Dancing with Takhoma

Takhoma 09.17

            Opening up our new pajamas on Christmas Eve, elaborate Halloween decorations throughout the house, there some things my family just does. Most of us play volleyball, basketball or were runners in high school. I fell into this last category as I have poor hand-eye coordination. Competing in Track and Field in Spring and Cross Country in the Fall, running was a focus of mine year-round. One summer I recall we ran at least or close to 1,000 miles, I am still quite proud of this. While in school I was unaware of this incredible gift my coaches, Phil “Mister” English, Robert Price and Antony Stewart showed me. Molded by the intense summer heat, I owe my passion and inclination for endurance sports to these mentors and my setting. One tradition I was never taught though was dancing in pow wows. Both my sisters, my mother and my three uncles danced and competed in pow wows. This tradition was something I would have to seek out for my own and adapt my energy toward. All of my energy had been devoted to running in the streets, then trails and these days in the mountains. Please, let me tell you a story of how an Urban Native taught himself how to dance at the feet of Takhoma.

My red ribbon shirt – traditionally worn by dancers during pow wows. Seen here while skiing down Kulshan via the Easton Glacier.

            As I press for more adventures in the alpine, I continue discovering how connected everything is. It is one thing to have this told to you by an elder but quite another to experience it. Recently, I experienced a new perspective of a common phrase in Indian Country – All my relations. On Thursday July 23rd I set out from Me-yah-ah Pah, an old Yakama hunting ground on the East side of Takhoma. My goal was to explore parts of the Northern Wonderland Trail. Like dancing, no one had told me of Me-yah-ah Pah or its significance for my people. Often, I think of when my ancestors visited this place, the source of water and life, Takhoma. All of my relations, past, present, future even. Those current, The Cowlitz, Nisqually, Puyallup, Suquamish and Muckleshoot visit Takhoma from the West. But how do fit into this saying – all of my relations. How do I relate to all my relations? Unsure of my own connections, it found me on a long run where I started at none other than Me-yah-ah Pah. I will not ever forget the sunrise. Crimson and salmon-pink rays glowed on the upper mountain as I sipped instant-coffee and munched on blueberries. Between all of the sights and smells, I knew I was in for a good, long day of my favorite thing in the world in a place which has been home to me before I have even walked these plane’s or climbed to the top.

Crimson and salmon-pink rays on a day of skiing w/ Micheli Oliver – Photo by Micheli Oliver

            Visiting the top about a dozen times before then so much was left to learn. The true gift of Takhoma does not lie at 14,410’, it lies all around him. It has taken me a long time to figure this out, but I am learning to sit in this growth I have gone through. Don’t get me wrong, I am still driven to get to the top of places. I just know I will learn more if it is not my priority and, on this day, it was all about learning and seeing. Bounding up and down the valleys was unforgettable. Spending most of the day in long sections of being alone, the open rolling spaces kept me from feeling it. Throughout the whole day, no matter how tired, thirsty, hungry or whatever, I always felt like I belonged there. This feeling kept with me pushing into the 13th hour of the day. Driving up in elevation and mood, the discomfort of this run had been unlike any before. Just as the sun was setting, I headed back to Me-yah-ah Pah. As if the day were turned upside down and reversed, the sky looked the same but felt more familiar this time. Striding out the downhills and plopping my legs in a grinding walk uphill, I threw up a Black Lodge Singers album on my phone – something I enjoy doing every now and then. I was always curious why my grandpa, mom or my uncles enjoyed listening to pow wow music, but they had danced in their lifetime. Maybe that’s why they enjoy it. The stadiums full of people, drummers, dancers, singers, everything. Sitting there always as a spectator was me with my grandparents who hardly danced in their elder years. But this day, I was the only person in the stadium. Running to the beat now, my heart and the drums were competing for the tempo only to succumb to the terrain but, even then I stayed on beat with Takhoma, we stayed on beat together.

P.S. See this Strava Post detailing the stats on my run!

Black Lodge Singers closing the day out

The Pride from Wy’east

Under the tutelage of elders who carried us into times which make us proud to be Indian – we must serve those to come by making everyone accepting of Indians.

            Resting easy over the Yakama Nation, Pahto has provided for our people since time immemorial. Standing at 12,280’, Pahto’s gentle Southern rising slopes attract hundreds of amateur mountaineers and skiers alike; though, most only know its English name, Mt. Adams. Growing up my grandfather told me stories of her relations with the other snowy peaks of the region. In one story, the Three Sisters that are Pahto, Kittitas and Wy’east all bid and feud for Takhoma’s adornment. However, the plague of colonization has since removed the language, land and people from one another. Seeking to decolonize and reclaim these sacred places, my brother Owen Oliver of the Chinook People and I began with Pahto in October of 2019. Though on a fine sunny and windless day the summit remained out of reach leaving our ceremony incomplete. Transitioning to Spring, stories shifted toward Wy’east – whose pride pours over our ancestral homeland.

