Baskets of Concern

By Lee Anna Sherman

Food is only the most obvious way contaminants enter the human body. Poisons also come in through the pores of the skin and the lobes of the lungs. Living in intimate contact with the landscape, as many indigenous peoples do, raises the risks of exposure. Traditional practices of the Umatilla members of the Columbia Basin create pathways for contaminants. Here are two examples:

Woven Baskets For countless generations, indigenous women of the Columbia Basin scoured the lush riverbanks, gathering dogbane, willow, cattails and reeds. They wove the plants into containers for storing food and mats for sitting and sleeping. Beyond being useful, the implements are beautiful – their colors, patterns and designs embodying millennia of tradition. But they are more than tangible artifacts of a culture. Weavers are bound together as they work, braiding their unique histories and identities into the plant strands. Today, wading into the rich riparian muck can be hazardous to health. Riparian zones act as “sinks” for pollutants such as heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, copper, lead), and cattails and other waterside plants take up these pollutants. All of them can be absorbed by the weaver as she works, both through her skin and, because she holds strands in her teeth as she weaves, through her mouth.

Sweat Lodges A religious ceremony of ritual and physical purification begins when family members choose a site near surface water or a well, then gather branches, clay, moss and leaves to build a 6-foot-diameter dome-shaped sweat lodge. White fir boughs or woven mats cover the floor. Carefully selected rocks are heated in a fire and piled inside the lodge. Finally, water (sometimes infused with medicines) is poured over the rocks. Clouds of steam fill the structure. Contaminants from the water, plants and rocks are absorbed through the lungs and skin of the practitioners, who traditionally are introduced to the sweat lodge as toddlers. Traditional practitioners may use the lodge twice a day for an hour and may drink an extra liter of water each time to stay hydrated.

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