One hopes; one hopes against hope that somehow it will make a little difference; only a little, but still some, if people mostly unknown to almost all of us get better known to more of us.
Robert Coles, Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians
About twenty years ago, these were the very first words I ever heard from a Warm Springs Indian:
"You want some ice to cool your balls off?"
This was a warm evening in June, and I was somewhere not far from Trout Creek, tying leader sections together with blood knots and waiting to be picked up by a guide in a drift boat. The guide and I would be fishing the Deschutes River for two days, and I was on assignment from Sports Illustrated to do an article on the experience.
(In late spring stone flies hatch on the Deschutes, clumsily-flying two-inch-long insects that fall by the thousands into the river, often sending even big trout into uncharacteristically reckless feeding binges.)
The three young Indian men (they were in their early twenties; I was in my early forties) had arrived silently and taken seats on a large flat-topped rock no more than twenty feet from my rock, and I had no idea how long they had been there, watching me struggle with my blood knots. On the dusty ground in front of them was a small Styrofoam cooler, and two of the young men reached in and pulled out cans of root beer just as I looked up. I also noticed three old fiberglass fly rods with beat-up Pflueger reels lying behind the cooler.
"I don't need any ice," I finally said.
"You sure?" asked the one without a root beer—the same one who had asked the original question.
"I'm sure," I said.
"You going to fish around here?"
"As soon as the guy I'm meeting shows up."
"You got to buy a permit to fish the river along the reservation."
"I already bought it," I said, "at the Rainbow Market." I smiled at him then—at the three of them—and somehow, luckily, the bad moment passed.
By the time the sound of an aluminum boat hull sliding over gravel announced the arrival of the guide, they had given me one of their six cans of root beer. In trade, I had given them a half-dozen orange-bodied stone fly imitations from the boxful I'd tied for the trip the week before.
Within seconds after I'd climbed into the boat and we were out into the heavy pull of the river current, the guide, another young man, looked at me quizzically.
"Where'd those three come from?" he asked.
"I don't know. I didn't ask them."
"Well, you don't want to fool with these local boys around here any more than you have to. Sometimes they act like they own the damn river.
"Don't they?" I asked.
"Well, maybe the half on their side—but that's all."
The Deschutes fishing was productive, with stone flies plentiful and rainbow trout, locally called "redsides," rising aggressively nearly everywhere from morning to night; but the river was too crowded with rafters and other anglers for me to enjoy it. I didn't really like the guide much either, and though I never heard from him about it, I'm certain he didn't care for the article I wrote. But I never got the young men with the root beer out of my mind, and I knew for certain I'd be back to Warm Springs and the Deschutes.
Eventually I wrote a book titled Mohawk Blood, which, among other things, is a narrative account of the influence that my great-grandfather John Brant, a descendant of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, has had on my life. The book ends with a chapter about my grandson Billy, the point being that this relationship is one way a heritage survives. Through what I say to Billy, what I teach him, and, most importantly, what I do with him, the things I learned from John Brant are passed ahead to yet another generation.
Now as we near the end of another century, this seems to me to be an awfully important subject as it relates generally to North American Indians, and to all other thoughtful Americans as well. After the broken treaties and massacres of the nineteenth century and the continued betrayal and then neglect of the twentieth, who are American Indians now, and what will likely become of them and their traditional ways of life in the years ahead?
The Warm Springs Reservation in north-central Oregon is probably as good a place as any in America to seek out likely answers to these questions. An area of just about one thousand square miles, the reservation is home to about thirty-six hundred Indians, principally the Warm Springs, Wascos, and Paiutes, with approximately half of this population under twenty years of age.
The Deschutes River, which constitutes the eastern border of the reservation, is one of the Columbia River's major tributaries and is such a big, powerful river in its own right that it seems distinctly out of place in this dry country of volcanic rock and talus slopes, sage brush and juniper. In some fairly obvious ways, the Deschutes stands as a telling benchmark of how the Pacific Northwest has changed over the past century.
