The Unlikely Life of Charlotte Green

Colorado in the 1840s was a pretty unusual place. Charlotte Green knew all about it. She called herself “the only lady in the whole damn Indian country.” She gave lavish parties, kept peacocks in her yard, knew all the latest dance steps and was called a “culinary divinity.” Hardly the kind of description and praise normally associated with an enslaved person of African descent before the Civil War. But then Charlotte’s home, Bent’s Fort, redefined normal.

Bent’s Fort was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mecca on the northern bank of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado. The settlement’s primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe for buffalo robes, but it also served an international array of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bent, a Mayflower descendent and the fort’s mastermind, married into the Cheyenne nation and made sure that all peaceable visitors were welcome. Charlotte, along with her husband and brother-in-law, joined this diverse community after they were inherited by William’s brother, Charles Bent. He brought them from St. Louis and they worked for the Bent family until Charles’s death in 1847, after which they were freed. Charlotte and Dick returned to St. Louis in 1848.

When the National Park Service restored Bent’s Fort in 1976, Charlotte’s limestone kitchen hearth was one of the few original remains. The worn stones remember the movement of her feet, back and forth, as she made her famous buffalo stew, pastries and pumpkin pies. And when you visit, if no one is around except the cat, you might hear the echo of Charlotte’s laughter as she gathers her skirts to join the fandango — the frontiersmen’s “belle of the evening.”

Speaking Spanglish

I speak Spanglish. A lot of people in the West do. I learned it as a kid growing up in a border town. Spanglish was en el aire: Tijuana TV channels; Mexican radio stations where all the DJ’s speak rápido, más rápido than is humanly possible; on the bus; in the supermarket; en la escuela; even my grandfather occasionally, and he was a gringo.

Of course, we took Spanish in school. They taught us the difference between Castilian Spanish, where everyone sounds like they’re talking with a lisp, and real Spanish like we speak in Norte America. I guess they wanted us to be able to lisp in España if we had to ask an urgent question during the running of the bulls or something.

I was terrible in Spanish class. The only time I got an “A” was when our teacher made a deal that if we didn’t speak English during class all year we would get an automatic “A.” I messed up one time and said something in English, but the teacher was viejo and he didn’t hear me, so I still got the “A.”

He wanted to teach us how to think in Spanish. I wasn’t sure what he meant until it started happening to me. I was walking down the hall after Spanish class talking to myself. I noticed that my inner dialog had switched languages. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay talking to myself in Spanish because I ran into an idea I didn’t know how to say so I mixed in the English. That’s when it started, thinking in Spanglish. I’ve been stuck there ever since.

I never can remember how to conjugate verbs into past or future tense. Even hoy, when I speak Spanglish, everything has to be in present tense. I must live in the Now. Fortunately, other Spanglish speakers have the same problem because it’s hard to remember how to put English verbs into tenses too. If you have to imply past or future, you can always say “ayer” o “mañana” and motion with your hand that you are advancing or receding time, even if your verbs don’t.

A big advantage of Spanglish is that there are no wrong answers. Anything goes as long as you can make yourself understood. You can throw words and phrases in like there’s no tomorrow and let the listener pick out whatever seems relevant given the situation. Es el mismo coming back the other way. You can let go of precision and go for the essence. Of course, there are some topics that are best avoided — legal, medical, a critical recipe — you probably aren’t going to get there with Spanglish. But talking about the family, the kids, your jardín, la día bonita, directions to el baño, you’re fine. No problema.

Somewhere I read that the writer Denise Chavez refuses to italicize the Spanish words she uses in her English language stories. It frustrates her publisher who wants her to keep the languages straight. She must write in Spanglish because she thinks in Spanglish. When will they understand, Spanglish is it’s own lengua? Which words would you italicize; the Spanish ones or the English ones? Pero, there’s words like salsa, tortilla, vaquero, gringo … see? My spell checker doesn’t even put red lines under those. They pass. So, are they English or Spanish? No sé. Which makes you wonder if eventually all these palabras are going to be both English and Spanish, or will there be a new Spanglish Language?

I don’t have the answer but that’s okay. For now, we can enjoy the linguistic anarchy that is Spanglish. It reflects our collective culture, you know, how we mix it all up. Like putting mango salsa on your salmon. It may be geographically jumbled but it tastes good. Spanglish may drive your spell checker loco but it sounds good. It sounds the way la gente really talk around here, tú sabes?

Aloha Owyhee!

Most folks don’t realize Oregon was originally settled by Hawaiians. For decades following Lewis and Clark’s trip down the Columbia River, Hawaiians made up most of the non-Native workforce in the Pacific Northwest fur trade. They built the first forts and villages along the Columbia River, and journeyed thousands of miles inland as part of  exploratory surveys. They left their mark in unlikely places, like the high arid rangelands of Eastern Oregon. The Owyhee River is named after three Hawaiians who disappeared there in the winter of 1819-1820. (“Owyhee” was a common spelling of “Hawai’i” back then.)

European, American, and Asian trading ships regularly sailed into port on the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s. Many Hawaiians took the opportunity to explore the far reaches of the Pacific by signing on with companies competing for the North American fur trade. These islanders possessed all the maritime skills needed for survival in the Pacific: navigation, boat building, fishing, and swimming. Swimming might seem like an essential skill for any sailor, but in the early 1800s most Europeans and Americans didn’t know how to swim. As a precaution, at least one Hawaiian was assigned to every boat, ready to rescue any person or cargo that went overboard.

If a Hawaiian wanted to go to sea, they requested permission from their ruling monarch. The Aliʻi generally set limits on the length of employment and specified the compensation. And he expected his subjects to return to the islands. Many survivors did return with fabulous stories they retold for the rest of their lives. Others came back to visit but were anchored to the mainland by marriages with native people or, occasionally, European and American settlers. Many Indian families in Oregon Territory still have Hawaiian names.

