Indian Killer and My Trip to Joseph, OR

Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)
Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)

It was 11am on a Sunday. Ashley and I were hiking in the snow along a trail just south of Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon. The way we knew we were still on a trail, some trail, and not just trailblazing our way up the side of a mountain, were the vast amounts of trees we’d pass with initials carved into them. Love-carvings (is that still a thing?), with typical hearts, letters, dates in time. Signs that humans (with knives) had walked this trail thousands of times before us.

We neither thought about nor realized whose trails we were walking. Like many before us, we’d simply driven to the end of highway 82, stayed a night in the town of Joseph, and continued to the road’s end on the southern point of Wallowa Lake the next day. There was a State Park with cabins, snowed-over campsites, and street parking. We parked our Prius behind another Prius, pulled on our beanies and gloves, and started walking. Aimlessly, I’ll add, if not for a sign that read “East Fork: 4mi” and “West Fork: 2.5mi”. We went west. We walked and talked about our future together, career choices, writing goals. We took a few moments to stop, glance around, and look up into the trees before continuing along. A stream with a man-made bridge above had not-yet frozen over. It was very-much alive and nothing close to quiet.

After a mile and a half we came to a clearing where we could take in views of the lake and its surrounding hillsides. It’s a shame it’s not spring or summer, I thought, wishing I could have experienced a landscape without so much white. This—though I was not yet aware—would become for me quite an ironic thought.

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The Jennings Hotel, Room 8

When we got back to our hotel room I noticed a sign above our window that was made to look like part of the window’s molding. It read, “Chief Joseph Hotel.” The room was one of many fully renovated rooms by an artist who’d recently acquired the building. Chances were good that he’d found the sign in an antique shop nearby and cut it down to fit perfectly above the window. I knew we were in the town of Joseph, but I wondered who Chief Joseph was. I sat down and picked up a book I’d been reading. It was a work that I’d later learn the author (Sherman Alexie) decided to distance himself from. Today, knowing what I do now, I wonder why that is? Did he believe himself to be too angsty? Too heavy-handed, too righteous for his cause? One thing is for certain: Indian Killer is not a book for kids.

indian killer

Set in mid-90’s Seattle, Indian Killer snapshots between various characters and their interactions surrounding the issue of an alleged, at-large terrorizer and murderer of white men. The main character, John Smith, is an adopted Indian (I shall use “Indian” at times to refer to “Native Americans/First Peoples” because this is the nomenclature that Alexie used) to two upper-middle class white parents. Among many things, he plays a symbolic role throughout the book portraying the confusion and generational frustration that resides within many Indians today. John never knew his real parents, never knew what tribe he was from, never fit in, and throughout the book, deals constantly with agonizing mental illness (possibly schizophrenia). Moreover, he often hallucinates and dreams of righting the wrongs of the White Man once and for all. It comes as no surprise, then, that the reader initially assumes John to be the Indian Killer.

The most interesting character to me was Marie Polatkin, a fierce college-aged activist who spends her time either handing out sandwiches to the homeless or challenging her Native American Literature professor, Dr. Clarence Mather (a white man in love with the idea of “being Indian” who spent two decades living amongst an Indian people-group in order to study their ways). Marie, herself a Spokane Indian, persistently challenged Dr. Mather’s notions on what it meant to be Indian, often insulting his expertise and insisting that Native American Literature should be taught and written by Native Americans, not white men. One of her most compelling statements came as Seattle was becoming more paranoid about the “Indian Killer”, and as more white people were launching assaults upon, especially, homeless Indians. Marie, herself always doubtful that the killer was necessarily Indian, reflected:

“…calling him the Indian Killer doesn’t make any sense, does it? If it was an Indian doing the killing, then wouldn’t he be called the Killer Indian?” (p. 247)

It was then that my perspective shifted. Not to sound dramatic, but the idea that the real killers in Alexie’s book (and by implication, much of our country’s history), were actually white people got me thinking. I started reflecting upon my 21st century, white, southern-californian education about First Peoples. Like many kids raised in American schools, I was taught about Squanto and the early settlers who came over on the Mayflower, and then in 11th grade U.S. history about various battles that the U.S. Cavalry had with tribes of Natives unwilling to relocate. But mostly, the perspective by which I was taught was that these battles were history. Numbers on a page. Tally marks and facts.

I’ve never read from the perspective of our First Peoples until Indian Killer (Alexie grew upon on the Spokane Indian Reservation). I’ve never been encouraged to and so I’ve never bothered to. The closest I’ve ever come to realizing the bleak situation my country has placed our First Peoples within was riding my bike through north-eastern Arizona, through Navajo-nation (as one white person I’d met in Flagstaff called it). “Desolate” was the descriptor they’d used.

