Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Greengate Mall.  All photos c by William Kowinski
Christmas at Greengate Mall

Greengate Mall opened in 1965 just outside my hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  In many ways it was the inspiration for the research that resulted in my book, The Malling of America.  Greengate figures in several chapters, including one in which I describe the all-night process of building the Christmas decorations. 

For over 30 years, Greengate Mall was a major center for Christmas activities for the county community. Even after other malls and shopping centers sprang up, Greengate continued to have the most elaborate Christmas decorations, including the center court train ride for children. When it was the only mall, and then the dominant one especially for the western side of the county, it was a bustling hive of shopping during this season, and the prime place for people to meet up with each other. More than a replacement for Greensburg's Main Street of old, it was the county's Main Street every Christmas.

By 1999, when I last visited it, Greengate was a ghost mall: a gleaming and almost empty shell, invaded by shabbiness and deterioration.  It soon closed altogether. But on that last visit, I could still marvel at its old essence.  Greengate was designed by Victor Gruen, a renowned architect who essentially invented the enclosed shopping mall with his design of Southdale in Minnesota, which opened only nine years before Greengate.  Greengate was also one of the few collaborations between Gruen and the Rouse Company, an important developer (begun by another visionary of the era, James Rouse) that helped define suburbs and cities across America in the second half of the twentieth century.
In many ways, Greengate was a kind of template for enclosed shopping malls that became part of ordinary life throughout the country.  Yet there was still something unique about it, which I tried to describe and define in my book.  Through its layout and architectural touches, it was especially theatrical, though in a subtle way.  I visited way too many malls in my researches, but Greengate remained special in my estimation.

So it could be argued that Greengate had architectural as well as historical significance.  It certainly had local significance for several generations.  But while Greensburg citizens rallied to save its handsome but dilapidated train station as an historic site, to my knowledge no one even considered Greengate worth preserving as a building that could be saved for other uses.  In any case, in the summer of 2003, it was erased from the physical landscape altogether.  What was once the colossus that replaced Main Street became a barren plain of cracked concrete, mounds of debris, and a huge hole bordered by the remnants of a deep foundation.

Shortly thereafter a brand new WalMart rose in its ashes.  When I drove around this new Big Box and its attached shopping center (nostalgically named after Greengate), the entire area was completely unrecognizable.  The roads, the very landscape had been changed.  It wasn't even possible to see exactly where Greengate Mall used to be.    
In 1985-its 20 year anniversary--Greengate installed this
time capsule.  In it, among other things, was a copy of
The Malling of America I signed.  The capsule and its
contents were "lost" during demolition.  Ironically, it
was supposed to be opened in 2005, the year that Walmart
opened there instead.

But if its historic significance had escaped the attention of preservationists, Greengate was and is still alive in the collective memory of Westmoreland County.  It has its own web site (Greengate Mall Revisited) and Facebook page, and has become part of online mall nostalgia, as represented by sites like livemalls, labelscar, and inevitably, deadmalls.

What people remember in particular is Christmas at Greengate. So along with excerpts from the chapter of The Malling of America that describes the night of Christmas decorating, I am adding photos I took of that Greengate Christmas (which I believe was in 1981), along with a selection of comments left at Greengate Revisited concerning Greengate Christmas memories.

Greengate was the first enclosed mall in the Greensburg area--in fact, the first in Westmoreland County.  But it remained such a community center, especially at Christmastime, partly because it was a mall for everyone (or nearly everyone), before non-urban retail began to split so decisively between high and low end. There were some differences, between what I called "bread & butter" malls and "high fashion" malls.  Greengate was more bread & butter, and it was managed as a hometown mall.
Greengate began in the wonder era for malls, when their magic was a combination of newness, easy and free parking and the fantastic comfort-controlled world inside them. With a fountain!That world was a combination of a variety of shops and eating places with a spacious and pleasant environment. It looked like an internal town square, a garden of Eden in a box, Main Street in a spaceship. It was always clean and shining (even in my last visit there in 1999, when it was almost empty of stores, the tile floors gleamed and the fountain gushed as high as ever.) It was the people's palace in the fabled land where every working man is king.

At Greengate that meant certain architectural touches, and lots of space: two levels of wide side courts and a big center court that soared to the ceiling. So the potential community, drawing from nearly all strata of the local population, had room to meet and lots to look at outside the stores. Greengate's management was in tune with its community: a family-oriented, house-proud working class culture with middle class incomes. This all got expressed in the Christmas season with elaborate decorations that built on traditional images for Christmas.

As the mall replaced Main Street, it certainly raised troublesome issues about the loss of public versus and the ascension of corporately controlled "public" space. But in retrospect, Greengate gave a different kind of life to some elements of community. Those Christmas displays enacted fantasy images more elaborately than any on Main Street, though they didn't replace the nostalgia many had for shopping along snowy streets, of the contrast of cold and darkness to the bright lights and warmth of department stores, or unbundling in a booth near the steamy windows of a coffee shop for hot chocolate. Still, for several generations Greengate provided its own set of experiences, and became the locus of nostalgia for seasons like this one.

In these photos you can see the evidence of large crowds.  To some extent, this went on for much of the Christmas shopping season.  I remember one visit when I ran into several people from various times in my local life, beginning with friends of my grandparents and including high school classmates I hadn't seen in years--one after the other, and then in bunches.  It was as surreal as a dream at times.

In the following excerpt, I write about the manager of Greengate Mall, Harry Overly.  He was already a legend in the mall business, and an extremely good guide to what made malls different and successful.  He was also a local legend. Health problems led to his semi-retirement by the late 1980s, but as the following text indicates, he didn't do Christmas up big only at Greengate Mall.  His elaborate decorations at his home were a traditional stop for Greensburgers, who drove by and dropped some money for charity in the pot held by a Christmas elf.  Over the years these locally famous Christmas displays accrued more than a million dollars in donations for several children's health programs, and eventually attracted national notice. In 1994 Overly created a charitable foundation to dispense the proceeds of the displays, and moved them to the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds, where they are still seen every Christmas season. Overly died in 1998 at the age of sixty-eight.  So in addition to some Greengate memories, this is for Harry.

This excerpt from The Malling of America (chapter 8) includes a few additional details from notes I took at the time about the 1981 season, as reflected in my 2002 paperback edition.


Decorating Greengate  (from The Malling of America)

Greengate was known throughout western Pennsylvania for its elaborate Christmas displays, which saturated the entire mall to create a total Christmas fantasy. Greengate had spent some $50,000 on decorations over the years, resulting in a grab bag of holiday images. The train that children rode in center court, for example, was called the Sugar Plum Express, and there the kids could (according to the sign at its entrance) "learn the true meaning of Christmas from the Wizard of Oz." But this year all the decorations were going to be new, and all tied into one Christmas theme: the story of the Nutcracker.

"This is the first time we've done a completely coordinated theme," said Karen Kozemchak. In her mid-twenties, she was Greengate's director of marketing, advertising and promotion. "We wanted something special this year because we're just finishing a major remodeling of the mall. We have a new floor, new fixtures, everything's been repainted, there are lots of new lights. We want to bring people in to see what we've done. Also we want to create a classier image. Our demographics show there's a more upscale market for us out there now. But we don't want to lose our old market either-the decorations came in with lots of purples and pinks, but we're mixing in red and green. This is a very red-and-green area."

"Don't tell him we spent seventy-seven thousand dollars on them," said Harry Overly, Greengate's sardonic manager.

The Christmas season has become a holiday celebrated, more than anywhere else in America, in the shopping mall. Downtown department stores by and large don't do it up as big as the malls now do, and this is where people come, not only to shop but to experience the season.

Christmas shopping is crucial to the mall's economic success. At least a quarter of annual retail sales and half of the retailers' profits are chalked up in these few weeks. More than a third of what consumers spend during the year is spent for Christmas. The mall environment is expensive to maintain-without a good Christmas, most malls could be in trouble. So they deck the halls of Maplewood Mall in Minnesota with pink angels dangling from the ceiling around huge simulated ice cream cones spinning over the central court; they hang giant green and gold banners at the Sunrise Mall in Massapequa; they come donning and blitzering with the Los Angeles Premier Chorale Strolling Christmas Medieval Feast Ceremony in Costume at Promenade Mall in California. And at Greengate Mall, they produce the Nutcracker.

I remember it was where I first told Santa what I wanted for Christmas,” remembered one of the commenters. “I always loved going to Greengate Mall with my parents. It seemed like the holidays weren't the holidays unless we had our usual trip to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap.”

Harry led the way to the enormous workroom where the actual displays were being built. Working from designs prepared by Walter Schwartz of the Design Group in New York City, men in green work clothes hammered and sawed, while high school girls with bright orange handled scissors in the back pockets of their jeans applied details to dozens of already completed components that would be assembled into a number of large displays. There were colorful wooden castles, cardboard arches, tubular towers and oversized boxes swaddled in shiny gift wrap. It was part Cecil B. De Mille, part junior prom.

"We build all our stuff right here," Overly explained. "We usually just build freestyle, but we're building from blueprints this year because the Rouse Company wants to be able to duplicate this at other malls next year. Other centers around here spend as much as we do or more, but they don't have as much to show."

