November 2011

‘The language of this land’

By Art Goodtimes

GRAND JUNCTION … Frank Coons writes: “We came from other places, other times … all at a crossroads, a junction.” It’s perhaps the greatest beauty of the Grand Valley, beyond its Book Cliffs and national monument – a generous mix of human traditions. Grand Junction is on a major national east-west trail. Commerce moves along its highways and rails, as well as its busy Walker Field. Geographically, it’s the northernmost reach of the Southwest’s Colorado Plateau in our state. Ecologically, many southern species flora and fauna thrive here, but no further north … Having been through energy’s boom and bust more than once, there seems to be a new spirit in the air at the Western Slope’s queen city. Mesa State, under President Tim Foster, has changed its name yet again, as if the community were still searching for a vision of itself. Colorado Mesa University certainly sounds more prestigious. If growth is still coming to this state (and it’s hard to see us as a nation denying ourselves anything), much of its Western Slope swagger will come through here … Maybe nothing more dramatizes this renaissance than cultural richness. Recently the nascent Western Colorado Writers’ Forum kicked off its first writers conference, with the goal of fostering “a dynamic literary and writing community that advances the cultural life of Western Colorado” … But the gathering wasn’t just about writers. Although MacArthur awarding-winning author Leslie Marmon Silko and Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason both read, and dozens of us lit types gave workshops and readings, the core of “The Language of This Land” for me was hearing the oral stories from elder members of this crossroads community … Wisely, organizer Sandra Dorr invited speakers from many different local traditional groups to present.


First Fall Storm

Pluck with the long bar
hooked cup
the last of the Macintosh

Cook squash
tomatoes turnips & beets
Still waiting

for post-storm’s first frost
to kill the spud plants
so we can dig up the tubers

& put the seed crop to bed
in the well-house’s cold storage
that I won’t let freeze

Photos of my younger
brothers (both gone)
yellowing like the leaves

FIRST PEOPLES ... Ute “historian” Clifford Duncan – a much-respected tribal leader and storyteller – spoke about the removal of his people from the Grand Valley, though without bitterness, and commented lyrically about his own upbringing, including a stint at a BIA Indian school where he was punished for speaking his language. But, as an elder now, he also spoke to us in Ute, as well as translating – so we could hear the timbre of his Uto-Aztecan tongue and still understand its meaning … Most interestingly, he put to rest certain historical misconceptions … Chief Ouray was only chief because the assembled Ute leaders in D.C. thought the government wanted to know who their translator was (not the head chief to sign treaty documents) … Chipeta, Ouray’s second wife, was a Kiowa survivor in a camp raided by the Utes ...The Utes never called the Rockies “The Shining Mountains” – that’s a Whiteman’s fiction … And their name for the Uncompahgre was Davi (“sun”) + watch (“those that live in”), since the Uncompahgre Valley and Uncompahgre Plateau were so much warmer than the Rocky Mountains … We get the word “Uncompahgre” from a corruption of the Ute phrase: edká (“red”) + bahahree (“lake, pond”), and it referred to the iron fens below Red Mountain up in Ironton … Duncan also spoke about the importance of keeping language and culture alive. He received a standing ovation both before and after his speech.

FRANCES WHEELER … From her wheelchair, 93-year-old Frances May Dorr Wheeler – Grand Junction’s Rhymester Laureate — recited several of her “cowboy” pieces from memory: “The difference,” she explained, “between poems and rhymes is that everyone can understand what a rhyme means” … Her sister Helen also read a rhyme from memory.

GRAND VALLEY ELDERS … Grand Junction-born Josephine Dickey spoke about Handy Chapel, and the hundredplus years of African-American community presence in the valley. Al Grasso spoke of the Italian- American heritage in stone-masonry there. One woman read an account of a Japanese- American hero from World War II living in the city. Another woman talked of the Basque- American heritage in Grand Junction and all over the Western Slope. Jose Lucero spoke to the Hispanic- American legacy of over 300 years in the region. The local attorney who bought the church where the conference was headquartered addressed the serendipity of his ownership and restoration work … For all the wonderful literary connections and marvelous new writers and old friends I met at this ground-breaking event, the stories of the elders from the community were easily the weekend’s most moving moments.

CLOUD ACRE … One of the glories of getting old is getting to ask help of your friends (especially younger ones) … I’ve been cultivating heirloom potatoes for over a dozen years now, and developing reliable seed production for many varieties of Solanum tuberosum. Sort of your one-man horticultural research station … Good keepers. Potatoes are a survival crop. Grow best at high altitudes. We have fewer bugs on Wright’s Mesa than the San Luis Valley. Or the Snake River Plain of Idaho … Reds, blues, browns, whites and yellows, with names like Pink Eye, Bluebird, Rose Apple, Caribe and Maroon Bells … In total, I have over 50 separate varieties in cultivation. Perhaps 30 or so seed potato varieties to trade, and enough bulk for gifts and good eating all winter … But harvesting and preparing the beds for planting is timeconsuming (though good down-in-thedirt work). So I was able to talk my (younger) friend Steve McHugh into helping me out. He’s a garden whiz of his own – with a plot in Norwood’s community garden, a plot at his place and a plot at mine. But his help made all the difference this year, and we got a darn respectable crop. Thank you, Steve!

JIMMY CARTER … Found a book saved from my late dad’s things that had gotten a bit moldy in a storage bin. A novel by our former president. I dried the pages and salvaged the book. I didn’t know Carter’d tried his hand at fiction, but since it was a story of the Revolutionary War, I dove in … And it proved a good read. I learned a lot about South Carolina, Georgia and Florida during the time of the Colonies separated from England. The characters were strong and engaging. The momentum dragged at times, with (no doubt) accurate historical details getting in the way of the storyline. But the writing was solid. I stayed up until 5 a.m. reading one night just to get to the end … I learned that the Creeks had a clan named after the Potato; a member of the radical revolutionary party for the late 1700s in the American colonies was called a “Whig” – a word that originally meant a horse thief; and a member of the conservative party was called a “Tory,” which had started out meaning an outlaw whose first allegiance was to the Pope … “The Hornet’s Nest” (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Recommended.

Art Goodtimes is a San Miguel County commissioner.