For thousands of years, the Indians of the Northwest fished the Pacific and its coastal streams. They ate fresh fish during the seasonal runs, dried and smoked it for winter use, and pounded it into a powdery meal that, mixed with dried berries and fruits, became a staple food called pemmican. Their fishing methods included nets made of willow bark, traps and weirs, dip nets and spears, and the bow and arrow. The runs of fish in different rivers and creeks might fluctuate from year to year, but the overall abundance never varied.
Then white men arrived in numbers during the nineteenth century, and by 1920 the salmon harvests in the Northwest averaged about 240 million pounds per year. For the past decade, harvests have averaged about 10 million pounds, and the fish runs continue to decline. At least half of the native trout, steelhead, and salmon populations of the Northwest are already extinct. There are seventy-nine dams on the Columbia River system, and each year they kill more than 90 percent of the juvenile steelhead and salmon attempting to migrate downstream to the Pacific. (A radio commercial played on many Oregon stations in 1996 promised without a hint of irony that "on our Columbia River cruise, you rise and rise through eight majestic dams.")
Oregon Trout, a conservation organization widely known for its accuracy, estimates that over 90 percent of all the water in the Deschutes River basin is consumed by irrigation and livestock. So, like many other waterways, the Deschutes is a dying river. Unless Americans change their ways in a hurry, the salmon will go the way of the passenger pigeon and buffalo; for the native peoples whose very lives have always been centered around the coastal rivers and their fish, this is certainly tragic. Can cultures hope to survive once their very roots have been destroyed?
Two centuries ago Indians of the Northwest were, without much doubt, as free as any people on earth. But the last "wild" Indian in America, a Yahi who became known as Ishi, walked out of northern California's Mill Creek canyon in 1911. What, then, is an Indian today?
Not long ago I was told by a Lakota Sioux named Robert Owens that "heart and language are what matter." N. Scott Momaday has written that "an Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself. And it is a moral idea, for it accounts for the way which he reacts to other men and to the world in general. And that idea, in order to be realized completely, has to be expressed."
I used a simple, straightforward quotation from a Quinalt leader named Joe Delacruz in Mohawk Blood: "People get into language and dance and songs and stuff, powwows, and they think that's culture. How much of the Quinalt culture is left? I see about two hundred and fifty people—they're fishing, they're happy, they're doing what our ancestors did. They get their deer; they get their elk. They live the way they want to live. That's more culture than the powwow dancing thing." (I used the quotation because I tend to believe it: By far the sharpest and most necessary edge of the subsistence hunter's arrowhead was knowledge, and no one will ever again know this continent as he did.)
So, yes, it is a complex subject that can be approached from many directions, and confusions and controversies are definitely inevitable.
More than twenty years ago, a friend of mine named Doug Latimer, then a vice president at Harper and Row, edited a series of Native American books by such authors as James Welch and Duane Niatum. The hrst title published in the series was Seven Arrows, by Hyemeyohsts Storm, a Northern Cheyenne born at the Lame Deer Agency in Montana. Latimer was convinced the book was a good and important one, but Rupert Castro, president of the American Indian Historical Society, attacked it vigorously in a review published in The Indian Historian (Summer 1972, Vol. 5, No. 2).
"This book, Seven Arrows, will bring disgrace to Harper and Row," Castro wrote. He even expressed doubt that Storm, though enrolled as a Northern Cheyenne, was indeed a "real Indian." ". . .[A]n enrollment number doth not an Indian make!" Castro argued. "Quite a few Anglos and Blacks were adopted into Indian tribes. Sometimes, as in the case of the Blacks, the Indians were forced by the U.S. Government to accept them on the tribal rolls. In other cases such as the Osage, whites were fraudulently enrolled, with the active help of the Bureau of Indian Affairs."
Toward the end of the review, Latimer receives his only mention: "It is most unfortunate that the author, who has no religious or secular status in the tribe, is so presumptuous as to bestow Indian names upon his white benefactors, among whom is Mr. Douglas Latimer, his mentor and a vice president of Harper and Row."
The last line of the review accuses Storm of "vulgarizing one of the most beautiful but least known religions of man."
It is worth relating all of this because I happen to know beyond any doubt that Doug Latimer cared very deeply about North American Indians and their problems and causes. He ran Harper and Row's Native American Publishing Program on his own time, with all profits donated to Native American causes.
