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Know the West

A path to getting Native lands back

Mary Big Bull-Lewis is taking a creative approach to returning ownership of the land and its stories to Native people.

 

Co-founder of R Digital Design and Wenatchi Wear, Mary Big Bull-Lewis outside of her warehouse in Wenatchee on March 2, 2021. She started her companies with her husband, Rob Lewis, and aims to educate people about Wenatchi history through their designs and apparel.
Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut

This story was originally published by Crosscut and is republished here with permission.

Just outside her shop in Wenatchee, Mary Big Bull-Lewis can see the
Cascade foothills on the western edge of her hometown. Along
the crest, only a little bigger than the size of a thumbnail from
this distance, she can see Two Bears.

Once you spot it, it’s impossible to miss: The craggy rock
formations resemble the heads of two bears facing each other with
mouths open, crying out toward the sky. 

The iconic shape has inspired the fascination of many, and it’s
central to a P’squosa story — the Native people whose ancestral
lands lie along the Wenatchee River and who are frequently referred to by the exonym Wenatchi. The story goes like this: Two bears fought constantly until they were frozen in time as rocks by Coyote, a
frequent trickster who had warned them that they needed to stop. 

“So now they’re forever seen squaring off over the valley,” Big
Bull-Lewis says. 

She’s enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of the Colville
Reservation and a member of its Wenatchi, Entiat and Moses bands, with Blackfeet ancestry as well. This story, one that she now knows well, has been passed down through generations of P’squosa people like herself.

But its original Two Bears name is overshadowed by another: Saddle
Rock. This name is derived from the title once given to it by white
settlers — one that originally included a Native slur that, after a
protest, has since been removed from official documentation about the site. The settlers thought the twin peaks looked like a horse’s
saddle. It’s the name now found all over hiking maps and descriptions of trails around the area. 

Big Bull-Lewis wants to change that. After launching the Wenatchi Wear clothing line with her husband, Rob Lewis, in 2019, she designed a shirt with an illustration of Two Bears that became among the first the couple ever sold. Now, the two dream up designs together, researching ideas by talking to tribal elders and reading up on local history. She sells the shirt and others like it online and at a pop-up shop set up within the building of her other business, a design and print broker called R Digital Design. 

“That’s kind of our motto — design with a purpose,” she says.
“Being a Wenatchi tribal member, I was born and raised here in
Wenatchee, and there’s a lack of Indigenous history that’s being
taught — just at the grade level.”

Left, one of the first designs for Wenatchi Wear by Mary Big Bull-Lewis. Right, the inspiration for the design, Two Bears mountain overlooking Wenatchee.
Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut

As with all the designs in her clothing line, she wanted to use this
one to educate the people in her community about the history of her
tribe — which starts with its stories.

“This is a way of reaching more than just a single group of people — it can be a community education,” she says. “There’s not as many of us here on the homelands, but we need to change that conversation about talking about us in the past. We haven’t gone anywhere.”

We haven’t gone anywhere.”

All around her, Big Bull-Lewis sees similar stories of a Native
history covered up by settler transfiguration. Her hometown itself,
Wenatchee, takes its namesake from the Wenatchi people, tweaking only a few letters. Yet it’s not unusual for non-Native locals to have
never heard of the Wenatchi people at all. Therein lies the problem:
Their stories aren’t told. 

“Speaking with people, they’ve asked if the Wenatchi tribe is
extinct,” she says. “That’s disheartening to hear, but you
can’t expect people to know if our schools and general public are
not being taught.” 

But Big Bull-Lewis and other people she’s rallied want more than
awareness. In August 2020, she launched a Land Back fundraiser with a goal to purchase land in the area and build a community center where local Indigenous people can gather. Within months, they raised thousands of dollars — now just under $20,000, nearly reaching their goal of $25,000. 

This, she says, is the way forward for Native people: ownership of
land. The $25,000 is just the beginning; with a few others, Big
Bull-Lewis is creating a nonprofit, with the Land Back Project as its
working name, to continue these efforts.

“It’s always just been a hush-hush, we don’t bring it up or talk
about how the land was stolen,” she says. “This is just bringing
it to the front of everybody and saying, ‘Hey, let’s do something
about it.’ ” 

The bucket list

The phrase “land back” has garnered increased attention online
over the past few years, sparking conversation through its hashtag and generally becoming the shorthand reference for efforts directed at returning land to its original Indigenous stewards. Some recent
large-scale efforts, like protests last summer demanding the closure
of Mount Rushmore and its area’s return to the land’s Native
peoples, were a catalyst for widespread conversation. 