This congenial mixing of Pacific Rim people encountered resistance when American settlers arriving overland from the East began to outnumber the people who were already here. Among this influx of Easterners was Samuel Thurston. He was described by one biographer as  “young, brilliant, handsome, splendidly educated, with an indomitable will, and almost insanely ambitious.” One of Thurston’s self-appointed goals was to exclude African Americans and Hawaiians from Oregon Territory. As the territory’s Congressional delegate in 1850,  he won passage of a land grant act that legally closed the door on anyone who wasn’t white or a half-white/Native American mix. Thurston described Hawaiians as “a race of men as black as your negroes of the South, and a race, too, that we do not desire to settle in Oregon.” After Thurston and his ilk had their way, Hawaiians could not own land, become citizens, vote, purchase liquor or testify against “whites” in court. The territory at that time included the future states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Some of Oregon’s racists laws remained on the books for more than a hundred years.

Many Hawaiian families in the Oregon Territory moved to Canada where they were welcomed as full-fledged citizens; some hid out with their native families on Indian reservations protected by the tribes’ sovereign status. But some stayed right where they were, as revealed by newspapers published on the islands. An article from Ka Lau Oliva, December, 1874, told of a Hawaiian woman who gathered Hawaiian language newspapers and books and sent them through a friend to Hawaiians living in Oregon. To express their gratitude, the Oregonians sent her a barrel of kāmano (salmon), “along with our warm aloha.”

And what would people on the islands do with a barrel of salted salmon? Make the popular luau dish, lomi-lomi salmon, of course! You see, everything just naturally flows together and no one can kill Oregon’s aloha spirit.

 

Photo: Sisters Luau, Sisters, Oregon, 2015, Jerry Baldock photographer.

Waking Up the Wheel Lines

Irrigation season always seems to start before I expect it. I associate the pssst, pssst, pssst of the impact sprinklers with warmth and sun. But the hay fields start growing as soon as the snow melts, so away we go.

Some mornings the ice sculptures are dazzling. I should have left a half hour sooner so I could explore the fancy filigree and not be late. Sometimes, you just have to be late.

Instant Relatives

My mom used to love to rummage through old photographs in antique stores. Sometimes she’d bring home vintage portraits, stick them in equally vintage frames and hang them on our walls. She called them our “instant relatives.” It was kind of a joke, but as a kid I remember wondering if this meant we didn’t have enough real relatives.

Now that I’m grown, I have to admit that I’ve also taken to rummaging through old photographs in antique stores. What is the attraction? Perhaps I harbor hope that I’ll find pictures of my actual relatives mixed in with all the strangers. Or maybe I feel a vague responsibility to cherish these apparently forgotten forebears — even if they aren’t mine. Then again, perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that we’re all part of the human family, so I’m related to every person I come across. But lately, I suspect my primary motive is a compulsion to guess the stories behind the faded images. (This must be a fiction writer’s curse!)

Take these photographs, for instance. I found them glued together in an antique store in Redmond, Oregon. It was the week before the holidays — a time when families often hope to be together — and yet, here was a family that had obviously been apart. It seemed a little sad. What was their story?

Was the father away working? Based on his glad rags, maybe he toured with a barbershop quartet? How long had it been since he saw these children? Were they even his?

The children aren’t smiling and look uncomfortable in their “Sunday Best” — her hair bows are humungous; his tie is tiny and crooked. They aren’t in their natural element. And why is the boy in crisp focus and the girl a blur? Did she stubbornly refuse to stand still?

And the woman, she seems to have arrived in the picture at the last moment, squeezing in between the two children at a slant, her hair a little wind-blown, her open smile slightly informal for the situation. Is she their mother? Perhaps she’s a house-keeper/nanny who’d like to become their step-mother? Could these conjoined photographs be implying family connections that don’t yet exist — or acknowledging biological connections that have never been formally conjoined?

As you can see, one found image can be rife with possibilities. And the curious thing is, these seeming strangers may well be relatives whose story my family has forgotten. That being the case, this holiday season, I wish them and their descendants, warm wishes and a blessed New Year.

I looked into their faces one last time, returned the picture to a basket of sepia-toned photographs and exited the antique shop, pushing the creaking door against the winter wind.

The Curious Case of the Larch

I didn’t grow up around larch trees. The first time I saw an amber slope of larches in the fall, I made the common mistake and assumed they were dying. I later learned that larches are one of the few conifers that are deciduous, meaning they drop their needles for the winter and grow a new set in the spring. This attribute makes them seem like a primitive hold-over from an ancient world — as if they were the only conifers that didn’t get the evolutionary memo that “evergreen” is the new normal.

Larches defy most conifer convention. They grow needles but the needles are soft, not stiff and pokey like most other conifers. They grow cones, but instead of resembling a pine or fir cone, they start out looking like purple-pink blossoms. And half the time the trees look dead, but they aren’t.

To me, they seem other-worldly, full of surprises, a little magical. For instance, this autumn, golden larch needles showered into Tumalo Creek. Instead of washing downstream, they gathered by the thousands in eddies and pools where they formed intricate floating patterns. Sometimes the needles aligned end-to-end in sweeping lines across a pool, as if following their own magnetic poles. Other times, the needles drifted against half-sunken logs looking like crazy golden fur on a sleeping bear. But most mystifying were the clusters of floating baskets woven of larch needles, each adorned with fallen leaves. They revolved slowly, sharing a needle here and there with a neighbor, but remaining a distinct creation. I watched them for an hour, enchanted.

Oh you mystical larches, how many days would I need to sit by the creek to see how your baskets are made?