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The Blind Pool

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The Blind Pool

Paul McHugh

No price is too great for the scalp of the enemy king.

Alexander Koblentz, chessmaster

Chapter 1

Florida’s Overseas Highway is a gray band linking isles of the Keys via bridges that arch over channels of turquoise water. On this day, as Highway 1 leaps across a channel to connect Boca Chica with Key West, it bears glittering rows of stalled automobiles. A few cars display geysers spurting up from radiators while drivers jig around their front bumpers, ineffectually waving rags.

“Just ‘nother day in paradise,” drawls Dan Cowell. He drapes an arm out the window of his own car – a vintage red Miata – and flicks open a button on his rayon shirt with his other hand.

“We not movin’, okay, not a centimeter, even!” his companion, Linda Parker, marvels. “And so-o long.”

“We’re near peak of tourist season,” Dan says. “Add a holiday. Stir in a traffic accident. There’s your recipe for happiness, beyb.”

Dan says the word “babe” using a long and strong vowel, in the Caribbean Creole argot. Saying it this way is part of their code of intimacy.

She peers out from her side of the car at the blue waters that ripple beneath the highway bridge. Tiny wavelets fling back sparks of sunlight.

“We are not so high up,” she says. “Let us jump into water, make a swim ‘round to our place. Serious!”

Dan smiles. Linda is a young, strong Moskita Indian woman, raised on an island off the coast of Honduras. She’s fully able to act on her suggestion.

“Might’s well. Our highway seems ‘bout done being a street.” He gives a languid shrug. “Guess we’re in a park-and-lock lot now…”

Bass vibrations telegraph an approach of powerful machinery. Dan checks his mirrors and sees two lines of big motorcycles bearing down on them from the east. One line seeks to thread the gap between the lanes of stopped cars, the other rumbles along the bridge’s narrow shoulder.

“Shit. Crank up your window.” Dan gestures with his thumb. “We’re about to get hammered by noise.”

Large bikes leading the pack are fattened by saddlebags and chromium crash bars. A massive Honda Gold Wing FGB touring machine roars by on the right, while a purple Harley CVO Road King thumps past on their left. Dan sees that the rider on the Harley is as bulky as his bike. Thick shoulders thrust out through armholes of a black leather vest to strain the long sleeves of a white T-shirt. Curve of his belly and chest bulge over the motorcycle’s gas tank. His neck seems wider than the Nazi-style helmet on his head.

“Ah-ha,” Linda says. “Here now is American motorcycle gang, jus’ like your movies, right?”

“No!” Dan speaks loudly to be heard. “Only wannabes! Don’t have on cuts, patches, or colors. Plus, real gangbangers straddle Harleys. Wouldn’t be caught dead on anything else. I only see one. They’re wusses.”

A few cars beyond the Miata, the motorcycles try to squeeze by a broad Cadillac sedan. The Honda rider can’t make it on the right, so he stops and insistently beeps his horn. The Caddy driver tries to swing a yard to his left, almost hits the Harley. That rider lifts a foot and boots off the car’s side mirror. The sedan backs up and makes a panicked lurch to the right, just in time to smack into a sleeker machine trying to follow the Honda – knocking the bike and its rider into the guardrail with a boom and a screech of metal.

Motorcycles dip over their front wheels as they brake to a halt. Riders swing legs off over the seats, lean their motorcycles on kickstands. The engines keep running. The Harley rider loosens his helmet and strides back to the motorcycle behind his – a BMW GTL with so many antennas sprouting from a case bolted onto its rear luggage rack, it looks like a highway patrol vehicle.

Dan now sees the big rider wears over his nose and mouth a bandanna printed with the naked cheekbones and jaw of a skull. He points at the BMW rider, who hits switches mounted on his handlebars. The Harley guy nods, stomps over to the Caddy. He yanks his helmet off a shaven head. He punches it into the driver’s side window, bashing the glass into a spray of green crumbs. Through a succession of other windshields in front of him, Dan sees a dim pair of white-haired people who cower on the Caddy’s front seat.

“Oh fuck,” he says. “Now that just ain’t right.”

He plucks a cell phone from the pocket of his shirt and passes it to Linda. “Dial up 911, beyb? Tell ‘em what’s goin’ on out there.”