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.1/indigenous-affairs-social-justice-the-battle-for-the-black-hills]

Big Bull-Lewis says she has drawn inspiration from many of them,
buoyed by their hope and potential. 

“Maybe it’s just me being naive because I’m more involved right
now, [but] I would say there’s been an uprising,” she says.  

But she adds that the idea of fighting for the return of land itself
is an old one. Native communities throughout the United States have a long history of land being taken through myriad methods, whether
swiftly through outright theft and violence or slowly but surely
through continued settler encroachment. The very signing of treaties
between Native peoples and settlers established reservations for
tribes that were much smaller than what they’d known as their
ancestral lands. Even those provisions were later targeted by settlers
who pressured Native people to leave them behind and assimilate into Euro-American society. 

And as long as that has happened, there have been efforts to retain
sovereignty over these lands and regain ownership. Some federally
recognized tribes have leveraged their recognition into building a
land base once more — like the Samish Nation, as one recent case.
Other Native communities have invited residents living on their lands to pay “land taxes” or “rent” — funds that would then
support their growth, like the Shummi Land Tax or Real Rent Duwamish.

In this particular case, the P’squosa are one of the many bands of
Native peoples encompassed by the federally recognized Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. While the band signed a treaty that promised a reservation, it wasn’t recognized, leading the P’squosa to eventually lose ownership of their land base entirely. 

Randy Lewis, a P’squosa elder who’s a board member of the Land
Back Project (no relation to Big Bull-Lewis), has ancestry connected
to many of the bands encompassed by the Colville. He says that
throughout his life, he’s seen many efforts to reclaim land
— some that he was a part of himself, like the occupation that led
to the creation of Daybreak Star in Seattle and the Alcatraz
occupation of 1969. While the individual protests ended, those
aspirations remained. 

“We never stopped dreaming,” he says. “Generation after generation has petitioned the government to recognize our claim and our land holdings — so this isn’t something that’s new. It’s ongoing.”

“We never stopped dreaming.”

Before Big Bull-Lewis began the project, Lewis already had his own
plans in motion to make P’squosa history known. He’s worked with
the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center since 2018, leading tours of the area and telling participants about its Native history. 

He led similar tours without the museum’s aid many years before
that, starting in 2004 at the behest of his mother. Back then, news of
his bus tours were spread primarily through word of mouth,
drawing Native and non-Native people alike. This was all part of a
quest that he inherited from his mother, who had inherited it from
others before her. 

“It was part of her bucket list, which was also part of my grandfather’s bucket list — that people become more educated and
more aware of who we are, and that we’re still here, and that we
have rights,” he says.

Lewis says the disregarding of P’squosa perspectives by the
majority-white communities that settled in the area continues till
this day. His grandfather and mother often reminded him of this, and
the importance of exercising their rights to fish, hunt and gather in
the area. If they didn’t, they warned him that those rights would
also be pushed aside and forgotten. 

“She used to tell me, ‘You’ve got to go down there, you’ve got
to dig for bitter roots. You’ve got to dig for camas,’ ” he says.
“Because if you don’t, white people will think it was always
theirs, and they won’t allow you to do it.” 

And so he did. With his family, Lewis says they’d harvest
huckleberries and roots throughout the region, sometimes taking tribal elders out with them on these trips as well. In some cases, Lewis remembers reteaching elders about their traditions on these trips, as many had been separated from them.

“All it takes is one generation removed for the history to be gone.”

“It was interesting, because our own people no longer remembered the culture because they had been generations removed,” he says. “All it takes is one generation removed for the history to be gone.” 

The history of violence perpetrated by white settlers against the
P’squosa people still stings in his family. They had witnessed it:
When Lewis was a child, many of his elders experienced the massacres that accompanied conflicts like the Puget Sound War, which began in 1855. They watched P’squosa land succumb to development, without any consultation or concern for their connection to it. And they saw, too, the dispersal of P’squosa people away from their ancestral lands — many of whom were eventually forced to move onto the Colville Indian Reservation. 

By the time Lewis was born, he says, his family members were among the last P’squosa people living in Wenatchee. They eventually moved to the Colville reservation, and Lewis would not return to live in
Wenatchee again until 2018. 

