Tag: Ishi in Two Worlds

It is Wrong to Steal, and Colonizing Culture

My father, a man who was quiet, did somehow manage to instill in me certain attitudes toward Native Americans, beginning with little mentions of Indian children that would stare through his windows when he was a boy growing up in Arizona. Then he handed me Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage (1937) on the French and Indian War, and when I was sixteen, he handed me a mailing from the Exeter or Harvard Alumni Association, a story about one or the other of those two schools sending a letter to a New England Indian chief (actually a speech by an Onondaga chief Canassatego, on colonizing eduction, delivered in 1744, in Pennsylvania, on behalf of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations) inviting him to send some of his young men to learn Latin, poetics and English. The chief politely wrote back, thanking the school and saying that they had found such education had not benefited their young men the way they had hoped it would. But on the other hand, if those schools would send a few of their young men to him, they would learn to run fifty miles, argue persuasively in councils, shoot arrows with accuracy and be leaders of men.

While I was at Berkeley in graduate school, studying Germanic Languages and Literature, the most important person in my life was already dead almost twenty years before I was born, the Yahi Indian Ishi, whom Theodore Kroeber immortalized in her books, Ishi in Two Worlds and Ishi, The Last of his Tribe. As evidence of my reverence for this man I even instructed that my ashes were to be placed at the top of a certain cliff overlooking Deer Creek, Ishi’s home canyon until he was flushed out by surveyors in 1911 and became the “Last Wild Indian.”

In a recent review of a friend’s book A Terrible Beauty, The Wilderness of American Literature, I referred to a short story I had written and how it was evidence of my non-European side. My wilderness side, part of my wilderness cosmology that embraced the original peoples of the north. But I am aware that one form of colonizing is to romanticize the original peoples one’s compatriots have slaughtered. And so, I ask the question, am I doing that in this short tale that follows. You decide.


“Those before me came first from New England and then later from Arizona, where my great-grandfather Edwin, a miner, and my great-grandmother Sarah went broke during the depression of 1890. That was when the Apaches of San Carlos, on the Fort Apache Reservation, east of Globe, began to starve and came and stood in a silent line at Sarah’s back door, where day after day, in sunlight and grayness, and drifting powdered snow, she gave away all the food they had, over and over, cooked and served each time in the same few blue-enameled dishes until they, she and Edwin, had no money and also began to starve.

The winter of 1890-91 saw the price of silver fall and mines shutting down and the winter hard and cold, endless in its duration, with coughs and fever stalking the aging couple, finally driving them to their bed, where they huddled and shivered and clung to each other, too weak to go for help, their sons too far away to know what was happening to them. The line of starving Apaches thinned and disappeared, until there was only the sound of the wind at the back door and penetrating cold outside and in.

A day passed, then two, and on the third day, a young Chiricahua sat astride a horse, leaned to look through the window of the bedroom and rapped on the glass. Twice each time, a pause, then another rap rap. Then silence. The horse, a shadow across the window, stomped and stepped forward, then backward. My great-grandparents heard something heavy hit the ground, followed by something soft. A slaughtered calf and a man in moccasins. They heard the front door push open, movement in the front room, and then they saw a young face looking through the bedroom door.

Soon a fire was burning in the kitchen stove, and heat–at first just the sound of it–stole cat-like through the door into their bedroom. They drifted in and out of dangerous sleep. Then they awoke. They heard plates banging, the sounds of cooking, and then the young Indian appeared with two bowls of beef soup with pieces of fried bread floating on top.

The boy helped them sit up, spooned from one bowl into two mouths, then spooned from the second bowl till that too was gone. He lay them back down, covered them with a hide blanket he had brought, put a pitcher of water near the bed to thaw in the temporary heat—then faded away. They heard the sound of horse’s hooves on frozen ground, and then there was silence again.

On the following day, they heard the sound of more horses. Over the next several days, some say as many as twenty Chiricahua entered the house. They were warmly dressed and snow-dusted. A few of them had come all the way from of Agua Prieta and the mountains to the south–and deeper into Mexico. It was a place where the dangers of the coming hunger had been anticipated and food had been set aside for those in need.

Three grown women—one quite old—stayed with my great-grandparents for a week, nursing them and cooking. They stuffed the open chinks in walls with bits of old blankets to keep out the cold. The young man, whose name was Walks With Snow, also came and went. The women rendered and cooked the calf and shared it with Sarah and Edwin—and with other Chiricahua.

