The Buttes and the BIA

By Ryan Fairchild

Red dirt packed upon red dirt did not stand erect and proud. It did not peer over the valley beneath and watch the frozen terrain, nor remain in stoic disapproval as Salsola tragus turned to rolling weed and then to dust. The buttes simply were. But they were not always. Before, they had been mesas, highlands, entire basins. Further still, they had been buried under lakes and oceans, not lying in wait, but remaining. Even before that, when the molten rock churned and boiled red, yellow, and black, they had not been at all.

_____

The edifice stood there, a resolute monolith of the times, its cement facade blocking out the hills and plateaus that lay behind it. Windows reflected dusty buildings across the street, glaring like schoolboys squaring off across a schoolyard. A red jeep pulled up to the front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and two women stepped out, mother and daughter, their eyes full of vibrance and heritage. Metal doors looked down on their slight frames, quickly swallowing them as they entered.

The BIA was a faceless entity, its agents simply vestigial tendrils, relaying cursory information back to the cinereal mass that was the BIA, most likely housed somewhere in a secure chamber, hidden amongst the bureaucracy. It did not create or destroy, but rather nodded and shook its amorphous head at the natives who came requesting aid, like an illusory Wizard of Oz granting and rejecting petitions. Only the BIA could concede federal status to a tribe—doing so opened the floodgates of federal financing. Until then, plans to revive culture, rebuild roundhouses, and gather the peoples would lay fallow in the iron-rich, clay soil.

Unlike the BIA, the agent who now sat across from the two women had a face; but time had worn even this down, weathering his cheeks, furrowing his brow, and graying his eyes. His face reflected the time.

He had once read of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians, his then-green eyes poring over pages of the painful and futile trek, his heart determining to endure a similar struggle against similar forces. Eventually, he had decided to work toward change from within, fighting not with picket signs and petitions, but as a BIA river guide, helping the natives to navigate the treacherous, bureaucratic waters.

But he was like the rest now. And according to the rest, times had changed since tradition and duty had carried enough weight to spur creative action and labor amongst these people. Everyone had changed, for better or worse, but no one seemed to grow . . . just change.

These two women, sitting across from the BIA agent, wanted to grow; they wanted momentum. They had searched out lost members of their tribe, those who had been scattered throughout the west, and let them know who they were. Storytelling festivals, medicine men, roundhouses, healing poles, sweat lodges, and on and on—the old words were again spoken. Their language was spoken. They were gaining leverage against the rock that would be their nation, rolling and rolling again. With federal recognition of their tribe, which brought federal dollars, they could make the final push and send that stone rolling.

Or they could build a casino. But these two women had no interest in a casino, in assimilating, though in some ways the disease of entitlement had already taken hold.

Earlier that day, the daughter had slept until the shadows of buildings had fled beneath their makers; she had then admitted to her mother that she couldn’t stand the thought of a nine-to-five job, not because of a defiance to western culture, but because she wanted to reap the green harvest, the United Farm of America. She could run the land and the dollars all while continuing to sleep as she pleased, all while forgetting the face of her past.

The mother, however, remembered. She also remembered a November, several years ago, sitting around a table with other elders. They were working to revive their dying culture, which had been pushed to the brink of extinction by Spanish missionaries. The Spaniards had failed, and those who now sat round that table were proof—the mother knew it and she wanted everyone to know it. She remembered in the other room how her daughter had sat, eyes peering up at the television screen as George Bailey stared down Mr. Potter, telling him of how he would fight.

It was November again, just after Thanksgiving, and It’s a Wonderful Life was again playing on the lobby television. George Bailey again standing up to Mr. Potter. The film seemed to grow in richness and depth with time. The little man fighting against the big man. Everything so clear in black and white. Foreclosure, bankruptcy, war. It was all there. She and her daughter were there, too. Everyone was there.

The mother’s eyes betrayed her as she watched the television. The lines around them spoke of sleepless nights worrying about her daughter, how the ancestors may live in her, in her song and art—they might live on in the land, too—but they were changing, and she dreaded the change, struggled to sustain hope of some permanence, concreteness, foundation. Even the plateaus of the Southwest gave way to false buttresses of rock and dirt that insulated decaying chimneys.

The frame froze as George stretched his arms wide open, expanding himself to fill the screen. He stared into space, stuck in a box of black and white.

The BIA agent, who had been watching the TV, now looked back. He saw the mother’s eyes.

—There are too few of you left. You can’t get recognition with this many.

She turned.

—But we had enough just last year, on this plot and this plot . . . and on this plot. You have records of it. You told us last year that we just needed these documents and it wouldn’t matter how many of us were left because we had the information in these documents.

—I’m sorry, but that was true last year. Now it’s this year. And it’s changed.

—It never changes.

They stared at each other.

The agent’s old phone rang, like a belled alarm clock, waking them from their slumber.

The TV buzzed, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

_____

The roundhouse was built, many years later, not because of the BIA or a casino, but with American money still the same. The mother had gone the way of all the earth, buried in a box that was swallowed by the dirt. The daughter ran the land and, eventually, the dollars. The agent’s face hung on a wall somewhere, over the month of November, in between different faces over October and December. In New Mexico, near the Four Corners, wind howled through plateaus and pillars, carrying away dust and dislodging rocks, depositing the residue on sad blankets of earth that slumped at the foundation of the buttes. For a moment, nothing moved.

Time continued on.

For now, the buttes still were.