He yanks open the door and exits his car. He walks toward the Caddy through a haze of percussion that beats from the tailpipes of idling motorcycles. He sees the big Harley guy lean into the sedan’s busted window and start yelling. Dan walks faster. Other riders smirk as they slouch out of his path.

“Hey, check it! This lame-o wants to bump chests with Tank!” one exclaims.

“That’s a show,” another says. “Guar-ran-teed.”

Dan hesitates for a moment. Maybe he’s chomping off more than he can chew? Then he sees that the old couple in the Caddy have slid all the way over to the passenger door where they cringe and stare, bug-eyed with fear, at the man haranguing them.

“Hey,” Dan says, closing in. “Quit that!”

The big man pulls back from the window. The skull-print cloth that had covered his mouth has fallen around this neck. Dan sees stubbly jowls, a broad nose, and intense, close-set eyes with irises so pale they seem nearly white. He never sees the arm swinging a fist up into his stomach. That mighty punch drives air from his lungs and sends him flying across the pavement to thump against the side of a minivan one lane over. He flops into a heap, and all his attention focuses on where his next breath might come from.

He hears a hoarse, faraway voice grind out, “Dammit, you ol’ farts just crunched a prime ride. Worth a hundred K! To make us whole, you’ll do what? Sell this joke of a car?”

Dan finds himself able to gasp in a pint of breath, another. He levers himself on an elbow, grips the door latch of the van, and pulls himself onto his feet. He sees the big man plus two other riders hoist the damaged motorcycle up into the air, then tumble it over the bridge’s railing. He only vaguely comprehends what he sees, since it makes no sense, and barely registers the sound of a distant splash.

The riders come around the Caddy, kicking at it, smashing the taillights and booting dents into its fenders. The big one has his Nazi Stahlhelm back atop his boulder of a head, and the skull-print bandana tugged again up over his nose. He sees Dan, and waves a hand.

“Hey bros, look!” he says. “Our citizen shook off his chin-check.”

He strides to Dan. He’s at least six-foot-eight, has to weigh more than 300 pounds. Pale eyes study Dan. He tilts his head. “Aw-w-w,” he croons. “Did I hurt lil’ punk’s feelings? Let’s hug it out.” Thick arms encompass Dan’s chest and upper back. He’s instantly crushed into the broad stiff plates of the giant’s vest – he realizes it actually is body armor – and into a miasma of leather and rancid sweat. His ribs creak from the remorseless force. He feels the man’s crotch gyrate obscenely against him.

“Feelin’ any better now? I am!” he says. “Wanna be my lil’ bitch? After I turn you out, we’ll pass you all ‘round.”

It sets off a bout of raucous laughter.

Dan squirms to escape, which makes the big rider shove him firmly back into the van and dry-hump his body. The others howl with glee. Dan twists hard and kicks the man in the lower leg with all his strength. His assailant merely grunts, and the white eyes narrow. He swings open his arms, cuffs Dan across the face as he falls, then snatches him with one hand by the nape of the neck and hoists him up so his feet barely drag on the pavement.

“Like it savage? Hey, me too! You won’t sit for a week.”

And suddenly, Linda is there.

“You! Let ‘im go! Now, I say!”

As she rushes in, the other riders try to haul her back. She swats their hands aside then leaps like a wildcat, going for the leader’s eyes with her fingernails. They grab her and yank her away. But the leader beckons.

“No. Lemme have her,” He says.

They propel her forward. The big man catches her by the back of her neck with his free hand. Dan and Linda gape at each other, beat with their fists at the hideous power of his grip, try to twist and kick themselves free.

“Hey,” he growls. “Your squeeze? Mud-bitch and her race betrayer! Hot for each other, huh? So… let’s see some licks.”

He brings them closer together. “Go kissy-kissy,” he says.

Linda jerks up her chin and spits a gob of saliva just past his face.

He scowls. Dan sees knuckles on the huge hand whiten, also notices a strange detail, the end of one middle finger is emblazoned with dark lines, a tattoo of a letter “Y,” that wavers like a rune. He feels his own body sway helplessly as the big man spreads his arms and pulls them apart… and then accelerates their faces directly at each other. Dan tries to duck, to turn or thrust out an elbow, to do anything that might soften the coming collision.