Harry beamed at all the activity and introduced me to one of the men working on the displays who had the size and some of the appearance of John Wayne. In fact his name turned out to be John. "John's been here about as long as I have," Harry reminisced. "Yeah," John said laconically. "But I'm still poor."

Harry led me to center court where some of the decorations were already going up. The latest addition was the thirty five foot high artificial Christmas tree itself. Harry was going out to inspect it. It was late in the day; the mall was closed and mostly dark, although center court was brightly lit.

Harry looked up and around. "Everything looks great so far," he said to the congregation of management and maintenance staff, and others hired specifically for the Christmas decorating job. "Everything, except for that damn tree."

There was a certain nervous stirring among the assembled, who for the most part pretended to be doing something else. "I hate that tree," Harry said flatly. "Did you ever see a real tree like that? The branches don't stick out like branches."

He as assured that it would look more treelike when the branches were properly fluffed and decorated, but he was apparently unconvinced. The discussion among the inner circle of four or five moved on to other subjects, but Harry kept returning his gaze to the tree, and sour comments about it punctuated every couple of sentences.
Then Harry began to ask questions about a large decorative golden ring, several feet in diameter, suspended from the ceiling over center court. He wanted to know what size screws were holding it and where they were placed into the support beams and ceiling struts. He asked how much the ring weighed and how the weight was distributed.
"I don't want the damn thing to fall," he said. Everyone assured him that it couldn't possibly fall. The support was adequate for a much heavier load, many times what the ring weighed. The weight was evenly distributed. It had been checked and rechecked.

"If it falls, it wouldn't fall straight down," Harry continued, as if no one had spoken. He kept looking at the ring. "It would sway a little. Probably it would hit the train track and derail the train. Or it could hit a train full of kids."

By now everyone in center court was standing still and looking up at the ring. Someone else calculated how the ring would fall. It might hit the tree. Or sway into a storefront. But in fact Overly had already concluded that the ring was more than adequately supported, and with a wave and a final okay-and with everybody else still looking up at the ring-he began to walk back to his office, out of the circle of light in center court and into the semidarkness. "Somebody has to ask these questions," he said with a shrug.

Then in the shadows he stopped and turned back for a final look. "I hate that tree," he said.
“I remember lights in the food court that would change colors (yellow, blue, green, etc) during Christmas as Charlie Brown music would play.” “There was a puppet show that kids would huddle around and watch.”


Stacey Smith
In the management offices, Harry overheard a discussion between Karen and Stacey Smith, the mall's receptionist and Karen's assistant for the Christmas preparations. Stacey explained to Harry what had just happened: a truck she had dispatched from the mall to pick up a load of materials needed for the displays returned full, but with only half the boxes it was sent to fetch. There hadn't been enough room for the rest.

"I asked the guy at the warehouse how much there was," Stacey said, "and he told me that one small truck could carry it all." Now the warehouse was closed and the rest of the boxes wouldn't be available until after the weekend.

"What did I teach you?" Harry said quietly.

"I should have sent a bigger truck anyway?" Stacey said.

"No," Harry said. "What do I always say? Don't take anything for granted. You ask them: How many boxes are there? How big is each box? Is it big enough for a man to fit in it?...You ask questions."

This was another of Harry Overly's functions within the Rouse Company: to groom employees for larger responsibilities in other Rouse malls and for the main office in Columbia. After three or four years of tutelage and raffish abuse-known in the company as "Harry's School of Charm"-they would be ready for bigger jobs. Stacey and Karen were Harry's latest pupils; in fact, in a few months Karen would be moving on.

For now, however, they all had to deal with Harry. But Karen had already managed a modicum of revenge for Harry's mall-treatment. Every Christmas season, Harry Overly's rambling ranch homestead on a rural road near Greensburg becomes a local legend. White Christmas lights outline every inch of it, as well as the fences around the grounds and the Christmas figures (snowman, sleigh) scattered within. On the nights before Christmas, a costumed Santa (usually a Greengate employee) is posted at Harry's gate to give small gifts to children in the many cars that line up to see the decorated house, and to take donations for a local charity. Like townsfolk coming to the lord's castle, carloads of people come to his manor every year.

All of this is well known within the Rouse Company. On this particular evening at Greengate, after Harry had left, Karen was told that he'd made off with another box of the mall's Christmas lights for his house. So Karen told me about the corporate practical joke pulled on Overly at a meeting the previous year in Columbia, to which she had been a willing party.

Karen's part in the joke was to make a short film that her co-conspirators would show at the end of the company's conference on mall energy conservation, after all the statistics and graphs had been presented. Karen's film began with a shot of an extension cord being plugged into an outlet at Greengate mall. Then the cord was followed out of the room, winding down a supply tunnel and into the mall parking lot, then across the highway and down portions of various roads, until finally it snaked down a long driveway and was shown being connected to a string of Christmas lights.

The last shot was of Harry Overly's house, all lit up.
Many recalled riding the train through the snow-covered Christmas village. “I remember the animated deer with the jerky movements that built toys as kids rode through the display.” Another recalled a young adult perspective, of accompanying nieces and nephews, and watching “how big their eyes would be when they first walked into the center courtyard... Nothing made my parents more happy then seeing [the children] laugh as they went round and round on the train.”

"The snow is thinner this year," Karen told the fifty or so people gathered in the mall community room at three o'clock in the morning. "So be careful because once it tears, that's it." The crew-some regular mall part-timers mixed in with community college students majoring in retail and relatives of the mall staff-nodded, put down their soft drinks and coffee, and headed back to center court.

Karen Kozemchak's duties ranged from coordinating market studies and writing radio ads, to counting the number of staples that would be used in a year's promotions. Some malls have two or three people to do what she did. In fact, her immediate predecessor at Greengate had lasted about a month. One morning his resignation was found on his desk and he was never heard from again-he simply disappeared. But for Karen, no time was busier than these few weeks, and these few days in particular. While the decorations were going up, she would be at the mall for forty-eight continuous hours.

After Harry's unfavorable reaction to the tree, Karen began replacing lights and starting the fluffing process, getting up high in the basket of the Snorklelift 40-a big, noisy machine that extends a hydraulic arm upward and side to side from a tractor-like cab on wheels. Then the tree lights were tested in the silent mall, causing the fragments of glittery stuff dangling from the ceiling to spangle shadows across the darkened storefronts.

Then out of the shadows the parade of elves began. Boys in sweatshirts, girls in sweaters and fresh jeans, carried some of the thirty animated figures from the workroom and stacked them against the storefronts. Then they brought out the oversized gift-wrapped boxes-they were large but empty, so each elf could carry several. Those working at center court turned to see this prodigious parade and smiled.

Then a crew of strangers arrived to set up the tracks and kid-sized train. They were a motley crew that usually works for carnivals. "You crazy old man!" one of them would shout at the grizzled individual wearing a beat-up logo cap with bill turned up that said CHRISTY'S BAR BE QUE and an ancient T-shirt that said 4 x 4 FORD "You put the wheels on backwards!"

Karen watched them carefully, nursing a bottle of Squirt. "They're wild men," she said. Yet there was something absurdly evocative about them: large men hammering spikes into tiny ties, like some strange parody of the building of the railroad across the American West.

After the carnival crew disappeared back into the night, the next task was to lay a base of chicken wire over the entire court inside the train tracks. Then a crew of girls began cutting and laying down the Dacron snow carpet, inserting tiny lights underneath to create an effect of snow gently illuminated by moonlight.

This work continued after the 3 A.M. break. A girl gathered a string of tiny bulbs already turned on; she held them like a bouquet of light. Moving carefully through the webs of glass, two women stapled down the snow. Some of the girls walked on the snow carpets in their socks, but Karen and Stacey had come prepared: Stacey with a pair of white moccasins, Karen with brown.

Then the big displays were fitted together, installed, moved around and installed again. By five in the morning, the final elements were being added-the flags of starched felt, the hot-pink dusted Styrofoam balls. A boy threw loose plastic snow around the castle and towers, which were tubes covered with vinyl in shades of azalea and American Beauty rose. A man who has been wiring lights "inside" the Christmas tree, suddenly emerges through the bottom branches. One girl was off by herself, absorbed in arranging the Dacron snow carpet on a hill of wire, bending forward from the waist with her feet flat on the floor. Her work was as delicate and graceful as that supple physical movement, but also careful and deliberate. When she was finished, her particular area could not have looked more like wind-driven snow.

The work continued on through the morning-25,000 yards of ribbon, 150 pounds of diamond dust, 850 pounds of scattered snow, 4,000 sets of miniature lights, and 24,000 feet of snow blanket. Several crews came and went, working diligently, fighting fatigue, getting silly, getting angry, making friends.

The process was familiar to me from my participation in college stage plays: setting the lights, laying the cable and wiring, assembling the sets, moving things around, getting it all to look right, through the hours of labor and fatigue. The burly guys do the lifting, the girls do the work requiring patient attention and care, and the people in charge function as producers and directors, speaking with kindness but always rearranging and re-doing, never settling for less than perfection.