As I flipped open Indian Killer and continued reading, it didn’t take long for me to make a connection. I started wondering about the town of Joseph and about the “Chief Joseph” sign above my window. Soon, I was reading wikipedia pages. Then came articles, and finally a primary source document written by Chief Joseph the Younger himself entitled, Chief Joseph’s Own Story. As I read I learned that his tribe, the Nez Perce, were indigenous to the soil upon which the town of Joseph was planted. I learned that the Nez Perce were initially peaceful to white settlers, and that our government allowed them to inhabit parts of the Wallowa valley. That was until 1863 when gold was discovered in the Wallowa mountains. The U.S. government then asked the Nez Perce to relocate to a smaller reservation in Idaho. Joseph the Younger’s father, Joseph the Elder, declined, and placed poles as boundary lines. To the governmental agents and white settlers he declared:

“Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

(Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People, p. 73)

From there it’s reported that aggression toward the Nez Perce rose until eventually the U.S. government waged war. By then, Joseph the Younger had become Chief (his father had passed), and instead of fighting, he decided to migrate his people north in what’s been considered one of the greatest tactical evasions ever attempted. Hidden in the mountains of Idaho and dashing through the night while Cavalry pursued, Chief Joseph believed if they could reach Canada they’d be safe. But before they could, and after many among the Nez Perce had died, Joseph was forced to surrender. The tribe was transported to a P.O.W. camp in eastern Kansas before being transported to a reservation in Oklahoma where many in the tribe died of disease. Chief Joseph would continue to lead his people throughout the various places that they were transported. Most courageously, he lived out his days as an activist for all indigenous First Peoples, even pleading directly to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/
Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/

The town of Joseph today certainly looks nothing like it did 150 years ago. Eateries, boutiques, and bars line Main Street. Artistic culture thrives, especially during the summer. A large statue of Chief Joseph stands near the town’s entrance. One evening a waitress told Ashley and I that when she moved to town she and her husband and many of their visiting friends had intensely vivid dreams. “This whole canyon is spiritual,” she said with an excited smile. “A really, very magical place.”

Visiting Joseph and reading the fictional story, Indian Killer, has caused me to wonder a lot of Why’s?, as might be expected. Aside from the compelling mastery that Alexie has over his prose, and the indescribable beauty of Joseph and its surrounding country, more than anything, these two experiences have made me sad and grieved. Much has been done that cannot be undone. An entire people group has been forced to assimilate. Imagine the state of our country if we had lost WW2. It’s tough to picture, but there’s a good chance that many of us might not even be alive. Still, I’ll never be able to realize what it felt like to be indigenous and then displaced; taken up and then taken hostage; used and then disposed of. There’s not really a handy or bright solution either. Sadness and grief just seem the most appropriate emotions.

John Henke, A Friend Indeed [Manuscript [some] day]

The body is deceiving. It can feign strength when it has adventure to devour. It is like an old car that, with good oil, will run for miles and miles, but when it gets low everything begins to act up.

The heat sets in. They are in an eastern valley of the Rockies and temperatures rival the desert in California. Mirage-like heat waves seem only a hundred feet away, but as they crank, the road warmly swimming underfoot, cooking their water bottles, the heat waves remain in the same place. Wavering there in the distance as they chase after, their hydration leaves a trail long behind.

“Dude. This sucks.”

“Yeah. Right?”

“This definitely isn’t the Rockies anymore. I mean the hills. Look at the hills now.”

They are green, but on the verge of beige. There is dirt the color of khaki, and there are bushes where trees used to be a hundred miles back.

“It’s not a wasteland or anything. But there’s not much here.”

“I just saw a sign,” Louis says pulling up next to Michael, his arm falling back where the sign is at their backs. “Vietnam memorial highway.”

“Hmm.”

“And it’s desolate.”

“Not much here.”

“Right.”

“I don’t know much about that war other than that people called it a mistake.”

“Me neither.”

“L-B-J, right?” Michael says.

“Who?”

“Lyndon Johnson, the president…”

“Oh right. Yeah, I remember.”

“How many kids you gonna kill today, is what people would say after L-B-J.”

“Wow.”

Louis falls back and before long can be heard taking a phone call. Michael waits for confirmation of a place for them to stay.

“Great… No, yeah, we’re great with that… Okay, see you soon, John. Thanks.” A pause. Then: “so, he wants to know how we feel about taco salad.”

“Oh man.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Louis says.

 

“Hey Louis!” comes the voice of an approaching rider. He wears a jersey with the American Flag and rides a bike with a rack and cooler he has rigged on top, just like Louis’.

It is John Henke.

“John!” Louis yells back.

“Guys! We’re still fifteen miles away!” He says as he comes to their side of the road. “I knew it was you, though. See that ridge up there? I came up on it and waited until I saw you. Then you came and I started down.”

The ridge is clearly another hill, and John is not being very funny when he says fifteen miles.

“Hey, you guys like taco salad?”

This is the first question he has asked. He is bubbling over with excitement.

“Yeah! We do!” says Louis attempting to match his enthusiasm.

“Great, hang on.” He pulls out a phone and hands them each a waterbottle from his cooler. “Hey, Judy. Judy… Yes, yes they are here and they want the taco salad. Yes… What’s that? No, another hour. Yes… Okay. Bye.”

Michael feels for another hour in his rubberized muscles and comes up empty.