None of it reduces the impact. He smashes the heads of Dan and Linda together with a vicious crack, lets their limp bodies drop. As he steps over them, he wipes his sweaty palms on his vest. His crew laughs, applauds. His gaze wanders across windows of cars nearby. Occupants shrink away from windows in those vehicles, avert their eyes, desperate to avoid drawing his attention to themselves.

He gives a brief, amused snort.

“Let’s be smart,” the leader says. “Sanitize the crime scene.”

“Wha’chu like, Big T?” another rider asks.

“One-eight-seven these fish.” He gestures toward the bridge railing. “Put ‘em over.”

Through a dim red haze of lapsing consciousness, Dan feels his wrists and ankles seized by rough hands. A moment of weightlessness follows, next a hard smack of water against his upper back and shoulders. The tiny spot of awareness left to him takes in a progression of colors that swirl before his eyes – blue, green, indigo and back to blue again. He realizes that he’s underwater, and spinning.

Linda, Linda… he thinks, as he struggles to clear his mind, to make his limbs move. They must have thrown her in too! Got to… revive. Find her.

The big rider looks down at the channel. A double trail of bubbles rises from the dark, azure shapes of the sinking bodies.

“Yah, bros,” he says. “Done ‘bout the best we can, I reckon. Deek? Let ol’ Cranker warm your back, till we snatch another ride. High time for us to roll, ‘case John Law gets his ass in gear and tries to crash our party. Right?”

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I am a writer. I am a story-teller.

Stories are the way we tell ourselves about life, the earth, and each other. They are the way we create and order awareness. How we explain ourselves and all our deeds. The way we lead ourselves through a day, as well as how we share company with each other at night. The story of our hearts is told in love songs, the story of our hopes is told in the speech of prophets and heroes. I have been swept up and away by the potency of stories, and have made myself into one who relates them in poetry, journalism and fiction, and I remain constantly in search of a finer ways to work the magic and do this job.

I am a story-teller. I am a writer.

Welcome. You’re invited to poke the buttons, and enjoy a ramble through my site. Among its features, you’ll find links to a prize-winning novel (DeadlinesDeadlines.), to non-fiction explorations (Alcatraz – The Official Guide) and abundant adventures in the out-of-doors (The North Coast).


McHugh in Books

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Deadlines by Paul McHugh. DeadlinesDeadlines by Paul McHugh.

Paul McHugh

A novel of murder, conspiracy and the media, set in the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 2007.

Alcatraz, the Official Guide. Alcatraz The Official GuideAlcatraz, the Official Guide by Paul McHugh.
Paul McHugh
A battleship-shaped island, wrapped in fog and isolated in the middle of one of the world’s most beautiful bays, Alcatraz has intrigued the imagination of millions of people over the years. Today, under the stewardship of the National Park Service, Alcatraz continues to reveal its secrets. Step off the ferry, onto the dock, and into the past.
Goodbye-to-Rains Paul McHugh’s first novel, The Search for Goodbye-To-Rains can now be read online for free at GoogleBooks.

A young motorcycle rider hunts a mysterious entity. Captures the mood of 1970s America like no other story. Part road adventure, part existential quest, wandering from Florida’s panhandle to the mountains of New Mexico.

Wildplaces. Wild Places: 20 Journeys into the North American OutdoorsWild Places.

Edited by Paul McHugh

Top outdoor writers explore twenty of North America’s most captivating wild destinations. Tim Cahill, Gretel Ehrlich, Pam Houston and others contribute. Paul McHugh edits, contributes chapters on Alaska’s Tatshenshini River and the California Redwood region.

The Islands of San Francisco Bay. The Islands of San Francisco BayThe Islands of San Francisco Bay. Chapters by Paul McHugh.

Chapters by Paul McHugh

Marin photographer James Martin and Michael Lee portray San Francisco Bay’s remarkable islands. Paul McHugh contributes chapters on Alcatraz, Bair and Mare islands.

Shakleton's Boat Journey. Shackleton’s Boat Journey
F. A. Worsley
Introduction by Paul McHughThe skipper of the Endurance tells of Ernest Shackleton’s greatest polar adventure, a near disaster averted by marine heroics – an 800-mile open boat voyage across hazardous seas.

