An interview with Janet McCloud
Pacific News Service
by Rasa Gustaitis

Back to Traditional Economy -
One Family Weaves Its Own Safety Net


Yelm, Washington - Janet and Don McCloud raised eight children, made sure they were properly schooled, and watched them start jobs that seemed promising. But all returned, some with spouses and children, to the ten-acre homestead in this tiny rural town - unemployed.

Yet theirs is not a tale of despair.

The two sons followed their father into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77, trained as ground men and tree trimmers, but the construction industry came to a near halt. The older daughters went into public service jobs that fell to budget cuts. Now they mostly have to settle for part-time and occasional employment.

Had the McClouds been a conventional small-town American family, all this would spell disaster. But they are Native Americans who know how to fall back on traditions that sustained earlier generations.

When the money economy fails them they can switch to the economy in which wealth is represented not by dollars but by salmon, and in which people are enriched not by possessing things but by ceremonially giving them away.

As long as the salmon still runs up the Pyallup River, the McClouds believe they will be all right. For them and other North Coast Native Americans, salmon - not jobs or public programs - are the key to survival and continuance. The salmon economy means sharing, home production, making-do, barter, living as much as possible off local natural resources.

This year the McClouds smoked salmon - with alder wood, as Don learned from his mother - for themselves, for sale, for barter. They had their septic tank cleaned in exchange for fish and they traded fish for hides that they will make into moccasins and sell and trade, as last year, mostly within the community.

They smoke fish for others, taking half in payment, and gave away some, as tradition requires. They also canned hundreds of jars of the fish, as well as meat, locally available fruit and vegetables grown on the acre of garden behind their small house. The men drove 400 miles to Oregon to hunt deer.

"We're luckier than most people," said Janet McCloud. "We can live off the land."

"For us, salmon is what bread is for others," said Don. "We must have it to live."

With other traditional peoples, the McClouds battled federal and state officials on the riverbanks in the 1960's to secure continued access to fishing. In 1974 the District Court recognized that seven North Coast tribes had a right to take half the harvestable salmon from their "usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations."

But the victory may turn out to be meaningless if steps are not taken to clean up Commencement Bay, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the ten worst waste-disposal areas in the nation. "Fifty percent of no fish is not an Indian victory," Dan Thayer, fisheries biologist with the Pyallup tribe, said. The EPA no longer enforces its standards, he said, and harbor development plans are sure to aggravate the pollution.

The tribal government, which has some control over the estuary, is under pressure to compromise in the name of economic necessity. But the same necessity also makes the case for the salmon more compelling.

That the McCloud family is not alone in turning to traditional ways is evidenced by the local berry situation. "Twenty-five years ago each family had its own berry patch," said Mrs. McCloud. "Then, for several years when there were government programs, berry fields were just rotting. This year you had to go miles to find any to pick."

The McCloud house in spare but peaceful. On a kitchen shelf lies a stack of salmon destined for ceremonial giveaway. Below stands a large bag of beans, the family's share of the $100 worth Mrs. McCloud bought with a honorarium for a recent speaking engagement. The rest has gone to other women elders.

Children and young people come and go as Mrs. McCloud shares smoked dog salmon and bread and cheese with a visitor. Barbara and her baby are quartered in one of the bedrooms, Laura and her husband Wes, and their 11-year-old daughter sleep on the living room floor but are fixing up the shed in back. Sally's house is beyond the boat that Don and Wes are repairing, and someone is usually in the little trailer in front. Nancy has her own place, being employed right now, as does Jeff, who fishes. Don Jr., and his wife and their four children just moved out, as he found tree-trimming work. Julie, her husband and three kids may have to move in if nothing turns up before his extended unemployment benefits expire. Binah, the youngest, who graduated high school in 1979, sorts eggs at a ranch.

The only employment Wes has found lately is cleaning up after forest fires in Oregon, a dangerous job because of hot rocks and trees that can explode, and barely worth the $6.05 an hour after counting gas and travel time. Laura was a teacher's aide for a couple of months.

But fishing season has meant that "you get the TV and your wedding ring out of hock and you pay the bills, take the kids to the fair, and buy them clothes,' said Laura. And now it's harvest thanksgiving time, the third day for the ceremonial prayer with burning tobacco, at noon.

Janet McCloud sees that it is noon, picks up a grandchild, and goes out back, with others drifting out to join her at the small circle of stones, screened by a fence from the road and neighbors.

Returning, she talks about how the fishing wars opened up the world to her and brought her in touch with her heritage. Like her grandmother and mother - and the hundred-year-old stepfather who still has scars from the beatings he got for speaking his language - she was shipped off early to boarding school. There she failed every one of the six grades she attended and emerged prepared to clean house for white people.

Then the fight to continue fishing brought her into contact with traditional people. "I was shocked to know we had a religion," she said. "To me, religious freedom had meant you were free to be Catholic, Protestant, or Shaker and what we had was the devil's." Hopi and Iroquois - tribes she had not know still existed - taught her spiritual practices that are now part of her family's daily life, helped to keep that family together, and continued to expand her sense of connection with other traditional people.

"Before the fishing struggle, we were ashamed to be Indian. I thought the Sioux had all been killed off and the only Indians in New York were on skyscrapers. We had to do a lot of re-education of ourselves."

What she discovered turned her into an activist. Having brought children into the world, she explains, she felt a responsibility to try to see that things continued. Now she is a highly respected elder and her children - whom she once feared she might lose - are around her. "Our family is our strength and our foundation," she says. "We have very little money but we have enough to eat."

As for the future, she says, "I am a minority within a minority. I do not speak for the Indian people. Very few believe as I do and most of them are elderly. But the only hope I see is in the Hopi Prophesies." These foretell a time of terrible destruction when only those will survive who know how to live very simply, like the traditional Hopi, within the resources of their immediate environment.

to return