Owen and I Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2018

            August of 2016 was my last visit to Wy’east, when my interest in mountaineering had just began. Not much younger but much more brash and ignorant to consequences of mountaineering, my friend Carter and I were ill-prepped. Foregoing crampons under the impression the Pearly Gates was an easy 3rd class snow chute, we chugged up the resort as one does to find bergschrund in firm conditions. Yet we pressed on. Tip-toeing on the edge of the ‘schrund, cutting steps exacerbated the raining rockfall. Considering the overhead hazards, we opted to stay a bit climber’s left. In full swing with my adze, a whistle shot past my head. Thinking we were safe from any rockfall, Carter’s ghost-white face tells otherwise. Utterly unprepared for this route, numerous red-flags kept rising as we kept ignoring them. But at the time we did not know otherwise and felt committed. Pressing forward, this was the first summit both of us regretted obtaining as the down-climb would be equally as troubling.

Owen at Illumination Saddle

            Taking a sip of coffee while telling this story to Owen, I hoped to impart some wisdom, or maybe reassurance that I have seen some shit or something to justify my mistakes. As if I were an aged warrior struggling to remain consequential… but I cannot find anything. Instead, this story simply highlighted my mistakes, ignorance and luck. My immaturity especially in the mountains. For our journey to Wy’east, I am not much older, still as brash in some ways, but have developed a head about me. I am more in tune with my actions and their consequences, but most importantly – in tune with who I am separate of my passion for being outside. Before, I walked with all the invincibility a 19-year-old thinks they have. Unnerved by this ignorance on a wild ride into the night. Though, along the way maturity got a firm grip slapping me straight. I am grateful it did not come through a physical punishment. The source of the growth was spurred by a University trip to Southeast Alaska in the small village of Hoonah. Gathered around a table with my peers, my professor and a few elders listened to Bob Starbard, CEO of the Hoonah Indian Association (HIA). “Preserves are for berries, picked and sugar coated. Perpetuation is the answer.” – with respect to my question of how one may preserve Indigenous Culture(s). Unaware of the gravity of his words, I am learning to unpack them with my own discovery of ceremony.

Owen ascending The Pearly Gates

            My perspective of how I recreate and move in the backcountry is shaped by everything else in my life. It sounds silly to state, but it is important that I continually remind myself. Upon starting these sports, I was fueled and directed by athletic performance – my roots of distance running in high school are obvious. However, I now feel strong enough to own this energy and redirect it toward contemporary methods of ceremony. Seeking to re-engage in reciprocity with the Three Sisters, Takhoma and others, my gift is not an ability to move quickly and efficiently in such places; rather, to reconnect with all of my relations physically and spiritually. Recalling Owen’s first interest in such sports, I was unaware of the energy he would bring along these journeys. Before, my memory of Wy’east was clouded by a need to conquer and claim victory. Influenced by a settler-colonial mindset to tame land and its wild spaces. Now, through Owen’s pressing of my knowledge and growth, my vision is clearing. Standing proudly with my brother and Wy’east, the spring sky illuminates our respective homelands from the summit – The Columbia Plateau and the Columbia River. Considering my revitalized connections with these relations, I feel if I were to not share, to not confidently and proudly hold my space in these sacred places, I sugarcoat my existence and collective Indigenous culture.

A Letter to those Seeking Takhoma’s Summit

Early light on Takhoma

            The allure of Takhoma has long preceded the brutal conquest that now replaced names of its features with names adapted for the english tongue. Ascending it’s trails and traversing it’s glaciers with these adapted names lures us into forgetting the history which is carried in this land. Naming is a central act of building a long standing connection with landscape, with this power connections can be made and also long standing ones severed. Takhoma, known as Mt. Rainer in english, has been a feature of allure long before colonial conquest of these lands. The conquest of these lands also extended to the highest summits and consequently fostered the culture of climbing we have inherited today. Even I, a native person, once set out to conquer this sacred mountain for selfish intent, but I have educated myself on the original caretakers and name-givers to this sacred place. This original name reflects a ethic of reciprocity; Before I learned about this relationship of such things, I sought to only take from his — Takhoma’s — hands to put into mine; though, personal growth and education have opened my hands, and as I now raise them to him (Takhoma) in thanks, I reach out to help others up to grow and learn as I have.

Summit sunrise

            If you seek the summit as well, educate yourself on the history and facts behind the Indian removal from these lands. Acknowledgement of the removal of children from their families and the cultural genocide that took place at boarding schools, like Fort Simcoe on the Yakama Reservation, is a pathway toward reparation and justice. Within education and awareness of these atrocities, lay justice for the Yakama Peoples along with solutions to work together as different communities sharing spaces on Turtle Island. One easy thing you all may do to work for this is to begin your journey of education on Indigenous erasure here within Takhoma’s reach. I enact this responsibility as the next Cowlitz and Yakama Mountain Guide, following Chief Sluiskin’s legacy. Aspiring to heighten Indigenous voice and presence on Takhoma, I seek to perpetuate teachings and wisdoms of elders like Sluiskin. Although it cannot be completed without education on Isaac and Hazard Stevens’ roles with Indigenous Peoples of Washington. As the Governor of WA in the 1850’s, Isaac oversaw the murder of Chief Leschi and the atrocities of the Yakima Wars. Whereas, Hazard partook in Indigenous erasure on his ascent of Takhoma, effectively contributing to a stereotype of Indian culture being dead and stuck in time. My life, I imagine, is not one envisioned by Chief Sluiskin of the Yakama and Cowlitz Nations; although, I am sure he would be proud. Me, another Yakama and Cowlitz Mountain Guide on Takhoma, where Sluiskin was the first. This legacy I work in would not exist without him (Sluiskin), though it’s barriers were established by Isaac and Hazard Stevens’ legacies.

