OK. I admit it. Sometime in the middle of my long stint on the road last month, I started to feel sorry for myself. I’d made the mistake of taking the ’98 Buick we inherited from Laurie’s parents on this little 3000 mile jaunt because of the smooth ride and the great stereo and because I was thinking more about the cool stories I’d be chasing than about, say, the possibility that belts might fray and snap or that the water pump pulley might work loose and go bouncing down I-80 behind me. Never even occurred to me. Nor had I suspected how difficult interviews might be to schedule. Or re-schedule. Government officials needed permission from D.C. (Huh? What country do we live in?) Meeting locations and times were changed. Or I changed them. People got sick or forgot. Then there was the weather. Snow, rain, sleet, wind. No fewer than six of the mountain passes I crossed required chains in last week in March. (I never put them on. Don’t tell the CHP.) And right about the time I was white-knuckling it over yet another one, Ringo Starr came on the radio: “It Don’t Come Easy.” Damned straight, I thought.
Nope. It didn’t come easy. But it was worth it.
I talked with three amazing women in their eighties who have achieved great things. Beverly Ogle of the Mountain Maidu tribe in Northeastern California has been working to reclaim ancestral land in Humbug Valley from Pacific Gas & Electric. Phyllis Clausen helped lead the movement to remove the salmon-blocking Condit Dam from the White Salmon River. Pauline Esteves chaired the committee that negotiated the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act to return land to her tribe in and around Death Valley. Each of these women is sharp and gracious, humble and wise. Each has a clear-eyed intelligent gaze. You’d think they’d revel in retelling the stories of their triumphs. But no.
Each focused on the future and the new challenges that face the people and the places that they love. Beverly Ogle told me about how few speakers of the Maidu language remain. Phyllis Clausen worries about the threat development now poses to the White Salmon River. And near Pauline Esteves’ home on reclaimed land in Death Valley, the tribal offices have been locked and security cameras put in place by a rival faction in cahoots with the BIA. At the heart of the problem: the politics of gaming. When I tried to steer the conversation to the successful negotiations back in 2000, Pauline would have none of it.
“I was taught: don’t always be talking about the past. Sure, it’s a good foundation, but go forward. You talk about the circle of life. See, we’re not going through that circle at all. We’re not moving. We’re stuck.”
What doesn’t come easy? Change. Reclamation. Making things right.
“We were told in one of the legends that we were going to be stuck sometimes,” Pauline continued, “but never to give up. If you fall, get up, and if there’s something in your way go around it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
I’m home in Stehekin now to sort through the hours of interviews, to think and write about the struggles and triumphs. But if I’m prone to self-pity, I will think about these women and the many good people who have worked with them, and I’ll remember to stay focused. Water pumps can get repaired. So can rivers. Doors can be unlocked. Or so we hope.