Dan Rather

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Anyone who grew up in America in the late 20th Century had to be aware of Dan Rather’s fabled run of 24 years as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Myself, I’ve been a fan ever since that tough Texas correspondent bearded the wily Richard Nixon at a presidential news conference in 1974, shaking Nixon’s aura of unassailability – and wound up asking Nixon many of the toughest, direct questions he ever faced about the Watergate scandal. For the record, Rather tackled that task many years before David Frost tried to do it.

So when I completed my new novel, the media murder mystery, “Deadlines,” Rather was my furthest-out, long-shot hope of scoring a memorable endorsement. I thought, no one in the country knows more about news and reporting than Dan Rather. He remains our preeminent television journalist. So if Rather reads and likes my book, that should provide one helluva boost to my project! You see, in addition to writing a good tale and a good mystery, I also wanted to document and celebrate newsrooms, and the distinctive ways that they operate.

Through contact with Rather’s reporting staff in the summer of 2009, I was able to make my way up the hierarchy in his current organization, which produces “Dan Rather Reports” for HDNet, a high-definition cable television station. To my delight and amazement, I was soon told that Dan had agreed to read, “Deadlines,” and would be getting back to me with an opinion. But you could have knocked me over with a Post-It note when his judgment arrived, in mid-September:

“Every reporter worth his or her notepad is a sleuth at heart. Paul McHugh brings this truth to life with crackling suspense and a true, ink-stained veteran’s eye for the newsroom.”

Wow. Über-newsman Dan Rather not only liked it, he used variations on the word, “true,” twice to describe my story! I wanted to thank him for his endorsement, and in some more direct and immediate way than simply sending a note back through his staff – though of course, I did that too. My eye happened to fall upon an ad in the San Jose Mercury News, announcing that Dan would be a special keynote speaker at an annual benefit breakfast for the Shelter Network, at a hotel in Burlingame, on Oct. 8. Perfect! My wife and I bought two tickets.

The Shelter Network, which provides housing and support services for homeless families, evidently is the sort of charity that appeals to Rather, who grew up a blue-collar home in Texas during the Depression and never forgot that experience – or what it meant, or how decent folks ought to respond.

In his 20 minutes in the limelight at this breakfast, Dan gave an amusing talk about his early years in the news business, followed by a heartfelt plea for generous support for the Shelter Network cause. As this breakfast drew to a close, I made my way toward his table, near the speaker’s platform, but suddenly he stood and was ushered out . . .

Robust Resilience of the Wiyot Tribe

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San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 17

When you go to a place and want to truly understand, it’s good to speak with folks who’ve been living there for quite a while. In the case of Humboldt Bay, you can’t do better than visiting with a few surviving members of the Wiyot Tribe.

After another gale forced a break in our sea kayak voyage from Oregon to San Francisco. I, Bo Barnes and John Weed had to stay holed up for almost four days on Woodley Island, in the Port of Eureka.

Wiyot tribal chairwoman Cheryl Seidner and her sister, Leona Wilkinson. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Wiyot tribal chairwoman Cheryl Seidner and her sister, Leona Wilkinson. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

On one of those afternoons, we met up with Cheryl Seidner and her sister Leona Wilkinson of the Wiyots. No one is known to have dwelt in the Humboldt Bay region longer than their tribe.

“We have been here in Humboldt Bay for about 10,000 years,” Wilkinson said, as she led us out to a sacred site on Indian Island, just offshore from Eureka. “Evidence takes us back at least 8,000 years.”

During the last 200 years of that vast history, the trail turned rough for the Wiyots. Recently, their path has begun to smooth and straighten once more.

On earlier research trips to the North Coast, I met with Marnie Atkins, the tribe’s cultural director, and Seidner, tribal chairwoman. They spoke of the tragic past of the place now called Indian Island. Wiyots knew it as their sacred village of Tuluwat.

This low bay island near the city of Eureka had been center of the Wiyot universe. But during this tribe’s world-renewal ceremony in 1860, it became scene of a brutal massacre by a gang of settlers.

