Southern Paiute: A Portrait
William Logan Hebner, Michael L. Plyler
Harlow S. Clark
Logan Utah, Utah State University Press, 2010
Cloth, or e-book:
ISBN e-book 978-0-87421-755-1
Price: $34.95 cloth, $28.00 e-book
Reviewed by Harlow Soderborg Clark for the Association for Mormon
In July 2004 I attended a field school co-sponsored by the Library of
Congress's American Folklife Center and BYU Library's William A. Wilson
Folklore Archive, "Fruits of Their Labors," creating oral histories
documenting the fast-disappearing orchard culture of Utah Valley, a
culture that once spread all along the Wasatch Front and caused the
weathermen of my youth, usually Bob Welti, to say, "Better light your
smudge pots. It's going to get down near freezing tonight."
In the classroom portion one presenter started off by playing a chant he
had heard at a Native American powwow. "What language do you think we're
singing in?" they had asked, and answered, "English."
He played it again, and we learned that "Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse,
Pluto too, they're all movie stars at Disneyland." (To hear the Black
Elk Singers' version go to
www.dailykos.com/story/2008/9/13/23567/4780/315/595657, about a third of
the way down the page.)
He didn't comment on the chant, didn't need to say, "You can understand
a lot of things if you believe you can and you listen carefully," though
one class member later commented on a man and woman who had come to the
school from Egypt. The man did not speak a lot of English, but worked as
sound engineer for their group and showed a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of
care to understand and be understood.
Listening carefully and wanting to understand and be understood is a
theme that runs through William Logan Hebner and Michael L. Plyler's
Southern Paiute: A Portrait. When Jeff Needle sent around the call for
reviewers I wasn't listening. I had other things to do. Sometime later
Jeff sent out this note, "After Will scolded me for not taking on the
Southern Paiute book, I announced it widely. Shocking silence. Is no
one able to take this one on?"
I looked again. "Oh, this is oral history, like the field school." And
just as we produced an exhibit of the fruits of our own labors at the
bottom of the grand staircase in the Harold B. Lee Library, this book
started as an exhibit--portraits of 30 Paiute elders along with their
words. And what lovely portraits they are, testaments to the dignity and
beauty of the subjects and of the black-and-white photograph.
I didn't open it up right away, didn't take off the shrinkwrap--I had to
finish up another project--but I kept coming back to the striking dust
jacket photo of a white-haired man in a black leather jacket, arms
folded across his stomach, head at a slight angle, eyes looking straight
at you. He has things to say, and the dignity and strength to say them.
(He also graces the cover of USU Press's fall/winter catalog
The back cover identifies him as Arthur Richards, and he looks like his
name sounds, very Anglo. Do I sense some sly humor in choosing that
photo for the dust jacket, playing with our ideas of what Indians look
like? The direct gaze is rather disconcerting, and you might say one
purpose of the book is to disconcert certain white notions about
Indians. (Elders use word Indian throughout.)
"They find some jewelry or maybe a cat buried next to a Neanderthal, and
they attribute all these notions of culture to them that they refuse to
attribute to us," Richard Arnold's story begins. "That's a pretty heavy
racism when you compare badly to Neanderthal." He also says, "imagine if
someone came here in a thousand years and found all this stuff made in
China; there must have been Chinese all over here. Like we don't have
the capacity to adapt other technologies, or trade, or steal. We're not
given that credit to think that way; all we were doing was trying to
I take it Arnold's point is not that international and global trade
didn't begin in the 20th century (BC or AD), but that we treat people
differently depending on what we think of their culture. Part of
Hebner's purpose is to document Paiute cultures. If we don't believe
that people have a culture, we may may ignore their claims to basic
human needs, water, land, religious freedom, language.
"At Stewart [Indian School] they used to whip us if we talked
Indian.... They'd starve us, put us in a big closet by the matron's
room and take the light bulb out. I'd lie there and they'd give me some
crusty bread for a couple days, just for talking Indian. Away for two
days with crusty bread and whip us too. It's still vivid for me
now," (134) Evelyn Samalar says.
