Delbert’s Weir: Hooking into Tradition

IMG_1286 2Fellow member of Women Writing the West, Carmen Peone has lived in Northeast Washington on the Colville Confederated Indian Reservation since 1988, gleaning knowledge from Joe, her tribal member husband, other family members and friends. She has worked with tribal elder, Marguerite Ensminger, for three years learning the Arrow Lakes-Sinixt- Language as well as various cultural traditions and legends. With a degree in psychology, the thought of writing never entered her mind until she married her husband and they moved to the reservation after college. She came to love the people and their heritage and wanted to create a legacy for her sons.

Carmen’s new release is entitled Delbert’s Weir. It is a young adult survival book that takes place in the mid-1800s and concerns Delbert Gardner, a teen boy, and his two friends in Northeast Washington Territory, who want a chance at learning traditional Native hunting and fishing methods from their American Indian friend, Pekam.

Carmen has very kindly consented to give away one ebook copy to someone who leaves a comment!  Winner will be announced on or about Feb. 15

Three years ago, the Colville Confederated Tribes brought back traditional fishing in the form of a fence style weir as shown below.fence weirTraditional weirs were made of Cottonwood and Indian hemp rope or rope from the stalk of the cattail, or tule. Today the weir that stretches across the Okanogan River is made of aluminum for easy annual set up and tear down.

Before Grand Coulee Dam was built in 1942, salmon migrated roughly 700 miles from the Pacific Ocean, where the mouth of the Columbia River divides Washington and Oregon, to spawn up at the Kettle Falls located just below the Canadian Border. This was the site where the Arrow Lakes or Sinixt and many other tribes would fish off wooden scaffolds, harvesting the ones too weak to jump with fifty foot falls. They would then wind dry their bounty and store the fish in baskets in order to feed the people during harsh winter months.

In the smaller tributaries like the Okanogan River, Indigenous tribes would use fence style weirs of either wood or rock to catch salmon. Today, they use the same style of weir, but instead of wind drying the meat, it is vacuum sealed and frozen, then distributed to tribal members as needed. Every year thousands (in 2014 40,000) of salmon are trapped by the pictured weir. This has brought back traditional food to the Colville Tribal Members and their families by traditional means. In a way, lost honor is restored to the people.moidern weir


The idea of using a weir in a boys survival book entered my mind during the time my husband was the director for the Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife department. At that time, they were in the beginning stages of building the aluminum weir and weaving the ties of tradition once again through the hearts of the people. The tribe owns and operates two hatcheries that raise Chinook salmon.

Another traditional fish catching means was with a trap in the shape of a heart at the edge of a stream bank. The fish could enter through the top of the curves that form the heart, drop in, and not be able to find their way out. The same strategy is used for making bee catchers out of plastic pop bottles.

All photos the author’s own.


In a time when the west was still untamed, sixteen-year-old Delbert Gardner leads two friends into the backcountry for a three day adventure. Little did they know three days of hunting and fishing would turn into eight days of near starvation, injury and illness. When hope of returning home seems out of reach, Delbert recalls watching his Native American friends construct a fishing weir and sets out to build one himself. To him, it is the only way out.



Delbert found three long sticks and handed them over to Jed and Ross who speared slabs of fresh meat on the ends and roasted them over the fire. The aroma of sizzling meat wafted in the air and wedged in Delbert’s nose. He joked and laughed with his friends as they waited. Hungry. Anxious.

The meat lasted about as long as it took to spear it.

Delbert sat and stared at the other two. He was thankful for the food, but still hungry. By the look on their faces, Ross and Jed were also. The three stood in unison, without saying a word, and raced to the creek. Delbert rushed to one fish trap for inspection, not stopping to remove his cowboy boots and saw the other two do the same. He peered into the trap and found nothing. Heat rose up his neck as he slapped his leg.

Jed waved them over to another trap. He jumped and hollered in a high-pitched shrill, trying to remain upright as his boots slid over slimy rocks. A speckled trout with a red streak running down its sides rested in the tip of the trap.

Delbert rushed over and leaned close, letting loose a howl. He lost his balance and slammed into the creek. His shoulder cracked against the rocky bottom. He felt no pain. I did it. I caught a fish. He scrambled upright and balanced against the current.

Ross rushed over to see Delbert’s catch.

