by Kylan Rice
We are proud of our indigenous populations. The Cayuse, Klamath, Chetco, Umpqua, Ahantchuyuk—all belonging to diverse linguistic stocks and defined by the sediment poetry of a salmon’s cycle. We are proud of their names on our valleys, waterfalls, local banks. They are the last, boozed senators of the frontier, of horses without saddles, of ranch trucks and redwood protectorates. They once aimed obsidian through buttoned cavalries—smeared on their cheekbones compounds of mud and resin, hoisted scalps on spears. We likewise hoist their names on the flags of our county seats and public libraries, having assimilated the yearly corn rituals of Modocs, celebrating the rustwater Wasco reservations, naming our sweetest, most cooked-with onions after Northeastern tribes. There is great, reverent nobility here. There is an Indian population of 0.2%. We uphold visions of traded blankets, hawk-feathers clinging to twice-washed dreads, the famine-angled faces and laconic jawbones.
Wampum, pow-wow, totem.
My father Hart read a lot of Louis L’Amour. He has a bookshelf dedicated entirely to L’Amour’s canon. Certain books are more worn than others, like routes of blood. They are all from the same publisher, and so there is uniformity in their spines, designs, size, and cut. He sleeps on porches with a hat-brim over his eyes and keeps a tin of tobacco in his back pocket with the cameo of an Indian chief on its lid. He is very proud of the worn back-pocket denim around the tin. It means he is a man set in his ways, settled into good things, old habits, ballads accompanied by only one instrument. This, too, reflected in virile tales told by men with French surnames and paisley patterns.
He told me at a young age that the worst thing a thinking man can do is read more than two books a season. A book is something to be considered, weighed, carried in the glove-compartment of the same pick-up truck a man uses to cross his own fields. Changes in the color of a landscape should be marked in memory by particular sentences, passages, fragments of dialogue. A man must be changed by the end of a book—if not by the book itself, at least by the daily hazards and lunchtime traumas of two or three months, and a drop in temperature. Hart believes in the pace of things. He has made me into an old man, with due consideration paid to the impending. I started smoking Lucky Strikes when I was fourteen, and could bale thirty acres by evening, and often fell asleep rubbing the ridges of callus on my palms, feeling the same pride a man nurtures in the denim imprint of a tobacco tin, or in a name like Klamath.
Hart says that every man has some Indian blood in him out here.
He tells me to carry it proudly, with respect to strange religions, memorized litanies, hand-carved wooden art.
The family unit falls into ruts of speech, expression, vacation. Fathers take their sons fishing, in hip-high boots, to cast lines thin and sunlit. They have neat, slung baskets of bait, tackle, hooks, gutting implements. The whiskery flies are elaborate, wrought with trembling, masculine digits like marriage promises. Hart never took me fishing. He said it was a tired hunt, an institution of savage, arrhythmic nostalgia, without the same stealth and guile inherent to shooting a four-point buck with a heavy-duty plastic compound bow, scented and fully camouflaged. He took his children instead to the Tillamook Cheese Factory, one on one, and afterward bought an ice cream cone. The cheese factory was the turning over of an elder lifestyle, a place where cheeses and butters were not churned with the same hands that poured tub water down the long backs of children, felt fruit, hefted bibles. There, no dairy draped in breathing cloth, kept aloft from mice. No rounds of cheese aching with appley firmness on a shelf. It was not a place where people wore calico nor where Thanksgiving was the showmanship of table labors, and you could crouch at the spot where each item originated, and not walk far to get there either. At the cheese factory, the people behind thick glass wore hairnets, masks, jeans. There were vats and overhead piping. Hart showed his children the tidy destruction of a lifestyle. He told me about electric milking machines that jolted milk from great rows of udders. This dovetailed into a lecture on meatpacking, butchery, Upton Sinclair. He wears blue shirts with white stitching. The tobacco smells like mint.
His best friend is an old Indian, who keeps his hair long, like a summer away from home. His voice is cool and quiet, a handful of grain in a dark pantry. At the hood of a truck, they talk about politics from their day, compare lifestyles, kids. They die at similar rates. I am terrified each time I see insurance companies and grocery stores going up bearing the names of forgotten fishing tribes.
We play billiards on Tuesday nights at the pool hall. There are a few high school-aged kids there. They are Hispanic and they wear their t-shirts the length of gowns, hats still with tags, blue bandannas. They are no good, and they know it, and they laugh when the ball skids wrong, pockets, scratches baldly. I know how we look. An old man and his middle-aged son. Heavy and with clean, acute strokes, leaning under light that emphasizes the depth and fallow of our furrows.
Hart says to me, “I’ll break.”
We build fences, rabbit hutches, woodsheds, pantry shelves, armoires, bed frames, dressers, piano benches, milking stools, writing desks, doghouses, cupboards, sawhorses. The shorn heat of wood, the wine of cedar musk. The constructions occurring between two men of differing age, irrigation, wars, comedians. Purposeful measurements with stubby wood pencils, extension cords, overridden knotholes. Hart continues to woodwork. I take him balsa at the clinic. He has a penknife that mewls through the soft, heartless white wood; carves horses, birds at rest—lightweight idols which make me wish for my own children who might treasure the functionality of a grandfather. Hart would take them to the Tillamook Cheese Factory where they would appreciate cheese curds and the destruction of intangibles which bedrock a man’s pride. Their names would have been chosen from a bible, from an obscure region of begats. They would be ten and twelve. I would not take them to see Hart. Instead, I would tell them the story of the time he got in a fistfight with John Gladney, who got in the newspaper a couple years later for blowing up a post office. Hart’s memory would flex—ripple in their minds with the silt muscle of trout.
I take him on a drive along the Columbia River. It is Sunday, they let him wear his old clothes, jeans without the tin. There is an oxygen tank between his knees. The river is green and wide, the windows are down, the dark is the summer velvet of blackberry eating. He rides his hand out the window, and it kites on the wind. We’ll stop and stay at a motel along the way and then finish the drive and spend tomorrow at Chinook Falls where there will be park benches, coal grills, drop-boxes for day-fees. We will drive along ridges, spend an hour watching the bright downward gallop, the day fifteen degrees cooler there, white nearby pines easing as hugely as sick horses. We’ll talk about Louis L’Amour’s autobiography, Dennis Day, Robert Kennedy. How orchards are irrigated in the summer. Techniques of spacing corn. How strange it is to see a modern Indian using a damn cell phone.
He turns up the radio when the talk runs out. Our headlights devour a highway of moths. We skim by fill-up stations, low bars, truck stops and outposts. The light slides but does not die or short terribly against our glass.
The night idles, well-announced and good.