Seeking relief along the banks of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River, I found a perfect spot in the shade of a huge sycamore tree. The tree’s strong roots held the bank firmly in place, cutting a still, deep eddy into the softer riverbank below. The water provided welcome relief from the thick, heavy air. As I floated in the still waters gazing up at the clouds, I dreamed of the lives of my relatives of one hundred, two hundred, and three hundred years ago, imagining trips to the river just like mine.
I had just come from scouring a small Quaker cemetery for the barely-marked grave of my great-great-grandfather Emmor Lamborn, and was headed toward the graves of my great-grandparents in a different Friend’s cemetery in Philadelphia. The spontaneous stopover, along a route they must have traveled often though it undoubtedly looked different, drew me closer to the mysteries of the lives of these people whose blood runs through my vein, whose names are like an ancient incantation in a barely-understood language:
Sarah Swayne and Robert Lamborn
had a son, Robert II, who married Anne Bourne
they had a son George, who married Martha Marshall
they had a son Benjamin, who married Rachel Bradley
they had a son Emmor, who married Ruth Pennock Davis
they had a daughter Emma, who married my great grandfather, William Pennell Ottey, from whom I inherited that all-important marker of identity, my last name.
The final week of my pilgrimage, I returned to my homeland, the Pacific Northwest, to the traditional territory of the Nisqually people. I stayed at my dad and stepmom’s house nearby, and each day I hauled trash and sorted recycling at during Protocol for the 2016 Tribal Canoe Journey’s Paddle to Nisqually.
Over the 19th and 20th centuries, the canoe culture of the Northwest coast largely disappeared in the face of the policies of the US and Canadian governments. Policies of assimilation, the outlawing of traditional cultural practices, and the forcible removal of generations of children into Indian boarding schools, resulted in widespread loss of language and critical cultural knowledge. The Washington State Centennial celebration in 1989 sparked an event called “Paddle to Seattle” involving 15 tribes, and began a revival of the traditional cultural practice of traveling by ocean-going canoe. Since then, almost every year First Nations, Canoe families, and groups from Oregon to Alaska travel by canoe to gather with each other. Each time, a different nation hosts, extending huge resources in the tradition of the region’s potlatch as the peoples gather to share songs, dances, and stories, reclaiming their cultural traditions and bringing them forth in modern ways. This initiatory experience for young people has helped to strengthen communities, heal trauma, and address crucial social issues. Having grown to include over 100 canoes, the practice has sparked a resurgence in traditional canoe building and canoe pulling skills, created a vehicle for relearning and sharing songs, dances, stories, and crafts, all of which has fostered the preservation of traditional indigenous knowledge that had all but disappeared.
As someone who’s work is focused on supporting the development of youth into healthy adulthood, supporting the revitalization of culture of youth initiatory practices for local First Nations is important to me. This felt like a good way to express gratitude for the blessing of my pilgrimage, and honor the land-and peoples of this land-where I am from. Sorting trash and recycling all day every day for a week was a powerful place to hold for this important event, and felt befitting to reflect upon what Western culture brought to native peoples. The amount of trash that accumulated over the course of a single week was eye-opening.
It is in the land. When I step off of the concrete, onto bare earth,
touch the soil with my feet--
then I can hear.
Bare feet on earth
Back against locust
Wind in hair
Sunlight on arm
Woodpecker pecking high above.
Finally I can hear above the murmur of noise.
What disconnected my people from the land?
I long for the countryside.
I long for the wild mountains with my beloved.
Three bodies: mine, my beloved, the jagged granite earth.
That is my homeland.
Thank you David Moskowitz, for trusting my vision and investing in it, and for supporting me during a long summer apart.
Thank you Natalie Vickers, for offering me a gracious welcome in Britain, a launching-off point, an open space to retreat, your companionship, guidance, and teaching. Your ability to gently open the lands of Britain to me forever changed my relationship with trees, stones, and waters. The stories of these pages do not do justice to the huge role you played in my journey.
Thank you Svetlana Leschenko, for a gracious welcome in Ukraine, for sharing your home with me, for acting as my tour guide, and spending hours painstakingly translating with google translate so that we could talk! Your open-hearted generosity touched me deeply, and I hope I get the opportunity to return your kindness.
Carrie & Chris Malanga, thank you for hosting me in Philadelphia, and letting me come down from my time in Europe while also exploring the city you call home, and for long discussions during the Democratic Convention (oh, to go back to those good old days, full of optimism!).
A special thank-you to Irina, Yasia, and Anna, who shared so much kindness, patience, and commitment to helping me find information on my ancestors. I will never forget Ivano Kupala, and what you opened up for me. I hope I get to see you all again!
Thank you David & Ellie Ottey, Johanna Goldfarb, and Fiona Sutherland, for your generous and spontaneous financial contributions.
To the many folks that suggested folks I should talk to or books I should read, took the time to meet with me, shared with me a place to stay, answered my questions, and inspired me on my journey, thank you: Henry, Kathleen, and Hannah; Jeremy Thres, Martin Shaw, Kateryna Babenko, Lucy Hinton, Carolyn Hillyer & Nigel Shaw, Jay Griffiths, Thomas Murphy, Johnny Wells, Ghee Bowman, Charles Spadoni, Bridget Ray, Holly Roquet, Clementine Wilson, Bill Plotkin, Shay Sloan, Brandon Clarke, Gigi Coyle, Meredith Little, Keith Kilburn, Ramon Parish, Sobey Wing, Kruti Parekh, Pegi Eyers, Dane Zahorsky, Melissa Michaels, Meagan Chandler, and Jenny Archard.
Two photos are not my own: the Tribal Canoe landing photo from Qatuwas 2015 (David Moskowitz) and the Round House (built and photographed by Carolyn Hillyer & Nigel Shaw of Seventh Wave Music)