Indian Country

Katherine Siva Saubel

When we first publicly announced to colleagues and friends by email our intention to produce a book on contemporary Native American life, we asked those we contacted, as an aide to our research, for any referrals in the Native community they could offer us. The response was great and gratifying. In a culture at large in which the general conversation has so little to say about Native life and community, it turns out that many non-Natives – as, of course, should be so – do, in fact, have experience and relationships with Native Americans.

Among the many leads we were given was one from our friend, artist Karen Florek, who pointed us to a documentary film by her sister-in-law, Leigh Podgorski, entitled We Are Still Here. The film offers the story of 88 year old Cahuilla Indian Katherine Siva Saubel and her effort and work to reclaim and preserve Cahuilla culture. We watched the film and knew that Saubel was a woman we had to meet.

Katherine Siva-Sauvel
Katherine Siva Saubel

The Cahuilla live in the area of the San Jacinto Mountains in California and the surrounding desert and passes. Saubel, in fact, grew up as a “mountain” Cahuilla, though she has lived for the past forty-plus years on the Morongo Reservation in Banning, just beyond the Morongo Casino and the 10 Freeway, among the “pass” Cahuilla. She did not speak English until she was seven, when she was sent down from the mountains to be educated, and the long, typical assault on her identity began. It was not until she was in her forties that Saubel helped found the Malki Museum at Morongo, the first museum of Native American life and culture administered by Natives. It was at that time, also, that Saubel met Lowell Bean, a budding UCLA anthropologist and ethnologist who changed her life (as she changed his). Only then did she go on to the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder to begin her studies in ethnology, anthropology, and linguistics.

In the years since, Saubel has become the guardian of Cahuilla history, language, botany, and more. She has written the primary works of Cahuilla ethno-botany, collaborated with more than one generation of anthropologist in recording for posterity the Cahuilla language, and lectured throughout the U.S., as well as Germany and Japan. She is often present, even now, when there is a battle to be waged in defense of Native spiritual lands and the environment.

It is the environment that is Saubel’s final and abiding concern, and she hopes that the world at large can be brought to understand what the Cahuilla and other Native peoples perceived, that the earth is a living thing with which to be in intimate and respectful relation.

They swerved at me as they passed, loony smiles lighting their faces, just for the testicular high of it.

Otherwise, though she has helped to preserve what she could of the culture, she is not sanguine, beyond that academic legacy, about the vitality of traditional Cahuilla life. Like many old people in any culture, she barely knows those who live around her, and the young show little respect or appreciation for what was taken from them even before it was theirs. Young men anywhere, without the proper grounding and guidance, live on a reckless edge. Leave them alone amid the wreckage of a civilization, to live out what MariJo Moore has termed a “genocide of the mind,” and the way is that much harder.

Puttering around the paved roadways of the reservation on our motor scooters on the day we interviewed Saubel, Julia and I were fortunate to be just short of the intersection when a young Cahuilla male blew past the stop sign on an ATV at a speed of what had to be 80 miles per hour. He was tall and bulky, and he straddled the vehicle raised high on his legs, his long hair trailing in the wind. Later, we passed another ATV chewing up the roadway, this one with two young males on it. They swerved at me as they passed, loony smiles lighting their faces, just for the testicular high of it. Then there is the casino money.

by AJA

Banning, November 2008

On The Road

Adventures in Newbiedom

from Wikipedia

Little noted in anthropological circles is the kinship between the preindustrial, bush animist and the modern, urban, apartment dweller (sub-species homo sapiens apartmentopithecus). The animist, desiring light, might rub two sticks together and petition the god of fire; seeking information, put his ear to the ground and wait for vibration. Apartmentopicthecus, in need of light, flicks a kind of stick by the door, invoking the wall god Electra (of the city); searching for information, he puts his ear to a phone and receives waves. In difficulty, the animist calls on the powers of the shaman. Awash in sea of troubles, apartmentopicthecus calls the all knowing Super (intending many things, but quick resolution of the troubles not likely). How well it is that either understands the nature of the forces relied on is a matter to be considered.

So it is that Newbie Mr., recently of home-owner designation, but of the apartmentopictheci in origin and by longstanding let there be no doubt, confronts the operation and maintenance of his and Newbie Ms.’s new 37 foot motor home.

