Uniquely Umatilla: Prayer Power in the Rotunda

NPR and a iHeartRadio were silently and then loudly conflicting as I attempted to get a miniature sound bar working in my new office on March 22. As I resolved the issue that morning, I heard an overpowering sound in the distance.

There was a bell, a few booming voices and a slow migration to a small circle in the Nixyaawii Governance Center’s rotunda. Prayers in Washat were being conducted for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and large circles were turned into small circles.

I’m no stranger to the longhouse, as it’s practiced on my Reservation, as well. Also, my media brother to the north, Yakama Nation Radio’s Roy Dick, plays a prominent role on his reservation and within the Native American Journalists Association. But that Monday was the first time I heard it ring in-person in more than a year. It was very powerful, to say the least.

“That was much needed,” a woman said beside me on the second level as prayers commenced.

The Monday morning prayers were a staple here at NGC. But a year since the start of the pandemic, with cases identified on this reservation serving as the first known in Indian country, the booming voices and bells have been missing.

It was inspiring to hear the songs. I was about the seventh person to the circle, and watched as Tribal members and employees – one-by-one, and two-by-two — began to number around 20.
Some of the few familiar faces I know thus far began to show up. Cor Sams and Sandy Sampson came from the west wing.

Steven Hart emerged. Enola Dick appeared across from me on the second story.

From what I understand, the return of the prayer didn’t hold a candle to the usual Monday prayer gathering. But to catch a glimpse of the local culture live was a sign that times may be changing.