Jed ran to the other three traps. “Empty here,” he called out.

“At least you caught one,” Ross said.

Delbert clambered to his feet and gave Ross a grateful smile. He felt relief flood his face. This was no time to rib a friend. But it was time to thank their Creator.

Delbert picked up his catch with both hands and held the trout knowing his life depended on it. His heart thrummed with pride. “Come on, let’s stoke the fire and roast this thing.”

They sat by the fire, hands up and with their drenched boots propped up against the rocks. They listened to the fire crackle. Watched the flames lick their fish.

The sun slid halfway behind the western mountains and as it did so the cricket chorus came alive as if to tease Delbert. While boots steamed by the fire, Delbert convinced Ross and Jed to join him and attempt to catch those annoying critters. He sat taller and stretched his neck as he scouted the terrain. He instructed Jed and Ross to sneak around barefoot, which he decided was quieter, and pointed them in different directions.

Before they left, Delbert reviewed the cricket snatching instructions.

Jed snickered.

Ross rolled his eyes.

Ross and Jed listened with smirks on their faces. Once again, Delbert ignored their brashness.

Ross flicked his wrist. “Like this?”

Jed laughed. “What about this call?” He cupped is hands over his mouth and made a high-pitched chirping noise.

Delbert sat for a moment and watched their reaction. He challenged them by asking, “Okay, I bet you two don’t catch one cricket. But here’s the deal, whoever’s cricket snags a red skinned trout, gets to eat it. The others starve.”

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Does the West Define America?

Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner

A few months ago, Amazon came up with one of its ‘suggested reading’ promotions that actually interested me. It was a book, obviously meant for students of history, called ‘Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?’ What an interesting question, I thought: does it?

Having travelled abroad fairly extensively since the late ’60s, I was aware that America means a lot of different things to different people. Sometimes one might get asked about New York and the Empire State Building; sometimes one might get a quip about Disneyland. There are, of course, more abstract ideas that represent America, Democracy being the most obvious. But the one pervasive idea about America early on, before the world became a place where news and photos were available instantly, was ‘Cowboys and Indians’. But do Cowboys and Indians a frontier make? Note that North America is the only area of the world where the word ‘frontier’ is used in the sense of a relatively uninhabited area that emigrants might homestead. The rest of the world simply employs the word to mean a border between countries.

The initial question as regards the frontier defining America was actually the idea of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who gave a paper on this matter at the Chicago World’s Fair—the famous White City fair—of 1893.

Chicago World's Fair, 1893

Chicago World’s Fair, 1893

At the time, he was a thirty-one year old history professor from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but he would go on through John Hopkins University and finally Harvard, having such an eminent career as an historian that his ideas are still discussed and debated today. However, back in 1893, as he gave his discourse to the American Historical Association, down the road Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World was playing to packed audiences. The U.S. Census Bureau had declared the frontier “closed” in 1890 using their code of density of population. Here were two men representing that frontier in two very different ways. Turner’s idea of the frontier was empty land awaiting occupation in a relatively peaceful manner; it was also a moving line that had started in what we now consider the east and had slowly made its way to the Pacific. It was won with farming tools, such as the plow. Buffalo Bill represented the frontier as a constant battle to wrest lands from the hands of savage indigenous peoples with rifle and knife. In other words, Turner saw the frontier in terms of a defeat of Mother Nature; William Cody saw the frontier as a defeat of Native Americans. What they had in common, however, was that they both saw the frontier as the point where wilderness met civilization, and they both viewed America’s history in terms of the colonization of the ‘West’.

Turner wrote, “The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society” (pg. 23). His history of society went like this: “The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this…the trader’s “trace;” the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads…The trading posts…were on the sites of Indian villages…and these…have grown into…cities…” (pg. 25) Buff BillBuffalo Bill, on the other hand, saw this history as Indian hostility and white retaliation, neatly turning the vanquishers into victims. It’s interesting to note that his show included, at various times, Sitting Bull and other Sioux who had helped defeat Custer and who would later return to the Dakotas during the Ghost Dance troubles to fight once more. Similarly, Cody would serve as scout for the army during this period.