(A few years before he began the publishing program, Latimer had purchased two thousand acres of land in the Mill Creek canyon east of Red Bluff, California, the very same Yahi land from which Ishi had emerged. Latimer's primary reason for buying the land— and going into what he called "lifelong debt"—was to protect it from developers and thereby save the traces that remain of Yahi culture.)
Largely as a result of Castro's review, Latimer actually learned the Cheyenne language and traveled to Wyoming to discuss Seven Arrows—to try to justify the book—with a tribal dignitary. While Latimer and the elder spoke in Cheyenne, the Indian's two young sons sat in the next room watching Star Trek on television.
This entire episode, from Hyemeyohsts Storm through Rupert Castro and Doug Latimer to Star Trek, asks many more questions than it answers, and they are important questions.
White attitudes toward Indians range from liberalism (sometimes of the comically blind New Age variety, sometimes responsible and even useful) to the worst sort of racism. I once heard these extremes demonstrated in a few minutes of conversation at a café in Custer, South Dakota, not far from the Pine Ridge Reservation. One customer, a middle-aged man I took for a farmer, expressed the opinion that when whites took over the continent, it was nothing less than a case of the most materialistic people in the history of the earth supplanting a population spiritually, morally, and physically superior to their own. Only superior numbers and technology could ever have defeated such warriors as Crazy Horse. This struck me as quite a speech, and it was promptly answered by a younger man, skinny and long-haired, with tattoos on his arms, whose reply was that Pine Ridge Indians were "prairie niggers," and as far as he was concerned, that was that.
Even given our continent's history, the attitudes of the most enlightened Indians toward whites can be surprisingly vicious. A friend of mine published a not unfavorable review of a novel written by a resident of Pine Ridge, to which the novel's author responded in a letter calling my friend a "Mutant Ninja literary fairy" and a "half-baked academic eunuch." And that was that.
Even the feuds and arguments among Indians themselves can be very complicated. At Pine Ridge I overheard two middle-aged men discussing the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 19705, which resulted both in Leonard Peltier's arrest and very controversial conviction for the murder of two FBI agents, and in the bombing by Indians of the court house in Custer.
One of the Pine Ridge men pointed out that the military action at Wounded Knee in 1975 was the largest use of troops on American soil since the Civil War, and he argued that the young and militant Indians involved (perhaps he was one of them) had given their people more pride in themselves than they had had at any other time in this century. But his companion argued that all AIM had really done was cause whites to hate Indians more than ever, and what good could possibly come of that? It was the whites' country now, wasn't it?
That question stopped the conversation cold.
I still fish the Deschutes occasionally despite the crowds, and I spend as much time as I can on the Warm Springs Reservation these days. I've hiked the rugged country and chased the mule deer and coveys of chukar up and down the steep slopes. I've listened to coyotes yap and howl at midnight along the Warm Springs River, answered by their brothers and sisters on the nearby sage and juniper hills. I've talked to the Warm Springs people, and I've even stayed at the Kah-Nee-Ta Lodge and lost a little money at the Indian Head Casino. I listen to "the station on the reservation," KWSO, which plays everything from drumming and chants to Madonna, and I keep up with the bimonthly reservation paper, Spilyay Tymoo (Coyote News). And I'm familiar with the nearby white communities too—Redmond, Madras, Maupin, and Willowdale—where I've drunk my share of bad draft beer, shot games of eight-ball, and joined, for better or worse, in the general conversation. My interest in the area and its people, both Indians and whites, came long before any serious idea for this book. The book, I suppose, is the result of having had John Brant as a greatgrandfather, of growing up in Hawaii with very close friends from many cultures, and of that minor verbal run-in with the young man on the banks of the Deschutes.
Of at least equal importance is the fact that I met my co-author, Charlotte Hadella, a few years ago. An accomplished writer and scholar, she currently teaches Native American literature classes at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. She did nearly all of the considerable research that went into the project and also conducted many of our interviews.