Guided group on the summit

            My people, the Yakama, would visit Me-Yah-ah Pah in the spring as a fairweather village; there, they would subsist off the land, living close to our mother of water and life.My people, the Yakama, sought their Honorable Harvest on the East side of the mountain. Engaging in seasonal hunting, berry picking and ceremony, the Yakama are but few of the many still continue to give thanks to Takhoma. Though overtime, foreigners’ intense curiosity for exploration grew to a greed for conquesting nature. Sieging to ‘tame’ the ‘wild’ nature, colonizers imposed new purposes for these sacred areas to only serve humans, breaking the engagement of reciprocity. This newly assigned purpose flows only the path of greed and consumption. To the West of Takhoma, the Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup and Squaxin Island continue to remain the stewards to their respective sacred lands. Formed and segregated as a national park in 1899, the more than 200,000+ acre boundary is shaped by treaties established with these six nations. The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 and the Yakama Nation Treaty of 1855 are the de jure rule of what is now called Mt. Rainier National Park. These treaties continue to be ignored, neglected and tarnished by those who call themselves ‘leaders’ of the established park. The National Park Service (NPS) stated in the Historical Overview of Indians and Mount Rainier, that“…Mt. Rainier National Park, like other national parks, commemorated Indians’ past use of the area through Indian place names”; claiming this is a “white American fondness for Indian names’ as a ‘form of nationalism’”. There is extreme irony and bigotry loaded within this statement as, Indian names, words, culture, identity were meant to be killed in boarding schools with the motto – Kill the Indian, save the man

Native Americans were ultimately removed from the proximity of Takhoma while settlers moved in and began their conquests for the summit, a place previously not for the two legged. In the days of Sluiskin of the Upper Cowlitz, Chief Si’ahl of the Duwamish from which the city of Seattle is named, Takhoma’s summit was not a place for the two-legged. A Yakama story I have read tells of a man once who pushed to the summit in the name of greed. Upon reaching the summit he found Takhoma’s riches but was warned of the cost of his greed and selfishness. Along his journey, this man lost the way of his elders, his community. He forgot his people’s ethics and the respect you give back to the land. In the resolution of the story, the man re-buries the treasure for no one , not for someone else to find though, as it only belongs to Takhoma. Desiring to own and have control, domain over Takhoma is not possible. I do not own Takhoma even though my people have been around since time immemorial. Rather, we are stewards watching over the well-being of the land and continuation of it for the sake of future generations and all to benefit from. 

Experiencing the nourishment and nurture of being on the land, I now know I am not the only Urban Indian who may connect to their culture. You see, I did not grow up with my community or my culture. I grew up in the city, an urban environment detached from other Indigenous people and culture. Until I had made connections and relationships with the land, my Indigenous identity meant nothing more than an enrollment number and I.D. Just the way the forces of colonization had planned. But upon overcoming this systemic barrier and oppression, I know I am not alone and others need space available to move up as well. Through this new perspective gifted from Takhoma, I know there is something the two-legged can learn and pass on if an understanding of reciprocity is upheld.

Lower-Cowlitz Glacier seen from Muir Peak

It was not until receiving an education from my peers, elders, community and mentors that I earned this treasure — A commodity more valuable than buried gold — and that it is now my turn to pass this wisdom on. To the other two-legged who seek to conquer the wilderness, to the Urban Native kids who do not have community or identity. To my clients when they rope up with me. To those who seek Takhoma’s summit. During my days of peak-bagging and ‘conquering’ mountains, I too was lost like the Yakama man, searching for mythic treasures buried high on mountain summits.  This gift is never truly yours, it belongs to the next person to come and to those behind them. It may come in the form of self-restoration after trials and tribulations, or after a sense of accomplishment over triumphing physical or mental boundaries. Whichever it is, once you find it with Takhoma, be sure to not wield it. Knowledge and education are not weapons. Walk with it. Share with those in your community what you will do with this new knowledge. Utilize what you were gifted to educate your family and community, because  making them aware of the journey will leave Takhoma’s gift spoiled.

Whether you reach the summit or not, Takhoma has given you energy. I ask that you redirect it so that it may enrich others.


Cal’ James Smith, grandson of Red Smith of the Yakama and Yvonne Vivette of Grand Ronde

Guided group listening to Yakama story