By early afternoon the towers were topped with snow cones, the figures were all in place and animated, and the train was moving smoothly through the displays with its first load of enchanted children aboard. Already customers were exclaiming and taking pictures. Some participants from earlier crews returned to look at the finished product. A television crew from a Pittsburgh station arrived to film the displays for the Greengate Christmas commercial, using the Snorklelift as a makeshift movie crane.
The official tree light-up occurred on the next weekend, followed a week later by the Christmas parade, with the Hempfield High School band and majorettes and color guard marching around the parking lot and through the mall. The parade ended in center court, where the Nutcracker (played in costume by Stacey) and the wooden soldiers cracked open the Nut, out which emerged, who else but Santa Claus.

The pay-off for all the hours of effort, all the quiet artistry and gimmickry, all the money and calculation and enthusiasm and care, was the ballet of cars at the traffic lights leading to the mall. As Christmas came nearer, there were constant lines on the highway, and lines of parents and children at center court to get into the miniature train, lines on the side court to get pictures taken with Santa, lines at the pizza place, and lines to the ladies' room.

It's the Christmas Paradise Parade, the Captivated Shopper's jingle of her ankle cuffs, the finest hour of the Retail Drama, when the customers dance after the Phillipe designer handbags, Pant-Her Coordinates, Bromley opossum-trimmed nylon coats, and misses' White Stag Outerwear, the Oneida flatware and Nikko Ming Tree twenty-piece service dinnerware, the oral water jets, Pastamatic 700, battery tooth polisher kits, energy boots, Crazy Foam, pulsar quartz watches, Fantasy Ultima II makeup kit complete with cell renewal lotion, plush-touch velours, Vanity Fair French Flirts, Swiss Army shirts, Maidenform Delectables, personalized blazer buttons, Izod Lacoste bicycle jackets in navy, kelly or eggplant, blueberry sleepware Jammies Nightshirts in a Jar, Wintuck orlon fisherman sweaters, the Buns Calendar, Ciao garment bags, ceramic pagodas, plus 20 percent off all chemical services at Great Expectations Hair Salon, their Christmas special.

Meanwhile, down the highway at Westmoreland Mall, flamenco Muzak plays as people line up at Orange Julius and at the glass elevator that goes from one floor to the other. One of the Star Wars soundtracks animates teenagers in Camelot Music, as well as their older siblings knotted in spontaneous reunions with dimly recalled high school classmates home for the holidays. The serious shoppers-heartbreaking young women with modified wedge haircuts and perms, their frankly svelte figures in pullover splitneck tops and black polyester-knit flared pants, each dragging three blond kids and a doubleknit sloppo husbands who looks like he's been drinking beer in a Laundromat for twenty years-are spinning through aisles of genuine walnut jewelry boxes with sardonyx Incolay stone tops, Infinity Model Qa speakers with optional pedestals, TV Action News Team dolls, financial planning programs, imitation Christian Dior velours, anti-cling crepeset lounging pajamas, wrap-tie shawl cardigans, electric crock pots, handsome wall dividers, multi-option video games...while old men sit on benches in the non-shade of the non-palm trees.

The sheer numbers are stimulating, exciting, from the rarely filled but now overflowing parking lot to the jammed courts where old acquaintance is renewed amidst the shopping din. All the elements that the mall manages start to click, and the energy takes over-people exciting people in a visual and aural riot of images. Products, colors, light, music and sentiment-they all make for the Retail Drama's big finish.
"It's a madhouse," one customer at Greengate said, not complaining. Another turned from the center court display. "Isn't it something?" she said. "Hurry up," her companion told her. "We've still got two more malls to hit today."


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Statues in Pittsburgh commemorating a meeting between Seneca
leader Guyasuta and George Washington
Native to This America: A Personal Journey

The question of how we may become "native to this place" has fascinated me since I read Wes Jackson's book of that title.  A natural place to start for me was with the knowledge and cultural attitudes of peoples who were and are Native to these Americas, this western hemisphere.  Apart from the universals that unite indigenous peoples around the world, and are transferable or adaptable to how humans relate to their world even in the 21st century, I followed common feelings for the land I knew.  For though I am not a Native American, I am a native-born American, and have a strong feeling of belonging to this land--particularly that of the western Pennsylvania where I was born, grew up and spent part of my adulthood.  

What follows is an essay briefly explaining my own journey as it relates to Native America, which is the subject of the series of posts here that this one caps, or (if you're starting at the top and reading down) introduces.  I beg readers indulgence for repetitions from those previous/following articles, necessary to telling this story.  This is not the complete story by any means, but I hope it has a few useful things to say.

 My native grounds are in western Pennsylvania. I was born there, I grew up there, and after some years in various other places, I was living there again before I came to the North Coast of  California, where I've lived since the autumn of 1996. There are a few thousand American Indians in the Pittsburgh area, almost none of them from tribes indigenous to Pennsylvania. There is no reservations or Native land base in the entire state. The last recognized Native land disappeared under the waters of Kinzua Dam, which is the specific subject of Buffy Sainte Marie's famous and glorious protest song, "Now That the Buffalo's Gone."

But a long time ago there were many Native cultures there. The archeological site that documents the oldest human habitation in the U.S., beginning some 16 to 18 thousand years ago, is in western Pennsylvania, at a place called Meadowcroft, which appeared to have been a resting place, possibly after the hunt, for countless generations.

Much of the 18th century history involving Indians and the British, French and then Americans, occurred in Pennsylvania. The first tribe to negotiate a treaty with the new U.S. government was the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) in Pennsylvania; in 1778 in Pittsburgh, they signed an agreement that would have created a fourteenth state, to be populated and governed by the Indian nations. But the Continental Congress failed to ratify the treaty.

Growing up, there were whiffs of all this for a boy living in an in-between place: on the edge of a small town where the young George Washington had changed his horses, but with woods and fields that hadn't yet been turned into suburbs and shopping centers. Although that landscape was still scarred by old mines and had long ago been logged, it had patches of wildness and wildlife.

I remember when I was 10 or so, walking an unusual distance (though in a year or two it would be at the end of my first paper route) with some older boys from the neighborhood, into a patch of woods near Mt. Odin Park (a popular picnic area), up Toll Gate Hill. We searched for and believed we found Indian arrowheads. One of the older boys pointed to a rusting frame of metal, and claimed it was the remnant of a Conestoga wagon. Though it all appealed to my boyish imagination, neither the arrowheads nor wagon (though it was more likely a decayed Ford) were implausible. We were in fact walking where many had walked and traveled for untold years. Toll Gate Hill had been a real toll gate along the main road from Pittsburgh east to Fort Ligonier in George Washington's time. Nearby Route 30 traced that wagon and horseback route, which in turn traced a primary Native trail. Many years later, I saw a map of the many other trails that had crisscrossed this area. It wasn't all romantic illusion: there were spirits in those woods.

That particular trail also led to Bushy Run, some six miles west, where an improbable battle in 1764 ended the ongoing siege of Fort Pitt and the last organized threat to non-Native expansion. This was "the west" then, and non-Native hegemony had not been a sure thing.

Senecas and Delawares had surrounded Fort Pitt, and told the English there that they had convinced the Six Nations Confederacy not to attack the fort so the besieged families inside could leave. Instead the English made a gift to the Indians of blankets deliberately infected with smallpox. This was not a story we were told in school.

The western Pennsylvania landscape is made up of soft rounded hills, some of them steep, and valleys, some of them long, some of them deep. There were still lots of trees. I grew up in a house on a hill facing east, with a view of the entire town, and beyond it the blue skyline of the Appalachian foothills. Directly across our new street (I saw it graduate from dirt tamped down with oil in the summer, to covered with crushed stones called "red dog," before it was finally paved) was a patch of woods, where I spent a lot of my time.

I mention this because of a moment in college that made a major impression on me. Objectively, it wasn't much---just something that a visiting lecturer said in passing, as I sat in a crowd of students and faculty, politely more or less listening. This was some 800 miles west, in western Illinois. While talking about something else (I don't remember the topic) he happened to mention that some Native peoples prayed over an animal they had just killed for food, thanking the animal's spirit for the gift of this sustenance.

I remember being so struck by this that I left the room to think about it. Suddenly so many feelings came back. I'd had just enough contact with life and death in nature to have been impressed as a child with the paradox of taking life to sustain life. I'd also had a religious education that had nothing to say about any personal relationship to the natural world, even though I had strong feelings about the landscape, certain trees and rocks, and animals. I'd also grown up with the usual mix of romantic notions about Indians, but at least I had some idea of their closeness to nature.

Now I had heard something that made perfect sense, that recognized the apparent paradox as natural, and what was natural as a profound and religious mystery.  An earth-centered religious mystery, which seemed--and still seems--the most appropriate.  Of all the wonders that transcend us, the clearest and most important to sustaining our lives, are the wonders of the earth and its elements.

At the end of the 60s I found myself in Berkeley, California with a houseful of hippies, including one old friend from college and a northern California Indian named David. I seem to remember he was Yurok. I live now pretty near Yurok country and know people with a Yurok lineage, but at the time David was just a hippie among the rest of us hippies in our psychedelic mix of Midwestern Protestant, Middle Atlantic Catholic, East Coast Jew, and a young woman from New England named Priscilla.

It was David's little yellow school bus we painted in psychedelic colors, and took on our coastal adventures. Hey, David, are you out there?  There was one thing that seemed different about David I recall.  All of us had complicated relationships to our families and homes, obviously including rebellion.  David disappeared for several days once, and I remember talking to him at the kitchen table on the early morning he returned.  He'd had a sudden need to go back north and visit his father.  It seemed to me there was something different about his connection to his home and family, that I've since come to recognize in other young people from Native families.  

