Please Refer back to the past 2 entries:
Setting the Stage
Part I: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Covelo is an isolated and small town. Right now the population stands around 1,200. I’d have to imagine that during my childhood it was less than that, having been 20 years ago. To give you an idea of the size and isolation:
As mentioned in my initial post, we did not have a gas station until I was 8 years old, which would have been around 1990. We had no doctor’s offices, just a part-time public clinic. We had 1 dentist, and no other sort of medical care providers in the valley. The nearest town to us was(is) Willits, which as of the 2000 census, boasts a population of 5,073 – but at least they have grocery stores, and a hospital. If you want(ed) to really grocery shop you’d at minimum have to go to Ukiah (2010 population 16,075), which is an additional 20-30 minute drive. This wasn’t – and probably still isn’t – realistic. No one can afford nor wants to drive 120 mile round trip once a week or even once every other week. The solution, at least in the case of my family who could afford to do so, was to trek 3.5 hours to Santa Rosa and go to Costco to stock up.
We took these trips every couple months or so, but greatly supplemented our food with a humongous veggie garden, and the raising of a pig and cow per year for our main meat staple. We were “Rez Rich”, but by outside standards we would have been classified as middle-class, at best. Shamefully, part of what contributed to our financial well-being (aside from my dad’s fair-to middlin’ paying job) was welfare fraud. My step-mom was on welfare before we moved in, and continued as such even after me, my dad, and his income moved in. I never realized exactly the repercussions of this until after my dad died, and my mom spat that accusation (towards my dad) out at me during an argument we were having. Alas, though, looking back on it – I see it’s true. My dad and step-mom did not marry until my step-brother turned 18 so that she could continue receiving her welfare.
With that little shame brought to light, let’s talk about as a child, all the financial implications I experienced or saw, but never recognized for what they were at the time. A lot of the things I saw and/or experienced, I thought were nothing more than “normal”. It wasn’t even when I moved away at 14 that I realized it, I realized it more as I got into adulthood and started to have a more global conscience, and started to learn about the actual ways of the world.
Each month we went down to the town hall (room) / civic center (room) to pick up our commodities (“commods”). This was pretty predictable:
Bag of sugar
Container of salt
Grey canister of peanut butter
Jar of strawberry or grape jelly (if you were lucky)
Bottle of cooking oil
Few cans of vegetables (maybe a can or 2 of fruit)
Brick of Goverment cheese about the size of your forearm
Loaf of bread
These were pretty much your staples. Once in a while when the government was feeling generous they might also dole out 3 or so fresh apples, maybe a bunch of bananas. The one thing all us kids on the Rez looked forward to, though, was the “surprise treat”. Every month there was some treat in with the commods that we’d all scrap over among all of our households. It could have been a bag of Easter themed M&Ms (when Easter was about 6 months ago), or it could have been a 12 pack of peanutbutter crackers, and so on and so forth. This little surprise treat, was the only thing any of us kids gave a damn about on Commod day.
My step brother and I were no different, when chances are we already had M&Ms at home, or peanutbutter crackers, etc. But you have to understand, this was the economic culture, this was the norm. You got your commods, and you scrapped over that surprise treat. Think of it like the poor kid’s blue ribbon for an obstacle course. Did your mom eat the treat herself or hide it from you? No. Did your mom let you and your siblings have it? Yes. Were you able to wrestle it away and shove it in your face before your siblings did? Yes? Well congratulations – you win!
But do you really? What prize is in being allowed to have a stale treat the that government decided finally decided you were good enough for, once it couldn’t be sold in stores anymore because it was “technically expired”?
This is where frybread and Indian Tacos come in. Man-oh-man we ate that shit up! Breakfast? Mix you up some flour, salt, and water. Fry it in that cooking oil, then sprinkle it with the sugar we got. Frybread donut! Lunch? Lather, rinse, repeat – minus the sugar, add some peanut butter. Dinner? In case you’re not catching the trend here – mix you up some flour, salt, and water. Fry it in that cooking oil that you already used twice today, pop open a can of those gov-ment beans, shred some of that good gov-ment cheese, and: TA-DA! Indian Tacoooooos, yeah!
Oh…. but wait….. Is it healthy to eat fried flour and salt that often? What’s that you say? Yeah, I know my rolls are poking over my ceremonial feathered waist-dressing. Yeah ok, so my chest plate doesn’t fit anymore, and I can’t get through one single River blessing dance without puffing like a freight train. But in other countries, obesity is a sign of richness right? So I must be doing ok? Ho!
America is the only country in the world where the comfortable are thin and those in poverty are fat. Those living below the poverty line eat carbs, fat, sodium, preservatives, and other chemicals. Fresh healthy food is available in such minute quantities typically due to financial issues as well as the “food desert”. Yes y’all, the food desert is a real thing.
We had 1 grocery store in town. This grocery store’s prices were ridiculously high, higher than your average grocery store. Why? Lack of competition. The next nearest grocery store was an hour’s drive away, and you’re talking about a population that may not have a vehicle, may not have a vehicle that can make it over the mountain, may not have the money to put gas in said vehicle. So sure, when you have a (literally) captive audience, you can do whatever you’d like.
This means everyone relied more on those commods. And I mean, they got inventive and made it work. You say you’ve had an “Indian Taco” before? Oh, I see, you attended some local Native Celebration and they gave you this fabulous fluffy piece of fried dough, topped with hamburger, beans, real cheese, lettuce, tomato, and maybe sour cream? You’re adorable! I’d pat your cheek if you were here in front of me right now. No honey, let me explain.
