The next individual who agreed to be profiled was my “plateau” resident. Jim was a thirty-six-year-old Native American, a member of and resident at Zuni Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico. The first in his family to attend college, he was degreed in agriculture from New Mexico State University. Employed by the pueblo, his job was primarily the restoration of Zuni lands. When I interviewed him, his focus was erosion caused by years of unfettered timber harvesting, firewood collection, and road-building on the reservation. I engaged him for several days over the span of seven months in his office, in his truck while we toured his reservation, and while walking the backcountry of the reservation. Among other things, I learned about the Zuni tradition of the naming of landforms no matter how inconsequential they may seem to a non-Native; the construction of small sandstone “check dams” to retard erosion in arroyos; the development of “seed banks” for corn, the mainstay of the Zuni diet; and traditional wood verses carbon-composite bows for bow-and-arrows. Jim was soft-spoken, respectful of other cultures―including those of the non-Native―and always cordial. He had traveled broadly in the world. His passion was mountains and their spiritual significance. And he liked the music of James Brown. I’ve never forgotten his observation, “In a hundred years the reservation will still be a safe place, a place we may need to protect even more than we do now. . . We’ve been here thousands of years, and if the rest of the world’s societies fall apart, we’ll still be here.” I believed this then, and I really believe this now, in the time of Covid-19.
Jim struck me as an unusually quiet man. I’m not sure if his silence was simply his personality, or caution about revealing too much to a non-Zuni. Today, I’m not at all sure I would attempt a profile of any Native American. Before weighing a profile of Jim, I wish I had read more carefully Erna Fergusson’s 1940 book Our Southwest, for in it she observes, “As a rule the Pueblos are polite to visitors and ready to do business. But they deal with [non-Native Americans] only at the periphery of their real life.” More recently, I think Robert Gish echoed this sentiment when, in his 1996 book Beautiful Swift Fox, about late-20th-century New Mexico and Fergusson’s life and literary contributions, he observed: “Today, American Indians speak forcefully against cultural appropriation, and rightly talk much for themselves, and eschew―indeed protest―‘outside’ interpreters, whatever their motive.” And discussing the 2017 movie Wind River, about a modern-day murder on the Native American reservation of the same name, Kevin Noble Maillard, a part-Seminole, part African-American writing in the New York Times, stated, “Marriage, affinity or even lifelong residency may change the white man, but he will always be a foreigner in Indian Country.” I’m now of the opinion that a non-Native―Charles Lummis and Tony Hillerman, perhaps, being the exceptions―cannot be trusted to correctly interpret a Native American perspective on anything but the most superficial of observations.
Today, I admit it: With Jim, I was hoping for more Dances with Wolves―that is, what a white man might define as “Native American mysticism,” even a rebuke of the modern white man’s ways―and less check dams and seed banks. That’s how little I knew about Native Americans then―and now. Still, I’ll always be grateful for my experience with Jim. My profile of him resulted in my first piece published in one of my much-ridiculed “scholarly journals.”