But my interest in Native American cultures didn't become focused until 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus, when there was an explosion of awareness nationally.  It was about then that I started to explore the Native history and contemporary life in Pittsburgh where I was then living, after many years in other parts of the country, and in western Pennsylvania generally (the city is about 35 miles from where I grew up.)  It was also then that I began exploring contemporary Native American literature.

Actually, the literature exploration was sparked by the Pittsburgh research, when I met two (non-Native) teachers at the University of Pittsburgh who were teaching one of the few courses anywhere on Native American literature.  They got me started with Leslie Marmon Silko and others.  Later, in central Pennsylvania where a great deal of history involving Natives and Europeans transpired, I came upon a unique cache of books at a used bookstore, including several remarkable collections of short stories by Native writers.  Not even my frenzied forays into the used or bargain areas of bookstores in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver yielded such a mindblowing find.

But I must also mention some "bridge" writers, who took me from my own cultural preconceptions and moved me towards better understanding the Native writers I then read: non-Native writers like Gary Snyder and Bruce Chatwin, and even apparently fake Native writers like Jamake Highwater, whose The Primal Mind nevertheless spoke to me.  I also benefited greatly from non-Native writers who took me on their journeys deep into Native cultures, like Richard Nelson (Make Prayers to the Raven) and Keith Basso (Wisdom Sits in Places.)

The results of my Pittsburgh explorations are reproduced on this site, in two articles published in local newspapers. I met the founder of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, Russell Simms, who is Cherokee and Seminole. I met Alice Hartshorn, who came from Texas; Marwin Begaye, a young full-blooded Navajo activist and artist (whose work is now nationally known) and Miguel Sague, from central America, and started attending his full moon ceremonies and other events where he talked about the spirituality of his people.

Miguel with a more recent sweatlodge

Thanks to Miguel, I later participated in my first sweat lodge. Miguel said his tradition believed in spreading their knowledge, and our participation was part of his pledge to himself that wherever he was, he would conduct the full moon, solstice and equinox ceremonies of his tradition. Just before we left, my partner Margaret and I were asked to serve on the board of the Caney Indian Spiritual Circle. Miguel's salsa band played for a surprise party at a Pittsburgh restaurant I organized for Margaret's birthday, the last gathering of our Pittsburgh friends.

These Native people and others I met for the story I did for a local weekly, as well as the fiction, essays and interviews I was reading by contemporary Native writers, gave me the beginning of a feel for contemporary Native life in North America. I learned to approach both contemporary and historical information with humility and openness, for I was also learning why contemporary Native people are a bit skeptical of non-Native interest. It has often resulted in enthusiasm without understanding, and at worst, exploitation and cultural theft.

Some of the Indians I met in Pittsburgh were native-born western Pennsylvanians, as I was. But none of them were from tribes that were Native to that place. They were not part of the history and cultures I was reading about in the past of my home land. I did see some dances of the Seneca and Delaware demonstrated by the Allegeny River Dancers from a reservation in New York. But that's as close as I came, outside the few books on the subject, notably Indians in Pennsylvania, by Paul A. W. Wallace (which Russell Simms said seemed pretty accurate.)

All the feelings I had for the woods and landscape where I grew up were given new grounding and meaning in Wallace's descriptions of Seneca, Shawnee, Wynadot, Creek and Delaware life, and before them the fabled Monogahela People: they lived in the region for centuries, but by the time the Europeans arrived they were gone: some say they dispersed, some say they essentially died out owing to the diseases the Europeans brought to the coast, to which Indians had no immunity, spread inland by trading and traveling Indians, so this culture was eradicated as a consequence of invaders they never saw. The vast majority of American Indians who perished after contact died of these diseases.

My own residual feelings for the scraps of natural landscape I experienced, and the nature of the place (the contours and colors, the weather, the air itself) found an order and meaning in Wallace's descriptions of, for example, how Delaware children were raised. They were respected and cherished, and their education was a community responsibility. They were taught woodcraft and gardening, a knowledge of plants and animals, and the tribal legends and traditions, and religious beliefs.

"The basic principle of Delaware religion was that spirit was the prime reality," Wallace writes. "All things had souls: not only man, but also animals, the air, water, trees, even rocks and stones." Another scholar observed that the Delaware "trod lightly through his natural environment, merging himself sympathetically into the world of living and non-living things."

Here was the essence of what resonated so strongly in me when I heard that speaker at college: first, the sense of aliveness in everything, that every element of the world is sacred and has soul; second, the deep acceptance of the complexity, even the tragedy, inherent in human relationship to other life, particularly the fact that we live by killing and consuming life. The religion I was used to didn't really confront this, and the thinking of the non-Native world was one-sided (there was no problem because only humans have souls) or they dealt with this paradox that every child feels when we see a dying animal, by avoiding it, by denial.

For the Delaware who lived where I had lived, the place of humans in the universe was dramatized in the chief annual ritual, the Big House Ceremony, held over twelve days and nights in October. A wooden structure of perhaps 50 by 30 feet, the Big House was as symbolic as it was solid: its floor was the earth, with the underworld below. Its four walls were the four directions; its ceiling the sky dome, with the home of the creator above. At the center of the house was a post, symbolizing the World Tree. Along the floor from the east door to the west was the winding White Path, along which the dancers danced, solemnly following the path of life with its twists and turns from birth to death, around the World Tree.

A few years later I researched and wrote another article, about the little known fact that many non-Natives in those 18th century days of contact, were deeply impressed by Native life. There were even people known as white Indians, usually captives who were so absorbed in Native life that they remained or returned, even after being "rescued" (many had to brought back to white society by force, and they promptly escaped back.) Part of the reason was Native spirituality, and the strength of the cultures based on it. One man who lived five years with the Delaware wrote: "As a nation they may be considered fit examples for many of us Christians to follow. "They certainly follow what they are taught to believe right more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than we Christians do the divine precepts of our Redeemer....I know I am influenced to good, even at this day, more from what I learned among them, than what I learned among people of my own color."

Also around this time, I decided to use a free Peoples Express airline ticket for a trip to Seattle and Vancouver. I'd visited Vancouver for the first time in the late 1980s for speaking engagements resulting from my book (The Malling of America) but I never got to spend much time exploring. I had an old friend there (who had passed through that house in Berkeley hippie days) and we'd gotten reacquainted on one of those speaking gigs, so she would be my Vancouver area guide.

We were racing around the city one day and got to the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology late in the afternoon. We had less than a half hour before closing, but those few minutes changed my life. It was the first time I'd seen the dramatic Northwest Coast Native art, expressed mostly in wood: in painted masks, canoes, boxes and implements, and most dramatically of all, totem poles. This Museum was a wonder of this art. They also had some contemporary examples of masks and paintings, and a large sculpture, the first attempts in many years to revive these traditions and return them to the highest quality of the best work of the past.

I learned the sculpture was by Bill Reid, and later that another Northwest Coast artist, Robert Davidson, was becoming prominent. It took maybe a year, but I managed finally to get an assignment to write about them from Smithsonian Magazine. Bill Reid was pretty ill by then, but there was a major retrospective of Robert Davidson's work at the Museum of Civilization across the river from Canada's capital. I went there, met Davidson and his brother, Reg, also an artist. (Reg invited me to Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte island, for salmon fishing in the fall. I've always regretted not being able to take him up on that.)

I later spent a week hanging out at Robert Davidson's studio near Vancouver. I spent many hours with him there, and a few at his home. We went to a movie together (Schindler's List.) It was all a rich experience, and I continued to explore and admire that art, even after my story ran in 1995.

In many ways, to move to the North Coast a year later was a large dislocation in my life, but there were a few elements of logic to it. One was the forests, another the presence of indigenous cultures. Within my first few years here I got involved in work for both.  Some of it was directly for or on behalf of Native organizations (such as The Seventh Generation Fund), and some of it was reporting--the major examples of which are preserved on this site.  My work has moved in different directions in recent years, but it sometimes circles back.  The resulting influences on me might be a subject for another time.  But this much should at least help place the related pieces reproduced here in a personal context.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Power
Linda Hogan
Norton

This is the first of three book reviews of books by Native authors that I wrote and published, but that seem to be unavailable elsewhere.  A somewhat (but importantly) different version of this one was published in the Winter 1999 issue of Orion magazine.  I started collecting these pieces with Native subjects on this site several weeks ago, and it so happens that I'm posting these on Columbus Day.  What a kowincidence.  These were among my first reviews of books by Native authors and on Native subjects, and the first two in particular contain appreciations more generally for the literature being written by Native authors.

I continue to review books by Native authors and on Native subjects, for the San Francisco Chronicle and the North Coast Journal, for instance.  The most recent ones can be found here at my books blog, Books in Heat.     

Linda Hogan is a personal favorite and I believe she deserves more recognition.  Her novels previous to this one--which I loved--were Mean Spirit and Solar Storms.  She's also published short stories, poetry, memoir and nonfiction, as well as People of the Whale: A Novel



By now it has dawned on some purveyors of deep ecology, sustainability, biodiversity, biophilia and the “New Paradigm” that these concepts were operating principles in the Americas for thousands of years before Europeans destroyed the peoples and cultures that practiced them. But there is still little exploration into what Native activist Chris Peters calls the Native Paradigm. Derived from thoughtful observation and experience in direct and complex relationship with the natural world, it is embodied in culture and traditional knowledge, and expressed and applied by Native intellectuals and elders. It seems likely that our natural environment cannot be saved without significant movement towards understanding it.