After, Tuluwat vanished under the piers, ways and structures of an industrial boatyard. Now, this place has been taken back into hands of the Wiyots. They are dismantling dilapidated structures and cleansing the land. They intend that a dance house once again will arise here.

After a silence of 150 years, Wiyot singing will echo again over waters of Humboldt Bay.

Survivors of a Massacre

“One baby survived the killing on that day,” tribal chairwoman Seidner told me. “After the massacre, people of Eureka went out there. They found an old woman out on a mudflat, singing a mourning song. They found a little girl, a toddler, still alive. And under the body of a dead woman, they found a live baby, still attempting to nurse. That infant boy was the son of the headman, called Captain Jim, so he was named Jerry James.

“Jerry James was my mother’s grandfather.”

Seidner, 55, is a woman with flowing dark hair, a broad face, warm and lively eyes, and a direct, forthright manner. She’s held the tribal chair for five two-year terms, and over the course of her tenure, regaining a tribal presence on the so-called Indian Island has been a major order of business.

“Here’s what I want to do,” Seidner explained. “Achieve major economic development. Finish this island project. See our language revive. And I want to bring back the dancing.”

The Sacred Island of Tuluwat

In June 2004, wearing a white deerskin cape and traditional necklaces, Seidner sat in a redwood dugout canoe paddled near Tuluwat by boatmen descended from Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Maidu and Pit River bloodlines. In a ceremony, they took possession of 67 acres transferred to the tribe a month earlier by the Eureka city council’s unanimous vote.

That land added to 1.5 acres of pivotal ground, bought from the boatyard owners by the tribe for $106,000 in 2000.

“When we paddled away from the island, I thought, ‘Wow. We did it!’ I knew we could. Until that moment, I at times was not quite believing it.” Seidner said.

Related by language and blood to the Yuroks of Klamath River country to the north, several thousand Wiyots once dwelt in a territory ranging from south of the Eel River (itself named “Wiyot”) north to the Mad River (“Batwat”). Central feature of the territory, of course was the bay (“Wiki”), which then sprawled over 27,000 acres (it’s smaller now, due to infill).

Center of that center was Tuluwat.

As Seidner watched us from the shoulder of highway 255 – which touches down on Indian Island on its way out to the Samoa Peninsula – Wilkinson led me, Barnes and Chronicle photographer Mike Maloney down a muddy path which very few are now permitted to traverse. Due to the hazardous waste and jagged trash at the boatyard, it’s considered too dangerous until cleanup is completed.

“We’re almost done with that part,” Wilkinson said, as she stepped gingerly around jagged metal, oil-soaked earth, a marine railway for hauling out boats. Wilkinson resembles her younger sister in many ways, but her hair is gray, and her directness is tempered by a dignified reserve.

“We had four barges of trash, each holding about three tons,” she said. “The previous owners had even piled up old engine batteries to make a seawall.”

There’s one big metal shed left on the site, several rotting wooden shacks. They sit right atop a high, deep, wide shell mound or midden of shell fragments and Wiyot burial sites, the historic record of their long occupancy of the site.

“Several (woven basketry) skull caps washed up during the cleanup,” Wilkinson said. “We’ll rebury those at an appropriate time.”

To Restore a Ceremonial Site

We stood at the edge of the mound, where the Wiyots plan to vibrate metal sheets into the ground, to halt tidal erosion. On nearby mudflats, tawny sandpipers, willets and other shorebirds probed for dinner.

Leona Wilkinson on Tuluwat, formerly known as Indian Island. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Leona Wilkinson on Tuluwat, formerly known as Indian Island. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

“I like to stand out here sometimes, and imagine this all without the city lights,” Wilkinson said. “I think of how it was, with all those dugout canoes coming over the bay, people dressed in their finest as they arrived for ceremonies.”

The first two settler massacres of the Wiyot took place in 1852 and 1858. Next, early on the morning of February 26, 1860, a locally infamous brute (allegedly named Larrabee) and a few confederates rowed out to the island to attack the Wiyots with hatchets, clubs and knives. They didn’t want gunfire to arouse sleeping Eureka citizens. Victims were mainly women and children; Wiyot men were away gathering food and supplies to bring to the festival. Two other villages, on the Eel River and on the bay’s south spit, were also attacked at that very same day

Tuluwat had been sold out from under the Wiyots. A man named Gunther had “bought” it, from someone, just a few days earlier.

