Stories told

One of the aspects of our journey we have enjoyed most, is time with people. Being allowed a glimpse into the lives and stories of those we meet. We met Tara at Kings Canyon National Park, where we were neighbours, camping in the wild under giant Sequoia and bears prowling in the night. We chatted about things we’d enjoyed on our journey and mentioned our desire to know more about Native American history.  So were delighted when Tara invited us to dinner a few days later, to meet her husband Frank, a Native American and member of the Wikchamni tribe.

Meeting Frank was like being hugged by a friendly bear, his presence so powerful and playful at once. An unassuming man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, his energy for living and for sharing the story of his Indian tribe was captivating and delightful. We had so many questions and he was open to answering them all with an honesty which was a mixture of candid, humorous and challenging.

I’m currently reading a Harlan Coben book, set in the context of the Indian Casinos. I mentioned this and my observations about the many Indian casinos we had seen in the US, so I wanted to know the history of the casinos and if certain aspects of what I was reading in Coben’s book was true.

My understanding is that in the 1970’s the Supreme Court ruled that the States had no authority to tax Natives on their reservations, nor regulate their activities. This granted Natives sovereignty rights by the Federal Government and set the scene so to speak for what started out as bingo halls and later became the Indian Casino industry of today. In Reagan’s time, the IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) was signed and today it’s an industry in excess of $30billion and provides an income for tribe members and a cut for the Federal Government. Tribes are said to receive $4 of every $10 wagered.

One of my questions was about how this ‘guaranteed income’ impacts on Native Americans in terms of motivation and psyche. Alcoholism and an apparent lack of motivation to work or be schooled is concerning on a number of levels. I shared my recollections of the history of gambling in the Native Homelands in South Africa in the 1970’s and the similarities I perceived between the two countries’ histories. I shared my memories as a child and of South Africans driving to Native Homelands to gamble illegally. I wanted to understand the similarities or differences between our Native histories. Frank shared his concerns openly as well as his dreams for the potential which lies in investing in the Native youth through his current work in mental health and education. It’s challenging, yet rewarding in so many ways.

Frank also shared colourful memories of his own youth and memories of his great grandmother, Mary Pohot who seemed to me a spirited and wise woman. She was fluent in the Wikchamni language and Frank regrets not remaining so himself. Geoffrey Gamble, a renowned American linguist, spent many years working with Mary, to understand and to capture her knowledge of the Wikchamni culture, art and language. Frank described his grandmother’s talent for story telling which was so captivating that even as teenage boys they would stop their games to listen and partake. He described how Mary had a bag of miniature items such as eagles, bears or coyotes and how a child would be granted the opportunity to reach into the bag and extract an item for a story to be told. Whatever item the child happened to take out of the bag became the starting point or theme for Grandmother’s story. A kind of “lucky dip” story telling approach…an interactive method which has stayed with Frank and one which he now adopts in regaling his granddaughter at her beck and call.

Frank mentioned that Mary Pohot’s photo and the story of the Yokut’s Tribe is displayed at Hospital Rock Trailhead, along General’s Highway (Route 198) which exits the Sequioa National Park just before Three Rivers. As Paul and I were passing that way the following day, we made sure to stop there and see, read, reflect and simply “be present”.  Imagining a way of life not previously known to us. The community kitchen located on the bedrock overlooking the Middle Fork Kaweah River was moving to visit and imagine the way women cared for their kind. I was enthralled to learn more about Wikchamni basketry and weaving because of my studies and work as an Occupational Therapist and it’s use for therapeutic and rehabilitative purposes.

The evening we spent with Tara and Frank was beautiful for many reasons and on so many levels. We were fortunate to be hosted by two beautiful souls who readily debated America’s current political landscape, intimately shared their personal stories and views, dreams and hopes. They left us dreamy with stories and hungry to learn more as there was obviously so much more to know and understand.


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