To the dominant culture, the Native worldview is still alien, even though it has always been here. What are we still missing of crucial value? Fortunately, we now have a vital and growing contemporary Native literature, which includes fiction of high literary art as well as authenticity. It provides perhaps the most accessible and organic way to begin to understand the Native point of view, well beyond anthropological descriptions, New Age sentimentality, eco-speak analysis and doctored quotes of Chief Seattle. In poetry and fiction—particularly in novels by Native authors--it includes emotional, moral, psychological and even physical communication as well as models for the mind, in a form that’s become universal. And there’s nothing like a good story.

The clash of cultures and world views is dramatized in Power, Linda Hogan’s novel set in the swamplands of contemporary Florida. This clash is the vital dilemma in the coming of age of the book’s narrator, a 16 year old member of the fictional Taiga people, who lives with her family in the non-Native working class town, but is drawn to an old Taiga woman and her solitary life at the edge of the dwindling wild. It comes to crisis after a powerful storm, when the older woman, Ama, takes her on a brief but evocative hunt and kill of an officially endangered Florida panther.

The theme of doubleness is a preoccupying undercurrent in the girl’s life and thoughts, beginning with her name: at home she is Sissy, but her Taiga name is Omshito, which means the one who watches. What she sees is two worlds, represented by the non-Native dominated town and the last remote Native sanctuary in the woods beyond the swamp, mirroring also the two worlds of transcendent and visible reality, with cracks and openings (and also doors closing) between them.

Some characters live in one or the other world, Ama lives between them, but everyone is somehow divided. Of the panther killing (and the resulting two trials, by the county court and tribal elders) Omishoto is of two minds, seeing two truths which contradict each other, and two sides which are both wrong and both right.

There is a doubleness to power as well. The vividly described hurricane is the ultimate power of primal nature, but nature is also a victim of human power In fact, the few surviving panthers are all diseased and starving. They are often killed by cars and sometimes choked by the tracking collars placed on them by state biologists. The dramatic panther hunt includes crossing a highway, and takes place in wooded and swampy strips with houses so near that Omshito hears a radio playing. She can still fish for bass, but they are too poisoned to eat. The spring which the Spanish once believed was the Fountain of Youth is so polluted no one can drink from it.

Omshito is also aware that the Taiga people are as few and as endangered as the panthers themselves, and that like the panthers, they are valued only as mascots while considered inconvenient and dangerous in the modern world, while the wild world that sustained them both is inexorably destroyed. The Taiga, and Ama in particular, strongly identify themselves with the panther, who their stories say taught them the mysteries of life. The meaning of the panther kill cannot be separated from the clash of Native and modern worlds, and defies the oversimplifications of reflexive condemnation.

The doubleness extends to double meanings and ambiguity, a powerful if recently neglected tool of poetry, and also in Hogan’s hands the means to express a Native experience of reality. From the start, Omshito sees not just the ground-level world, but the mastadon bones and remnants of ancient seabeds below, and the forces that gather the clouds. Her here and now is inhabited by the cycles of time that brings past and future into the present. When Omshito says “the earth was bleeding” it is an observation of a sky reddening from the horizon, but also a literal description of a wounded being. Hogan is fleshing the bones of such often quoted and little understood concepts as “Everything is alive.”

Implications of the earth as sacred are also explored, including a Native meaning to the fall from Paradise, and the story finally involves the most primal human mysteries, largely absent from contemporary fiction, such as the meanings of sacrifice and scapegoats, redemption and salvation.

The artistry of this relatively short novel is monumental. There is enough action and social relevance for several movies, yet there is mesmerizing moment-by-moment description in a classic adolescent coming to awareness story. Though the story is clearly and beautifully told, nothing here is simple or completely resolved. There are surprising plot turns and paradoxes, and even minor characters are more than one dimensional. Hogan’s writing is sensate, lyrical and at times hypnotic. Omishot’s voice is at once oracular and realistic and wholly likeable.

There is enough action and social relevance for several movies, yet there is mesmerizing moment-by-moment description within a classic adolescent coming-of-age framework, as Omishto moves towards her destiny. Characters are complex and deftly drawn; Omishto’s voice is at once oracular and realistic and wholly likable. Though the story is clearly and beautifully told, nothing here is simple, there are surprising plot turns and paradoxes, and mysteries powerfully remain. Hogan’s writing is sensate, lyrical and at times hypnotic.

All of this makes Power (along with Hogan’s very different previous novels) not only a multidimensional glimpse of Native life and belief, but a contemporary classic of American literature. A Los Angeles Times review once compared her to Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Alende. She deserves to be routinely mentioned in that company, and that she’s not is yet another comment on the limitations of the dominant culture.

In fact, no list of superior American novelists is complete without the names of Native authors such as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welsh, Thomas King, Simon Ortiz, Gerald Vizenour and others, as well as the better-known Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie. No knowledge of contemporary America can be complete without the experience of Silko’s apocalyptic epic, Almanac of the Dead. For imaginative power and literary artistry, Linda Hogan is unsurpassed by any living author. Power is a contemporary classic of American literature.
Gardens in the Dunes
by Leslie Marmon Silko.
Simon & Schuster.

This draft is pretty close to the review as published in the Winter 2000 issue of Orion.  My review of a more recent book by Silko is here. 


We don’t often knowingly taste the fruits of the famed MacArthur “genius” grants, but in Leslie Marmon Silko’s case we got a work of genius called The Almanac of the Dead, a sinuous, relentlessly apocalyptic epic that projects the past and hidden present into a plausible near future. Published in 1991, it may someday be known as the great American novel of the 21st century. A generative chapter in that book concerns an ecstatic lawyer’s exegesis on the continuing slow-motion unfolding of the prophesy of the Ghost Dance: the overturning of the American earth, returning the landscape Indians knew, with the buffalo and without Europeans. In this revised vision, the whites kill themselves off, though not without first inflicting great pain on everyone and everything else.

Set at the end of the 19th century, Silko’s new novel begins with an actual Ghost Dance, which is abruptly ended when soldiers scatter the dancers like seeds. So begins the themes of cross-pollination, of Indigenous beliefs about the earth that both transcend and link places and times, and of an inexorable return to the Indigenous world, that root this novel.

Shorter and less overtly violent than “Almanac”, the style of this novel suggests a range of 19th century storytelling from Austen to James and Twain, with Tolstoy-style internal monologues. There are apocalyptic strains here too, but they coexist with a foregrounding of complex individuals, common humanity and an implied kinship among ancient peoples, gently unfolded in the language of gardens and flowers.

As Loren Eiseley eloquently elucidates, the emergence of flowering plants an evolutionary eyeblink ago changed the face of the planet. Thanks to wispy, air-blown attachments, hooks to grasp the fur of passing animals, sweet berries and fruits and honey to transport the seeds and put pollen in the bellies of the birds and the bees: “Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. They got into strange environments...”

Such are the travels of Indigo, a girl of the Sand Lizard people of high desert California, a small band of Native holdouts from the reservations. From the center of her world, her grandmother’s gardens in the dunes, Indigo is blown by the winds of fate to strange environments east across the United States, to England and Italy.

These travels begin when, on the run, Indigo suddenly appears in the garden of Hattie, an upper middle class woman who is struggling to reconcile her Victorian life with her fitfully emancipated mind and spirit. Hattie is recently married to Edward, an Edwardian American whose horticultural skills serve colonialist expansion. His final desperate scheme to make his fortune sets Indigo’s voyages in motion, when Hattie insists on taking her with them on their travels.

Another device flowering plants use as travel agents are humans around the world who express their beliefs and longings in that particular blend of art, nature and technology called the garden. Culture is cultivated, so the trading of seeds, and the flowers that travel because their beauty transports human hearts, are apt metaphors as well as real causes for the cross-fertilizing of human culture. Indigo encounters many gardens, gardeners and the beliefs that give form to both, from the Puritanism molting to become modern Protestant capitalism in a showy blue garden of Long Island, to a secret Celtic garden in England and a series of forest gardens guarding pagan gods in Italy. Indigo carefully collects seeds from each, to plant in her own garden upon her return.

Prepared by her grandmother to accept diversity in plants and people, Indigo reacts with wonder and appreciation but without essentially changing. Why this may be so can be glimpsed in the handling of otherwise picturesque details that illuminate Indigo as a universal little girl who is also of an ancient primal culture-- her relationship with her animal traveling companions, a monkey and a parrot, for instance, and her rapt attention to stories of the Chinese trickster monkey Hattie reads her (perhaps a nod to fellow novelist Maxine Hong Kingston?), and tales of King Arthur told to her that are more fabulous than the versions we usually see.

Meanwhile, her older sister (Sister Salt) is having her own vividly narrated Wild West adventures. When the sisters reunite and their stories become one, the riveting and evocative final chapters are as unexpected and inevitable as reality, as metaphorically rich as the best literature, and true to Silko’s particular Native perspective as she has previously expressed it.