On The Road Photography

The Open Road

In the summer of 2006, the year of its eightieth anniversary, Julia and I flew to Chicago to drive the length of old Route 66 from its starting point at Michigan Avenue to its end at the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles. Our article on the history of the route, and on westward travel in the U.S. in general, was published in the Winter 2007 issue of DoubleTake/Points of Entry magazine. This is its conclusion:

There will be the mesa you round, and the moment you stop and get out of the car to feel the silence, hear the stillness, listen to no wind blow through you. A deer will fright on a low crag across the road, start and stop, bound to the cliff top and lift its ears, run as the earth rumble grows. From out of the pass, the train will come, long and steady, brown cars, red cars, yellow, reminding you, as you stand and watch, that while you are always alone, you are always connected.

And then, finally – at last, you may think – curving and cornering through the mountain switchbacks on the stretch between Kingman and Oatman, Arizona, the old gold mining and western town where burros roam and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon night – you catch sight of the wide, sweeping valley below, and still more mountains beyond, and you wonder, as they must have back in ’26, and on how many horses and wagons before: Does it never end? Does it go on forever, this country? Is there always another valley, another mountain, another plain? They say there is an ocean.

Julia Dean 2006
Busted on 66

But you will arrive. And the road will return you to yourself, whether it is the route called 66 or another. Because Route 66, as Kerouac knew, as the makers of the TV series knew, is just the emblem of the open road, which is to say its essence. We are alone and connected, and the road tells us both.

On The Road

How We Named Our Blog…

In 1993, I spent five months in India working on a children’s book and other photographic projects. I remember some pretty lonely moments. One of those times was during a nine-hour bus ride of heavy thoughts from Mangalore to Bangalore, alone in a third world country without another living soul aware of my whereabouts. This was years before internet and international cell phones.

This leg of my trip was unexpected.  My film, sent from Nebraska to Mangalore, was sitting in the Customs office in Bangalore waiting for me to claim it. So instead of moving north up the coast in route to Bombay and my next magazine assignment, I boarded a pre-dawn bus, for an out-of-the-way ride eastward to the landlocked state capital.

I arrived early at the bus station and took great care in selecting my seat.  At the last minute, a large Indian man sat next to me, his body overextending his seat into mine, touching my left side from shoulder to knee until he got off at his predetermined destination five hours later.

A young child with matted black hair thrust a beat up stainless steel plate at me with a few coins on it, gurgling sounds while she begged.

Our first stop was for breakfast.  We all piled off the bus and into a restaurant where I sat silently with three men, feeling unsocial while I drank a cup of coffee and watched them eat with their hands.  A shrill whistle sounded. It was time to get back on.  I climbed over the fat man and stuck my head out the window. A young child with matted black hair thrust a beat up stainless steel plate at me with a few coins on it, gurgling sounds while she begged.

All day, I took everything in as our bus chugged up mountainous roads and passed other vehicles carelessly going down. My world was seen through a sequence of still images, captured in horizontal frames.  It was a lonely day, a sad day.  Everything around me seemed so depressing.

At our next 10 minute stop, I scurried off in search of a bathroom, though it was closed for some reason.  Overuse?  There was smelly water covering the floor.  A small boy was defecating outside, in front of God and everyone else.  Hundreds of people were standing around, women in their brightly colored saris and men in their drab white, brown, or black attire.  Everyone was headed somewhere, or nowhere, under the colorless light of the mid-day sun.

The fat man got off the bus and an old woman with a thick mustache and stubble of a beard took the seat next to me.  Her skin was the color and texture of a piece of beef jerky.  She reached across me with a frown on her masculine face and closed my window. Our eyes met briefly, and I proceeded to stare out at the passing landscape, my nose pressed up against the glass, immersed in my thoughts.

The scenery changed drastically from that with which I had become familiar on the coast: lush green rice paddy fields and groves of coconut trees.  For brief moments it was as if I were in the Nebraska Sandhills with its rolling land covered by dry sagebrush; or in Arizona, where the earth is red and cactus line the roads.  But there were sure signs that I was not in America: a water buffalo submerged in a pond, harnessed oxen tilling a field guided by a weather-beaten barefoot farmer, women washing their clothes under a communal faucet, while a naked young boy bathed.

The “movie” outside my window seemed to be stuck on slow speed.  It felt as if our bus was the only thing moving.

I was reading Jack Kerouc’s novel On the Road during this momentous bus ride and came to the following line: “I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth.” It was exactly how I felt.

Then things got better.

We flew by what appeared to be a mirage in this otherwise dry, brown, lifeless environment, adding color to my dark mood: two small square pieces of irrigated land, one of bright green, the other a golden yellow.  Between them, on a raised footpath, ran a woman wearing a sari that matched the yellow field, flowing behind her and aglow from the backlit sun.

Ah, there was life after all. My spirits were lifted.