Editor’s Note: In early October, a small team from Trinity travelled to White Swan, WA to deliver books for the mobile library and spend a weekend serving alongside Sacred Road Ministries on the Yakama Indian Reservation. Sacred Road Ministries is one of our TCS Ministry Partners, and Hope Fellowship PCA is a sister church within our presbytery. TCS supports Sacred Road Ministries by sending short-term teams to serve with them, contributing to their Christmas gift drive, and other partnership opportunities throughout the year. Thank you to all those who donated books to their new mobile library!
Written by Alex McIlhargey
Hannah and I left Edmonds Friday afternoon after a long week of work.
We picked up Bonnie Butaud and headed to Yakima to meet a group from Trinity. Our destination was Sacred Road, a ministry to the Yakama Indians in White Swan, WA, but for dinner we convened at Miner’s restaurant in Yakima. If you’re from the East side of the state, I’m guessing you’re familiar with the place, but being a Michigander, the closest analog I have is Redamak’s in New Buffalo, Michigan. If you’re not, just picture unapologetically greasy, corpulent burgers that blow Dick’s Drive-In out of the water. A small contingent of our group had completed a 15 mile hike that day, thus qualifying themselves to demonstrate to the rest of us exactly how a Miner’s burger and shake was to be consumed.
That was the first thing I learned.
Erick and Bri Berry have cultivated a personal relationship with Sacred Road over several years, and they coordinated and led our trip. Following their direction, we set our maps to White Swan and with full bellies drove further into the windy dark. The farther we got from Yakima, the sparser the lights became. We paralleled the highway for a while which meant that we traveled in straight lines, through four-way stops, over railroads. The stars grew brighter, and it became clear that we’d entered a flat land of tumbleweeds and broad expanses. One final right angle gave way to a large sign which read ‘Sacred Road’ and a merciful parabola of gravel leading to a basketball court. Here we parked.
We were met by Cheryl and Uncle Dave, the latter of whom earned his title according to a narrative that was alluded to but not disclosed. They welcomed our group, took our temperatures, outlined our schedule, and showed us to our respective floors. The men were given the upper floor on which to sleep and the women the lower. Both endured the sounds of loud banging and suspected the other of juvenile, late-night hijinks but it was revealed in the daylight that tire swings and tetherballs were to blame. As the dark abated, so too did the wind.
All awoke before 8 o’clock to a stretched, golden plain flanked by velvet hills. Wild horses appeared like sparse pills on their texture. After breakfast, Uncle Dave introduced us to a cohort of Sacred Road staff and volunteers and oriented us to the day’s objectives. Two of us would split wood the old-fashioned way; two of us would use the log splitter; two of us the chainsaw (Scott Thompson and myself); four of us to stack; the rest sorted and hauled, bucked and tossed. All said, we processed about 10 cords of firewood which would be distributed primarily to the elders in the Yakama nation within White Swan. By the time I set the chain saw down for good, every crease and follicle was coated with a gum consisting of bar chain oil, gasoline, and sawdust. I couldn’t blink properly until Monday.
The town of White Swan is home to about 11,000 people, as Uncle Dave explained to us on a tour of the area Saturday evening. It’s comprised mostly of tribal members but not exclusively. The reservation is pockmarked by areas of “deeded” land which, by contract, belongs to white– or at least non-Native– Americans. Most of the farming land is deeded, and there has been some recent dispute regarding one farm allegedly encroaching on tribal land. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time.
Cheryl drove our bus through town, and as the sun lingered over the flat land we traced rectangles around a trailer park, rodeo grounds, longhouse, an old Shaker church, and a derelict “mission” school. Hannah and I stared at the boarded-up brick building surrounded by neglected trees. She shivered. In contrast to the school, the longhouse functions as the heart of Yakama spirituality and culture. Here they hold pow-wows and large feasts to celebrate, for example, the catch of a youth’s first salmon, one of the sacred animals. The salmon, along with the deer, is of particular importance, and in addition to their recognition of a single creator God, the salmon represents another point of commonality between Christianity and Washat spirituality.
Early Christians saw the salmon as a symbol of Christ because of its mortal, sacrificial efforts to swim against the river’s flow in order to spawn and give life to many.
Numerous times during our short stay, Uncle Dave explained the reasoning behind Sacred Road’s mission, including our partnership with them. He would say something like, “We do this, first of all, because it’s what the Bible commands us to do.” No questions asked; it is our reasonable act of worship. I liked that. Then he would go on to explain the exigent and particular circumstances for each task. The firewood, for example, is used to heat homes in lieu of electricity or gas because the grip of poverty is strong on the reservation– and even stronger since the pandemic’s advent. The mission of Sacred Road is hardly compulsory though. Each individual is animated by a unique kind of joy, whether it’s Uncle Dave’s paternal hospitality or John’s (the chainsaw guru) quiet and persistent gratitude for assisting with a task that he completes daily. Add to that joy shrewdness, for Sacred Road’s leadership raises up leaders from among the Yakama people to work within their organization and even minister outside of it rather than solely bringing in outsiders to do the work of ministry. This is, I think, one reason that an elder in the community expressed to Uncle Dave that Sacred Road’s presence in White Swan represents the second invasion of white people in their nation. If only, he said, the first had been like this one.
At the end of the workday I met Noah, who is brother to one of the men who resides and works at Sacred Road. We played basketball in the parking lot with the lone inflated ball, and at dinner he told me of his love for fishing. He had come up for the weekend to help and would be returning soon to the Tri-Cities. At table, it was me, Scott, Noah, and Noah’s brother, Kealen, who is on staff. A gleeful group of Native women had cooked fry bread and beans for us. Accompanying the meal was a sweet tea that would have garnered Buddy the Elf’s stamp of approval. I had two cups and then, as if that weren’t a sufficient dessert, carrot cake. After two of everything including two broken forks, I surrendered my plate and defunct utensils. All eaters worked together to fold tables and stack chairs because that night the dining room would become our bedroom before becoming the sanctuary on the following day. Stuffed and giggly, we Trinity folk circled up for a game of Fishbowl before calling it a night.
After turning onto the main drag in the crisp morning, two black cats crawled in the top of a naked bush. Prior to dinner Uncle Dave had given us out-of-towners advice for how to and how not to relate with the Native people. When you shake hands, he said, offer a limp hand instead of a firm one because a firm one will be understood as aggressive. Don’t dominate conversation with questions. These people have been dominated by a language and a people not their own. Allow them to share with you on their own terms, and they will. Finally, do not say goodbye. For them it is too final. And so it shall be for me and for many of us who made the long-haul for a short stint two weeks ago.
See you soon, White Swan.
Our Sacred Road Christmas Gift drive begins November 1st! Join us by purchasing from our Amazon Gift Registry and/or helping pack gift boxes for Sacred Road at 12:15pm on Sunday, November 22nd.