In the week leading up to Nespelem’s Millpond Days on the Colville Reservation, residents buried two of their beloved people. Diana Adolph, 30, died in a car accident. Chet Clark, a former Colville tribal police officer, died of a heart attack. He was 56. Both deaths were sudden and shocking.
Organizers of Millpond Days wondered whether they should cancel their annual celebration, in which 10 grand marshals are honored on Friday to ride in the Millpond Days parade the next day.
Jeannie Moon, one of those grand marshals, explained why the celebration was still held. “We’re hurt, but things don’t just stop,” she said. “We’re lonely, but we have to go on.”
She spoke the words with soft sadness. Adolph was her granddaughter.
The grand marshal celebration, held in Nespelem last Friday, provides a template for all kinds of family and friend gatherings throughout the Inland Northwest this summer. The Nespelem template teaches this: Do it simply. Tell good stories.
Do it simply: Nespelem City Park, where the grand marshal potluck was held, looks like an oversized backyard, in need of water for some dry spots in the grass. You can drive right by, if you don’t know what it looks like. Nespelem, a 20-minute drive from Coulee Dam, boasts a gas station/store and down the road, a complex of tribal services buildings, including a health center. Fewer than 300 people live in Nespelem.
At 3:45 Friday afternoon, no one was in Nespelem City Park. At 4, organizers arrived. They set up two barbecues. They unfolded tables. They carted in hot dogs, hamburgers, water, pop, condiments. They grilled hot dogs and hamburgers. And then more people arrived, adding to the potluck table smoked salmon, corn on the cob, salads and chips.
By 5:45, the tiny park seemed bigger and greener; it came alive with more than 130 people. Children played tag through the crowd. Some played on the teeter totters. Some fell off teeter totters. Parents hugged them. The children crawled back on the teeter totters. Elders sat in lawn chairs, observing all. Families lined up and filled their plates with food. The food was delicious. The food did not run out.
Tell stories: Colville tribal members started Millpond Days five years ago. They called it Millpond Days because once upon a time, Nespelem had a thriving sawmill. In the first half of the 20th century, Nespelem boasted stores, cafes, a post office and even a dance hall. Workers building Coulee Dam in the 1930s and early 1940s lived in Nespelem or drove there to spend their money.
Bill Ives, 71, was a child in Nespelem’s heyday, which lasted into the early 1950s.
“They had a sawmill. The little whistle would blow every day at noontime,” he remembered. “That was our greatest time – jumping logs and swimming in the millpond. When I went off reservation and went into the service, when they asked where Nespelem was, all I could say was, ‘You don’t know where the best town in the world is!’ ”
Several deserted buildings dot Nespelem now. Some are covered in graffiti; some sport gaping holes, where memories of better times escaped. Ives and other elders believe those glory days will return.
“This next generation will rebuild,” Ives said.
When the meal was finished, the grand marshal honoring ceremony began. The 10 marshals ranged in age from 14 to 72. They were honored with plaques and Pendleton blankets. They were honored for good grades, for scholarships, for volunteer work, for cleaning up the parks and streets, for looking out for neighbors and friends.
Zekkethal Vargas-Thomas, organizer of the grand marshal honor ceremony, told stories about the good works, along with others who had nominated the grand marshals.
The grand marshals each had an opportunity to speak. They each said “Thank you.” They didn’t say much more. In our “Jon and Kate Plus 8” and “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” culture, this shyness in the spotlight felt refreshing.
By sundown, the potluck was over.
The Nespelem template means telling uplifting stories that let families and friends know how they matter. These stories are told about the young, the old and everyone in between, because no one can predict who will be missing from the next gathering. This reality was fresh in the hearts of those gathered Friday, hearts feeling the absence of Adolph and Clark.
“We want to honor our people when they are here, so that they can hear the words. Before we started this, the only time we heard anything about anybody is when we had a funeral,” said Vargas-Thomas.
“We give plaques and Pendleton blankets. Those can break or fade away, but the heartfelt words will always stay.”