Since Time Immemorial is a recurring series featuring community members whose families have been here since time immemorial. The ancestral knowledge carried by Lhaq’temish (Lummi), Nooksack, and other Coast Salish peoples is knowledge about how to live in our shared home in a good, life-sustaining way. We live in a time when we need to restore our relationship with Mother Earth and with one another. We are grateful for these stories, told in the words of each featured individual.
Cu-se-ma-at Cathy Ballew is an enrolled Lummi tribal member with Sto:lo Nation and Jamestown S’Klallam family ties. She has been a lifelong activist working for Native rights, women’s rights, treaty rights, and environmental rights. She currently serves on Lummi Nation’s Housing Board, Budget Committee, and Lhaq’temish Foundation Board.
Photograph by Cocoa Laney
Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
As a young girl, I loved playing on the banks of the Nooksack River and beach of Hales Passage, where we’d watch the killer whales traveling through. I lived part time in my Grandmother Sadie’s home. She was my teacher; we harvested fruits and other plants, preserved most of our food, made medicine, canned fish, smoked fish, butchered deer. We had the sandbars at our front door, so we harvested lots of shellfish. Salmon fishing was a way of life for us. We hunted waterfowl, wild duck is nothing like the duck you buy in a restaurant. We had wild gooseberries all the time, wild strawberries were the sweetest berries ever.
How did you come to be an activist?
I have witnessed so much hostility towards my people all my lifetime. When I was in high school, during an assembly they lined up some school coaches and bigger male teachers and out comes a line of Native boys. Big huge paddles were handed to the teachers, the boys bent over, and the men swatted the Native boys, it echoed in the gymnasium. Those boys dropped out of school. I can still hear in my mind that echo. Another thing—we used to have teen dances on Friday nights. One time the National Guard came in and shot tear gas on us at the dance.
I married into a fishing family when I was 17. During the Fish Wars, non-tribal people would throw boulders into our nets. One day our boat was full of water, and we found a gunshot hole in the hull. People would drive through the Reservation with guns shooting at our homes, my grandmother’s was shot at on Christmas Eve. My family was threatened with guns. Nothing happened to those men threatening us. Nothing.
During this time, I loved watching and listening to Natives like the American Indian Movement fighting for tribal rights. I loved listening to Gloria Steinem. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, they’ve all been inspirations.
Giving back to the community is part of our traditional way of life. I’ve been fortunate to travel to different parts of the U.S., Canada, South America, Paris, Papua New Guinea, wherever I can go to help with the work. The goal is justice. I campaign and do what I must when I can, which includes speaking up for the nonverbal relatives, like the plants, animals, water, and air.
How do you spend time when you’re not involved with work and activism?
I love to spend my days near the water, sewing, art and crafts, clam digging, or just walking on the beach; I don’t fish anymore at my age, it is too hard for me now. I preserve our traditional foods for the off season. I harvest cedar for weaving. I gather native plants for tea and medicine. Alder was my grandmother’s all-time favorite. It is medicine, and also used for color, for dyeing wool or cedar whatever. My grandmother said alder and spruce, those were the two medicines that were good for just about anything.
Is there a story or a teaching that has been important to you?
My Grandmother Sadie used to say, if you haven’t learnt something new today, your day is not over.
Hy’shqe, thank you so much!