The Wiyots, never all that many to begin with, plummeted in numbers, along with their health and fortunes. By the end of 1860, there were less than 200 full-blooded Wiyot left; by 1910, fewer than 100. The last fluent speaker of the language died in 1962. Surviving tribal people were herded to Fort Humboldt, then off to distant reservations.

Yet always and in all ways, they sought to return home. The last corner available to them was Table Bluff, at the south end of the bay. Presently, there is a small reservation of 88 acres, and 465 people on tribal rolls.

Renewal of a Nearly Lost World

Where fate of Indian Island is concerned, today the citizens of Eureka have chosen not to sleep. Wilkinson expresses a great deal of gratitude to local oyster growers for contributing shells to stabilize the mound, a local seafood restaurant that underwrote cost of the trash barges, citizens who have contributed to the Tuluwat restoration fund and participated in annual memorial ceremonies.

She stood atop the midden at the center of Tuluwat.

“Everyone in the tribe has a different feeling about this,” Wilkinson said. “But young people and the elders are all excited about coming out here again.

“When I’m here, it doesn’t make me sad. This is where our family came from. It feels good to work here with family and friends, bringing it back.  It will happen in my lifetime. A dance will take place here within three years. We have spoken with other tribes. They said, ‘We will help you when you are ready.’”

California’s North Coast offers some profound examples of resilience and hardiness.

Gray whales that migrate along a 10,000-mile loop offshore were reduced by whaling to 1,500 individuals or less. Protected by the Endangered Species Act, they have now rebounded to a mighty, spouting, yearly parade of 20,000 animals.

Ancient sequoias, coast redwood trees, if sawn down, often resurrect by sending up vivid green shoots, or “burl sprouts” from their root balls.

Now, among the resilient, number the Wiyot, as Tuluwat – like a Brigadoon for Native Americans – once more emerges from drifting bay mists.

A thing to bear in mind is that as they do that dance, it’s a world renewal ceremony. So, resurrection of Tuluwat should be a sign of hope for all of us.

Regaining the Wiyot Way

Marnie Atkins, cultural director for Humboldt Bay’s Wiyot Tribe, confronts a sizeable task. Simply put, the cultural resources available to her aren’t abundant. No living, fluent Wiyot speakers remain. All that exists are old tapes of their speech and songs. Records or even tribal memories of Wiyot dances, rituals or stories may exist, but have not been located.

There are no full sets of “regalia” — elaborate outfits crafted of shell, bead, buckskin and feathers that North Coast tribes commonly used in ceremonies. (Possession of regalia also established tribal status and social potency for their holders.) Well, there may not be regalia near the Wiyots’ Table Bluff reservation at the south end of the bay. But there is some in Washington D.C.

Potent emotions swept through Atkins as she found a historic dance skirt in a collection at the Smithsonian Institute. Finds like this may serve as a guide for her and other tribal members as they seek to re-create elements of their culture.

“There was an official event at Smithsonian’s Native American Museum in September of 2004,” Atkins relates. “I went with the idea that they could have something of ours in a collection. Or if not, something interesting to see that came from one of our neighboring tribes. It’s always good to keep an eye.

“A person from the Native American Grave Repatriation department gave us a presentation. Then they held an open house. I had made an appointment to go into the collection and have a look.

“I was told they had no Wiyot artifacts. But I thought I recognized some baskets. Sure enough, they were Wiyot! And I felt there was something Wiyot on a shelf up higher. So I looked. And there was a dance skirt! A very sacred item.

“Honestly, I didn’t find it. It found me. I believe it came back into our lives because of the land. Because we can now return to Tuluwat. That skirt was ready to be found. To come home and dance once again.”

“From this, I knew things should go alright. Even if it takes us another 20 years. From this, we will be able to learn to build other ceremonial skirts again.

“I hope to negotiate with the museum. Some items there have been treated with pesticides. I don’t think this one has. We’ll offer to make them a replica to put in their collection. But this one, we’ll say, has a spirit, a beautiful spirit. It feels pain now. It needs to come home, to be part of a ceremony, part of our culture once more.”