The interviews were included for a simple reason. Anyone reading the transcribed speeches of American Indian leaders will likely be struck immediately by a use of words that is clear and honest, simple yet profound—often, in fact, poetic.
Consider this excerpt, from a nineteenth-century northwestern tribal chief: "The earth was created by the assistance of the sun, and it should be left as it was.... The country was made without lines of demarcation, and it is no man's business to divide it.... The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same. Say to us if you can say it, that you were sent by the Creative Power to talk to us. Perhaps you think the Creator sent you here to dispose of us as you see fit. Do not misunderstand me, but understand me fully with reference to my affection for the land. I never said that land was mine to do with as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours."
And then this (fairly typical, mercifully brief) statement from a twentieth-century candidate for the United States presidency, in his acceptance speech at the nominating convention: "...[A]ll things flow from doing what is right . . . only right conduct distinguish [sic] a great nation from that [sic] cannot rise above itself. I assure you, I guarantee it, when I say what I mean, I mean it. It has never been otherwise...."
Perhaps this difference in public utterance is attributable to the Indians' long oral tradition. The spoken word mattered because it was what they had. In contrast, we now live in a country where not only do prominent politicians not write their own speeches, but they often have great difficulty even standing in front of a camera and coherently reading the clichés, lies, evasions, and abstractions composed for them by somebody else. In any event, today's American Indians often speak with much of the clarity and honesty their ancestors demonstrated. Our interviews concentrate on Warm Springs residents of early middle age, who are raising school-age children and are also in the process of assuming positions of crucial authority on the reservation; of course, we've talked to local whites too, because they are an inevitable component of modern Warm Springs life.
In one of our interviews, Brent Florendo, a Wasco, says, "What's out there now always seems to reFect back into our cultural past, for the most part. The only way the masses seem to be able to identify with us is in the past. My idea is: We're still here; we're a viable people; we have the same heartbreaks, the same successes, the same failures as everybody else does.... We're here yet, but it's like we're invisible, and it seems like it's always kind of been that way."
Brent makes this crucial point absolutely correctly. In my youth, Indians of the past were portrayed in the Saturday movies as (to borrow the tide of one of Paiute Adrian Louis's volumes of poetry) "blood thirsty savages." The more recent and currently fashionable myth, exploited in Dances with Wolves, allows white Americans to feel a safe, sentimental nostalgia for Indians of long ago who, long and safely dead, have finally become noble. This new myth is at least as destructive as the old one, because it allows most Americans to avoid thinking about the Indians living today and to ignore what has been done to them. Obviously, reservations are in some ways nothing but rural ghettos. This is exactly why, as author Peter Matthiessen correctly points out in In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, ". . . most studies of Indian history and culture avoid mention of the twentieth century."
As admitted amateurs and outsiders, our intention here is to counter this trend, to offer an honest look at a twentieth-century reservation. In doing so, perhaps we will help prove that many of our real Indians, still living and suffering, always struggling, often succeeding, are worthy of recognition and respect.
We have included what we think is enough (and no more than enough) historical material concerning the formation of the reservation. After that we have outlined the traditional ways of life, the "seasonal rounds," which were lost as a result of the reservation. Brent Florendo's interview was included among these introductory chapters because he speaks, in a compelling personal voice, of the themes and subjects central to the entire book: the destruction of the Columbia River system, racism, the dilemma of living in two distinctly different worlds, and education. Our chapter on education, "The Deserted Boy," is placed among the interviews toward the end of the book, where education has become the central focus.
It became clear soon after we began to visit Warm Springs regularly that education as it pertains to native languages and the passing on of cultural traditions is at the heart of efforts to revitalize reservation life. We certainly don't pretend to have arrived at any unarguable conclusions about these issues. The diversity of our interviews, and their contradictions, are a reflection of the cultural complexities evident at Warm Springs. The imposition of an organization or contrived scheme that might imply that such a rich life can be compartmentalized and easily defined would have been both self-defeating and dishonest.
What we have done, as well as we could, is observe day-to-day life on the reservation and in nearby towns; and, most signihcantly, we have heard the Warm Springs people speak for themselves. They represent a group that has rarely had a public audience and that surely deserves one.