So, is America defined, then, by this one area of the country we call ‘The West’ and, if so, what constitutes that definition? For starters, there had to be an amount of independence in a people heading to settle an unknown wilderness; no longer was there the subordination of a lower, peasant class: they would be landowners. This, in turn, would raise not only a spirit of independence and self-reliance from their ability to manage the range and farmlands now at their disposal, but also a social interdependence from overcoming the obstacles of an arid landscape. The farmer, cowboy, sheepherder would become dependent on the inventor, the irrigator, and the engineer. In turn, according to Turner, a capitalist elite would arise.   One has to keep in mind that the water empire is a purely western phenomenon; one-tenth of the world’s total of irrigated acres lie in the seventeen western states between the one-hundredth meridian and the Pacific, so it could certainly be considered a uniquely American venture. Finally, there is the West’s interaction with a federal government, possibly at times tinged with resentment yet still necessitating a give-and-take relationship. It was the government who instituted the Homestead Act, the Desert Land Act and so on, opening the frontier, while today ranchers and farmers must deal with such bodies as the Bureau of Land Management, not always happily. The federal government owns between .03% and 84.5% of land in all states, with the eleven westernmost states varying from 36.6% in CO to that 84.5% in NV.

Turner’s theory, of course, completely disregards a large swathe of what we consider American. It ignores Native Americans, women, and African Americans completely, as one might expect from a dissertation written in 1893. It disregards the culture, already existing at the time, of Hispanic peoples resident predominantly in the Southwest through to California. Miners of every ilk are neglected. Basically, it is an ethnocentric and bigoted view by today’s gauge. No mention is made of the traditions, cuisine, even native costume brought by the many and varied peoples who came across to populate the uninhabited frontier and thereby imparted such to our culture. Yet it remains that the frontier and the West loom large in our nation’s iconography. We must, therefore, be defined by it. And yet I must also ask, if we are defined by the West, then are westerners more ‘American’ than those of us descended from the immigrants who stopped on the east coast? Or are these traits common to us all?

Whether it is Larry McMurtry depicting the Old West or Kent Haruf depicting the New West, the American comes across as persistent, self-reliant, resilient, and indomitable—traits applicable to all Americans, one hopes, and a good mix of what both Turner and Cody saw in the frontier.


Does The Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?, Etulain, Richard W., Ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, New York, 1999   Quotes are taken from this edition.

Photo of Frederick Jackson Turner & World’s Fair poster, public domain. Photo of Buffalo Bill Cody taken from my own edition of Story of the Wild West and Camp-Fire Chats, Cody, W. F., Historical Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1888





jesus and the 3 kingsOver two thousand years ago, when three kings—wise men all—crossed the desert bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh to The Babe in the manger, little did they know what sort of tradition they were starting. Had they had foresight, telepathy or any kind of ability to see into the future, they might have thought better of bringing gifts to the Child as an expression of adoration. Nowadays, the expectations that Christmas brings, the commercialism, and the downright need for some sort of reciprocity amongst the gift-givers, has caused us all to lose sight of what is the real meaning behind exchanging gifts. Continue reading


A few weeks ago I sought the web page for the NY Public Library, checking to see about opening hours for this magnificent building. What greeted me was a display of various books that had been banned or censored over the years, most of which were well known to me as an avid reader. What I didn’t know was that the last week in September is Banned Books Week, “Celebrating the Freedom to Read.” I wondered whether the freedom to read coexists with the freedom to write? Continue reading


When I was in school, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail was on my reading list. At the age of thirteen, the formal writing and the lengthy, detailed descriptions of a time, scenery and people who did not in the least interest me, turned me towards another choice of book. So here I am, some fifty years later, with other interests, more tolerance, and certainly a more receptive mind.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman was born into an aristocratic Boston family, son of a well-connected and wealthy Unitarian minister. Plagued by illness most of his childhood, he was often sent into the countryside in an attempt to make him more robust. This, combined with his own enjoyment of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, seems to have had a lasting effect on the young man whose walks in the woods always entailed carrying a rifle, just as his hero, Hawkeye, did. Continue reading


IMG_1890One of the highlights of my recent cross-country road trip was Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And how could it not be a highlight? Here is scenery that both inspires and excites in a corner of Colorado once called the ‘Switzerland of America.’ One of several wide valleys at around 8,000 feet, which include North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and Winter Park, FullSizeRender-18Estes Park itself was renowned for its beauty. Continue reading


