Sunday, October 21, 2007

Barn Dance

As if my Saturday was not anachronistic enough, in the evening I stopped over at the Long Valley Fire Hall for a little barn dance, a 45-year Anniversary Party for one of the elementary teachers at school. From Indians to cowboys: I was, on a rare occasion, just about the only male in the house not wearing cowboy boots--and that includes a range from about four years old to 80-years-old. There was a supper, and then after supper a full band--complete with slide guitar and fiddle--were on stage with a repertoire of classic country. Here, it seemed to me, was a community you had to be born into: everyone, it seemed, had grown up in cowboy boots, riding the back of a rodeo bronco. And everyone was the next person's neighbor, even if that meant living many miles distant down the dirt road.

Tom, my counterpart in the middle school, was born and raised in Long Valley, and is one of the few volunteer fireman left to man the Fire Hall. It had seen better years, he said, but strung with Christmas lights and packed with ranchers from the nearest hundred miles, music ringing out into a cold and rainy October night, it seemed pretty damn decent--especially for a town that, according to Wikipedia, has a population of eight.
On Assignment

Considering a career in journalism, I emailed a woman at a local newspaper last weekend to set up informational interview. I didn't hear back from her for a few days, and then Friday, while I was working in my room after school, an aide stuck her head in and said that there was a parent on the phone for me--never an exciting prospect. It wasn't a parent, though, but rather some woman who I couldn't hear too clearly over her weak cell phone connection. What I could make out were phrases like, "got your name from Amanda at Lakota Country Times," "I live in town," "writing project," etc. Since she was in town, I suggested she come up to school to talk to me, but she couldn't (no working car, I think), so I said I'd stop by her house in town after school if I had time.

After school I was supposed to stop by the college center to quickly go over factoring quadratics with a guy I know who needs tutoring. But first I drove around town a few times, looking for the right house (we don't have street names here, just numbers). I couldn't find it, so I finally pulled into the driveway of a house where about five of my students were hanging out (and did they ever look pleased to see me pulling up). They suggested I look in the general direction of where I had already been looking. Going back, I finally found it: there was no number on the house, and it was spray painted, instead, on the septic tank.

Inside I met Phillis, who began talking about how she is concerned with the elders in the community, especially one man, Art, who lives 18 miles outside of town in a log cabin who needs his roof repaired. She offered me a few Polaroids of his house. Because I was still confused, I asked if they wanted me to write a newspaper article on this--my email hadn't asked for a writing opportunity--and she said yes. I had to leave quickly, so I couldn't gather more information, but she said if I had time I could stop by the next day and we'd drive out to visit Art.

So the next morning I headed back to town, still curious as to what was going on. I stopped by Phillis's house, and she filled me in a little more on the situation and her involvement with the elders in the community. I was still rather confused about my purpose, but she reiterated that we were working on a newspaper story, so I decided to take the chance to head out and meet the elder. We drove eight miles out of town and then another ten or eleven miles south past Long Valley. Finally we turned off down a dirt road, drove another mile, and then turned off onto a dirt driveway. Halfway up the driveway, a pick-up truck was abandoned--Art's it turned, out; its rear end had given out--so I had to take the rougher road through some puddles and mud. we pulled up to a log cabin surrounded by elaborate wooden fence work. As usual, the rusted out chassis of a few cars rested in yard, and three horses picked at the grass. A dog idled by the front door of the cabin, and as we walked up Phillis shouted at it to stay back. I didn't shout enough, I guess, as I got nipped in the ankle through my jeans.

Art's cabin

I stepped inside the cabin. It was clearly hand-built, and dilapidated, but it was warmer inside than it had been in Phillis's HUD housing in town; a wood-burning stove in the center of the cabin was the source of heat. Pots and pans hung from the wooden beams that supported the sagging rough and separated the main room from a workspace on the right: a few hand-built tables scattered with the necessities of a rustic life. Past the stove, on the left, was an old metal bed frame and mattress; a hand-made shelf held various foodstuffs; and at a table set with a ketchup bottle and a collection of dirty dishes and old food sat Art himself, hand rolling a cigarette and gazing out one of the two remaining windows (the other two had been kicked in by the horses), waiting for someone whose arrival he anticipated. He didn't anticipate ours; he has no phone, so we could not announce our arrival. Of course, he has no electricity or plumbing either.

The pump where Art gets his water.

We sat and talked a bit, for our "interview." It was a slow and quiet conversation, though. I was still far from clear as to what story I was writing, so I had nothing prepared. And Art, though he understood most English, spoke very little of it--only one quick spurt, late in the conversation, when he said that if he ever left his land, other people would come and take it away--so Phillis had to translate his answers from Lakota for me. Often she would have to repeat my questions, as well, though, only speaking English, she would just repeat the same things I asked louder and clearer.

I gathered that the 2.5 acres that Art lived on, along with his son and various other relations, had been in the family since the Allotment Act of 1891. Art had lived there for his full 74-years; he built his current cabin in the 70s, but he didn't remember what he had lived in prior to that. In the 1930s, Art would ride a horse the 20 or so miles up to Wanblee to attend the Day School--although I don't believe he made it past the first grade. In his youth, he had ridden broncs on the rodeo circuit, traveling as far as Flagstaff. I didn't hear word of any other jobs he had held. Today, he spends his time mending fences for ranchers in the area, and lives off his social security check. Once a month, at least when the truck still worked, he would drive into Long Valley for groceries. Now he will have to ride the horses in, as he did in his youth.

The trailer next door.

The cabin is not Art's only option; his son lives next door in a trailer that had been dragged out onto the property, though it too, like every building on their land, lacked electricity, heat, or plumbing (The son was not home when we stopped by. A real cowboy, he breaks horses for a living, and is often out working as a ranch hand. In the winter, he heads to one city or another find some other work). Art's son would try to get him to sleep in the trailer, which has its own wood stove, but Art refuses to live in anything but the cabin he built. He is happy, he says, except that he needs a new roof. And this, I believe, is the crux of whatever story might make the newspaper.

Carpet keeps one side of the roof dry.

Boards on the roof are held down by various metal farming implements.

We stepped outside the cabin to take a few pictures (I didn't get any of the inside; for spiritual reasons, Art will not have his picture taken). When we came back inside, we spoke for a little while longer, and then, abruptly, Art muttered a few words in Lakota. Phillis translated: it was good that we came, but he had to go. And then he asked one more questions: when would she be coming back (she was to bring him more medicine for his asthma and heart problems, as well as a new blade for his chainsaws). When we left, Art joined us in the car and rode with us down to his gate, where we found the guest he had expected, and the reason it was time for us to leave: a relation was driving up the road in a tractor, bearing a new supply of wood to heat the houses.

A view out from Art's land.

Some fence work.

I'm still not entirely clear what I'm supposed to be writing, but I am going to call the editor at the newspaper tomorrow to clarify my role in this whole thing. And then I'll have to dig into some statistics about how many people on the reservation still live in houses like this, with no heat and electricity, hunkering down as best they can as winter comes in.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Photo Essay

I came across this today, and I thought it was pretty cool:

More exciting news coming soon.