Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Reflecting the Bones


By the latter part of the 1800's the smaller, green and growing places of Oregon were claimed and near settled. What were these, the late pioneers, to do, but to set their sights on the vast-dusted sagebrush, the sudden snakes and lanky rabbits, the desolate openness and dirty hills?  To be sure, the weary, sorrow-laden few hauled the whole of their lives into the great sandy desert and said, "Well, here we are. Give us this barren land and we'll make something of it."  And they built a sunrise home of fresh clapboards. They dug and cut and cultivated the untamed land, mastering it as they'd done back east. 

Trouble was, they'd been taming and mastering something that wasn't, in truth, in need of taming. Their minds were grown on the idea that if they could bring it to heel, it was theirs, it was good, it was civilized. 

The Northern Paiute Indians knew how to live here without taming it. They did not need to bring any of its wildness to heel. They knew where to find food, though it be small and lengthy to harvest; some were known as the Walpapi (Root Eaters), the Wadatika (Grass-Seed Eaters), the Yahooskin (Crayfish Eaters), the Gidi'tikadii (Groundhog Eaters), and the Sawawaktödö (Sagebrush Eaters). They were master weavers and intricate bead-workers. They were spiritual leaders and prophets. They were war chiefs and artists. They were mothers and fathers and children. They lived along the edges of desolation and called it life, and then they called themselves the people of it.

They wanted to be left alone. They wanted to drink their water and pass through all of the space of the high desert as they'd always done. The settlers wanted to call it their own. This land they'd been given in the Homestead Act was their right. They had a job to hone out the new country from it. It was practically their patriotic duty to hold this space.

And so they killed each other for it.

Now the Native Americans have reservations and the settlers have a few craggy trees surrounding the lonely ribs of their once golden homes.

There are no excuses; there is silence, for I do not claim to understand. I do not have the words for the white pioneers not so very long ago who are not me. I am from them and I am here and I look at the truth of it, but they are not me. All I can do to make any of it less wrong is to look it full in the face. 

I see the warm-skinned mother keening over her tiny cradle-boarded child, dead at the hands of a white man. I see the life of the peach-cheeked mama leaving through the deep wound in her neck. The papas who would never come home to the wickiup or the sod-house. The young men who would not grow older. The girl-dreamers who would not dream again. The red-raged fighters who died under each other's selfish hands. The old men who died slow deaths from infected gun wounds. I see the children taken and raised up away from the life they knew before. 

I see the weeping and the sorrow and the disillusionment. I can taste the seething bitterness like wild carrot left in their mouths.

I also see the moments in shameful stories for courage and beauty and truth. I see the moments when their hearts believed this is not how it should be. When they could stop the one bad thing from becoming worse. When the little white girl did not tell anyone about the Indian camp she'd seen for fear that all their laughing and loving would be wiped from the earth as easily as dirt from a boot. When the papa gave an old Walpapi grandmother and two babies a horse so they might escape the soldiers in the night. When the Paiute brave left the woman washing at the river alone because his heart told him it was enough that she should be doing the same as the women of his family have always done; maybe we aren't much different from each other.

This was not our war, but we are still left to make it right. What then shall I do?
I did not want to do any of the telling, because I did not want to make it small or to make a heavy thing as though it were light. And so, I have decided that I will reflect the bones of it, and we will remember it in the places of our hearts where we have knowledge of these things. It will not happen again, we will say.

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