“Taco salad it is! Ready?”

They ride, and they ride fast. John is pulling, breaking through the wind like a great steel locomotive. They hardly notice the ridge. They careen down the other side and into the southern outskirts of Colorado Springs. It is pushed up against the eastern mountains. It is quaint, in a way that feels peaceful, but large, in a way that says shrugs and says there are many generations and stories here today.

John doesn’t let up. His cyclometer reads twenty miles per hour on the flats and he is casual, he is steady. Louis and Michael dream of taco salad and watch it heap up on cold porcelain plates. They relish the opportunity to not have to trade off leading. Instead, they follow their newest friend’s persistent pace. His American flag jersey waves for freedom, friendship, and adventure ahead in their sight.

Into the Coachella Valley [Manuscript Monday]

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At approximately 7:15 the sun begins to peek over the eastern hillside, creating a picturesque display of colorful, shimmering mist. The air is fresh and brisk, like mountain air. Today is the day! Michael thinks. Today is the day we ride straight to New York!

At times Larry pulls way ahead and, like a dog out for a run with his master, Michael instinctively tries to match the speed of the car, driving his leg muscles harder and harder. It feels good, right even, to quicken his pace, especially in such cool climate. Not a minute later, though, and he would glance back at Louis, gliding slowly and steadily behind, conserving his strength for deeper into the day’s ride.

Neither are ecstatic about riding through Palm Springs. After all, it is a retiree’s haven, filled with Crown Victoria’s and golf carts between the hours of five and ten in the morning. From there, no soul is prudently functioning outdoors, especially during the summer. Still, somehow people decide to have themselves baked and burnt like beached whales, helplessly sprawled upon beach chairs to dehydrate and nauseate their bodies.

As they descend down upon and into the Coachella Valley, riding parallel to highway ten on two-lane roads that lead in and out of small towns, windmills the size of skyscrapers slice through the air with monstrous ease. Some clearly catch the direction of the air better than others, boasting high-speed rotations with their massive arms.

The valley is a funnel, ushering wind east by southeast between the San Bernardino National Forest mountains and Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness State Park. They careen through the funnel and into the valley, tailwinds kicking them to speeds of thirty and thirty-five miles per hour.

Harry, the guy with wires in his pockets [Manuscript Monday]

[In case you’re just joining, about a month ago I began sharing excerpts from a book I’m planning to have finished by the end of this year. Enjoy!]

The voice of a man comes from behind. He is mumbling aloud like carrying on conversation. 

“Prescott, a bike-friendly town. That’s right. Friendly to our kind. That’s right.”

They turn.

His baseball cap is smudged with grease and dirt, and he wears a red flannel over-shirt and cargo shorts stuffed with wires. Wires? For what exactly…? He has enormous, leather work boots.

Louis speaks up first.

“Are you local?”

“You bet I am! Been here a long time too…” the man says, grinning. “I actually live just over that hill.” He points.

They attempt to make out a hill, or a mountain, or something resembling, but only find rooftops of nearby buildings.

“My truck broke down in those hills on my way to New Mexico,” he goes on.  “And I never really got around to fixing it. I just sorta stayed here. That was about ten years ago.” He laughs. His forearms recline upon his handlebars. He is in no rush to get anywhere soon. He points at their bags and asks where they’re going.

“New York,” Michael says casually, not sure how much should be revealed to a man with wires in his pockets.

“No kidding! The whole way? That’s excellent. You know, there’s this guy you should really meet. He’s just down here at a bar. Name is Ryan, and he is going for Virginia in a couple days. I’m sure he’d love to meet you.” With that he fits his clunky boots upon his pedals and starts moving down the street, motioning for them to follow.

They shrug and pedal along after him.

They lean their bikes against a ledge outside the bar. Their new friend assures that they will be fine and that Presskit is not the kind of place to worry about your bike.

Michael studies the man’s old Schwinn, duct tape around the handlebars and dirt built up in the cassette. Then he looks at his bike, then at Louis who shrugs again.

“Did he ever say his name?”

“No. Err, maybe. I don’t remember.”

Inside, an old man with a cowboy hat and a leather bolo tie is singing country songs on a stage faced directly at the front door. The bar is set up on the left with neon lights and dozens of half empty liquor bottles along the back wall.

Ryan is near the end of the bar and they follow their way to his barstool.

He clutches an untouched beer with his right hand and gives his best ear to the man with wires in his pockets, watching his hands moving up at down and then motioning to them.

“Hey!” Ryan yells. “Fellow travelers!” He is extremely happy to meet them. He starts talking about the trip he is about to take. He stutters on occasion, stopping to find his words. He talks particularly about the Rockies, and Missouri.

“A ride of a lifetime, guys!” He says. “Ride of a lifetime.” He holds his glass in the air and brings it down before taking a long drink.

Michael laughs and pretends to cheers him.

Four days earlier they dipped their back tires in the Pacific Ocean. Only in dreams do people dip their tires in the ocean, roll into Prescott and share yet-to-be-had tour stories, with imaginary beers, with two strangers.