wish-ham cemetery
The oldest residents of Wish-Ham were disinterred from their traditional resting place, Memaloose Island in the Columbia River when it was largely submerged by the waters rising behind the Bonneville Dam. It could as well have been placed in Oregon, but the flats next to Hwy. 197 in Washington seemed particularly and appropriately brutal for the resting place of the memory of the pre-Euroamerican inhabitants. The Native Americans—and I’m speaking here strictly through a hole in my hat—don’t have a tradition of cemeteries like “we” do (the quotes because Native Americans are “we” too). I have to say this because the Native American resting places I’ve visited sometimes have disturbing elements to them; elements which indicate neglect, a rupture, a disconnect with their elders. But perhaps I’m seeing it through white man’s eyes. Maybe the meaning and the memory lie elsewhere, and the cemeteries are only indications of what our culture has done to the Indians, not what has happened to them, which are two different things.

Whatever the meaning of cemeteries, it’s hard to imagine that what happened at Memaloose Island would be wished on anyone. One of the earliest descriptions of Memaloose Is. we have comes from the recollections of a man who walked over the island as a seven year old child in 1843, Jesse Applegate. Jesse's folks, two of his uncles and their families, were members of the first organized wagon train of pioneers into the Willamette Valley.

"Farther on, the path led across the island known as 'Mimaluse,' which connected with the main land on the north shore when the river is low. We passed a pond or small lake on which were floating many rafts made of logs on which were dozens of dead bodies rolled in blankets or Klisques mats. While I stood looking at the ghastly spectacle, my companions pressed into the woods. Seeing I was alone with the dead, I hurried after them. I came to a pen built of logs and in this were bodies rolled up like those on the rafts. This did not frighten me, but near the pen was an object which did. A little old black man stood there. I took a long breath to see if the thing were alive. It seemed to move, and I ran for my life. Others who passed that way across the island said they saw dead bodies everywhere, on rocks, on rafts, in old broken canoes, and these little wooden devils were legion. Some said they were put there to protect the dead, a sort of scarecrow. No beast or bird would face that that diabolical array for the sake of a feast. Mimaluse (Dead in Chinook language) Island was the Golgatha of the Waskopum tribe."

An historical marker at a rest area near Memaloose Is. says: “Before water rising above Bonneville dam reduced the original four-acre island to about half an acre, Indian remains were removed for reburial elsewhere”; which is true but only half the story. Many of the remains weren’t removed to preserve them from the rising waters of the Columbia. Many of the remains were removed much earlier, beginning in the nineteenth century. Mary McKay, herself of mixed American and Indian parentage, would recall how in 1841 when nine years old, “On the trip north we passed Indian burial grounds. Canoes and other sarcophagi hung from the tops of tall fir trees. I remember how my uncle Nicholas Bird climbed one of the trees and found a wooden image of a dead chief. It was about the size of a rag doll. My, how I appreciated that new edition to my toy world.” As early as 1870 one Dr. Joseph Simms was “removing”—as a recent government investigation termed it; we’d otherwise call it grave robbing—remains and funerary objects from Memaloose Is., later donating them to the American Museum of Natural History. In 1882 the same museum was buying Indian remains from Memaloose from James Terry of Wasco County. All in all the museum went on to buy some 140 purloined remains from Memaloose Island, a nifty industry for a few industrious guys, eh?

There are interments at Wish-Ham that have come from Memaloose, but I suspect they are not the same ones purchased by the museum. Some disinterments probably did take place when the Army Corps of Engineers moved the cemetery, so to speak. Presumably they chose the present location due to its proximity to the river, but they couldn’t have tried harder to find a place that has all the charm of a reclaimed garbage dump. Not that is was that, mind you, but… Nonetheless, a granite obelisk at Wish-Ham proclaims: “Here lie the Indians of the Yakima and Confederated Tribes who were moved from the ancient burial grounds on Memaloose Island.” Another plaque has been erected “In memory of all Indian ancestors who died so long ago their separate identities cannot be determined.” Story goes the name Memaloose is a Chinook jargon word, itself taken from the Chinook word “memalust,” meaning “to die.”

The tip of Memaloose Island is still visible above the river waters and there’s a monument there to—wouldn’t you know it?—a white man, Victor Trevitt, a pioneer early Oregon statesman who was buried there according to his own wishes. “In the resurrection I’ll take my chances with the Indians,” was Trevitt’s analysis. I have no idea if Trevitt’s bones were removed along with those of his friends; I didn’t see him at Wish-Ham.

There is a hint as to the pronunciation of the name Wish-Ham which adorns the aforementioned obelisk. Bolted to the chain-link fence (another sign of care) surrounding the cemetery is a hand painted sign: “Wish-Um Cemetery.” The recognized spelling is Wish-Ham, but my guess is that Wish-Um suggests the spoken word.

Many of the uprights in Wish-Ham have the look of army-provided stone: pure white with beveled corners and san serif script and sans dates. One stone alone contains the names of William, Mary, and Rose Spedis; Gibson and Pearl Sam; Martin Menineck; and Flora and Junior Whiz. There is a separate stone for an unidentified “Member of Spedis Family.” These are the stones most likely to bear names harkening back to an older time: Tweespum, Well-Ow-Ite, Us-I-At, and Chief Scha-Noo-A, “Who joined in signing the Yakima Treaty of June 9, 1855.”

The new graves here are interesting as well. For the most part, Americans are a conservative lot when it comes to grave decorations. Many cemeteries post regulations prohibiting or restricting what can and cannot be brought to a graveside. For a long time it’s been a few sprays of flowers, now likely artificial, and that’s it. Now, with the penchant for flat-stone, mow-at-one-sweep maintenance, the urge to prohibit anything marring the pristine vistas is overwhelming.

As a consequence, the average American is unprepared for the exuberance with which other cultures approach death. In many cultures the dead are still with them in a much more practical sense and graveyards are places of immediate expression of emotion, not frozen parks for the ages. Graves are much more likely to be festooned with momentoes special to the deceased, serving as a symbolic connection between the living, who bring the momentoes/sacrifices, and the departed. One can party in a good graveyard. Native American culture, at least in these parts, mimics that of those other Norte Americanos, the Mexicans, in bringing to the graveside trinkets and images of things significant to the deceased; not, I suppose, unlike grave offerings in many other cultures, the Egyptians, for example. Providing the dead with supplies for their journey is a natural instinct.

It makes, inevitably, for cacophonous piles of bric-a-brac that are a long way from Rip Van Winkle. Wish-Ham is one of those kinds of cemeteries where the offerings to the newly gone heap up in weather beaten mounds of a seemingly random miscellany. The dead here are anything but abandoned; the living won’t leave them alone.


On the east side of Hwy. 197 in Washington, about a mile north of the bridge to Oregon.
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