By Bettie Luke
For Northwest Asian Weekly
With a shout and quick flip of the whisk, Master E-man, Taoist priest from Los Angeles, banished evil spirits from the site of the newly installed memorial, a stone slab carved in memory of 34 Chinese miners who were massacred and robbed of their gold in 1887.
On May 22, 2012, a formal dedication ceremony with 135 people in attendance was held for the Chinese Remembrance Memorial in Hells Canyon, Idaho. With respect to the land — part Nez Perce country at the time of the crime — the text of the memorial included three languages: English, Nez Perce, and Chinese. The memorial read in those three languages, “Chinese Massacre Cove. Site of the 1887 massacre of as many as 34 Chinese Gold miners.
No one was held accountable.”
To reach the memorial site, we had to disembark a jetboat and climb a rocky hillside for about a quarter mile, above the fast rushing Snake River between Idaho and Oregon. The location is 65 miles downriver from Lewiston, Idaho, on a patch of land that was recently renamed Chinese Massacre Cove.
The dedication of the memorial stone, hosted by the Chinese Massacre Memorial Committee, concluded after five years of conferences in Lewiston, Idaho. Retired journalist Greg Nokes’ book, “Massacred for Gold,” inspired Lewiston community leaders Lyle Wirtanen and Garry Bush to plan “Chinese Remembering” conferences to educate the public about these horrific murders, showing people that they were crimes covered up by a code of silence in neighboring towns.
The fact that most of the Chinese Remembering activities were planned by non-Chinese is a credit to the planners who were passionate about social justice and wanted some form of recognition and healing conducted to honor the Chinese victims. The planners respectfully sought Chinese participation and input from the Nez Perce along the way. Chinese leaders and other planners joined in because they saw the issue as not just a historic Chinese issue, but a moment in American history that needed to be reconciled.
The Chinese Remembering Conference was brought to my attention two years ago when I read that the first conference included a blessing by a Nez Perce spiritual leader and the second conference the following year included the ringing of a bell for each of the 34 victims. With the third year conference approaching in 2010, I decided to bring a Chinese aspect to the proceedings, at my own expense. After consulting Chinese shop owners for advice, I brought incense, joss paper (known as ghost or spirit money), a tray with five cups, and rice wine to bless the ground. I invited others to join in.
The conference leaders asked me to attend the fifth and final Chinese Remembering Conference this year in 2012, and to organize and conduct the dedication program at the memorial site. It was an honor to be asked.
The dedication and healing ceremony began with conference leaders acknowledging the Chinese Remembering Committee and others who helped install the memorial, including the U.S. Forestry Service, Garlinghouse Memorials, who produced the stone memorial, River Quest Jet Boats of Lewiston, and Columbia Basin Helicopters of Baker City, who delivered stone to the installation site.
Bells were a defining element throughout the dedication, which was observed by 135 participants. Nokes read the 11 known names of the Chinese miners and Director Wirtanen rang a bell for each name and each unknown name among the 34 miners.
The Nez Perce blessing was led by Charles Axtell, elder, spiritual leader, and respected Nez Perce leader of the traditional Washut Seven Drums religion. The prayer was initiated and accompanied with a sacred bell, and Mr. Axtell was joined by Allen Pinkham (Nez Perce), Roger Amerman (Choctaw), and his young son Preston (Nez Perce/Choctaw) in the ceremony. Out of respect for the land and the First Nations and indigenous peoples of northeast Oregon and central Idaho, Master E-man respectfully asked the Nez Perce leader for permission to go forward with a Taoist ceremony at the Chinese memorial site.
During the Taoist ritual, a sacred bell was also rung. A red cloth was laid in front of the memorial stone which held temple icons, food offerings, plates of small leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumpling offerings, rice wine, cups, and incense pots. The party of eight Taoist members, traveled from Los Angeles on their own expense, to perform this dedication ceremony.
Wearing an elaborate embroidered robe, Master E-man conducted his ceremony in Chinese, with Chuimei Ho of Bainbridge Island translating. After exorcising the evil spirits, Master E-man asked if the spirits of the deceased Chinese were present and threw a set of oracle bones. There was a slight stir in the crowd when the oracle answered “yes.” At that moment, a gust of wind blew over us.
Attendees were invited to burn joss paper offerings at the fire box station, managed by Dale Hom, with the U.S. Forestry Service, and members of Chinese organizations from Idaho, California, and Oregon. Attendees placed sticks of lit incense in a pot in front of the memorial stone at another station managed by a team of Chinese organization members from Oregon and Vancouver B.C.
In concluding the dedication program, I told those in attendance that they were active participants of this meaningful ceremony, not only on that day, but for the days to follow.
“Whenever you face or witness injustice — any bullying, harassment, disrespect, or hurt inflicted on others — pull up the image of this stone, and take a stand,” I urged the attendees.
“Each time you visualize the [memorial] and take a stand, you will send a pebble of hope and healing back to this patch of land.” (end)