Thursday, the Portland City Council is expected to vote to rename a North Portland street. For commentator Ronault Catalani, the controversy gives him a chance to reflect on a recent visit to another North Portland location.
A most sacred place.
There's a hand of fertile land, turning quickly into a finger or so of sand, then diminishing into a line of ragged wooden poles driven crooked into our river's dark bottom — that's all that marks the extraordinary moment our two grand matriarchs meet. Our Rivers Willamette and Columbia. And of course a small roadside sign board. They call the place Kelley Point Park.
“Hey…why they call this Kelley Point?” I ask a couple of black men fishing off that sandy finger. “Don' know,” the older uncle says.
“You think there's a Mr. Kelley?” I persist. “Maay-be,” he says. We pause. We watch a serenely deliberate, tall iron Taiwan grain tanker slide past our point. She steams slow, upstream River Columbia – east from this auspicious place.
South on this grainy gray strand, on our Willamette's eastern shore, a Mexican family's simmering a big pot of savory stew. Long casting rods are stuck deep into slate sand. Men and boys, hands stuck deep into pockets, gaze out over our silent river.
“Buenos,” I say. Good morning they answer.
“Por qué Kelley Point?” I ask. “And, who's Mr. Kelley?”
“No se,” they shrug. Don' know.
For 8000 years, Nch'i-wana River Indian families have fished this shore – a place as holy, a confluence as exquisite, as any on our planet's tender face. You can feel it in your bones. Sure you can. You can tell it by those tiny tobacco bundles of bright fabric tied to shrubs at our river's edge. Gifts for River Indians' enduring ancestors. But who on earth is Mr. Kelley?
And: can those workmen who put Mr. Kelley on that park signboard recite Mother Columbia's 100 children's names – Clatsop and Klickitat and Clackamas among them. Have they rubbed, on their rugged palms, our Willamette's thick sediments of farm fields and fruit orchards, her effluent of grazing sheep and content cows and energetic cities?
Can they calculate quick, how many billion tons of elemental carbon passed this point in Chinook, Sockeye and Steelheads' delicate rib bones of over eight millennia of Indian care for their kind matriarchs? Can they tell us what now? – now that those River peoples no longer steward their river salmon along this sacred cycle, what'll happen to us, all sharing that shore?
And maybe Mr. Kelley's standing somewhere in the middle of all this, knowing all that. Sure, he must. But then again, maybe he's not.
So maybe from here forward we should look deeper, talk longer, about how we name these wondrous places white folks will have to share a bit more now. Share better with those hopeful black fishermen, with that happy brown family too; share bigger with these edgy children of those restive native ancestors as well. Because share we must. As every family does. Sure we do.
The comments of Portland writer Ronault Catalani. He also wants to note for the record, that he looked up Mr. Kelley.
Mr. Hall Jackson Kelly was a New England teacher, surveyor and adventurer. He was a strong advocate for settling Oregon after reading about the Lewis & Clark expedition and visiting in 1834. He talked about making a city at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The point was named for him in 1926.