Redemption Song

We have had a wonderful day’s sailing: a light breeze, cold, the snow shining on the mountains of Olympic National Park. We have tied up in Port Angeles, the town where Raymond Carver is buried. The Race Marshal laid in some lobsters before we left Seattle and is currently with them, down in the galley, listening to country music on Radio KSTI.

I wonder if Raymond Carver used to tune in. One reviewer thought that the Handsome Family’s brand of country music “owes more to Raymond Carver than it does to Garth Brooks” [1]. Certainly, Carver’s writing has some of that bleakness at the bottom of life:

My marriage had just fallen apart.
I couldn’t find a job.
I had another girl.
But she wasn’t in town

That kind of thing.

The radio currently has Bob Marley singing Redemption Song – to words that could be rewritten here in Port Angeles by the Klallam Tribe. Personally, I think of this story in images: one image of redemption is of 94-year-old Adeline Smith holding a copy of the Klallam language dictionary that she and other Tribal Elders helped Timothy Montler, a linguistics scholar, compile. At the time Professor Montler began his task, there were only 100 native language speakers left: now Klallam is firmly in the curriculum of the Tribe’s school system.

But perhaps the first in the trail of images would predate photography – a quick sketch made, say, on a perfect autumn day in the early nineteenth century.

The sketch would show Klallam people moving along the tributaries of the Elwha River harvesting sufficient salmon to see them through the winter. The huge chinook, the king salmon, a monster that can grow to 126 pounds, would already have spawned – but the sockeye would likely be moving upstream. So many salmon spawned here that they clogged the streams: it was said that you could step across the river on the backs of the fish.

The sketch might also perhaps show some of the magic of this time when humans did not dominate the landscape. The Elwha River ecosystem was just that – salmon ran in the streams; bears, bobcats and bald eagles fed on them; the carcasses of dead salmon (and all Pacific salmon die after spawning) fertilised the river and the land around. Birds, mammals, insects and plants all prospered in a balance that had existed for thousands of years. And the Klallam were part of that system and regarded themselves as such: they did not fish or log for profit, simply for sustenance. [3]

But if you look at a photograph taken at the end of the nineteenth century, you see a world made by people who did believe in profit, for whom nature was to be exploited in the name of progress. So, in the foreground of this image, you see a sad remnant of the Tribe huddling on the beach in front of an industrialising town, with their one possession – their canoes – hauled up on the sand.

Whalers, seal and otter hunters aside, the surge westward by Europeans reached the North-West relatively late. But this land-borne tide proved catastrophic: epidemics of smallpox and malaria killed 153,000 of the 188,000 Indigenous people in the North-West. [3] And those who didn’t die were simply rolled over by the power of industrialised America .

The Klallam were dispossessed and also racially despised, left to fend as best they could. The colonisers saw the North-West as opportunity to fish, hunt, mine and log their way to wealth. My confession is that cousins of my grandfather were likely part of the despoliation: in 1900 they created a homestead about 13 miles up the Elwha River from the burgeoning Port Angeles. Their cabin still stands and is now listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (you can visit the Humes Ranch – just follow the Geyser Valley Trail to Goblins Gate).

The next image in the sequence is from 1913. It is of the hydro-electric dam that had appeared across the Elwha River eight miles downstream from the Humes Ranch. My cousins never saw salmon again and some 90% of the Elwha salmon could never return to their spawning grounds.

The dam caused a wider catastrophe. Without the salmon, the cycle of nutrients was depleted and the ecosystem suffered. The trees logged by genuinely rapacious companies meant erosion and landslips that pushed silt into the river. And the silt built up behind the dam (and behind a second one constructed in 1927) which meant that the mud flats at the mouth of the Elwha were not replenished. Over time, they disappeared and with them the shellfish, another traditional source of food for the Klallam.

The colonisers onslaught stretched even onto the spiritual realm. Sawmills and warehouses were built over an ancient village and burial ground. The forests had their own spirituality – violated by logging – and water rising behind the dams engulfed sacred sites, including the most sacred, the rock where “the Creator bathed and blessed the Klallam people, and where tribal members for generations uncounted sought to learn their future” [4].

It is an image that can be taken today that brings us back to the redemption song. But the story unfortunately needs to wait a while because the lobsters, accompanied by a tub of fresh parsley butter, are just making their way up from the galley.


The Klallam Dictionary

The Handsome Family Far From Any Road

Redemption Song

Bob Marley & the Wailers in Seattle on November 20th 1979

The history the Klallam People made by children from the Lower ELwha Klallam Tribal elementary school –



[1] Independent 3/17/2000 Fiona Sturges meets the Handsome Family

[2] New York Times 6/24/1984 Raymond Carver: A Chronicler of Blue Collar Despair

[3] Elwha: Value of a River. Managing Risk in the Pacific Northwest
Philip R.S. Johnson (2013. PhD. Yale)

[4] The Seattle Times 8/10/2012 Elwha tribe finds legendary creation site, wants uncovered land