Words like Clear Water
Underneath a large white tent strung with lights, Cynthia Gómez stepped up to a wooden podium to offer a Land Acknowledgment. We were attending the 2018 Summer Fishtrap writer’s conference in northeast Oregon. Cynthia, a Fishtrap fellow and a faculty member at Portland State, took a couple minutes of her limited reading time to remind us all that the land upon which our plastic chairs were unfolded is the traditional land of the Nez Perce People—occupied and unceded land. “It is important to acknowledge the ancestors of this place and to recognize that we are here because of the sacrifices forced upon them,” Cynthia said. “In remembering these communities, we honor their legacy, their lives, and their descendants.”
All week, I, along with this crowd of writers (most of whom were well-meaning, fairly well-to-do, and white), had been hiking in the mountains, swimming and fishing in the clear, cool water of Wallowa Lake, sharing meals and conversation in the pine-scented sunshine, scrawling in notebooks and typing on laptops as the sky changed colors, tethered to sun. The pristine silence, orienting mountain peaks, and starry sky were all the more awe-inducing to me after attending grad school in Chicago’s hustle and bustle for the past two years. I had been absorbing this place, enjoying it unabashedly. Cynthia’s words put a new lens in front of my eyes, one which gave a depth of hard history and deep culture to a landscape I’d been loving—but had also been taking for granted in a big way.
Land Acknowledgement, according to the grassroots action network U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, “is a simple, powerful way of showing respect and a step toward correcting the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture and toward inviting and honoring the truth.” A simple, powerful step. What other steps must we take? As writers—and readers—how do we unearth, focus upon, and honor—not erase or obscure?
During my time at Fishtrap, I took part in a workshop led by Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford. Our workshop group met every morning at 9 a.m. in Kim’s cabin, and included people of various ages and at various stages of their writing lives. Everyone was generous with their work, vulnerable. When someone read aloud, we listened carefully. This intent group focus created an atmosphere of solid support, and encouraged me to share work I would not have otherwise, allowing me to delve deeply, rather than skim along on a surface of pretty language.
One day, we all wrote writerly mission statements, or manifestos. Here’s mine:
As a writer, I seek clarity: words like clear water revealing smooth stones, fine silt, and shadows below the surface.
In other words, I hope my writing serves as a lens. One which invites and honors truth and doesn’t obscure the difficult parts of life. I’m grateful to Cynthia for sharing the truth—a first crucial step of it—with me and that audience by Wallowa Lake, on Nez Perce land. I’m seeking more of this: more of what we need to hear, need to remember and dissect, what we must hold space for in our lives in order to live more compassionately and honestly. I’m working to write my own truths. And, to you writers out there working as well: I hope one day to hear yours. I’ll listen carefully.
For more information on Land Acknowledgement—and next steps—visit the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture site.
Anne Terashima is Associate Editor and Director of Marketing, Publicity, & Development at Torrey House Press, and recipient of a 2018 Summer Fishtrap fellowship. Her work appears in Poetry East and the anthology Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands.