Sundry Moldy Solecisms

3.28.11 | | 3 comments

(Note: In 2009 I was happily blogging about textual changes in The Book of Mormon–something I hope to resume soon–when my brother-in-law had a stroke. We all headed to northern Idaho (just down the Clearwater river from BoGritzland). We enjoyed seeing my wife’s family, and when we got back the new computer my son had ordered was waiting for us, and as he set it up he displaced the one I had been blogging from. Before I could get everything set up down in my study I fetched a temp assignment processing Cash for Clunkers payments — 14 days without a break, which taught me the value of a Sabbath. While I was still trying to get my blogging rhythm back I got busy. While I’m considering textual criticism, I also want to post some reviews I’ve been writing.

The title for my review segments is from one of my favorite quotes: “I have committed sundry moldy solecisms; yet I was not born to desecrate literature.” It’s the first sentence from Edward Dahlberg’s preface to his collection Bottom Dogs, From Flushing to Calvary, Those Who Perish: And hitherto unpublished and uncollected works. I tried reading the preface several times, but it was slow going till I realized it wasn’t an essay moving logically from one proposition to another, but a collection of epigrams. One of these days I hope to finish the rest of the book. I realized recently that while Dahlberg’s emphasis is clearly on the word desecrate, when I say it out loud I emphasize the word literature, as if I’m searching for what I was born to desecrate, or maybe what I was born to consecrate, or celebrate.

This first book I’m reviewing is one that I wish librarians throughout Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, California (southern, at least) and a lot of their patrons would buy, both to preserve and make widely available a unique part of western American culture, and for a reason mentioned at the end of the review. My thanks to USU Press for a review copy.)

Black and White and Should be Read All Over
A Review of Southern Paiute: A Portrait by William Logan Hebner, Photographs by Michael L. Plyler

Title: Southern Paiute: A Portrait
Author: William Logan Hebner, photographs by Michael L. Plyler
Publisher: Logan Utah, Utah State University Press, 2010
Genre: Oral History
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 196+xii
Binding: Cloth, or e-book
ISBN: 978-0-87421-754-4
ISBN e-book 978-0-87421-755-1
Price: $34.95 cloth, $28 e-book

In July 2004 I attended a field school co-sponsored by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center and BYU Library’s William A. Wilson Folklore Archive, “Fruits of Their Labors,” creating oral histories documenting the fast-disappearing orchard culture of Utah Valley, a culture once spread all along the Wasatch Front and causing the weathermen of my youth, usually Bob Welti, to say, “Better light your smudge pots. It’s going to get down near freezing tonight.”

In the classroom portion one presenter started off by playing a chant he had heard at a Native American powwow. “What language do you think we’re singing in?” they had asked, and answered, “English.”

He played it again, and we learned that “Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto too, they’re all movie stars at Disneyland.” (To hear the Black Lodge Singers’ version click here.)

He didn’t comment on the chant, didn’t need to say, “You can understand a lot of things if you believe you can and you listen carefully,” though one class member later commented on a man and woman who had come to the school from Egypt. The man did not speak a lot of English, but worked as sound engineer for their group and showed a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of care to understand and be understood.

Listening carefully and wanting to understand and be understood is a theme that runs through William Logan Hebner and Michael L. Plyler’s Southern Paiute: A Portrait. When Jeff Needle sent around the call for reviewers I wasn’t listening. I had other things to do. Sometime later Jeff sent out this note, “After Will scolded me for not taking on the Southern Paiute book, I announced it widely. Shocking silence. Is no one able to take this one on?”

I looked again. “Oh, this is oral history, like the field school.” And just as we produced an exhibit of the fruits of our own labors at the bottom of the grand staircase in the Harold B. Lee Library, this book started as an exhibit–portraits of 30 Paiute elders along with their words. And what lovely portraits they are, testaments to the dignity and beauty of the subjects and of the black-and-white photograph.

I didn’t open it up right away, didn’t take off the shrinkwrap–I had to finish up another project–but I kept coming back to the striking dust jacket photo of a white-haired man in a black leather jacket, arms folded across his stomach, head at a slight angle, eyes looking straight at you. He has things to say, and the dignity and strength to say them.

The back cover identifies him as Arthur Richards, and he looks like his name sounds, very Anglo. Do I sense some sly humor in choosing that photo for the dust jacket, playing with our ideas of what Indians look like? The direct gaze is rather disconcerting, and you might say one purpose of the book is to disconcert certain white notions about Indians. (Elders use word Indian throughout.)

“They find some jewelry or maybe a cat buried next to a Neanderthal, and they attribute all these notions of culture to them that they refuse to attribute to us,” Richard Arnold’s story begins. “That’s a pretty heavy racism when you compare badly to Neanderthal.” He also says, “imagine if someone came here in a thousand years and found all this stuff made in China; there must have been Chinese all over here. Like we don’t have the capacity to adapt other technologies, or trade, or steal. We’re not given that credit to think that way; all we were doing was trying to survive” (174).

I take it Arnold’s point is not that international and global trade didn’t begin in the 20th century (BC or AD), but that we treat people differently depending on what we think of their culture. Part of Hebner’s purpose is to document Paiute cultures. If we don’t believe that people have a culture we may may ignore their claims to basic human needs, water, land, religious freedom, language.

“At Stewart [Indian School] they used to whip us if we talked Indian. . . . They’d starve us, put us in a big closet by the matron’s room and take the light bulb out. I’d lie there and they’d give me some crusty bread for a couple days, just for talking Indian. Away for two days with crusty bread and whip us too. It’s still vivid for me now,” (134) Evelyn Samalar says.

Others say the same thing, but perhaps the saddest sentence in the book doesn’t come from an elder but from Hebner, “Today there are less than 50 Southern Paiute who can still fluently speak the language” (20).

The book ends with the Pahrump band, which has never been federally recognized, and with words about language. Many of the elders comment about the fading or loss of spiritual powers, but Clara Belle Jim says, “It’s not lost. It will cycle back in.” But there’s a problem. She talks about Joe Pete who healed her and left behind objects with power when he died, which could be passed to a relative. “One of his relatives, he said he dreamed about it coming to him. But he cannot speak Paiute language, so he cannot take it. It has to be in Paiute language.” And her last words in this last interview are, “That’s what it’s all about–the language. And the bushes” (184).

And Hebner gives us another telling sentence, “All the events for this project were scheduled around Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as the majority of elders had dialysis on those days: ‘Even your food is killing us,’ observed Madelan Redfoot” (19).

But I make the book sound far too somber. True, 10 of the 30 elders have died, and many echo Clara Belle Jim’s words about songs and stories and powers being tied to landscape and language, but the book is full of lovely stories, full of the exuberance of a powwow dance, full of stories about powwows and dancing and healing and singing, and where Salt Songs and Cry Songs come from, and when they can be sung. “Herbert used to talk about the Ants. They’re in the Salt Songs, one of the Midnight Songs, I think. I can’t tell the Ant Story now. Even though it’s still officially winter, I’ve already heard a morning dove cry,” Lalovi Miller says (141).

The night before I finished the book KSL ran a story about an ancient village and burial site unearthed in Kaibab Paiute areas during dam construction, which reminds me that important as place is in this book, rich as it is in details about place and sacred places, I haven’t even mentioned the area where the Southern Paiute live and lived, southern Utah, southern Nevada, some of southern California, some of northern Arizona.

I knew the general territory before reading this book, but didn’t automatically connect it to Mormon history, so consider this comment from Darlene Pete Harrington, Cedar Band and Caliente: “I love this town [Caliente, Nevada] and I’m going to die in this town. Granpa Charlie and Gramma Queen worked hard to raise their family here. Charlie and his family came over here after that Mountain Meadows Massacre. Charlie saw it. He knew we’d get blamed, so they left Sham, came over here” (119).

The Mountain Meadows Massacre, and what it means to be blamed for something everyone knows you didn’t do, are threads in the book, important threads, and this is one of the first sources to record Paiute accounts of the massacre.

Relations with Mormons generally, and the Student Placement Program, are also important threads in the book’s tapestry, worth a few thousand words, surely, but two quotes will do for now.

Here’s Alvin Marble, speaking of some Mormon neighbors. “They didn’t ever talk about Lamanites, that we were cursed, that our skin color was a curse. They’d just tell us that oh, we are the chosen ones, blossom like a rose someday. I think that’s almost true” (104).

And here’s Arthur Richards, he of the leather jacket, who joined the Mormons at about age 30. “I went through the temple with my wife, had all my kids sealed to me. It was quite a thrill. But we got the dirtiest looks I ever seen from some of the Mormons in that temple. I served in the bishopric. I’m still a Mormon, but I’ve retired” (91).

I could write thousands more words about this book, and probably will, but I want this review to be short enough to read, so I’ll just say the book has wonderful stories about getting and using the healing powers of the earth, and the complexities and dangers of asking for, receiving and using the powers.

This is a lovely, intense, vibrant book, shimmering with the energy of that water you see in the distance as you drive across Nevada, except there is water in the distance if you know how to ask the earth for it, as Mathew Leivas’s story about praying over a spring, reviving it, bears moving witness (171).

I love the story Hebner tells at the beginning about him and Plyler “before a skeptical Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah (PITU) tribal council, where Michael said, yeah, here we are, two more white guys here to help. In the end we committed to donating all our royalties to the tribe. So in buying this book you’ve helped pay the elders for their stories” (6).

That the story has a matching bookend in Hebner’s introductory paragraph to Clara Belle Jim’s interview suggests some of the book’s artistry. “She sizes me up as if I were a horse at an auction and gets right to the business of how money will work for this book” (180).

Likewise the striking portrait of Arthur Richards has a matching bookend in a portrait of 106-year-old Margaret King’s backyard, abandoned Studebaker in the foreground, Paiute Mountain in the background. Hebner says, “if you held all 60 pounds of her to the sunlight, purples, reds, blues, yellows and browns would stream through her parchment skin” (34). These stories are full of such hues, new ones to discover each time. The picture itself gains hue when you know Paiute Mountain is now called Navajo Mountain. Why is another story, and there are lots of other stories. Come and listen.

3 comments: “Sundry Moldy Solecisms

  1. Wm Morris

    Growing up in Kanab, I heard a little bit about the Paiute, but it’s true that we knew more about and were more interested in the Navajo. I’m speaking, of course, only as a child. I don’t know what the adults did/thought/were aware of.

  2. Harlow

    Wm, Thanks for your comment. I suspect this book would have a lot of resonance for you, at least with place names and other cultural things.

    Several elders comment on Navajo encroachment on Paiute lands, how the Navajos did what a lot of Mormons did, came to visit and stayed and gradually pushed the Paiute off. There are a few comments about the Paiute being too gentle or retiring.

    I heard something on the news recently about a ruling that only members of federally recognized tribes can possess eagle feathers for religious use. I immediately thought of the Pahrump band, which has never been able to get federal recognition.

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