By Joanna Bastian
A few months ago, I watched a story unfold in the lower Methow Valley. Along the banks of the river — where the course takes a graceful bend before spreading into Lake Pateros — a small camping tent popped up where two houses stood before the fires.
Soon after, the site was completely cleared, and prep work began in earnest. Where other sites seemed to lie in shock, the owners of this site seemed to progress forward quickly with clean-up and rebuilding activities.
Two weeks later, a powerful microburst of winds picked up the tent and dropped it in the river. A tepee took its place, and festive green-and-blue ribbons danced in the wind at the top. A tall, robust man wearing a Seattle Seahawks T-shirt and ball cap was walking towards a backhoe when I drove up and asked if he could use a case of bottled water.
He laughed and dismissed me with a wave. “I have everything I need,” he said. “I am very comfortable. People stop and ask me what I need all the time.” He shook his head at the craziness of it all, “We should all sleep in tepees! I sleep better in the tepee than I do in my own bed, in my own house!” This was accompanied by a hearty laugh.
His name was Richard Wipple. His home was in Disautel, near Omak on the Colville reservation. Richard was camped out on the home site of his family, and was prepping two house sites so his family could rebuild their homes on the same land that they have lived on for generations. I wrote an article about Richard for the Trial by Fire magazine that was published by the Methow Valley News last December.
Richard was warm and welcoming, offering me a Coke before generously sharing his story with me. “We’ve lived here for generations.” Richard pointed down river. “There used to be a small village right over there; they were called the People at the Bend,” he said.
He moved his arm in an arc, first pointing to one family cemetery, and then another, “Our people are buried all over this land,” he said. Richard was a Wenatchee Indian, and the land we were standing on was Indian Trust Land.
Along with his experiences during the Carlton Complex Fire, Richard told me a bit about the history of the ground and the river we were standing on. He explained this was not the first time they had to rebuild. During the floods of 1948, his grandfather’s home was swept downriver.
Speaking of flooding waters reminded me of the torrential rains that had poured down a week before. I told him I was thinking about him in his tent that night and wondered how he was. He just laughed and said it was not the rain that was the problem, it was the wind that picked up his tent and blew it straight into the river, along with all of his clothes.
Richard laughed it off and said he should not have been using the tent in the first place, when he should have been using the tepee all along. He then went back to talking about his grandfather’s fishing skills, recalling a person who Richard obviously admired.
Looking at the river brought back memories for him. Richard struggled as he recalled the day that he, his best friend, and his friend’s sister were walking along the cliffs above the river. The girl lost her footing. Her brother tried to catch her and they both fell over the edge and into the river below. Richard ran after them along the bank and jumped in. He reached the girl first and pulled her to safety. He then went after his friend, but was unable to reach him in time. The boy drowned and decades later Richard agonized with the memory of not being able to save both of them.
For his efforts, Richard was awarded the Boy Scout’s highest national honor. He was 13 or 14 at the time. He was visibly affected by the memory, and seemed shocked that it had come out. He said he never spoke about it, and wanted to change the subject, so I did not ask for names or dates. It would have been 30 to 40 years ago.
Richard went on to talk about his mother, who had worked with a professor at Washington State University to put into writing the alphabet of the Wenatchee language. The indigenous languages in this country need women like Richard’s mother to help preserve linguistic heritages.
When asked if there was ever any discussion of leaving and living elsewhere after the fires, Richard looked at me incredulously. “This is our home. Our ancestors are buried here,” he said. “We stay and take care of our own. That is the Indian way. We never sell our land. We hand it down from generation to generation.” I felt chastised for even thinking the question.
I wanted to hear more details about his grandfather, and his mother, and the People of the Bend. But the day was getting late and Richard wanted to get some trenches dug for the home sites. I made a mental note to find him this coming spring, after the homes were built, and hoped he would tell me more stories. He seemed good-natured, honest, and proud of his heritage.
Richard passed away this last December. There were over 500 people at the memorial service. In only 30 minutes of listening to him, I can see why so many people wanted to honor Richard. He made many friends, positively affecting many lives before he left too soon. Rest in peace, Richard.