Thursday, April 30, 2009

Time Ball

When Hemos Johnson (hereditary Hahwannis chief of Kingcome) was an old man visiting his daughter at Comox she took him to Elk Falls, a place he had heard much about but had never seen. He stood where he could behold the raging torrent in all its splendour, gazing in silent wonder at the majestic sight and when he came away he announced, "It gave me a new song."
It had all come to him there, the words and music straight from the Master of all harmony - a song that would always be his alone.

---Mildred Valley Thornton
Potlatch People: Indian Lives and Legends of British Columbia

In the past much of the Yakama tribe's history was passed down from generation to generation by the women of the tribe using an oral tradition known as the time ball. New brides used hemp twine to record their life history starting with courtship. They tied different knots into the twine for days and weeks and added special beads for significant events. They then rolled the twine into a ball known as the "ititamat," which means "counting the days" or "counting calendar." The ball of twine grew in size as time passed and as events occurred…
When the women were very old, they could use the knots and beads of their time balls to recall not only what happened in their lives but when the events occurred...When a woman died, her "ititamat" or time ball was buried with her.

---Bonnie M. Fountain
Using the Yakama Native American Time Ball Oral History Tradition to Tell the 1965 Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March

My friend and I finished his book a few days ago. It is not my book---nor even ours. Though I worked with him, the book belongs to him and the eagle Hanble Okinyan. It came to them from the Master of pain, loss, fear and loyalty. It is a song that has never been sung before.
My work is done here. My eyes and fingers are tired. I like the feeling. This is the weariness of hard labor faithfully done. I am ready to go home.
This is my last night in the Dutch Cup Motel in Sultan, Washington. This place has been perfect shelter for the month of the work. The owners know that the planet’s resources are being stripped. The towels, cleaning products, shampoo and hand soap are all organic. Hand soap is in a squirt bottle. Toilet paper, the telephone instruction card, the stationery are made from recycled paper.
The desk clerk cleans rooms. The owner mends what is worn out or broken. He takes in the chairs from the deck when there is a high wind. Each worker was unfailingly kind and creative in dealing with the few blaring television crises.
This morning I began to pack up my charms and amulets: the Dave Edwards postcard of the Tuvaan shaman and her words: Keep your line and don’t be afraid.; my friend’s photo of Hanble taking a joyous bath in her pool; the little raven drum I bought at Raven’s Corner in the Makah village of Neah Bay; my writing altar on which there is a new stone from a beach at Puget Sound. I will take the pot of rosemary to my friend’s partner Lynda.
There is little left to do. I write my friend:
We did what were brought together to do---for now. The Yakama women keep track of their lives with a time ball. They spin fiber and tie a bead into the thread at each important moment of their lives.
March 30 to May 4 will require more than a few beads---they are weather and mineral. One is azure for the sky outside my window right now; one is moonstone for the sky outside my window yesterday; one is garnet for the blood the talon leaves; one argyllite, one the green stone the Northern people use in their art. One bead is mist from a Cascade waterfall. Another tastes of salt from the waves below the point at kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx. One bead is shell, one is cedar, one is the exact color of my eyes, one the exact color of your eyes as we go gaze to gaze---to more easily follow the threads a wounded eagle weaves. The brightest bead is made from laughter.
When we look back on these four weeks, we will hold a length of braided cedar bark in our hands. We will let the beads tell us the story. It will be a story that is ours alone and for all who read it.
It is a story that belongs only to the future.