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Dam Shame

 3 Advent B

17 Dec 2023


In the early summer of this year work began to remove Copco 2, a dam on the Klamath River in the Pacific Northwest. It is the largest dam to date to be deconstructed.  The work was completed in November, to the satisfaction of Native tribal members who had seen their way of life disrupted by the dams on the river and their devastating effects on salmon, which to this day provides life and livelihood to several tribes. Salmon and the Klamath are in their DNA. The remaining three dams on the river are slated for removal. For the owners of the dams, economic non-viability was cited as the main reason, not care of creation nor the rights of the Natives.  There is still local opposition, citing farming, recreation, and property values as reasons for the dams to stay.

The prophet Smohalla who lived in this area understood the relationship of people to creation and would without a doubt be pleased at the removal of the dams, built for hydroelectric generation and water diversion.  

Smohalla was a Dreamer, one who figuratively had died and returned with a message for the community. The community where he lived, and many others in the Columbia plateau, followed a religion where they believed in a single creator (they were monotheists) and who were profoundly bound to the earth as a sacred creation, one that could not be bought nor sold nor in anyway disturbed by practices such as lumber mills, mining, and even farming, beyond the small scale needed to provide for the community. The belief system was far more complex than I am portraying it, but at the heart was an intense reverence for the earth. Their theology was based on an equality of importance between Creator, Creation, and Humans.  No one part was more or less than the other two. In the mid 1800’s,  Smohalla preached a return to old ways and was adamant the land was sacred and could not be divided.  Their liturgy, if you will, was dancing the sacred dances, which white people saw as incitement to violence and Natives as a peaceful expression of care and protection of the earth. The government was relentless and in the end they, too, lost their lands and way of life.  Smohalla, however, did not give in or give up and lived out his days unbroken and not under the yoke of white people.

We are learning from prophet.  The more we learn, the more we understand the symbiotic relationship between humans and the world around us. Jews and Christians believe that God created the world; the prophet tells us we are called to care for the earth as we would for each other.  Instead, so many have chosen to use, to subdue, to destroy what we were, instead, to care for.

Over the past couple of decades, many small dams have been removed and rivers restored to a free-flowing state. It seems, for a variety of reasons, nature, or God if you will, knew what was best.  Ecosystems are much healthier when rivers flow free, and clean.  The salmon on the Klamath now have a chance at a comeback, for otherwise they were doomed along with Native tribes.

The call is not only to the people of the Northwest, but to all of us. This is the Good News!  Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes as he starts his ministry, says this is for the oppressed, the captives. They are the ones who will build what is ruined, repair the devastations of generations. Is not one of the things which we, the bearers of good news, are tasked is to repair the damage to all of God’s people, from those next door to us to those from whom this land was stolen, to those who suffer in places far away?  We could have chosen to read the Magnificat today, scripture that was banned by the church in many places because it would give people ideas that could upset those in power.

Do not give up hope, but do not just sit in your pews. Paul tells us to rejoice and give thanks.  The Indigenous Translation tells us to dance for joy at all times and never stop praying.  This is what Smohalla told his followers: dance the sacred dances; say the sacred words. We should “dance in step with Creator Sets Free (Jesus)”[1]

On this 3rd Sunday in Advent, I receive the message that I am not to sit still, not to huddle in my house or my church.  I pray with my feet, my pen, and my deeds.

When I stopped believing God was a mean old white man who only wanted power and obedience and realized God was someone who loved me, cared for me, and wanted a relationship with me, then and only then could I ask what God wanted of my life. 

Your perspective on the dams on the Klamath, the nature of our relationship to creation, and even your image of God may not be the same as mine. It does not need to be, but what is important is that you accept that you are loved, that you are to love one another, and that you dance for joy.


[1] First Nations Version of the New Testament.  1 Thessalonians, p. 376


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