When Sarah and Edwin could walk again, without the Indians’ help, the women rolled up their sleeping robes and rode away with Walks With Snow. But first there was hugging all around and tears and thanks—from both sides because the Chiricahuas were the relatives of the starving San Carlos Apaches whom Sarah and Edwin had helped survive. Edwin knew something about the world and therefore as a precaution took great pains to bury any traces of the calf under snow some distance from the house.

The Chiricahua had not been gone more than a day, two at the most, when the sheriff from Globe arrived, with six heavily armed men, looking for an Indian who had been taking calves from the vast 40,000-section Madison holding on the south bank of the Salt River, twelve miles to the northwest, land that had once belonged to everyone.

Edwin, who had been a brevet colonel in the Civil War, on the Union side, and who was at home on horses, accepted one from the sheriff, and agreed it was wrong to steal anything. He said he would lead them where he was sure they’d find the thief and took them—even in his still weakened state—some fifty miles due north, in the opposite direction from the route the Chiricahua had taken toward the Mexican border.

At some point, my great-grandfather, half hidden behind his great coat, scarf and fur hat, dusted white by snow, as the rest were, said he was too faint to continue and they would have to go on without him. He told the sheriff he would return the horse as soon as he could. He was sure, he said, they would find their man camped beside a certain stream which meandered vaguely northwest through a land he made sound real and distinct and so plausible that the party rode some twenty miles more before they gave up and took a short cut back to Globe and to their snug and—because they were really mostly shopkeepers and merchants—warm and still fairly prosperous homes.”

My Visit to America

Cache Creek Swimming Hole Cache Creek Swimming Hole

I use the word loosely.

I’m talking about just one of the Americas—the one we always see on top, a cartographical positioning that was chosen by a culture that assumes itself to be dominant, i.e. “on top,” the world’s default world view. The rest of the globe appears to have politely accepted European-North American on-top-ness, just the way it has accepted Greenwich Mean Time. Nice of them, but perilous for those who assume that their cultures can’t help but be the measures of all others; and perilous for the “southern” cultures who twist themselves inside out trying to adjust.

I flew from León/Guanajuato to Los Angeles, then on to San Francisco, where I rented a low-slung Ford Focus—which seemed to have no maximum speed for taking curves—and drove to Sacramento, to the 2014 Western Writers of America conference. I never had to ask a soul how to get there because of my portable GPS whose lovely female voice my love had switched to French—which added linguistic anxiety to general GPS anxiety. “Dans huit cents mètres, tournez à gauche.” Turn left in 800 yards! Leaving Sacramento, I insisted on continuing north on Route 5 to take the long way to Sonoma County through Williams and Clear Lake, instead of the shorter southern one Mademoiselle had plotted as shorter and more practical. As I passed by each possible exit, she instructed with increasing insistence, “Tournez-vous immédiatement! Tournez-vous immédiatement!” Turn around immediately, turn around immediately.

But back to the conference. I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps people smelling of cigarettes and beer at nine in the morning, pushing pulp fiction consisting mostly of Bodice Rippers and Armed Male Heroes on Rearing Horses, holding Rifle Aloft. But what I found were kind, knowledgeable, intelligent writers, agents, publicists and publishers. I went to almost each session on the theory that I would pick up something useful whatever the topic. Which proved to be the case. I schmoozed and handed out my postcards that pushed my own Armed Male Hero with Moustache and Sombrero and brought up, whenever I could, the idea of the Mexican western, a concept I found not widely held among my fellow conference goers. In fact, the whole country seemed just slightly beyond my companions’ consciousness. Which is a whole topic in inself—one which I hope I will come back to later in this screed, but may not.

What I liked most about the conference was the hotel where the sessions held and where we stayed. I like to refer to it as the starship or maybe space station Double Tree Hilton, which consisted of several buildings connected by covered causeways, so that you never had to leave the building—which I hardly did over four days and five nights. The food available was delicious and reasonably priced. Especially the breakfast buffet, where I took huge servings of fresh blueberries and strawberries each morning, while others seemed more interested in the biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and sausages.

I was assigned a mentor, a kind man and good writer, who introduced me to various publishers and editors—for whom I felt no fear because I wasn’t offering them a manuscript with hands atremble. I had my own novel Playing for Pancho Villa—which I was now pushing as a Mexican western—and another book in gestation, which I would also bill as a Mexican western wherever that description seemed socially acceptable.

As I mentioned, Mademoiselle GPS et moi, headed north after the conference, quarreling all the way. I wanted to follow a route to Sonoma County I took in the old days when my two boys and I returned from Ishi country, as we called it, between Mill and Deer Creek, northeast of Chico, where we would commune with that fine man, a Yahi Indian, who came into the white man’s world, starving, when none of his people were left.

