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.