My life was informed by the brawls of a struggling family. It was shaped by the trees I climbed, and the trails I followed. It was molded by basic goodness and the poor food we scrapped for. My illiterate realities can be traced to a bone-tired mother who repeatedly fell asleep moments after laying down to read a nighttime story. My lack of understanding, in my child’s mind, about the sad and sorry secrets that were manifest in both parents but never really addressed, made the outdoors, with its mysteries and wonders, all the more my retreat.
Six kids. Kittens flushed down the toilet . . . NO extra spent on cat food when we could hardly feed ourselves. Small balls of white iceberg lettuce storebought by a mother whose hands would never touch the soil to plant REAL lettuce. Such was her disdain caused by forced childhood farm work. A reality of the Great Depression. We, her six offspring, never knew a real honest vegetable due to both poverty and her contempt for the soil.
Neither had anything but shadowy memories of their Native parents and a stabbing pain in their beings, that some important part of their lives, had been ripped away.
The Great Depression. That’s when they met. My father and his younger brother left the orphanage to toil in the fields of my mother’s family farm. Childhood drudgery meant fresh food on their table. Also, this built their bones and bonded them to each other. And too they shared a similar loss that further bonded them. My mom’s mom was Makah Native of Washington and my dad’s dad, Tlingit of NE Alaska. Neither had anything but shadowy memories of their Native parents and a stabbing pain in their beings, that some important part of their lives, had been ripped away.
They brought their joined pain and longings along into their marriage to each other and tried as best, as their injured souls could, to make a home. They were not bad, just damaged and tired. The one most afforded the freedom of his sex, my father, was, as our family whittled down in numbers, able to literally “take wing” and fly off each summer to Alaska under the guise of finding work, which he did find as a mechanic in the oilfields. Also while north he searched for and found his alcoholic and bedridden Tlingit father. Finally, this brought closure, and coupled with his sorrow, he returned home.
My mom and Hilda Mae and my dad and me on the reunion day.
The success my father had, inspired my mother to search for her Makah mother. We lived less than 50 miles from the Makah and yet promising leads led to dead ends. I felt my mother’s pain when we would return empty-handed from her searches. It would not be until her mother finally came in search of her, that we all laid eyes on a woman so identical to our own mother and uncle and rejoiced but also not knowing that she would die shortly after her mission.
The visceral puzzles of pain and struggle I witnessed as a child, sensing my parent’s loss and longings as well as pride in having blood ties to this coast, took a toll on our family and also ultimately gave us understanding and pride. I have always felt at home on this wild, wet Washington coast and on my kayak travels along hundreds of miles of Alaska and Canadian shorelines and fiords. I have the DNA of the people married to this clash of sea and coast, it has nourished my senses and my heart. For this, I continue to give thanks to the Native lineages that forever bond me to this wild West Coast.
RED LIVES MATTER! 2014
Baby birthed from baby on the Pow! Wow!
Get ‘high’ way
Not the “way” it should’ve been
But the way it was
Girl-child of the Red People
Red Lives Matter!
But who knows or cares of your suffering?
Or your girl-child mother’s suffering?
Or her mother’s mother’s mother’s suffering?
Like shadows and ghosts flickering across
Their own lands
Flickering only for a moment
Never to REALLY shine
Who gave up their lands and home?
Who forfeited their traditions and future?
Who gave up their virginity
For a bottle or a needle?
The Pow! Wow!! Get ‘high’ way
Is the lost highway
Too many Red ghosts drift
Along that endless road
Do Red Lives really matter?
A Washington native, Irene Skyriver was born in Port Townsend and raised in the country. She moved with her children and horses to Lopez Island, WA in 1980. Green Writers Press published her first nonfiction title, Paddling with Spirits: A Solo Kayak Journey, in 2017. Inspired partly by her own spirit of adventure, and partly by the stories of her native coastal ancestors (Tlingit and Makah), the book interweaves the true account of her journey with generational stories handed down and vividly reimagined. Skyriver lives off-the-grid, and spends most of her time growing her garden; letting the outdoors and beaches be her sanctuary, inspiration, and teacher. A Woman’s Life on the Edge of the Sea: Four Decades of Poetry, her first poetry collection, is coming out in April 2023 from GWP.