Saturday, January 08, 2005

The western Pennsylvania landscape is made up of soft rounded hills, some of them steep, and valleys, some of them long, some of them deep. There are lots of trees---Pennsylvania is still 40% wooded. I grew up in a house on a hill facing east, with a view of the entire town, and beyond it the blue skyline of the Appalachian foothills. Directly across our new street (I saw it graduate from dirt tamped down with oil in the summer, to covered with crushed stones called "red dog," before finally being paved) was a patch of woods, where I spent a lot of my time.

I mention this because of a moment in college that made a major impression on me. Objectively, it wasn't much---just something that a visiting lecturer said in passing, as I sat in a crowd of students and faculty, politely more or less listening. This was some 800 miles away, in western Illinois. While talking about something else (I don't remember the topic) he happened to mention that some Native peoples prayed over an animal they had just killed for food, thanking the animal's spirit for the gift of this sustenance.

I remember being so struck by this that I left the room to think about it. Suddenly so many feelings came back. I'd had just enough contact with life and death in nature to have been impressed as a child with the paradox of taking life to sustain life. I'd also had a religious education that had nothing to say about any personal relationship to the natural world, even though I had strong feelings about the landscape, certain trees and rocks, and animals. I'd also grown up with the usual mix of romantic notions about Indians, but at least I had some idea of their closeness to nature.

Now I had heard something that made perfect sense, that recognized the apparent paradox as natural, and what was natural as a profound and religious mystery.

At the end of the 60s I found myself in Berkeley, California with a houseful of hippies, including one old friend from college and a northern California Indian named David. I seem to remember he was Yurok. It's funny to think about that now, but at the time he was just a hippie among the rest of us hippies in our psychedelic mix of Midwestern Protestant, Middle Atlantic Catholic, East Coast Jew, and a young woman from New England named Priscilla.

It was David's little yellow school bus we painted in psychedelic colors, and took on our coastal adventures. Hey, David, are you out there?

So it wasn't until just a few years before I came here, that I began really exploring what I could about Native American cultures, past and present. 1992 was a natural year for it, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus became an explosion of awareness about Native Americans, led by Native writers. So simultaneously I began exploring Native history, contemporary Native life and contemporary Native literature.

The natural place to start for the history and contemporary life was right at home: Pittsburgh, where I was living then, some thirty miles from where I grew up.

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