Reunion stirs connections to family and place
“Wow.” This became the most overused, yet never obsolete, word in Joanne’s and my lexicon during a recent visit to northern Idaho . The feelings evoked in us by the diverse faces of nature in that majestic neck of the woods kept us in a nearly constant state of awe for a week. Added to the joy of rediscovering once-familiar places, the warm touch of seldom-seen family and the remaining flavors of a lifestyle fast disappearing produced a palpable sense of belonging in the heart of a wandering urban nomad.
The prime motivator for our 2,600-mile road trip, the first reunion of my Finnish-American mother Esther Irene Hussa’s side of the family in two generations, promised a poignant and unforgettable journey. Neither my sister, brother, nor I have yet visited the original homeland of the Hussa family, but Cousin Jari and wife Helena, traveling all the way from the Scandinavian motherland, provided constant human context for this gathering of family members, now scattered from throughout the Northwest to Tennessee to New Mexico.
We Wheelock kids have long referred to ourselves as “Finndians.” Our father Martin Kerwin Wheelock was an Oneida man whose family for hundreds of generations farmed, hunted, fished, and traded amongst the forests and waters of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in what became, through often dubious means, upstate New York. In attempting to salvage what traces remain of not only that side of our family’s story but also a broader vision of indigenous history from the train wreck that is “American Indian History,” two themes constantly repeat: the overarching importance of family relationships, and an undying love for, and attachment to, traditional homelands.
Not so many years before the homesteading Finns of my grandparents’ generation cut and milled the trees to build their farmhouses, saunas, and barns on Tamarack Ridge in the bountiful mountains east of Coeur d’Alene , the people called Coeur d’Alenes by the French had been pressured onto a reservation. Despite their initial tolerance of the growing European presence, they came out on the losing end of an imperial process that invariably involved both a severance from beloved lands and the separation of family members. Thus were two sacred connections supplanted with – what?
As everywhere in North America , the European settlers depended for their survival in this potentially hazardous place partly on the advice of the Coeur d’Alenes (whom it should be noted, did not claim intellectual property rights). But some of these newcomers had bigger ideas. Riding the tide of an earlier technology bubble, what refinements of living with nature they could not fathom (or had no interest in), they substituted for with attempted subjugation through mechanical means.
The results are still there, albeit hidden from unwitting visitors by lush, dense forests and impossibly clear waters. Lake Coeur d’Alene , for decades the recipient of wastes discharged into her main tributary miles upstream in the Kellogg mining district, became the Environmental Protection Agency’s single largest Superfund site. Belied by her crystal clear waters, tons of toxic heavy metals line the bottom of the vast lake, with no realistic solution for removal - ever. An early yet vivid memory from my family’s periodic visits from afar is of the Coeur d’Alene River, running through the valley in bright shades of color I had never seen in nature.
Today, the northern forests appear pristine to the untrained eye. Wherever logging and mining interests have backed off, nature has shown her impressive capacity to heal herself, and plant and animal life once again thrives in the woods. The waters of the Coeur d’Alene River have regained much of their famed clarity, and native cutthroat trout have cautiously returned to historic haunts in the mysterious depths of turquoise pools. Local kids jump off bridges into the river’s cooling embrace on hot summer days, just as my grandmother and her cousins surely did between chores long ago.
The presence of the Hussa family on Tamarack Ridge has dwindled through mortality and the relocation of subsequent generations related to the nation’s conversion to industrial-scale agriculture. We Wheelocks were hosted in the tiny nearby mountain community of Kingston by the in-laws of our cousin Carol. The Gerards, semi-retired from nursing and education, are living bridges to the rural Idaho lifestyle I remember as a kid. Carol and Grayson don’t have milk cows, chickens, or acres of potatoes. They don’t have a television in the living room nor do they surf the internet. But they do know where the huckleberries grow, how to dress an elk, and how to create their own art and music. Their warmth and generosity speak eloquently of an earlier time, when family and neighbors - much as the original residents - depended on one another’s goodwill for subsistence and a high quality of life.
The difficult and ongoing project of restoring the valley to some meaure of its former bounty has required conscious determination from residents of the area that the despoliation of their (new) homelands is no longer acceptable. Perhaps the (that is,“we”) Europeans are learning.
Dave Wheelock, a university rugby coach and sports administrator, holds a history degree from the University of New Mexico . Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. Wheelock’s views do not necessarily reflect those of Socorro News, but frequently do.
Originally published in the Mountain Mail; reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright 2009, Dave Wheelock; all rights reserved.