The harsh smell of Camel unfiltereds rose in waves from Grandma’s white wool, very scratchy, coat. I sat on her lap, facing the windshield of Grandpa’s new, already-dust-caked 1950 GMC truck. Her arm tight around my waist, cigarette scissored in the V of her fingers, a tiny pungent smoke signal wafted past my nose. I liked to twist around and watch her exhale the warm smoke through her nose like some elegant dragon. Grandpa dangled his hand out the open window, left a smoke trail to mix with that of the big diesel’s. If he spoke a single word between my house in suburban Eureka and their cabin in the mountains near Weitchpec, I have no memory of the event. This suffocating smell – red dirt blowing freely from the truck’s sides through the open windows to mix with cigarette smoke, both old and newly drawn into lungs and exhaled out flaring nostrils – this was my transport from one world to another.
Neither Grandpa nor Grandma was native American. Yet they lived on the very edge of the reservation, Grandma’s best friend and closest neighbor was Vera Ryerson, a Yurok basket maker who became quite famous over the years, and Grandpa was logging partners with Vera’s husband, Bud, a man Grandma described as white and Vera insisted was Indian. Between the age of about one and when Grandma and Grandpa moved to the coast when I was ten, I spent most of my summers at their small plank-floored cabin.
I dug in the dirt with Grandma at the community garden in the mornings. Each afternoon she would mix us each a ‘refreshment’ in heavy highball glasses of cut glass. Whisky for her, lemonade for me. I’d grab the mason jar with the wiggling treasures I’d spent the morning gathering and we’d settle ourselves in what little breeze the front porch afforded. Grandma would tap, tap, tap with her glass onto the side of a terra cotta pot, amber liquid swirling in the sunlight, and I’d hold my breath.
The toads would come erupt from the pots arranged along the porch, lumpy, blunt noses pushing at loose dirt. The plop of their fat bellies hitting the wooden floor of the porch at each hop is still one of my favorite sounds in the world. I’d arrange the worms and bugs at intervals and see how close I could get before a toad retreated. Our favorite amphibian, the biggest by far – much bigger than my hands could hold without a great deal of squishy overlap – would allow me to pick him up. Grandma taught me to flip the toad gently to his back and stroke his belly to hypnotize him.
I rode wild piglets in the yard with visiting neighbor children, though I was strictly forbidden to do so as the mama hogs did not take kindly to this entertainment. The prickly rash from pig bristles rubbing the inside of my brown thighs always gave me away at bath time. I bought my way into the little group of kids at the garden with Dubble Bubble and we all pretended to understand the comics. I watched in awe on picnics as my playmates flung themselves into the creeks and rivers, another joy I was denied.
“Don’t behave like a damn wild Indian.” Grandma would whisper and squeeze my hand until I nodded my consent to her rules.
So, it’s not as though I wasn’t aware that I was different from the other children. There was that cigarette fueled trip from one world to another each time Grandma and Grandpa picked me up in middle-class America and transported me to a world not that much different than what it had been a hundred, two hundred, two thousand years before. I always knew that, once school started, before the acorn harvest, I’d be traveling back in time to my own white world, and I knew the gathering of willow roots for basket weaving would have passed the next year before I could return to that world on the mountain.
Still, I was shocked in junior high when I overheard a teacher say of an old friend from the reservation, a gorgeous boy on whom I’d had a crush since the first day we held hands and raced through the poison oak to escape an angry mama pig, “He’d be good on the debate team. Too bad he’s a damn Indian.”
In high school I was shocked to overhear a fellow student say of a tribal elders grandson, “That Indian should go back to the reservation, he’s got no business here.”
Still, in an act I can only look back on as willful ignorance, I believed that the native Americans indigenous to Humboldt County – MY Humboldt County, where I am so proud of being the sixth generation to breath this salty air and walk among the giant trees, and stroll the banks of our lagoons – I assumed these peoples were, for the most part and with the horrific exception of the Indian Island massacre, treated fairly and accepted by the ruling white citizens.
Recently, while researching another book, I purchased Two Peoples, Two Places from the historic Society.
According to this well-documented book, from 1850 to 1865, there were fifty-seven massacres in Humboldt County. One of those was perpetrated by Native Americans on white settlers. Four to eight Euro-Americans were killed. The other fifty-six massacres were white attacks on Indian settlements. Fifteen hundred to two thousand Native Americans of many different tribes were killed.
That’s willful ignorance. I have no other way to describe it.
So, why am I blogging about this subject today, sixty-five years after I woke up from my first smoky ride through the mountains and threw up on Grandma’s good white coat? Because, as a writer I investigate and do my best to put myself into the point-of-view of my characters and today I have a FREE download of a short story, Fingernail Moon, a short story about an Osage Indian boy, Montega, whose way of life has been destroyed and who is stolen and sold to Jesuits. A young man caught between cultures. This is my first attempt at portraying a point-of-view character outside my own race.
It’s presumptuous of me to do such a thing. I realize this. And yet when this character came to me his voice was load and clear and demanding. So, I wrote. I did my best to get his struggles and his triumphs correct. I’d appreciate it if you’d download Fingernail Moon, give it a read, let me know what you think. If you disagree with my portrayal, please, especially if you disagree, comment here, tell me. Writers grow and learn and mature just like everyone else.
Hell, until a few months ago I believed my ancestors arrived in Humboldt County in the 1860s to find peaceful Natives, and that the two cultures, more or less, ignored each other. One Indian-instigated massacre compared to fifty-six white attacks on Indians. Eight of my race killed as compared to two thousand Native Americans.
But, knowledge and understanding can rewrite stories. Words on paper are powerful tools, stories told around campfires change lives. Please, give Fingernail Moon a read. It won’t cost you a penny. Share with me what you think.