Clean-ups transform tribal grounds

The dentures arrived first, then the stove.

It was the Puyallup Tribe’s third free neighborhood cleanup of the summer, and teeth are turning out to be a regular occurrence.

“It seems like we get them every time,” said regular volunteer Theresa Sportsman.

“Uppers and lowers, a full set,” quipped David Whited, the poet and tribal grant writer who initiated the clean-ups and coordinates them all. “Albert picked up a stove by the sweat.”

That would be the sweat lodge where tribal members gather to pray and meditate. It’s a sacred place, Albert Combs said, and it baffles and offends him that people would use it as a dump. So he and his wife, Merrilee Satiacum-Combs, make it their business to clean up other people’s misdeeds there, and on Browning Street. They carry pitchforks in her truck to heave the garbage.

They, Theresa Sportsman, John Strickler, Kyle Grobler and Ron Heinz show up at every clean-up day to help offload trash into containers bound for the City of Tacoma’s dump. They sort out the tires, and the metal for recycling, and they sweep up the tribal headquarters’ parking lot. In three clean-ups this year, they’ve gotten 67.52 tons of junk out of their East Side neighborhood.

“My volunteers are really shiny,” Whited said, and grinned.

“Whoa,” he said as Frank Costello pulled in with a pickup near to overflowing with trash bags. “This guy’s a machine.”

Costello had just been there, unloading another pickup load. Now he was back.

“I go around to the Puyallup elders and take this stuff out of their yards,” he said. “We help all the tribal members who don’t have cars. God believes you should always give.”

Combs feels an element of the sacred in the work he and his wife do on their own at the sweat lodge.

“It’s a place of prayer, where people come together to pray,” he said.

And it’s a place heedless jerks defile. He’s picked up sofas, needles and drug paraphernalia, beer cans, liquor bottles, blankets – and that stove.

That’s nothing to what he and Satiacum-Combs have found on Browning Street, the narrow, winding road that connects Grandview Street with Pioneer Way.

“I have this special little street over here where everybody dumps stuff,” she said. “People say they’re just going to do it again, and again, so why do I clean it up?” she said. “I don’t know why it feels so sacred to me to clean up this one place. You know the starfish story? It reminds me of that story.”

In that story, a storm has washed thousands of starfish onto a beach, and a man is throwing them back into the ocean. A passerby asks why he’s doing it. There are so many stranded creatures he can’t make a difference. The man tosses a starfish back and replies, “I made a difference to that one.”

Satiacum-Combs shared that, in its own way, garbage saved her.

She was, she admitted, a wild one once, and got sentenced to community service. She was picking up trash when, she said, a light went on. It was the epiphany she needed to become a responsible community member, and family member.

Combs paused from forking Browning trash into the truck, and watched her stomp down the hill, her hands full of garbage, including a needle.

He’d like the tribal council to develop a policy for members caught dumping.

“I think community service would be perfect, and not just one day, 30 days,” he said. “I mean, look what it did for my wife. Something clicked in her noggin.”

They drove back to the parking lot and emptied the truck.

They were in time for the shopping cart full of Gatorade Kelly Pinney delivered to keep the volunteers hydrated on a hot day.

They enjoyed it in the shade near the spot where the false teeth were sitting in a place of mock honor by a tuft of blue sedge.

Whited smiled.

These volunteers will have one more chance to shine at a Tribal cleanup this year, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 28 at the headquarters parking lot.

It’s a fine place to bring a stove, or a set of choppers.


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