Monday, October 10, 2011

Linda Hogan

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.