In Williams, I got off the freeway, probably to Mademoiselle’s relief and went into a hardware store for a piece of nylon rope from which I could hang my hand-washed clothes. Three men sat around the check-out counter, watching the World Cup on an overhead screen. The young Mexican team was trying to keep its miraculous one point lead over Holland. I concluded my purchase. All three men spoke Spanish and I asked in Spanish whether they knew where I could breakfast and watch the game at the same time. They said, almost in unison, “Nowhere.” Which was to say, We are not Mexico, where every eating place will have some sort of TV placed—even outside—for people to watch the most important game in four years. A game on which rode the entire nation’s self-esteem.

I went to the local Trading Post, or whatever it is called, where all the passing tourists were eating heavy and then buying overpriced packaged luxury food items that weren’t good for you. I had Eggs Byzantine or Florentine, or whatever you call it when there’s no ham. The sweet waitress automatically brought me ham. She was equally sweet when I sent her back to remove the ham and replace it with sauteed spinach.

After paying, I walked out into the entry area and found someone had turned on an overhead television. There was a bare table; three men sat at it in three chairs; I settled into a fourth empty chair. They were all over fifty: one man, Dutch; one South African; and one that looked Latino. They were watching the same game—Holland vs Mexico. I joined them until the enfant terrible Robben appeared to fake a foul in the penalty area and thereby win a scoring penalty shot. Holland won two to one. I didn’t want to hang around and live Mexico’s disappointment. I got into the Focus; and Mademoiselle and I headed due west. After a few side roads, she gave up trying to head me off and fell into a brooding silence. As a way of protecting her dignity, I shut off the GPS.

We entered the hot, dry, lovely hill country west of the Sacramento Valley and approached an area I knew used to have streams that the boys and I had swum in. At Cache Creek, North Fork, to the right, I saw a glorious swimming hole, with little kids—closely watched by mothers—leaping off a bank into the clear water. I drove on, looking for a way in, and found nothing. I turned around and passed the swimming hole again. I couldn’t find an entrance, and began to think it must be private property. At the creek bridge, on the right, the opposite side of the road from the swimming hole, I saw a State Park sign that said Cache Creek, Rose Bud Trail or Trailhead, and I drove in.

There was a parking lot, a small bathroom house, and various covered displays telling about the site, the fauna and flora, the site’s history. I parked Focus and headed straight toward Cache Creek to see if I couldn’t find my own swimming hole. Which brings me to my religion and the spiritual epiphanies it offers: skinny-dipping in California creeks, rivers and ponds. Then getting out and feeling the effect of water drying on my skin. That is the image and sensation I hope I call up in the moments before my death.

The first part of the creek I came to served perfectly well; not exactly a hole, but deep enough to swim twenty feet, then stand in the dry air and feel my gods breathing against my skin. One of the displays back at the parking lot had explained that Tule Elk had been released there in the Twenties and that, protected, they had flourished since then and could be seen grazing on the hillsides in the green of winter. As I dried, I wished for the appearance of one of the large creatures, preferably a gentle one—since I thought I might be swimming in one of their watering holes, without permission.

A car door banged; and then two others. I had just slipped on my clothes. Two women with children had stopped to use the toilets. The spell of being alone in an Ishi spot had been broken.

I had spent most of my life being alone in the woods in New England and then in California. There were certain spots that seem holy: a dark glacial pond with turtles; a beech grove with smooth gray trunks, far from a highway, let alone a freeway; a stream where Ishi had fished. That may be a condition of spiritual moments, that one is alone. It is hard to do in Mexico where one is never alone; where there are just too many people with a claim on the land, no matter how remote it may seem. Poor countries, the ones “underneath,” have very few protected wilderness areas, where it is possible to be alone. There is always someone moving through a landscape, sharp-eyed and intensely curious to know what you are doing in the same area.

Except in cars, where one is often alone. In Mexico, you watch for people and animals on the side of the road. They appear in abundance. At night it is quite dangerous. In California, I was alone and car-bound for much of my adult life, with National Public Radio figures as my closest companions. In Sacramento, I saw people walking in parking lots at Whole Foods and REI—but nowhere else. I miss casual contact with people when I’m in the States; I see few people walking, in contrast to Guanajuato, which is a walking city with few roads. I feel lonely in the States; I feel crowded in Mexico. But in that moment, when the toilet visitors were in their car and drove away, I resolved to visit America more often.

Just to be able to dunk naked in Cache Creek again—waiting for the elk.