Thursday, November 27, 2008


To be white and living on one of the vast dry high-altitude reservations of the plains West was to step into almost a different dimension. It wasn't that people were different in the way that another country might be different, but that one's most basic assumptions about everything were challenged. Ordinary tribal society was a tissue of dreams, half-memories, secrets, superstition, and outright lies meant to baffle and deflect.

It is often as difficult for Native Americans to grasp as it is for white people to understand that not all tribes that are seen as tribes today were, in fact, formally tribes until the BIA starting requiring organized tribes to function in political versus historically matrilineal ways. The Navajo were a loosely-knit band of nomadic Indians who spoke a similar Athabaskan dialect of which there are over fifty variations on the Navajo Nation alone. Changing Woman is the chief deity of the Navajo whose mythology reflects their extraordinary migrations that hit the Southwest when Anasazi culture was ready to decline. But these migrations (from the North) were family-led, not tribal in nature.

When an anthropologist went to such a place, carefully taking down notes all day and transcribing them in the evening, he (almost always "he") was a dog watching a movie, picking out what seemed real to him, but not what might seem at all real to the people doing the acting. (This is no longer the case since most people have been assimilated more effectively by television than by any missionaries.) In the Sixties and Seventies the complex swirl of rez life included Aquarian pilgrims hoping to find a way to fit in.

At the point when my father-in-law came to Browning, 1903, the Blackfeet and their Cree/Metis adjunct had been refugees, staying in place while their culture was dismantled and suppressed around them, losing from their own sky the constellations of belief that had guided and protected them for millennia. One agent forbade beading as a savage and subversive preoccupation, though clearly glass beads were provided by Euro traders or maybe Asian trade. Mission teachers went after obvious things like braids and eye contact, while never noticing abuse to children. Today all that trauma -- major destruction and perversion of families, never enough food, the confusion from losing the stories that told them who they were -- is either suppressed by the Indians themselves, glossed over by whites wanting to look good, or inflated into monstrous exaggerations for the political ends of both categories.

Everywhere on the planet, the absence of money causes other economies to develop: trade in secrets, behind-the-scenes deals and contacts, and maybe sexual privileges. The reservations today are now no better or worse than their surrounding white towns, which they are rapidly moving into anyway, since reservation housing is never quite adequately funded. Nothing is ever quite adequately funded except expense accounts. But in 1903 the straightforward men who came to trade in Browning had been buffalo hunters and horseback warriors a few decades earlier. By 1961 when I came, there were still a few old people who were born in 1880 or maybe slightly earlier, but the main reservation treaties were signed in 1851, the buffalo had been gone since 1883 (Charlie Russell arrived in Montana in 1880), and only a few child survivors of the Baker Massacre in 1869 were still living. Since then, another half-century has passed and today's parent generation is tall, strong, prosperous and educated. Their grasp of history is based on classes and books and most are firmly Christian. One just became the head of the state Office of Public Instruction.

Tim Barrus and Tina Giovanni went to live and teach on the Navajo Nation in the 1990s, escaping the many AIDS deaths destroying what had been a brilliant renaissance and new creation in San Francisco, especially fueled by gay talent and energy. Tim was particularly struck by the Mariano Lake high-desert landscape of Hosta Butte. From their BIA house they could see for over a hundred miles -- a hundred miles and nothing man-made in sight. Mariano Lake was an awakening. BIA housing is not closed off from the community. It is very much a part of the community. The Pinedale Trading Post was groceries, post office, and laundry for everyone. You only made the trip off the reservation if you had to. There were children who only knew Mariano Lake. Like kids everywhere, when given a bit of educational support, they bloomed like the Navajo country after a rain.

Tim already had special feelings for kids, had worked for the United Nations Year of the Child by organizing art shows, painting a giant block-long mural on the building where he worked, and taking his own photographs. He had worked in special education in Taos and Santa Fe. In California, he had worked with deaf children. By this time he was carrying enormous guilt for not being able to somehow pull his small son, Tommy, out of his damaged brain into something like a normal life, but also constant joy in his daughter, Kree, born wise and tough, a survivor from the beginning.

Given that Tim and Tina's training and certification was special ed, which means adapting to the child, inventing methods, not getting stuck in issues of curriculum, life on the Navajo reservation was both shocking and transcendent, the kind of experience that marks a person for life. An old lady set up her loom in the front yard of their home. Sheep, horses, and goats were everywhere. The people gradually came to know them. It was a while before the corrosions and tragedies surfaced.

The difference between deaths and other losses on a reservation is that, like a small town, you know the victims by name. You help deal with the debris afterwards. You have to deal with your own grief, and one of those ways is by writing.

It's a strange phenomenon that often white people who have never been on a reservation except to drive through on a holiday are the ones who are most insistent about what the reality of reservation life truly is. They split into two groups: those who want to hear about the miserable and degraded things so that they can shake their heads at all that misery, and those who want Indians to be next to angels, noble and magic. The first of these groups was only too happy to accept Tim's stories so long as they appeared to be memoir, thus adding a little spice to the voyeurism while allowing them to feel that everything was all right in the end since he could write a famous book. The second of these groups, especially the members attempting to worm their way into what might seem to be a privileged career as an "expert" on Indians, attacked Tim once they found a way to discredit him. They seized on his participation in the San Francisco gay life -- defiant and transgressive and flamboyant as it was in those times -- and "revealed" it in sensational articles in men's magazines and the alternative press.

In the actual time of being "cloaked" as Nasdijj, Tim was in a wheelchair and then recovering from a double hip transplant, paid for by the three books. Barrus and his wife moved to North Carolina because Duke University Medical was the only place willing to try the then experimental surgery Tim needed to replace bone with ceramic (most hip surgery is still done with titanium). Tim still limps as one leg is now shorter than the other, a by-product of the surgery. The title "Geronimo's Bones" is clearly personal.

At this time of rabid right-wing fundamentalism, attacks on homosexuality mixed with a barely hidden racism. These righteous people wanted to be virtuous, prosperous, straight and white and were willing to use any means to enforce that idea. It was in their interest to vilify Tim Barrus.

Tim Barrus did not take it, so to speak, sitting down.

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