Sauk-Suiattle elder mali reads a traditional Lushootseed story to a group of children and adults Wednesday, April 3, 2024, at the Darrington Public Library in Darrington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Sauk-Suiattle elder mali reads a traditional Lushootseed story to a group of children and adults Wednesday, April 3, 2024, at the Darrington Public Library in Darrington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

At Whitehorse Mountain Time, locals learn Lushootseed on ancestral land

Mary Porter, a Sauk-Suiattle elder, hosts storytime on the first Wednesday and second Monday of each month at the Darrington library.

DARRINGTON — Kids milled around, exploring the Darrington Library and playing with carpet squares displaying the letters of the alphabet midday Wednesday.

But they settled down quickly as Sauk-Suiattle elder Mary Porter asked her young cousin to say a Lushootseed prayer.

I am thankful for this good/fine day, the English translation begins. I am thankful for this life.

The Lushootseed storytelling event at the Darrington library was the first in a series called so-bali-ali pətab, or “Whitehorse Mountain Time.” The Coast Salish language, historically spoken by Indigenous peoples around Puget Sound, does not use capital letters.

Porter, also known as mali in Lushootseed, will be hosting events on the first Wednesday and second Monday of every month. The Wednesday story times, running from 12-1 p.m., are aimed at young children. At the Monday gatherings, from 4:30-5:30 p.m., Porter will speak to older students about the area’s prehistory, before written records.

“We’ve been here since time immemorial,” Porter said. There’s a lot of history “that’s not really shared outside of our museum.”

As a tribe, she said, “we need to share our history and share our traditional narratives.”

On Wednesday, Porter began with an instruction.

“You say ‘haboo’ when you are listening to a traditional narrative,” she told her audience, first in Lushootseed, then in English. “If you do not say ‘haboo,’ you will become hunchbacked.”

A chorus of “haboo” from her young listeners quickly followed. Adults laughed and repeated the word, too.

With each sentence, Porter alternated between the original Lushootseed and the English translation. Traditionally, the narratives are read four times, she explained.

A traditional Lushootseed story translated into English is available for reading Wednesday, April 3, 2024, at the Darrington Public Library in Darrington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A traditional Lushootseed story translated into English is available for reading Wednesday, April 3, 2024, at the Darrington Public Library in Darrington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

By repeating the stories, “you’re drawing down nature around you,” Porter said in an interview. “And it comes and it rests in your x̌əč, in the seat of your being.”

The last reading was just in English, so everyone could understand as clearly as possible.

One narrative described a forest scene:

There lived Chipmunk.

Bear wandered around.

Blue Jay ran.

Elk hunted.

Mink laughed.

After each line, listeners repeated: “haboo.”

Traditionally, elders would tell narratives like this one in the tribe’s cedar longhouses, Porter said. Longhouses stored food and housed people in the winter. During a winter powwow, families gathered to share food and knowledge.

It was “a sacred setting,” she said.

The narratives “teach you something,” Porter said. “They teach you something about being kind and being accepted, and being accepting.”

She is gifting a collection of traditional narratives to the library. Porter plans to read all the way through the stories, foundational texts for Lushootseed learners, at the library events.

“I’m just starting from the beginning,” she said. “So that we all have the same beginning.”

Porter didn’t grow up with these stories, though. A member of Yakama Nation, she spent her childhood near the Columbia River with no knowledge of her Sauk-Suiattle heritage.

Just five years ago, at age 60, Porter learned from a cousin she was eligible for enrollment in the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe.

Her family wanted to spare her the details of a painful history. Porter’s great-grandmother, she was told, was the youngest daughter of Chief Jim Brown, a well-known Sauk-Suiattle tribal leader, and one of the last women from her tribe sold into slavery. (The Daily Herald was unable to independently verify this statement, which has been disputed by other descendants in this lineage, including some in the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe.)

After the revelation about her ancestors, Porter started coming up to visit. Already a speaker of Ichishkíin, an Indigenous language spoken along the Columbia River, Porter quickly enrolled in Lushootseed classes.

“Being the descendant of not only the slave, but the slaveowner, is something that only Lushootseed has healed in me,” Porter said.

Today, Porter is the director of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Cultural Resources Department and museum. She also teaches Lushootseed at the Sauk-Suiattle Early Learning Center.

“This language was taught to us by the Earth itself,” she said, “and by the elements of the Earth: by the snow, by the rain, even the sounds of the trees and the wind and the rocks.”

The Darrington Library brings books over to the tribe monthly. On one of those visits, library manager Asheley Bryson got to talking with Porter.

“I could just tell that she was special when I first met her,” Bryson said. “She just gave off this lovely energy.”

Porter asked Bryson what Lushootseed books the Darrington Library had.

“Not nearly as many as I would like,” Bryson responded, then asked Porter if she would help the library add to its collection. Porter suggested some titles.

After that, Bryson asked Porter to do a reading at the library’s grand reopening in September, after months spent in a temporary location due to a remodel.

The pair talked about Porter doing readings more often. That’s how so-bali-ali pətab, “Whitehorse Mountain Time,” began.

The steep-faced mountain looming over Darrington, called so-bali-ali in Lushootseed, is “a big part of our identity here in this community,” Bryson said. For people who’ve only known it as Whitehorse, the event introduces them to another name, another history.

“I really hope that they take away a sense of connection, not just to this place, but to each other,” she said, “or to all of us who share this same place.”

Porter, too, hoped the readings would build community.

“It is important for our future of all of our people, whether they’re Darrington residents or tribal people. There has been a lot of mistrust,” she said, “and not a lot of sharing.”

Porter continued: “I feel that this is just part of the healing that we share for the future.”

This story has been edited to reflect a dispute over tribal history.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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