When I contacted Ramona Bennett, the 79-year-old former chair of the Puyallup Tribal Council, for an interview regarding her appearance at the upcoming panel discussion, "Grandmothers in the Resistance," she told me I could come and see her at a Native American Church peyote tipi ceremony being held that night at her home in Tacoma. The ceremony was in honor of her grandson, who had just turned 15.
I asked if she was sure it was ok. I didn't know anything about peyote or the ceremony. She said, "If you come and go in, you're in! You're an Indian?" I told her, yes, I was Tlingit. She said, "Come on ahead and ndn up." I went and didn't return home until 8 the next morning.
Going to Ill Eagle Fireworks
That night I rode the bus, phone in hand, watching the blue dot on my map application travel to the location Ramona had given me, Ill Eagle Fireworks. It seemed an appropriate name.
Ramona Bennett fought like a firecracker alongside Native leaders like Billy Frank Jr. of the Nisqually and Robert Satiacum of the Puyallup during the "fish wars" of the seventies. This famous treaty stand lasted years and eventually resulted in the Boldt Decision, named after Judge George Boldt, who awarded half of Washington State's yearly salmon harvest to tribes who had previously signed treaties.
She was there with Colville activist Bernie Whitebear when the United Indians of All Tribes took over Fort Lawton in Seattle in 1970. She helped pass the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 and the Indian Child Welfare Act in the same year.
In December, her testimony helped acquit Cynthia Linet and Marilyn Kimmerling at a trial for criminal trespassing and obstructing a police officer. The two non-Native activists had chained themselves to construction equipment last May at the site of a Puget Sound Energy liquid natural gas storage facility being built on disputed Puyallup land. Ramona's testimony as former chair of the Puyallup Tribal Council convinced the jury the land belonged to the Puyallup people, not the City of Tacoma. The jury found the two elderly women not guilty.
On Monday, she was present when the Seattle City Council passed a resolution expressing concerns over PSE's LNG facility and gave testimony at a community meeting held by the energy company in Renton.
Over the years, Ramona has been thrown down, handcuffed and tossed in the back of police vehicles many times while fighting for her people. Now, at nearly 80 years old, she still fights.
Welcomed Like Family
"Oh good! You made it. We're just about to eat," Ramona said when I got there. She introduced me to her grandson, Bill, whose Native name is Kahee-loosh Spirithawk. "It's for his birthday that we're doing this meeting tonight. He just turned 15," she said.
I got in line with the other family members and filled a bowl with chicken and dumpling stew. Ramona called me over to sit by her and told me about the peyote ceremony.
"This way of praying has been practiced for thousands of years, by Indians all over the Americas and Mexico. Some people say it's the only way to pray. We believe this medicine heals and cures us and puts us more in tune with the Creator." I asked what I should expect. Ramona said, "You might get a little cold at first. Get him a blanket. Do we have a blanket for him? Ok, good. You'll thank me for that later."
I began feeling more at ease. I could tell no matter what happened, I was safe. It was a wonderful feeling.
Inside the Tipi
Being from Alaska, I'd never seen an actual tipi before, and I was surprised by how big the one on Ramona's property was. The base was about 20 or 25 feet across, and it stood about 15 feet tall. It easily held the 15 or so of us in attendance. The Roadman, who would officiate the ceremony, was Powhatton Mills, a big, burly guy, who Ramona said was the son of her spiritual leader, Sid Mills.
A young man tended a fire in the center of the tipi as Powhatton gently explained every step of the ceremony. When the wooden bowl containing the peyote was passed around, I only took a little. I had heard people often throw up after choking down the bitter-tasting peyote. I was also afraid of freaking out. But Powhatton said to think of the medicine as being the Creator, Grandfather Wakan-Tanka. He said we should ask Grandfather to bless us and not be afraid.
I never heard "Happy Birthday" sung as a Native song with drumming before. The Native version uses different words, but is much more beautiful.
What struck me was how, in the Native version, life itself is celebrated. The heartfelt tones of the male voices seemed to say, life is good. Life is precious and worthwhile. You were born! You were given life. How wonderful! Happy birthday!
I found myself crying at the happy birthday song. The medicine was doing its work.
Praying Is Hard for Indians
After the ceremony, Ramona asked how I felt. I told her I was exhausted. We started praying at about 10 p.m. and ended around 6 a.m. Ramona said Indian prayer practices are often hard.
"Peyote prayer meetings, sweat lodge ceremonies, the Sundance, they're all exhausting," she said.
Why do Indians seem to torture themselves to pray, I thought? I remembered the fights Ramona herself has been through, the abuse she's suffered at the hands of police and game wardens, the oppression and genocide committed against her people. How do you endure that? How do you keep fighting back year after year when sometimes it must seem as if nothing will ever change?
Then I remembered Ramona's gentle words to her grandson, Kahee-loosh Spirithawk, during the ceremony, how she told him how much she admired his willingness to help others and try new things. She continued listing his good qualities and the boy seemed to grow another foot in height right before our eyes.
His grandma's lifetime of fighting made her words strong and powerful. Now she used that strength like a blanket and wrapped it invisibly around him. I was sure he would wear that invisible blanket the rest of his life. The strength needed to fight for what's right is the same strength needed to love and protect. That's why praying is hard. Getting stronger always takes hard work.
Ramona will be one of four panelists discussing civil disobedience, treaty rights, climate change and the LNG plant being built on disputed Puyallup land.
Titled, "Grandmothers in the Resistance," the discussion will take place Wednesday, February 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the University Friends Meeting and Friends Center, 4001 9th Avenue Northeast in Seattle.