IMG_0423The judges have decided—the votes are in! Having traveled more than 8,000 miles and scoured the country for the very best, here are the 2015 DOWNING ROADTRIP AWARDS…in order of encounter. Continue reading


FullSizeRenderIt’s been a long last day, Cristal doing all the final driving from Rhinebeck into NYC, dropping things at her apartment, at my apartment, and then out to my house. She’s dealt with double parking, cutting in, blocking in, speeding and reckless driving on top of all the other traffic woes. But here we are, safe and sound, at home in East Hampton. Our groceries have, happily, been delivered—a perk of living out here—and the first load of wash is in. My own suitcase is still half-unpacked and I haven’t touched the two months of mail waiting for me; the garden is distinctly overgrown, and there were 59 messages of varying importance on the answering machine. But here we are, seven weeks later, having had the experience of our lives and enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.IMG_2450

We have a list of some twenty-five awards we’d like to share with you in a day or two, but for now I am signing off. There is no deeply felt summation here; I fear I would get sentimental in the extreme if I tried to do so. But what I would like to say here is that America is every bit as varied and diverse in both its population and its landscape as I hoped it would it be. We are so incredibly lucky in this wide ranging variety, it is impossible to compare our country with anywhere else. Cristal and I both had a fantastic time—there is no other IMG_2452expression to round it off—and we both would do it again.

Stay tuned for the Award Ceremony, but for now, thank you for coming along—we’ve enjoyed your company.


Springwood, Hyde Park

Springwood, Hyde Park

The sitting room at Springwood

The sitting room at Springwood

My daughter’s take on visiting ‘Springwood,’ the Hyde Park home of Franklin Roosevelt, was that visiting the homes of famous people was like reading People magazine; her point was that the way people lived is no reflection of the impact they had on the world. Good point, but I dragged her along anyway.

For anyone who has seen the recent Ken Burns

FDR's bedroom

FDR’s bedroom

series on the Roosevelts, actually visiting the house is an insightful supplement. Here is the story of the financial hold his mother had on him and Eleanor, and here is the story of his tremendous fight to hide his incapacity to walk while showing a great capacity to think and live normally.

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President--it just says, "Attaboy."

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President–it just says, “Attaboy.”

The Presidential Library—the nation’s first, and started while he was still in office—is a comprehensive showcase of the Depression, a sad chronicle of the nation at its lowest point. In addition, the estate also includes Top House, FDR’s getaway, and Val-Kill, the cottage Eleanor designed and furnished independently of her mother-in-law’s influence and her husband’s harried life.

Eleanor's sitting room at Val-Kill

Eleanor’s sitting room at Val-Kill

The visit was a splendid last day of sightseeing for us before we head home tomorrow. And how did Cristal feel at the end of it? She said she was glad she went because now she would like to know more about the Roosevelts and what they accomplished.

The view from Springwood

The view from Springwood

FDR's grave in the rose garden

FDR’s grave in the rose garden


FullSizeRenderIn the last days of travel as lengthy as this has been, the mind slowly turns toward what awaits at home. For Cristal, who had only been back from three years living in Colombia (less some visits home) for one week before departure, there are applications for a new full-time job to get out, a renovated apartment to move into, and the arrival of her boyfriend to look forward to. My own mind is swimming around two months of mail and bills to deal with, bathrooms that will be modernized, doctor appointments and the start of a new book. As Cristal deals with numerous deliveries and unpacking belongings sent from Bogota, I’ll be considering the cheapest way to update my house, and making plans to escape once again in October—to a conference and on to Wyoming. It’ll be a busy August, no doubt.

IMG_2408For today, we made a start on sorting what needs to be dropped in the city and what will be taken on to my house, and how to place everything in the car for the speediest evacuation of luggage on city streets without parking spaces. We wonder why we have so many breakable goods in tow and why the suitcases don’t close. We’re thinking ahead to lunch in the car and fighting traffic on the Thruway.

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

But today also offered us a small glimpse into old America. Settled by the Dutch, in 1686, as much of the Hudson Valley was, Rhinebeck also played a part in the Revolutionary War. The oldest inn in America is here and, even today, there is a local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. But it is to the old Dutch families that the area mostly owes its character. On our last stay, a couple of years ago, we visited one of the Vanderbilt mansions. Tomorrow we’re off to see the Roosevelt homes.IMG_2417