by Carol McMillan
Netta Shah clenched her teeth with determination as she clamped a wide brass barrette around her dark hair, securing it neatly at the nape of her neck. She needed confidence and courage for what she intended to accomplish today. Her jaw relaxed a bit, allowing her lips to rise into a slight smile.
Even as a small child in New York City, Native American cultures had held a fascination for the first generation American. It wasn’t the beads or feathers or Hollywood images of “noble savages” that had attracted her, but a more genuine sense of connection. Laughing to herself, Netta wondered if the first associations happened simply because she was Indian and they were called “Indians;” that had been confusing to her from an early age. During her adolescence, Netta had begun to rage inside over the injustices she read about. History books seemed to ignore the atrocity of Europeans arriving and claiming rights to a continent already inhabited by hundreds of diverse and interesting cultures. The term “massacre” was only applied to Natives fighting back against the immigrants, never to the lighter-skinned people who burned villages and eventually stole Native children and locked them into the prisons they termed “boarding schools.” Netta had vowed to herself that, as an adult, she would work to help restore rights to people who continued to be neglected and abused.
The financial situation of Netta’s parents, Rahil and Pooja, had managed to insulate her from much of the prejudice experienced by olive-skinned children in the United States. The fact that she’d been a stunningly beautiful child had also helped. Raised around relatives who shared her skin color, the doors of discrimination hadn’t slammed Netta in the face until she’d graduated from a private high school and began making her way in the wider world. After earning a master’s degree, Netta found that the jobs available to her were mostly in under-funded inner-city schools. When she read of the position here at Westminster Academy, she’d applied and been accepted. Even though she realized her acceptance, most likely, had been as a token person-of-color in order to meet new diversity requirements, Netta had set out westward, where the pay would be excellent and where the media had led her to believe she’d find more visible “Indians” than existed in New York City.
Even before she arrived in Washington state, Netta had researched the tribe upon whose aboriginal land the Academy sat. Stillaguamish. Who were the Stillaguamish? John Wayne movies introduced her to feather-bonneted Plains Indians, Arizona Highways magazine showed pictures of sheep-herding, silver jewelry-laden Navajos (now correctly referred to as the Diné), and she’d seen photos of Geronimo with a rolled scarf tied around his forehead in what she assumed to be the manner of Apaches, but the photos she found of the Stillaguamish showed shaggy, bark-dressed people wearing cone-shaped hats, riding in long canoes. Not any kind of Indians she’d heard mention of before.
Further research revealed that the “Stoluck-wa-mish” were part of the treaty of Point Elliot in 1855, but no reservation had been established for them. In 1974, more than one hundred years after signing the treaty, they’d petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to be acknowledged as a tribe and to receive some of the benefits promised in return for stolen land. They were federally recognized in 1976, and finally granted a sixty-four-acre reservation in 2014. Over a hundred and fifty years later, sixty-four acres! To a tribe whose land had traditionally run all along the Stillaguamish river and its tributaries! Unthinkable injustice! Netta had hatched a plan to get the school to offer the tribe joint management of the iconic old growth forest located on the grounds of the “Fighting Firs” campus. A very small gesture amid the history of such injustice, but movement in the right direction just the same.
Netta had shared her plan with Lisa Nightlie from Campus Security, who she knew to be an environmental activist. Lisa was on board immediately, offering full support. Netta had heard that Dr. McPherson recognized Lisa as an up-and-coming, so her assistance in softening the old man to the idea would be a huge asset. Energized by Lisa’s enthusiasm for the scheme, she’d also approached the English teacher, that Bradley guy, who she found kind of attractive. Netta had tried out a bit of flirtation, something new to her, and been more than pleased with the results. Looking up at him with her wide, dark eyes while spelling out the plan had elicited a warm, ear-to-ear grin. Wow! she thought, this is way easier than I’d imagined. I need to remember this. Netta didn’t know how useful he might be for her goal, but it never hurt to have another human on board, and, besides, it had been an excellent first step in what might turn into some sort of relationship.
And so! Today would be the day! She was choosing to go alone to make initial contact with the tribe, hoping that her appearance might be more of an asset than the white faces of her posse. She had an appointment at ten to see Joseph Yanity in the tribe’s administration building. Netta had googled the address: 3404 236th St. NE. It sounded not the least bit rural, seemingly odd for a tribal headquarters, but Google Maps showed an area surrounded by those sixty-four acres of trees, just to the east of I-5. Netta grabbed her embroidered Indian (from the real India) purse and headed out the door.