An Indian taco is a heavy greasy piece of fried dough (no baking powder like you probably got in your fluffy cloud taco) topped with beans, some of that Gov Cheese, and maybe some canned green beans, canned corn, whatever they gave you that month. If you were feelin’ fancy you might cook up some of that rice to put on it too, but probably not. You need that to mix with another can of veggies and (yes more) cheese for a casserole.
Think maybe I’m exaggerating? I kid you not, here’s a post from my facebook feed that my cousin Joe (RVIT President) posted last night. Look at the comments from a couple guys I grew up with.
Anyway, I’m getting kind of ticked off about the food situation for the people back home, lets move on to something else.
Y’all saw the pictures of some of the homes in my “prequel” blog. It’s interesting because my house was nice. Modest, but nice. We painted it, kept it clean, seeded a lawn, planted a flower garden in the front, put in a paved driveway, built a shed, built a deck, grew a huge veggie garden out back, fatted up a pig and cow each year with the rest of the acreage. My dad re-did the inside with carpeting, new linoleum, bought a nice couch, recliner chairs, built an entertainment center, dinner table, and hutches all out of nice oak he varnished up pretty. He straight up brought my step-mom out of that poverty that surrounded us on every other side.
But I never really SAW that growing up. Going to friend’s houses I didn’t think about the fact that they had no carpeting inside, their furniture would have been better suited for the dump, or even that they didn’t have actual beds. No really, every friend I knew had a mattress on the floor, that was bed. It didn’t phase me to see broken rusted cars in their yards, along with garbage and other bits, pieces, and compilations of junk. It really never crossed my mind that my house was nicer and I had more. Why? Because what they had was normal to me, it’s what was everywhere.
You know who did notice though? Those same friends and cousins. They thought I was “rich” because I got a few new outfits each year for school, because we had operating cars, and a nice(r) house than they did. But more importantly, and pay attention to this: <b>they thought I was rich because my dad had a job</b>.
Quite literally, growing up, the only employed adults in the valley I knew (personally) were my dad, his bosses, one of my aunties, and….and…hmm, let me think about this for a minute….No, I think that was it. Oh! Well, you’ll allow me to include those who were employed in illegal ventures, then I did and do know plenty more employed individuals.
Have you seen Bates Motel, the newer series? You know how the main economy in the town they’re in is Pot Farming? Well, it’s not a coincidence they’re in Oregon. North California and Southern Oregon are infamous for pot farms. The county I lived in, Mendocino, along with Humbolt and Lake counties formed “The Emerald Triangle”. Much like on Bates Motel you’d best be careful not to wander into someone’s farm less you get shot.
So yes, I knew and still know several people that are employed in that business, whether it be owner, grower, or shift guard. Still doesn’t lead to a glamorous materialistic life though – it really doesn’t.
I don’t blame these people for resorting to this for income to feed their wives, kids, grand kids, and family.
What. More. Can. You. Expect….. From forcing a people into an extremely isolated, somewhat desolate valley with quite literally no employment or education opportunities? How easy do you think it is to get out of the Valley, get educated, and be successful when your family can’t afford even the gas to get out of town on a frequent basis?
These people have done what they can with what is available to them. For all the complaining that the local Caucasian populous complains about how the Indigenous are allowed to fish, hunt, and farm without licenses or restrictions – These people have simply taken the ONLY advantage given to them, and tried to make something of it. Ok, so it’s illegal pot growing and selling – it could be worse right? Lets not talk about all of the meth cookers that are in the valley too. Those Meth cookers, they’re not residents of the Rez, but they’ve certainly accumulated plent…. You know what – I’m getting off topic, this isn’t the blog about the crime element, this is about economics.
Well… I think I’ve covered it. Sorry, this turned into more of a rant than giving a feel of what living on the Rez is like due to the economic situation. But let me sum this up for you, using another Rez as an example.
There is a Reservation called the “4 Corners” Reservation. It literally is at the 4 corners of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Did you know that people on this reservation, one of the largest in the Nation, are so poor they don’t have running water? Water trucks have to come in every day and supply them.
In 2016 Native Americans are so poor they don’t have running water. In 2016 Native Americans only make up 1.7% of the population in the United States. The people who used to populate this continent, are now the largest minority within it, and honestly, the most ignored.
Ignored? Let me break this down real quick (off topic, sorry). My cousin Joe (President of RVIT) has met with President Barack Obama on a couple of occasions, he had a special meeting with Bernie Sanders recently, where Bernie came out to visit HIM (and other Tribal leaders). Joe spends most of his time travelling to Sacramento and D.C. for congressional whatever-you-want-to-call-it fighting for the people on the Rez I grew up on, and all Natives in general. Do you ever hear about it? Nahhh Bruh, but you hear about the President meeting with some leader of another country, or even a Senator or something yeah?
Oh yeah, lets look at something that seems a little more superficial. How many TV shows you see with Native characters – unless it’s a story specifically about Natives? None? Oh….. hmmm…. What’s more, how many of these shows that are about Natives, have Native actors? Because I’ll tell you this, most of them are Mexican, Black, or even White for god sake.
Alright yall, I guess you finally got to see why I call myself awkward babble – Cuz if you get me wound up I’ll keep going.
I want to leave you with one last thought, speaking about “representation” and how important it is. It’s important for Native characters to be played by actual Natives. It’s important for Native people to be represented in shows like every day people, not like some buckskin wearing, powwow dancing alcoholic.
How important is representation? Ask Alexis Chateau, she’s voiced it a lot more eloquently than I can.