Since European writing has long associated Native Americans with the myth of the Garden, there’s irony as well as genius in exposing the root beliefs and humanity of Europeans and non-Native Americans through their gardens. But this recognition is definitely on Native terms. Though Silko’s political subtexts and cultural contrasts are unmistakable, they emerge from fully drawn characters in historical context, whose individuality and hearts are heartbreakingly (and humorously) expressed.

In the 19th century novel tradition, this one is also full of garden lore and the textures of bygone landscapes. With this rich tale full of life, feeling and humor, Silko uses the by now hybrid flower of the novel to create a delightful and artful garden of American history and human relationships with nature. But it is after all a garden being discussed in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” when Polixenes says, “The art itself is Nature.”
Truth & Bright Water
 by Thomas King
 Atlantic Monthly Press

This review was published somewhere, but I don't recall where.  I've reviewed Thomas King's more recent book, The Truth About Stories, here (where I get to repeat my favorite Thomas King lines) and here.

“You know what’s wrong with this world?” says the famous Native American artist who returns to his home town and paints a church to blend into the landscape so completely that it becomes invisible. “Nobody has a sense of humour.” (That’s how they spell “humor” in Canada, which is where author Thomas King lives.) Another character has already decided that this is the same thing that’s wrong with white people, and with Indians. But it’s certainly not a problem for Thomas King, a Native author of Cherokee and Greek descent. He ambushes you with humor that hits you twice—first when you laugh out loud, and then when you realize it’s terribly true.

Thomas King is the author of two previous novels (Medicine River is also a gently funny TV movie that’s worth renting; and Green Grass, Running Water), numerous short stories, and some sharply funny poems concerning the trickster Coyote. He’s also a photographer who made a series of portraits of Native writers wearing Lone Ranger masks. There’s a little of all those kinds of humor in this book.

Truth is a small railroad town in Montana and Bright Water is the Indian reserve just across a river in Canada. This contemporary story starts with a mystery involving a phantom woman leaping into that river and leaving behind a small skull, and meanders through these two communities and the interweaving lives of several characters whose lives started here and sometimes circled back, until it ends at the river again.
The voice telling the story belongs to a fifteen year old boy whose name is spoken exactly once, by someone who is less than reliable. (It may or may not be Tecumseh.) The boy and all the characters are Native Indian (as they say in Canada), except perhaps his dog Soldier, a major character. Their tribes aren’t mentioned either. But everything else—the voices, memories, characters, the buildings, and the landscape dancing in fog—are definite and alive.

As these characters (the boy’s best friend, his separated parents, his footloose aunt, his grandmother who he says isn’t a witch but seems to have acted like one, the returned artist, and a woman who is convinced that Marilyn Monroe was an Indian) live their daily lives, they expose their weaknesses and deploy their defenses of observation, desire and creativity. They also present us with more mysteries. The first one is solved, but some others should keep reading groups talking for hours. Even some of the jokes are time bombs that don’t go off until you think about them later.

The boy who leads us through this (not always understanding the significance of what he describes) is a truly made and admirable character, with the dreams, survival instincts, and practical literalism about the adult world of a believable rural small town teenager. His Native identity is never asserted but never doubted, it’s just part of his life. For example, Tecumseh (if that’s really his name) feels a relationship with the buffalo that wind their way through the story in different forms, and he is also interested in trying out the Internet, and someday visiting the West Edmonton Mall.

The author is able to say quite a bit about Native people in today’s world without hitting us over the head with either a stark version of the truth or our ignorance. But we absorb it, from the setting, the stories, and the characters and their sometimes biting wit.

Thomas King has become a master of novel narrative, which he enriches with suggestions of Native history, myth and traditional forms of storytelling. This is an easy book to read and a hard one to leave. For all the crosscurrents of humor, heroism, tragedy and evil, it flows with the ingenuity of the human heart applied to the complexities of everyday life. This is the most impressive story the author tells as well as exemplifies: the artistry of the ordinary.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Walk in Two Worlds: Native American Pittsburgh

This is a slightly longer version of an article that appeared in the Pittsburgh City Paper, a free weekly, in the fall of 1992. The 500th year after Columbus turned out to be a good year for raising awareness of Native Americans. It was especially interesting to me that western Pennsylvania had been a crossroads for several Indian peoples, and they had played a large part in the history of the state after white settlement began. For awhile the Pittsburgh area was the frontier, and the kind of conflicts that occurred in the late 19th century in the west happened there some two hundred years earlier.

The result of those conflicts was that the Indian cultures that expressed this landscape were gone. Few Indians living in western Pennsylvania in 1992 were from tribes that had inhabited the area in earlier times. Reading about the Delaware culture especially, I felt the enormous loss and its real consequences in the land where I grew up.

This piece quotes a PA historian saying that humans have inhabited Pennsylvania for eighteen thousand years. At the time I was working on it, my sister Kathy told me she'd heard something about an archeological site that indicated that it went even further back than this. But she didn't remember where it was, and by the time I got a good lead, it was time to turn in this article. The site is called Meadowcroft, not far from Pittsburgh in western PA, discovered and worked since the 1970s by archeologist James Adovasio and teams from the University of Pittsburgh. It turns out that the reason I had so much trouble finding out about it was that it was highly controversial, since it challenged the reigning assumptions about prehistory in North America.

Today Meadowcroft is acknowledged to be oldest known site of human activity in North America, proving that people lived in western PA during the last Ice Age, perhaps twenty thousand years ago. I highly recommend Adavasio's entertaining and enlightening book, The First Americans, published in 2002. A summary of the Meadowcroft Shelter findings and other updated archeological evidence can also be found in Jake Page's book (In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000 Year History of American Indians. (2003),  Even more recent studies of genetic data suggests human habitation in the Americas for perhaps 30,000 years.

As I began researching this piece, I attended a seminar on American Indian fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, held by two teachers who had one of the few courses in the country on contemporary Native American literature. Though that seminar and subsequent conversations don't figure directly in this piece, they did start me on reading this literature, which I have done ever since, to my profit and delight.

As this was my first attempt to write about American Indians, I was a little worried about the responses of the people I wrote about, specifically Russell Sims and Alice Hartshorn. Their words are really the best parts of the article. After the article came out I was too shy to ask Sims what he thought of it. But I ran into Alice Hartshorn at a benefit concert (featuring Rusted Root) the week it was published and she was overjoyed. That was all the validation I needed.

Later I attended a number of ceremonies led by Miguel Sague at the Singing Winds Site and he asked me to be on the board of his organization, but I was about to leave the Pittsburgh area for California. But I have fond memories of those full moon and solstice and equinox ceremonies, adapted from his tribal ceremonies to fulfill a tribal mandate to perform them wherever he happened to be, and to spread the word.

As I post this again in 2011, there are these updates.  Miguel Sague is still very active, in Pittsburgh and internationally now with his Taino Spiritual Movement.  The Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center also continues to thrive, and continues to hold the annual Pow Wow.  Their more recent activities are reflected in some of the illustrations to this post.  Miguel actually saw a previous posting on another of my blogs and left an approving comment with the very touching message that "you and Margaret are remembered fondly here."  In fact, Miguel getting in touch inspired me to re-post these articles in an updated and more organized way. 

The young artist Marwin Begaye I interviewed has since become an internationally known artist and graphic designer, currently teaching at the University of Oklahoma.  "His research has been concentrated on the issues of cultural identity, especially the intersection of traditional American Indian culture and pop culture."  Again, the illustrations of his artworks are more recent.  I also describe the house where he lived in Pittsburgh--several of his housemates formed a band that became nationally known as well as a Pittsburgh favorite, called Rusted Root.  The band is still playing and recording, and has sold some 3 million units worldwide.


Walk in Two Worlds: Native American Pittsburgh


a more recent Pow Wow at Dorseyville 

From the fire hall in Dorseyville, some fourteen miles northeast of Pittsburgh, the long road ribbons up the steep hill past meadows and stands of trees, through a rusted gate to a broad ridge overlooking a quiet remnant of hilly green western Pennsylvania, the way it was. The odd cement structures are artifacts of the vanishing Cold War culture, for this was once a Nike missile emplacement. Now it is the Singing Winds Site of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, and on this late September afternoon it is the place for the fourteenth annual Pow Wow.

A Pow Wow is a celebration, a social gathering with spiritual undertones, open to everyone. This year's had special resonance, for by presidential decree, 1992 is the Year of the American Indian. (In his proclamation praising Americans of Native descent, President Bush cites Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover's vice-president, but doesn't mention that through his mother Bill Clinton is part Cherokee.) It also marks 500 years since Columbus landed, the occasion for a year's worth of cultural self-examination culminating in many national and local events.

From the grand entry at one o'clock, there are competition and demonstration dances. The Traditional men jump and whirl, their bright outfits flashing red and yellow against the calm blue sky. Later they perform the Warrior dance, the oldest known dance in the Americas, one probably witnessed by Christopher Columbus (and more recently, by viewers of Dances With Wolves.)

The women performing in the Traditional category, some in white buckskin, dance with rhythmic dignity, like the white clouds now blown in slow stately procession across the afternoon. Young men and women, and several age groups of children, dance in other prescribed styles. Spectators crowd around to see the majestic Aztec dancers, two young men and a young woman whose beauty, grace and power is mesmerizing, even before they perform the Fire Dance, during which one stirs his foot into the flames.

