Remembering Ben Charles, Sr., of the Klallam Tribe

On his passing, October 30, 2021

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With Washington State Governor, Christine Gregoire, US Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, and others on the podium behind him, Ben Charles, Sr. gave a blessing for the ceremony marking the beginning of the removal of the two dams on the Elwha River, on September, 17, 2011.

I had travelled there with Nina Serrano to witness the ceremony to begin removal of the 105 foot-tall Elwha Dam and the 210 foot-high Glines Canyon Dam, the largest dam removals in US history up to that time and still to this day (October 31, 2021). Using a press pass obtained from KPFA for me by Nina, I boarded the press bus that carried journalists to the site of the ceremony on top of the doomed Elwha Dam.

Elwha ceremony crowd shot

As we got off the bus, one of the professional journalists remarked jokingly “May the biggest tripod win!” I had no tripod. A podium was set up on a small field full of chairs for a limited number of viewers. All of the press lined up on the side of the crowd and the big wigs began their speeches.

Ben Charles, Sr. Blessing

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Ben Charles, Sr., 2011, at the ceremony marking the removal of the Elwha dams.

Towards the end of the speeches, they turned the mic over to Ben Charles, Sr., to offer a prayer for the event. I recorded it completely. He spoke from the ground in front of the podium, for reasons I still wonder about. He left a deep impression on me at the time. What stays with me is the hope he spoke about that had sustained him and his tribe over the 100 years that the dams had blocked fish passage and basically wrecked the Klallam tribe’s way of life. Standing there he repeated “We’re Just About there.” And today, in the midst of climate change disasters globally, I yearn for the day when we can all rejoice that we are just about there. We still have a long way to go.

Ten years after this ceremony and the removal of the dams, on the day after Ben Charles, Sr., passed away, I am thankful to him for revealing the deep spiritual impact that the dam removal promised for the Elwha river and for the Klallam tribe. The revival of the river since then shows our hopes were not misplaced. The restoration of the river demonstrates the resilience of nature once we stop abusing it. So, thank you Ben Charles, Sr., for your words, your spirit and your prayers. We need them still to guide us forward. My condolences go out to the Klallam tribe which has lost a powerful voice and wonderful man.

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