The black façade of the administration building held a large red image of a salmon, stylized in the manner of northwest Indian art. Netta made a mental note to mention Stillaguamish art to Lisa for the grant she’d applied for from the Oliver Foundation. That might be another good connection for her endeavor.
Surreptitiously adjusting a slipped bra strap, she headed into the building and checked out the directory for the office of Joseph Yanity. Netta noticed that the tribal chair was also a “Yanity,” and wondered if it was an important family name. Clicking her way down the hall in her low-heeled pumps, she found the right door and knocked.
The man who bade her enter was a visual surprise. Seated behind a polished wooden desk with carved salmon swimming down its sides, Joseph Yanity appeared very white. His skin was much lighter than her own, and his greying light brown hair was cropped closely. Not at all the dark-skinned, dark-haired Indian with lengthy braids that had been her mind’s image of who she’d meet.
“Hash shlah shlhail.”
Netta heard something like that. It sounded very slurpy.
“Good morning,” he continued. “I’m greeting you in Lushootseed, our ancestral language, but I’m afraid I’m not very good at the pronunciation yet.”
“Sata sri akal,” Netta replied, smiling. “That is Punjabi, my ancestral language, and, even though my parents are fluent, I’m afraid I speak it very poorly.”
Joseph Yanity gestured toward a carved wooden chair, this one showing bears and what she guessed to be an eagle. “How can I help you, Miss Shah? I hope I have pronounced that right.” He smiled back at her.
“Yes, thank you. I’ve come about a plan I have for a grove of old growth firs on the Westminster Academy campus. I haven’t discussed it yet with our administrator, Dr. Peregrine McPherson, but I thought I’d see if your tribe would be interested before approaching him and, eventually, Mr. Oliver, the owner of the land.”
“I’m familiar with that grove. Besides the firs, it also has old growth cedar, which is extremely important to our tribe. Our homes were made of cedar. Our canoes are carved from cedar. The cedar root and bark have been used traditionally to weave clothing and hats, mats for sleeping, baskets for collecting food, and ropes for our hunters. Cedar is also used for medicinal purposes as well as spiritual ceremonies. We have quite an interest in that grove.”
Netta spelled out her proposal for joint management between the tribe and the Academy. “As I mentioned before, I haven’t brought it up yet with Dr. McPherson or Mr. Oliver. Quite frankly, they both tend to be more motivated by money than by vision, and I believe they need to be approached carefully.” Netta noted that, oddly, she was immediately more comfortable with this man than she’d ever been talking with McPherson.
“I am also well acquainted with Mr. McPherson and Mr. Oliver.”
Netta noticed he did not use the title of “Dr.” and wondered if it was intentional.
“Albert Beaumont Oliver III and I share an ancestral history. When Albert Beaumont Oliver the First, or ABO, as he’s often referred to, came out here from Maine in the mid-1800’s, my grandfather, zis-a-ba, was chief of the sp-la-tum village that was located near Warm Beach on the Salish Sea. After ABO gained power and claimed land and timber, he became instrumental in creating the treaty in 1855. We were granted most of our ancestral lands in that treaty, so my grandfather agreed to sign. We later found that what was filed with the federal government differed significantly from what zis-a-ba had signed; our reservation of allotted land had been completely omitted, much of it being the land now claimed by ABO. We have every reason to believe that it was ABO who drafted and filed the altered treaty. I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that legal papers have recently been served, granting us back all the land that was taken from us in that false treaty.”
Netta’s jaw dropped perceptibly. Her scheme was peanuts compared to what the tribe was already doing.
“Incidentally,” Joseph Yanity added, “there’s a girl applying for admission to the Academy—I believe Annabelle Watson is her name?—who is descended from a man who also helped create that treaty.”
Netta’s jaw now hung unabashedly open; she made no attempt to pull it back into a more polite position. Annabelle Watson was the name of the girl who had just disappeared.
Thanks for bringing in the Stillaguamish, treaty issues, and building on environmental concerns. Well done, Carol!
Carol, adding texture, history and clarifying the conflict. Thank you!
Way to develop Netta’s character, Carol. Especially impressive is how you honor the Stillaguamish people, and reveal their unjust treatment at the hands of greedy white folks. Your chapter is tense, empowering, and it definitely moves School for Scoundrels in an important and challenging direction. Well done.
A swell and captivating twist !!!