“When we left, there were no more Wenatchis living in Wenatchee,”
he says. 

And even then, cultural touchstones for the P’squosa and other
Indigenous peoples of the region were still being violated by
non-Native development. Lewis remembers witnessing one such instance in 1957, when he and his grandfather journeyed to Celilo Falls one last time to witness its inundation. Crowds of other Native people in the region had traveled to witness its destruction as well, standing beside Lewis as the flowing waters came to a halt. The falls, which had existed as a tribal fishing area for centuries, were silenced by the construction of The Dalles Dam. 

“My grandfather told me, ‘Listen, you listen to that river, listen
to those falls, because it’s not going to be here much longer,’ ”
Lewis says, recalling those last moments before the water stopped.
“And we listened as the water rose, and the sounds of the falls were
extinguished.”

Rob Lewis, co-founder of R Digital Design and Wenatchi Wear, working on printing shirts in the warehouse in Wenatchee on March 2, 2021.
Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut

‘We need our own place’

Big Bull-Lewis turns to Lewis often when researching new designs for
her clothing line. He was one of the first to tell her the story of
Two Bears, with many more details than she had found in other
tellings. 

“I’ve learned more about that through Randy, and that (the two
bears) are actually wives of another bear,” she says. “There’s
always a little bit more to it.” 

The two met a year before the launch of her fundraiser, and Lewis is
now part of the growing advisory board for the effort. The board, Big
Bull-Lewis says, will help in making concrete plans for the money
raised — like the exact location of the land they’ll be
purchasing, or what the community center will look like, both of which have yet to be decided. 

For Native communities who don’t own land, gathering and making a
community are infinitely more difficult. Cecile Hansen, chair of the
Duwamish Tribe, says it was the case for her tribe for many, many
years. With their ancestral lands in Seattle, it was often
prohibitively difficult and expensive to purchase, so the tribe’s
office moved from rental space to rental space. 

“How can you gather in a small office?” Hansen says. “I mean, I
rented about four places before I finally said we need to get our own
place.” 

A friend of Hansen later donated the two-thirds of an acre property
that is now home to the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, which opened in 2009. It’s a place where tribal members can finally gather reliably, she says. 

Since then, they’ve also started a fundraiser, Real Rent Duwamish,
which allows people to “pay rent” to the tribe. Patrick Tefft, a
Duwamish Tribal Services Board member, says the project has raised
over $120,000 to date. The money, among other things, has allowed the longhouse to hire more staff and create an archival system for the
tribe’s documents and artifacts. 

“The vast majority of people give recurring gifts,” he says.
“That’s really the strength of that. It’s created a sustainable
source of funding.”

Co-founder of R Digital Design and Wenatchi Wear, Mary Big Bull-Lewis outside of her warehouse in Wenatchee on March 2, 2021. Through her designs, she educates people about the Wenatchi tribe’s history. “It’s about educating people and letting them know Native Americans are still here, despite all the efforts to eliminate us,” Big Bull-Lewis said.
Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut

When Big Bull-Lewis explains her project to non-Native people, she
explains it’s about returning it to its original Indigenous
stewards, and giving them ownership of it.

“It’s been [hundreds of years] and for some reason, Indigenous peoples still don’t have part of their homelands.”

“That’s the whole goal,” she says. “It’s been [hundreds of years] and for some reason, Indigenous peoples still don’t have part of their homelands.”

It can be a difficult conversation. Sometimes, she says, people will
respond by telling her that the wrongdoing of settlers happened a long time ago, and that it doesn’t affect them since they didn’t do it
themselves. But Big Bull-Lewis reminds them: People living on Native land are still benefiting from their wrongdoings.  “There are many tribal members that are still hurting from that,” she says. 

Planting seeds

Big Bull-Lewis didn’t grow up with P’squosa stories and traditions
around her. Many of the stories that she’s now showcasing through
her designs were ones she learned in the past few years through
research and conversation with elders, like Lewis. Family members
before her were frequently separated from their culture and traditions — some of that through residential schools, where many Native people were punished for practicing them. 

“That’s another thing that people don’t understand. We don’t
all know our culture or our race in that way, and it’s a product of
our government and the way they’ve tried to erase us completely,”
she says. “We have to find new ways to learn and educate.” 

Manola Secaira is the Indigenous Affairs reporter for Crosscut. She covers stories involving Native communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.