Thursday, September 15, 2016


AKA  “Mama and the Indians”

My father used the words “papoose,” “squaw,” and “buck”, with the same perfectly ignorant confidence that he said “pickaninny.”  We pretended we didn’t know him. Though he grew up in classic Indian country (Faulkton, SD, which was Sioux country before it was cleared, and Swan River, Manitoba, before the Cree were driven out), he had no concept of “Indians” except phony old books.  

My mother, who grew up in the fertile valley that runs N/S between the Coast Range and the Cascades through Washington and Oregon, had a warm understanding that the Indians were still there as families and individuals.  As a child in Mt. Vernon, Washington, the John Pinkerton family house was near an open space where Native American migratory workers camped in planting and harvest times.  She loved to watch them, kneeling at her upstairs bedroom window, but was forbidden to make contact, which made them more attractive.

As a young woman in Roseburg, Oregon, the custom was to stage a Strawberry Festival.  Girls each hostessed a table with bowls of strawberries and pitchers of cream.  The girl who attracted the most customers won some sort of honor.  My mother was thrilled because the chief of the Calapooya Tribe came to her table.

Mrs. Eagle was my brother’s second grade teacher, who succeeded in overcoming something that might have been dyslexia.  She taught him phonics.  (I learned by sight.)

Miss Colbert was my 4th grade teacher.  One of my classmates had a white father who spoke Chinook and often visited with her in that language.

Norma and Victor Owens were my classmates and Norma was in the 4-H sewing group my mother taught.  They only stayed a few months.  I don’t know whether they were connected to wartime work, but many tribal people did resettle in the big coastal towns.  

Mr. Miller was not Native American but he was either a trained anthropologist or that was his own choice to explore.  He gave us pemmican to taste and collected the stones used as mortars and pestles around the country.  When he died, those objects came to my mother and she lined them up along the garage.  Late in her life, she hired some guy to help her with a project of some sort and the next time she was gone for a few hours, the collection disappeared.  She had no way to find him. 

I think much of her attitude came from the visiting missionaries in her childhood, who gave lectures at churches to raise money.  They were evidently a mild sort, who cared about the mission work they did.  They were not punishers or scornful.  That must have been the source of her idea that ministry was caring, those people who ran schools and clinics.  Many of them were in Asia, since Oregon is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and various ventures traveled by ship back and forth.  Mission work is a form of commerce and the missionaries bring back ideas as much as they take them somewhere else.

My father’s “religion” was National Geographic lectures and books about explorers.  Benson High School in Portland was often the venue for such events and that’s where I first heard Jane Goodahl do her chimpanzee whooping, but that was late in my Oregon years.  One of the early films was “Savage Splendor” by Martin and Osa Johnson in which we were introduced to the eating of compressed gnat cakes as nourishing food and the dancing of the very tall Watusi lion hunters.  No one thought about their potential as basketball players.  But my father was more interested in factoids and geology more than people.  He always carried a little pocket notebook and wrote things in it, like the height of mountains or the dates of certain events.

When my mother got her teaching degree, it was clear that she had attacked the Portland Public Schools so much over their practices and policies that they would never hire her.  So she found a job at Columbia Elementary, just outside Portland, which served a low-income transient sort of families.  She never tried to go higher, into administration or upper grades, but her principal, whom she admired, asked her to take the job of librarian, since she had a lot of books at home.  She had no librarian training but got along fine.  Eventually the Portland School System expanded to include her.  As a girl she had loved "Ramona."  As an adult she loved "The Way to Rainy Mountain."

Vernon Elementary School, just across Killingsworth from Alberta Park, had once been a homestead, like everything else.  Portland is at the confluence of the Columbia River coming through the Cascades from the East and the Willamette River, draining the long valley from the South.  The banks of these rivers were partly built by glaciers like the Columbia Gorge, which had to pass through lava fields.  Because of my father’s interest in geology, we were very aware of this, and because he liked “famous man” books, we knew about the White Headed Eagle, Dr. John McLoughlin who ran the whole Pacific Northwest for the Hudson’s Bay Company while his wife, who was Native American, ran the elegant two-story house in Oregon City.  Their son, trained as a physician, lived in Paris for years as the the official doctor of the King of France.  Late in life he resumed his childhood tribal ways, wearing moccasins and living in a cabin.

Vernon School looks through the stand of Douglas Fir in the park (second growth as the homesteaders had cut the original much taller trees) and across the Columbia at the original location of Fort Vancouver, a fur-trading post of great significance with a military vibe that lasted even through the World Wars.  From the corner of 15th, our street, we could see across the Columbia to Portland proper.

What I’m saying is that we knew we were on a ridge that topped out a few blocks south of us at Prescott.  It was easy to imagine long houses made of split cedar and smoke in the air around them.  My mother found an old Great Northern Winold Reiss calendar and took it apart to make a frieze around the top of her library, which wasn’t exactly proper since they were Blackfeet, but no one ever made a calendar of the Callapooya tribe.  If they had, my mother would have been delighted to find it.

In fact, it pleased her that I was teaching on the Blackfeet Reservation, though her real goal was to have me living close to her as an adjunct.  When she came to visit, she had a good time.  When I was at Heart Butte, she sat in on my classes and my most disruptive student drew a picture of me to give her.  Around here mothers are still very important, even crucial, the good ones, anyway.

When my mother was dying, I was on RezNet, an Indians-only internet “bulletin board.”  I was there under false pretences though a few people recognized me.  I went back to sleep in my own apartment partly because I would check in on Reznet and that helped.  One woman in the Carolinas had also had a recent loss and she reached out to me with special care.  In fact, she made a braid of sweetgrass to send me.  I still keep it on the crucifix Bob sculpted, but I’ve lost her name.

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