Long before any of us set foot here, our Rock was shared by at least four nations. Some Snohomish spent the summers on South Whidbey.
Branches of the Skagits lived in the center and the north. And a Clallam band lived on the west end of Ebey’s Prairie. It was an un-United Nations. There was a lot of fussin’ and feudin’. But every once in a while a Big Chief would call all the Rock nations together for a potlatch, where they spent days drinking, eating and making merry in a cedar long house. As soon as it was over, they went back to fussin’ and feudin’ again.
I’m reminded of this history by all the recent sulfuric blather in the air over Navy jet noise. “Love it or else!” say some. “Hate it or else!” say others. “Can’t quite hear what you said because of all this noise!” say others.
As in centuries past, the Rock still seems to be shared by many nations. We have the Clint-ish, Langl-ish and Freeland-am in the south, the Greenbank-am and the Coupe-ish in the center, and in the north we have that fierce warrior band, the Oak-ish. Each Rock nation has its own culture. And, of course, each distrusts all the others.
How often do you see a Langl-ish eating a burrito at Taco Bell in Oak Harbor? Ever see an Oak-ish order a latte at Useless Bay Coffee in Langley? (I hear the gnashing of teeth and the biting of knuckles even as I write that.) I have a friend in Langley who would rather pay the ferry toll and go to Lowe’s in Lynnwood than set foot in Home Depot in Oak Harbor. And I know a Navy veteran in Oak Harbor who would likely consider it un-patriotic to shop at PayLess in Freeland.
Every once in a while we do gather for the modern equivalent of a potlatch. The Whidbey Island Fair last month was an example. There, among the goats, pigs, chickens, hand-sewn aprons and cotton candy, strolled hundreds of Oak-ish and Clint-ish, Greenbank-am and Freeland-am, Coupe-ish and Langl-ish. Young and old. Conservative and liberal. Eating, drinking, making merry, singing along with the Elvis impersonator. Such a lovely, peaceful time. The only thing missing was a cedar long house.
One young, tattooed Oak-ish woman, her infant in a stroller, was laughing with a rich, retired Langl-ish Microsoft manager. A Coupe-ish high school student was helping a Freeland-am grandmother carry her funnel cakes and coffee back to a picnic table.
We have other wonderful potlatches on the Rock. The Coupe-ish Musselfest is a great one. So are the Oak-ish Holland Happening and the Langl-ish Choochokam Festival. At those moments, it really does feel like we all live on the same island.
I lived in Los Angeles during the riots of 1992. I remember when, with the city on fire, Rodney King stood in front of a bank of microphones and plaintively asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”
On the Rock, let’s keep trying.
• Harry Anderson is resident of Coupeville and former journalist. His column “Rockin’ a Hard Place” will appear monthly in The Whidbey Examiner.