Others say the same thing, but perhaps the saddest sentence in the book
doesn't come from an elder but from Hebner: "Today there are less than
50 Southern Paiute who can still fluently speak the language" (20).
The book ends with the Pahrump band, which has never been federally
recognized, and with words about language. Many of the elders comment
about the fading or loss of spiritual powers, but Clara Belle Jim says,
"It's not lost. It will cycle back in." But there's a problem. She talks
about Joe Pete who healed her and left behind objects with power when he
died, which could be passed to a relative. "One of his relatives, he
said he dreamed about it coming to him. But he cannot speak Paiute
language, so he cannot take it. It has to be in Paiute language." And
her last words in this last interview are, "That's what it's all
about--the language. And the bushes" (184).
And Hebner gives us another telling sentence, "All the events for this
project were scheduled around Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as the
majority of elders had dialysis on those days: 'Even your food is
killing us,' observed Madelan Redfoot" (19).
But I make the book sound far too somber. True, 10 of the 30 elders have
died, and many echo Clara Belle Jim's words about songs and stories and
powers being tied to landscape and language, but the book is full of
lovely stories, full of the exuberance of a powwow dance, full of
stories about powwows and dancing and healing and singing, and where
Salt Songs and Cry Songs come from, and when they can be sung. "Herbert
used to talk about the Ants. They're in the Salt Songs, one of the
Midnight Songs, I think. I can't tell the Ant Story now. Even though
it's still officially winter, I've already heard a morning dove cry,"
Lalovi Miller says (141).
The night before I finished the book KSL ran a story about an ancient
village and burial site unearthed in Kaibab Paiute areas during dam
construction (www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=14297785), which reminds me that
important as place is in this book, rich as it is in details about place
and sacred places, I haven't even mentioned the area where the Southern
Paiute live and lived: southern Utah, southern Nevada, some of southern
California, some of northern Arizona.
I knew the general territory before reading this book, but didn't
automatically connect it to Mormon history, so consider this comment
from Darlene Pete Harrington, Cedar Band and Caliente: "I love this town
[Caliente, Nevada] and I'm going to die in this town. Granpa Charlie and
Gramma Queen worked hard to raise their family here. Charlie and his
family came over here after that Mountain Meadows Massacre. Charlie saw
it. He knew we'd get blamed, so they left Sham, came over here" (119).
The Mountain Meadows Massacre, and what it means to be blamed for
something everyone knows you didn't do, are threads in the book,
important threads, and this is one of the first sources to record Paiute
accounts of the massacre.
Relations with Mormons generally, and the Student Placement Program, are
also important threads in the book's tapestry, worth a few thousand
words, surely, but two quotes will do for now.
Here's Alvin Marble, speaking of some Mormon neighbors. "They didn't
ever talk about Lamanites, that we were cursed, that our skin color was
a curse. They'd just tell us that oh, we are the chosen ones, blossom
like a rose someday. I think that's almost true" (104).
And here's Arthur Richards who joined the Mormons at about age 30. "I
went through the temple with my wife, had all my kids sealed to me. It
was quite a thrill. But we got the dirtiest looks I ever seen from some
of the Mormons in that temple. I served in the bishopric. I'm still a
Mormon, but I've retired" (91).
I could write thousands more words about this book, and probably will,
but I want this review to be short enough to read, so I'll just say the
book has wonderful stories about getting and using the healing powers of
the earth, and the complexities and dangers of asking for, receiving and
using the powers.
This is a lovely, intense, vibrant book, shimmering with the energy of
that water you see in the distance as you drive across Nevada, except
there is water in the distance if you know how to ask the earth for
it, as Mathew Leivas's story about praying over a spring, reviving it,
bears moving witness (171).
I love the story Hebner tells at the beginning about him and Plyler
"before a skeptical Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah (PITU) tribal council,
where Michael said, yeah, here we are, two more white guys here to help.
In the end we committed to donating all our royalties to the tribe. So
in buying this book you've helped pay the elders for their stories" (6).
That the story has a matching bookend in Hebner's introductory paragraph
to Clara Belle Jim's interview suggests some of the book's artistry.
"She sizes me up as if I were a horse at an auction and gets right to
the business of how money will work for this book" (180).
Likewise the striking portrait of Arthur Richards has a matching bookend
in a portrait of 106-year-old Margaret King's backyard, abandoned
Studebaker in the foreground, Paiute Mountain in the background. Hebner
says, "if you held all 60 pounds of her to the sunlight, purples, reds,
blues, yellows and browns would stream through her parchment skin" (34).
These stories are full of such hues, new ones to discover each time. The
picture itself gains hue when you know Paiute Mountain is now called
Navajo Mountain. Why is another story, and there are lots of other
stories. Come and listen.