In the wake of the violent death of United States Libyan Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on September 11, Indigenous people near and far are coming to terms with the loss of one of their own.
But it is the Chinook Indian Nation member’s reputation as a peacemaker respectful of diverse cultures that has affected others across Indian country. Messages of condolence have poured in.
“This is such a loss – one that’s felt globally,” Ray Gardner, Chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It has been very heartwarming – the amount of other nations that have contacted us, locally, from British Columbia, and even further away. We even had a couple nations from back east contact us as well, to make sure [Stevens’] family knew they were in their prayers… It’s something that crosses the scope of all Native people. We’re all striving towards the same thing – having a peaceful relationship not only with each other, but also globally.”
The Chinook – a band without a reserve, and one that has long struggled for federal recognition – are located on the shores of the Columbia River in Washington state. To the south, near Salem, Oregon, one of its neighboring tribes also felt the impact of Stevens’ death.
“Everyone was pretty outraged by the death of the ambassador,” Delores Pigsley, Tribal Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, told ICTMN. “But I didn’t know he was Chinook until I read it in Indian Country Today [Media Network]. We feel very badly about it, and give them all our condolences, especially to the family.”
For Pigsley, the 52-year old diplomat’s example is an inspiration – and a reminder of how American Indians can shape the world beyond their own territories.
“We often don’t give ourselves credit for what we can do,” she said. “[Stevens] is a very good example of what any one of our children could do. It’s really probably one of the highest honors that an American Indian could achieve – and he did it very quietly.”
Indeed, one obituary described Stevens’ “quietly heroic life,” exemplified by his return to the U.S. Embassy in order to help consular staff.
That courage inspired nations north of the border in British Columbia to send letters of support to Stevens’ nation, family – and to President Barack Obama.
“We expressed our condolences to the nation and his family, acknowledging the role that the late ambassador played in the area of conflict – a very critical and important role one behalf of the U.S., in an area torn with strife where there’s a fair amount of continuing conflict,” Grand Chief Ed John, head of the B.C. First Nations Summit, told ICTMN. “That someone like the late Ambassador Stevens would be appointed to deal with it – and that someone of his stature and calibre comes from a small group of Indigenous people – is a tribute to his family, his people and certainly all Native Americans.”
John said that he is “proud” of Stevens’ ancestry – and said that many in B.C. have a connection to bands across the Pacific Northwest region.
“There’s a lot of cultural, linguistic and family connections on both sides of the border,” he said. “Certainly along the Columbia River watershed, its fisheries are important to tribes in Oregon, Washington, and Canada.”
Likewise, a respected fishing advocate in B.C.’s Stó:l? Nation has been contacting many nations and organizations to spread awareness of Stevens’ ancestry, and encourage letters of support.
“I knew about him before he was killed, because I look around for Aboriginal or Native American people that are making their way,” Ernie Crey, Senior Policy Advisor at Stó:l? Tribal Council, told ICTMN. “It was a shock. I can only imagine what his family feels – they must be in terrible straights. I know what it’s like to lose family members, but nothing quite like what his family is experiencing.”
As a fisherman, Crey said he feels a particular sense of kinship with the Chinook because they share a canoe culture. With a resurgence of paddling cultural events and pow wows in the region, the links between Chinook and others is growing.
“They’re a Northwest Indian tribe; they are fishermen and canoe people – like the Stó:l? – and they’ve been part-and-parcel part of this geographic area of the continent,” he said. “It’s so common in the Pacific Northwest for the tribes to have familial ties. We don’t only share a common culture and geography – sometimes we’re actually blood relatives… There’s been a huge revival of the canoe culture all the way from Alaska down to California – that includes the Chinook. Our nations intermingle on these canoe journeys up and down the coast.”
Crey said he would like to see some sort of memorial established in the late ambassador’s memory – if his family and community wish for one – to share Stevens’ example with Native youth everywhere.
“I mean, he was an American ambassador – that’s no small thing – who happened to be a tribal person,” he said. “Indian kids on both sides of the border should know about Chris, his accomplishments and his contributions, because it will help educate people generally that Indians in the contemporary world play important roles and contribute in significant ways to society.”
And while Gardner insisted that his focus is on “doing what [he] can” to support Stevens’ family, Grand Chief Ed John hopes that, perhaps, the late diplomat’s stature and impact will encourage the U.S. government to finally recognize his nation’s existence.
“I’m proud he comes from one of our Indigenous nations – from a Native American tribe,” he said. “This certainly is an opportunity for the President and the government of the U.S. to set the record clear and take the steps necessary to do justice to the people there.”