Meanwhile Indian traders offer woven shirts from Ecuador, jewelry from the southwest, clay whistles from Mexico. Over at the food stand, volunteers dispense Indian chili, buffalo burgers and fried bread.

Here on this weekend, Native Americans of all ages mingle with spectators of European, African, Asian and mixed descent. But on other days, in lesser proportion and less noticeably perhaps, they are working, going to school and participating in the life of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. They are the first Americans, and perhaps the least visible in the contemporary American mix.

The latest federal Census indicates an Indian population in Allegheny County of some 1500, with 675 in Pittsburgh, and a total of some 15,000 in Pennsylvania. But for various reasons, these figures are unreliable; they may be too low by more than half. The Council of Three Rivers estimates that in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area it serves upwards of 2,000 American Indians from more than 70 tribes. The Census also shows that the local Native American population is increasing. Although some of this increase is probably due to better reporting, Indians from other parts of the country do migrate here.

Whatever Europeans discovered in America, it wasn't Native Americans. In their first few centuries in the western hemisphere, Europeans exploited, enslaved and exterminated them, for economic gain (as the book Indian Giver by Jack Weatherford makes painfully clear, the rapacious exploitation of the Americas and its natives were inextricably linked), religious conversion (fresh from the Crusades and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, they were eager to make the world safe for Christianity) and out of a conviction of absolute cultural superiority.

Through all this they did not see American Indians for what they were. Instead, psychologists might say, they saw their own Shadow, the Jungian name for feelings lodged in the unconscious too fearful or socially dangerous to admit. After Europeans projected their own violence and savagery upon the Indians (and exterminated them for it in both notorious massacres and such little known acts as the final genocide of the last band of 20 Susquehanna in 1763), they soon chose the Indians to carry the softer side of their Shadow, those noble sentiments it was too inconvenient to follow in real life.

But if Indians were to personify the lost innocence of the wilderness and the vanishing west, they had to be relegated to the past. In order to preserve this image, early twentieth century photographer Edward Curtis retouched his famous photos of North American Indians to eliminate anything modern, like clocks and automobiles (which in turn led Native American performance artist James Luna to sedate himself in a display case as proof that Indians are still alive, to counter a Curtis photo display in 1986.)

Even today, the interest of New Agers and the ecology crowd sometimes ignores contemporary American Indian reality. Wealthy whites love to shiver for the shaman and the romance of the past. While shamans and spirituality are essential to American Indian cultures, we risk neglecting the total reality and new needs of Indians today by simply projecting our own longings onto people we know so little about.

For example, the Council of Three Rivers does more than hold an annual Pow Wow. The Council runs employment and training programs serving three states (61 counties in Pennsylvania, plus all of West Virginia and Kentucky), Head Start at several locations, the Council House shelter and support services for youth in Westmoreland County, the Native American Elders Program which connects elders with needed social services, and an adoption service. There are cultural classes, a library and a speakers' bureau, and "Native Reflections," a stain glass business.

The newly formed Pittsburgh American Indian Center, headquartered at the Friends Meeting House, has educational, cultural, spiritual and social service referral programs, and is organizing a spiritual counseling and health service. And both the Three Rivers Council and the Native American Support Group (operating out of an apartment in Squirrel Hill) have collected tons of food and supplies for reservations in the west where winters are hard and starvation is still possible. The Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is now officially the poorest county in America.

But even all this is only part of the reality of Pittsburgh's Native Americans, trying to survive as Americans and as American Indians, blending and balancing tradition and the demands of contemporary urban life, making their own discoveries of cultural and personal identity. Their identity and ours begins with history.

On The Ground We Walk Today

a 2009 version of the Allegheny Dancers

On the same weekend as the Pow Wow, the Pittsburgh Folk Music Society brought Mohawk storyteller Stephen Fadden and the Allegheny River Dancers to the Synod Hall stage in Oakland. The dancers were members of two families--men, women and children--from the Allegheny reservation in northern New York state. They brought back to Pittsburgh the dances of the Senecas, the Delawares and other tribes that had been danced on the land of Pittsburgh hundreds of years ago, and nearby for thousands of years before.

The drumming was dramatic and precise, the singing powerful and intricately melodic and the dancing was skilled, but the dancers themselves were unpretentious; one little girl became fascinated with the shadows she made on the white wall behind her, and late in the evening seemed to be carrying on valiantly past her usual bedtime. The effect was to recapture a culture in motion, in which dance was an intimate part of life for community and personal ceremonies of all kinds, as well as the social dances outsiders are permitted to see and even participate in, as many did at Synod Hall.

Earlier in the day, Fadden and Bill Crouse, a Seneca and a leader of the Allegheny Dancers, held a workshop and answered questions. They spent much of the time correcting false stereotypes, like the Rain Dance, which were held to give thanks for the rain, not to conjure it. Some tribes began the dance when they heard the thunder that announced the rain. Perhaps some anthropologist saw them dance and then saw it rain, an elder had suggested to one of the dancers, but hadn't heard the thunder.

Such stereotypes about African Americans and women have largely been dispelled, but misinformation concerning Native Americans still abounds, beginning with Columbus. Whatever he discovered, it wasn't America.

When Columbus found a beach in the Bahamas five hundred years ago, American Indians had been living in the Americas for some twenty thousand years. Europeans and their descendants have lived in western Pennsylvania for at most a few hundred years. But according to Charles McCollester, who teaches history at Indiana University, "there has been eighteen thousand years of human habitation in western Pennsylvania."

At the time Columbus landed, there were about one hundred million people living in the Americas, from the southern tip of Argentina to northern Canada and Alaska. In North America, networks of Indian trails linked the east coast to the west, Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Inhabitants spoke 200 to 300 distinct languages.  Many of this trails became roads and today's highways.

In western Pennsylvania, Indians were farming perhaps seven thousand years ago, growing corn, squash and beans on this land. For at least seven hundred years, one of the more highly developed cultures in the region was flourishing around Pittsburgh. Archaeologists call them the Monongahela people, and have found remnants of their culture in hundreds of local sites: stone and pottery pipes, spoons of elk antlers, ornaments of shell, stone and cannel coal. They lived in beehive shaped houses in stockaded villages, often positioned on hilltops. (A recently discovered Monongahela site is being excavated on the Sony property in New Stanton, Westmoreland County.) But by the time the first Europeans arrived here, they were gone.

Museum model of Monogahela

No one is really sure what happened to them. Carnegie Museum of Natural History Staff Archeologist Dick George believes that they were pushed out by other Indian groups, perhaps from West Virginia and Ohio. McCollester maintains they were killed off by smallpox, transmitted through the Susquehannocks tribe to the east, from the first Europeans to reach Pennsylvania. Both views have their adherents, and neither completely excludes the other. But if the disease theory is true, the Monongahela people were destroyed by people they never saw, and who never saw them.

They were hardly the only Indians to fall to foreign microbes, against which they had no resistance or medicines. Nineteen out of twenty people who lived in this hemisphere before Columbus died of these diseases, including three out of four in North America within the first fifty years of contact with Europeans.

Later, whites used these diseases as a weapon--and it happened here. At the suggestion of the English General Amherst, the commander of Fort Pitt in 1763 concluded negotiations with warring Indians by giving them gifts of blankets taken from the fort's smallpox hospital.

Other tribes soon filled the void left by the Monongahela people. Prominent in western Pennsylvania in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the Senecas (Alliquippa is named after Queen Alliquippa, head of a Seneca settlement) and other Iroquoian peoples who had formed the Five Nations, a powerful federation whose intricate democratic system was studied by the Founding Fathers of our federal government.

Other tribes who lived here for a time were Shawnee (a settlement in Sewickley, for example), Wynadots (below New Castle), Miami, Creeks, Mingos and the Lenni Lanape, known to whites as the Delawares (with settlements in Johnstown, Kittanning and "Shannopin's Town," on the Allegheny about two miles above the Point, among other western Pennsylvania places.)

In his landmark study, Indians in Pennsylvania, Paul Wallace describes the Delaware culture in some detail. While important aspects differ from one tribe and place to another, this life once lived along our rivers and in our hills and valleys seems reasonably representative of American Indian cultures.

artist rendition, Lenni Lenape encampment, 1700s

Family was matrilinear, through the mother. There were intricate patterns of kinship, with clans named after animals such as the wolf and the tortoise. Marriages were arranged but divorce was easily granted if one or both parties wished it. Parents did not hit their children to discipline them. Education included woodcraft and gardening, knowledge of plants and animals, and the tribal legends and traditions. Elders were revered. The Delawares farmed and hunted. There were sports and games, including gambling. Storytelling was both an entertainment and a vital form of instruction. There was virtually no crime. They loved music, sang well, and held frequent social dances.

For each stage in childhood and adolescence there was a rite of passage. The Boy's Vigil separated him from home in a solitary night in the woods, after fasting. If he was fortunate he would have a vision that would provide him with his special link to his ancestors and the natural world, and would define his life.

"The basic principle of Delaware religion was that spirit was the prime reality," Wallace writes. "All things had souls: not only man, but also animals, the air, water, trees, even rocks and stones." Another scholar observed that the Delaware "trod lightly through his natural environment, merging himself sympathetically into the world of living and non-living things."

