction of an American Indian reservation, mostly ignored by outsiders.

The situation immediately drew the attention, however, of the National Marine Fisheries, the federal agency whose job it is to protect marine mammals under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. A designated law enforcement officer soon arrived and discovered there were already dozens of Indian people present from the nearby reservation, many of them in the shifting tides near the whale trying to move it back into deeper water.

My friend, who works with the tribe's Treaty Protection Task Force, recalled the officer standing in the water with hip boots shouting orders to the crowd not to touch the animal. The Indians, he said, would hear nothing of it, and moved slowly into the water surrounding the struggling creature. The officer, initially frustrated by the situation, then overcome with his own sense of compassion, finally joined the efforts to help push the whale free.

"The whale was in three feet of water, after hitting a spit of land where the water was shallow. She must have hurt herself bad on the rocks and barnacles," my friend commented. "It fought hard, kicking up out of the water trying to free itself. As we tried to help the whale move into deeper water," he told me, his voice quieting, "it was crying out."

ELDERS FROM the local native community said it was close to 80 years since a whale had last become stranded on the shores of the reservation. As noon approached, a group of older, experienced Lummi tribal fishermen gathered around the suffering animal.

They knew that of the 16 tribes that inhabit western Washington, the Makah, a tribe located on the remote tip of the Olympic Peninsula, was the only group once known as traditional whale hunters. Though struggling against harsh economic conditions, and impacted by cultural assimilation and high levels of unemployment, they have still maintained a connection to their ancient ceremonies and rituals. That afternoon a small seaplane was chartered.

Hours later, a handful of Makah elders arrived from Neah Bay 200 miles to the southwest. With them were drums and the spiritual traditions of their community. Surrounding the dying animal with cedar boughs and prayers, they began their ceremonies. Later, after the creature's death, its bones and meat were ritualistically cut into pieces and distributed to tribal members.

My friend, who witnessed these events, remarked on what was for him one particular moment. "As the whale lay dying, I watched a Makah woman wade waist-deep into the ocean. She moved close to the dying animal, within inches of the whale's head. I watched her lean over," he said, "and sing a prayer, directly and softly, into its eye."

There is promise of a great, unfinished mystery in the church's proclamation of Christ's resurrection. Much of that power, for coming generations, will have something to do with how we perceive with compassion, not only the human community but also the animal and plant life we share on this planet. On the shores of Lummi Island, for a few brief hours on a February afternoon, a marginalized, frequently forgotten people have reminded us there is an ancient wisdom, a deep and sacred connection to the Earth, that waits to be recovered. n

JON MAGNUSON has served for the last 10 years as Lutheran campus pastor at the University of Washington. He currently works and lives with his family in Marquette, Michigan.

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