Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Charles Lummis

Charles Lummis was one of those amazing characters who used to inhabit the interface between today and yesterday. In his case, today was about a century ago and yesterday was more than five hundred years earlier, the Indio/Spanish culture that developed in the Southwest. He was a Harvard classmate of Teddy Roosevelt and woven into that complex of naturalists, adventurers and artists we love to read about today: Will Rogers, John Burroughs, John Muir, Thomas Moran, Mary Austin, Ernest Thompson Seton, Charlie Russell and a host of other familiar names. Through John Collier and by direct advocacy with TR, Lummis was able to help develop much more civilized policies towards Indians.

His home, El Alisal, which he handbuilt of stone and cement mostly by himself (like the poet Jeffers or the sculptor Voisin), had a courtyard where many a festival was staged, many pets and comestibles (rabbits and chickens, all unknowing) wandered, a huge old sycamore presided. Above the home on the hillside was built the Southwest Museum, which came to include the files of Walter McClintock, the “Lummis” of the Blackft, as well as many objects from Lummis’ own career as an amateur archeologist. His was an era that was always digging everything up, that didn’t shrink from or honor the mummies of peoples far distanct in time.

But mostly he wrote, both acid and practical criticism of his times, and lyrical constructions of romance and aspiration of a remembered past and an imagined future. For a while he edited the LA Times, going out to look for stories if necessary, and editorializing with a sharp and funny pen. Then he had a magazine, “The Land of Sunshine,” which made the reputations of many ink-stained strugglers. If I had to nominate an example of this genre in our own times, I’d suggest “The Canyon Country Zephyr” (P.O. Box 327, Moab, Utah, 84532) whose motto is “Clinging Hopelessly to the Past Since 1989.” Jim Stiles, Publisher, cannot quite match Lummis in romantic soaring but is more than a match at the Saracen-blade pen. It’s up to Martin Murie, in his column called “Losing Solitude,” to pick up the poetry. He’s quite capable.

When Lummis became the librarian of Los Angeles, then staffed entirely by females as a kind of enormous lending library, he became inspired. Faced with book theft he BRANDED the books on their edge. (And like it so well that he went home and designed his own brand for books, tools and what-have-you.) He surrounded the building with a garden and put another one on top where there was a place for the nicotine-addicted (of which he was one of the worst) to smoke while they read. He began to develop lists of books people SHOULD read, books and other materials that scholars NEEDED, and other pro-active lists. Needless to say, he was a boat-rocker and he was eventually thrown overboard.

When he came to women he was quite like Bob Scriver: he loved them and he used them up, both wives and “secretaries.” Sherrie Smith, in “Reimagining Indians,” calls Lummis a workaholic and so he was -- but he was also what some today call a “sex addict” -- that is, someone who finds the act a comfort and a renewal out of proportion to what society approves. It is not unrelated that he occasionally was stricken by physical states that some suspected to be psychosomatic: a long period in youth when one side was paralyzed, the arm entirely helpless, and, late in life, other periods of blindness. The recoveries were nearly always “miraculous,” in response to some romantic and woman-connected moment.

One child was lost early to pneumonia. The others grew up both loving and -- well, not hating their dad but wearing out like his many secretaries who were pressed into not just feeding the chickens and rabbits but also murdering and cooking them for crowds of visitors.

I hadn’t expected to take a tour of Lummis just now, but a friend gave me a copy of “American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest” by Mark Thompson. (Arcade Publishing: NY. Copyright 2001. ISBN 1-55970-550-7) That got me interested in the book by Keith Lummis and Turbese Lummis Fiske, his children. (“Charles F. Lummis, the Man and his West.” University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK. Copyright 1975. ISBN 0-8051-1228-X. It is a wonderful large book with reproductions from the “House Book” in which noted people signed and noted artists drew.) I had earlier read Smith’s book, “Reimagining Indians: Native Americans through Anglo Eyes 1880-1940.” (Oxford University Press. Copyright 2000. ISBN 0-19-513635-7) It is a book of argument rather than biography.

A couple of years ago Darrell Kipp and Shirlee Crowshoe were asked to come to Southwest Museum to comment on McClintock’s photos and help sort them. They were impressed by the museum collections, particularly the many kachinas that lurked everywhere. It is said that disturbing a kachina can change the weather, but there was no way to get at their materials except by moving the katchinas. After some trepidation in the beginning, they soon were cracking jokes about rainshowers at Four Corners and hail at Santa Fe.

Recently the Autry Museum reorganized itself to be an umbrella over three entities: the Southwest Museum, the Institute for the Study of the American West, and the Museum of the American West. A recent event was Russell Means, AIM activist and Hollywood actor, presenting a book he wrote to the mayor of LA. I wonder what Lummis would have thought.

Lummis was never particularly consistent, even allowing for the long ascending trajectory of understanding in his ever-learning life. But events are not consistent either and it’s important to allow them to be themselves. An excellent photographer (so many portraits of clear-eyed, bearded old visionaries!), Lummis as a personality is an excellent lens through which to view developments in the Southwest. “What would Lummis have thought?” is not an idle question.

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