A sense of justice extended to all things, animals were thanked for giving their lives in the hunt, and humans knew their bodies would complete the bargain by returning in death to nourish the earth.

The place of humans in the universe was dramatized in the chief annual ritual, the Big House Ceremony. A wooden structure of perhaps fifty by thirty feet, the Big House was as symbolic as it was solid: its floor was the earth, its four walls were the four directions, its ceiling the sky dome. Beneath the floor is the underworld, while above the roof were the twelve planes leading to the home of the Creator.

At the center of the house was a post, symbolizing the World Tree. Along the floor from the east door to the west was the winding White Path, along which the dancers danced the Big House Ceremony, solemnly following the path of life with its twists and turns, from birth to death, around the World Tree.

All of this happened not just in the desert Southwest or on the Great Plains, but here, on the ground we walk in western Pennsylvania.

Although William Penn's relatively enlightened attitudes caused the pushing out of the Indians to be more orderly, there was still blood spilled on our soil (several slaughters by white settlers were specifically denounced by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) and innumerable treaties signed and broken. Perhaps the most intriguing was signed in Pittsburgh on September 19, 1778, which offered the Delaware nation admission to the union as part of a fourteenth, Indian state. But the government for what the Indians called the Thirteen Fires failed to ratify it.

These tribes moved west or died out as separate entities, and intermarriage with other Indians and with white settlers further blurred the old identities. Pennsylvania has no Indian reservations. By the early nineteenth century, it seemed that the history of Indians in this area was over. But it isn't.

To Walk In Two Worlds
Lonely and away from her Wilkinsburg home, Jodie Simms posted a note on a bulletin board at her Job Corps barracks in Huntington, West Virginia that said, if there are any other Native Americans here, please contact me. It was a first step in Native American Pittsburgh discovering itself.

"Growing up in those days, Indian families always felt isolated," said Russell Simms, Jodie's older brother. This was the early 1960s, when General Custer was still the hero of Little Big Horn, and it was against federal law for Indians to perform their rituals and sing their songs.

"You always felt you were the only Indian family in the whole world--that's how isolated and dispersed Indian people were," Russ Simms continued. You didn't think about looking for other Indian people--you were too busy surviving, too busy protecting, too busy keeping it all alive through mum and dad."

"Too busy fighting the battles in school or dealing with how bad you were as a person. Many mums and dad said it's really not important that you talk about being Indian; what's important is that you go to school. Many mums and dads said hide it, better to be anything than an Indian. But if you're an Indian, you know it. Somebody next to you may not know it, but when you're being criticized as a race of people, you're being impacted."

But someone responded to Jodie Simms'note, and it turned out to be a young American Indian woman who had grown up only seven blocks away from the Simms home in Wilkinsburg. "When they came home and said to their families, guess what, there is another Indian family right over there," Russ Simms said. "So these two families hooked up, to sit and talk and share almost word for word their common experiences of living in an urban environment, disconnected from any tribe, out there alone as a family. And that was just so phenomenal to us, but those words would be told over and over and over in the months to come."

"We decided if there are two families there must be three, there must be four, there must be five, there must be ten. We made a concerted effort to look for Indians." They found them, and very quickly they realized that there was zero reinforcement in the Pittsburgh area in any way. There was only destruction for Indian people, in any system."
some woodland tribes artifacts, from an exhibition
in Pittsburgh 

They discovered their cultural loss. "There was no cultural reinforcement except from mums and dads, in the little time they had to pass it down, because they were engaged in daily survival for the family. We used to gather in homes, we used to gather in the parks, we used to gather where we could gather to be ourselves. We were meeting 75, 80, 90 people two or three times a week, usually over food. We developed cultural activities in a nonstructured environment. We made drums and outfits, put effort to go back tribe by tribe and learn and understand, and we developed our own general awareness for ourselves."

They began collecting clothing and soliciting money for Indians in the west, as a way of relating to the larger Indian community. But they also became increasingly aware of common problems in dealing with employers, government and the non-Indian world right here. "As the numbers grew so did the human problems. We were always dealing with a family problem somewhere, or an individual problem. Eventually the problems became well beyond the means of our group or just our ability to address. And that's how our agency began to take shape."

The agency was the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, begun in 1969, and incorporated as a non-profit agency in 1972. Russell Simms, who has owned and operated his own business (Big Discount Auto Parts) since 1966, is the Executive Director. Miguel Sague, leader of the Caney Indian Spiritual Circle, is chairperson of the board. Among his activities, he leads an annual vision quest in the Allegheny National Forest.

There were others instrumental in developing the Native American community, Simms says, including Ed and Lydia Hale, the parents of Edward Hale III, medicine man and founder of the Pittsburgh American Indian Center. " Ed Hale was a very good leader, a very strong culturally-based individual, and also a very strongly-based mainstream person. He had both sides of the fence nailed down. He played a very important role when we as an agency started interacting with Washington and the Commonwealth, and with other Indian entities."

Hale helped cultural awareness evolve in a way appropriate to urban Indians. "When I learned how to dance, how to chant and sing--I learned the Hisdsata ways that Ed taught me," Simms recalls. "I'm Cherokee-Seminole. I didn't know alot about my own race, I didn't have anybody here who could get deep into the culture. But we had people like Ed Hale who said there's nothing wrong with learning other cultures and participating. This gave people the self-esteem they needed so they could get their own background together. That this was very meaningful, regardless of what the system said, or society said, or the impressions you had--no, this is real. This is meaningful. I am somebody now."

This early work paved the way for those who came later, like Alice Hartshorn, who came to Pittsburgh from the Texas hill country eleven years ago, and found housing and job training through the Council of Three Rivers. But the problems, prejudices and misunderstandings continue.

"The most important thing for people to know is that even though we are culturally distinct and we have traditions that are very distinctive, we are also just like everybody else, " Alice said. "We can't live in our feathers every day. We live in the real world. We do everything everybody else does-- the only difference is that there are those times that we are ethnic, just like everybody else in Pittsburgh."

"But we're not viewed as real ethnic people. People seem to think we're extinct. We are a reality, we are a living people, we have no choice but to live like everyone else, but we're not accepted as real. We are a living group, and we are ourselves. But the only thing people see are stereotypes." Although she has a responsible position with a government agency, she still must caution people not to call her Pocahontas.

Pittsburgh's Native Americans are increasingly discovering their own heritage, like a woman who thought her Indian grandmother was crazy because she sang those strange songs. Now she is committed to her Indian identity, and with the help of Ed Hale III, her troubled adolescent son is finding new sources of creativity and belief in Indian tradition.

But there are still costs."We have to find that balance between the two worlds," Alice Hartshorn says. "When do you stop being traditional and start being modern? You have to--I've heard the expression--walk in both worlds. Its incredibly difficult, and not everybody's capable of doing it." She admits to some problems herself.

"You get up in the morning and you know its going to be one of those days. You're gonna hate the asphalt, you're gonna hate the bus, you're gonna hate work and everybody you see because none of them make any sense to you. People are laughing but you don't see what's funny at all. But you think I'd better try to laugh or people are going to think I'm really weird... I'm an older person now, I'm cross-acculturated, but sometimes when I'm sitting reading about Black Elk or Crazy Horse, and I look up and stare at the computer terminal, and I realize I don't want to be in this place. I've had to put down my book and go to find someplace to cry, because it just doesn't fit for me."

by Marwin Begaye

Marwin Begaye, a young Navaho artist who came to Pittsburgh from Arizona three years ago, sees some of the same stereotypes and same needs. "People think we still ride horses to school. But all Native Americans are basically trying to keep up with the times."

by Marwin Begaye
 But that doesn't mean to forget tradition, or to forget the needs of all Indians. In addition to exhibiting and selling his portraits here, Marwin co-founded the Native American Support Group, and has lectured extensively in the area on cultural and spiritual matters. He talks about history and about such current issues as the poverty on reservations and the continuing desecration of Indian land, including the planned Mt. Graham telescope to be built on a sacred Apache mountain (with the University of Pittsburgh participating.) His group took 5,000 pounds of food and 4,000 pounds of clothing to the Big Mountain reservation last October. "What's the most endangered species in the country right now?" He asks, and answers, "Native Americans."

Today the difficulties still abound and they are complex. Depending on their pigmentation (which varies considerably) Native Americans are subject to racial prejudice from whites or blacks. Because of rules governing eligibility for federal and state programs, the opportunism of those who otherwise profit by appearing Indian, and even the different tribal traditions, there is conflict over who is an Indian and who is not. Within the community there is disagreement between western and eastern, "reservation" and urban Indians. There are philosophical and personal differences and complex internal debate. To walk in two worlds, each has a different path. But it is still a community that comes together when needed.

In his now famous campaigns, rock star Sting repeatedly made the point that to save the Brazilian rainforest it is necessary to save the Indians who live there, and to save the Indians we must save the rainforest. Here in western Pennsylvania we live in a landscape with Indian names. We eat the food they first grew, we travel on the trails they blazed. Our economy, government and our existence as a nation wouldn't have happened without them.

Our European, African and Asian ancestors may be the spirit of our cities, our mines and our mills, but Native Americans are the spirit of our living landscape--the trees, the waters, the air we breathe, and the land we now share. To save our home, to save ourselves, we must include Native Americans in our Pittsburgh.