We don't have photographs of the two Native Americans we met on the first day of our eleven-week, eleven thousand six hundred mile, twenty-eight state (plus the District of Columbia, but who's counting?) See America tour. That early in our journey, I was not aware of how much I would think about them in the coming months.
Matt works for the Visitors Bureau in Fallon, Nevada. Early in the morning, he was arranging the Visitors Center for a later meeting when we met him. Very open and welcoming, he offered us a cup of the coffee he was brewing and a glimpse into his heritage when we fell into conversation. His tribal connections are Shoshone and Paiute; his wife is Paiute, as well.
He gave us a good tip on petroglyphs to see along the route at Grimes Point, and then launched into a fun story that he got from his grandfather about his Shoshone band’s reaction to the coming of American soldiers.
The band saw the soldiers coming from far away, not hard to imagine in that vast landscape, and went out in warpaint on horseback to chase them away but when they got close, they could see that the soldiers were as pale as dead people; they believed the soldiers to be ghosts. Then, just as they were nerving themselves for attack, one of the soldiers cracked a bullwhip and, because the Indians had never heard anything break the sound barrier before, they were terrified and scattered in all directions, abandoning their intention to fight. Matt told this little story with affectionate understanding for his forebears, welcoming us with twinkling eyes into his tale.
When we mentioned that we had been abruptly turned away from the Top Gun base in Fallon by three gate guards barely old enough to shave but carrying serious weapons, he told us that the local people rely on the base for income but are dismayed by the pollution the base represents. The desert around Fallon is strewn with expended bullets and shells from the practice runs of the jets, and some of it is live and dangerous. Matt's young son goes into the desert and brings back these kinds of artifacts frequently. The constant roar and exhaust from the jets pollutes the clear desert air, as well.
On our way out of town, we read in the literature Matt had given us about another Native American who has an art gallery, so we went to see what that was about. His name is Fortunate Eagle and he introduced himself as a Chippewa. He lives down a dirt road in a modest house next to his art gallery. He is tall and straight despite his 80+ years, with graying hair pulled back into a pony tail, and has been married to his wife for 66 years. They have a couple of grown children. He is a sculptor and showed us several of his works. He is also a published author of four books some of which, he admits with a twinkle, are true. His wife paints, does beadwork, and decorates deerskin dresses that she makes herself. I wish we could have met her, too.
Fortunate Eagle told us that he is the man who organized, back in the 1970s, the peaceful occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay as a protest against the threat at that time of revoking the Indian reservations, a move he clearly saw as just another land grab by the U.S. Government. The Indians received help from the liberals in the Bay area who brought food and supplies to the island, and were able to stay on Alcatraz for many months. The protest was successful; President Nixon stopped trying to abolish the reservations.
Fortunate Eagle also told us about his trip to Italy where, on Columbus Day, he planted his spear in Italian soil to claim all of Europe for the First Nation as a protest against the loss of his people's land to European invaders. There is a photograph on the wall of his gallery showing him being greeted one-to-one by Pope John Paul II.
While he is understandably suspicious and bitter about the US Government, he retains a sense of pride and dignity with his current life, and his ability to laugh. We were honored to meet him and bought two of his books.
He and Matt remain in my memory as a true highlight of a wonderful trip. They heightened my awareness of native peoples and, all along our route, we learned about and thought about different native tribes. While I have known for a long time of the shameful treatment of native people by the Europeans and Americans historically, these two men reminded me that native people are alive and contributing to the richness of our country every day. They are not relics of a forgotten age - they living their lives in today's world surrounded by family and with some of the same problems that any American faces today. It may seem obvious but to me it was a true awakening. I feel honored to have met them, however briefly, and to have heard their stories.