Friday, September 12, 2008

Living in Indian Country: Salmon Lake

That summer we drove up north to Salmon Lake. Main Street, just a few blocks long, looked shriveled and lifeless. Although there were some tired businesses such as a grocery, liquor store, laundromat, mercantile, bars, and a Dairy Queen, most of the street appeared worn out and empty. The Five and Dime, its window display of trinkets dusty and sun bleached, had a "for sale" sign in the door. Wilson was sorry to see the elderly couple retire. Apparently they weren't asking much for the store. On later visits, the store was closed, but remained unsold, the same musty wares sitting in the window.

Wilson's dad, Walter Hunter, lived in a yellow three-bedroom house on the tribal tract, a section of land built up with many of these identical homes. This tract was across the highway from the main part of this small resort town. Wilson's relatives, laughing during the telling, related how white tourists drive slowly through the tract with their windows rolled up and their doors locked, looking at tribal members and their homes as if visiting a zoo. Wilson’s relatives laughed, then cursed the tourists.

Walter had been a Christian for almost thirty years now, but still practiced many of the old traditions he was raised with. In his eighties with white hair and weathered hands, he kept constantly busy. While many of the homes around him were barren and dirt packed, growing more old cars and dogs then trees or grass, his lawn was clean and well kept. A source of pride was his cucumber patch in the backyard. One of his favorite stories, which he would tell over and over, was how he had caught two boys stealing from his patch a couple years earlier. Walter laughed and laughed as he retold about how one boy stood and vehemently denied the theft, all the while cucumbers were peeking out of his pockets.

The house itself was a simple box design used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on many reservations across the country at that time. The front door, toward the center, brought you into the living room. The linoleum-covered floor extended into the dining area and the kitchen was behind a wall to the side. The wall brought you down a hallway to the bedrooms. The number of bedrooms differed from house to house. The furniture was simple and the thin walls were adorned with pictures of grandchildren and Native American mementos.

I was the last one out of bed on my first morning there. I could hear people talking and laughing in the other room. They had ignored me when we'd come in the night before. I stayed in bed as long as possible out of fear of everyone.

Living with Walter was his youngest daughter, Annie, her two daughters, Savannah and Candis, and Wilson's nephew Mathew. Finally their voices quieted down and I decided I to get up. I got dressed and joined Wilson and Walter in the kitchen. To my delight, there was a big bowl of unglazed doughnuts on the table.

"Can I have one?" I asked Wilson.

Great. I grabbed one and took a big bite.
"Ugh! What's wrong with these doughnuts!"

Wilson laughed. "Those aren't doughnuts. That's fry bread. That's the best kind of bread there is!"

Well, Wilson may think so, but after that kind of disappointment, it took me a long time to warm up to the things.

Annie was outside on the dirt driveway, leaning on a car, talking to two social workers about her girls. Savannah and Candis where about seven and four. Candis, in her pajamas, kept peeking out the front door. Every time she did, her mom would holler at her to get back into the house and get dressed. Figuring that this wasn't going to impress the social workers much, I finally took Candis into the back room, found some clothes for her and brushed her hair.

As Wilson left for the woods with his dad the next morning, he kissed me good-bye. Annie leaned over after he left and said, "He really must love you. I've never seen him kiss anyone in front of people before. Not even his wife."

I was sitting with Wilson's sisters around the kitchen table. It was beginning to feel comfortable. Now most of them looked at me and smiled and laughed as we talked. The atmosphere was relaxing. They didn't seem to care how I looked or what I wore. I didn't feel any pressure to perform.

Mathew's older sister Wanda kind of slid into her grandpa's house that day. When she moved, she glided across a room. Intelligent and quick-witted, Wanda radiated confidence. A beautiful girl with shoulder length black hair, heart shaped face and sunglasses; she wore her jeans tight. She quickly took me under her wing and invited me to go play pool with her down at the bowling alley. I went with her and watched as she teased and flirted with the men. Wanda was full of life and held people's attention. After the bowling alley, we sat in the grass at the park talking about Wilson while we ate snacks.
"Is Wilson a good worker?" I asked.
After hesitating a moment, she answered, "When he works."
I took that to be a positive answer.

Later I was told, "It's hard to get jobs around here. White people won't hire Indians, and a person can only get a job with the tribal government if they've got connections, like family on the council."

That evening, after hearing I'd been walking around the tract with Wanda, Wilson warned me not to walk around the tract by myself.
"There's a rapist that lives in that house over there," Wilson said, pursing his lips and pointing with them, a custom used rather than point with fingers.
"Everyone knows it?"
"Well, that's just the way he is. People just stay away from him."

The whole tract bore that feeling of “live and let be.”

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