Native Americans figure somewhat prominently in my family history, but back then in the far West, they were called Indians, so that’s how I’ll refer to them in this story.
My mother hated Indians to the day she died in 2002.
That is so politically incorrect we’d say. “We’re not crossing the plains in covered wagons anymore.” Yet no matter what we said, she never got over enmity for Indians; they terrified her.
Born Eleanor Bart in 1920, my mother grew up in Reno, Nevada. Bart had been shortened from Bartolino by her grandmother, my great grandmother who emigrated from Italy in 1894.
Nonna thought that Bartolino was too woppy, so she shortened it to Bart. She didn’t do it legally, just one day told her children their name was now Bart. She also claimed relationship to Black Bart, the notorious stagecoach robber, but Black Bart—Charles Earl Boles—was born in England and died years before Nonna arrived at Ellis Island. There was no connection whatsoever; it just made a good story along with lots of other family fiction. (read the book for the story of The Man in the Coffin, one of the most outlandish family tales)
After trekking across country during the Silver Rush, Nonna opened a hotel in Manhattan, Nevada, just up the trail from boomtown Goldfield where Virgil Earp became the county’s deputy sheriff in 1904. His brother Wyatt had opened the Northern Saloon in Tonopah, the “Queen of the Silver Camps,” then later joined Virgil in Goldfield in 1905 and became a pit boss in one of the saloons.
Manhattan is now a Ghost Town (population 124), but you can still find Nonna’s old hotel.
Her daughter-in-law, my grandmother Bart became a teacher in Tonopah when her husband, my grandfather, died in 1951. She retired as the oldest teacher in Nevada in 1968. I used to visit her in Tonopah, half way between Reno and Las Vegas, not a ghost town, but with a population of about 2,500, a fraction of what is was during the Silver Rush.
Nonna claimed her hotel was a “rest home” for prostitutes who serviced the silver miners, but my Uncle Jimmy (mother’s brother) doubted it was restful because there was a bar on the first floor which the Sheriff constantly threatened to shut down because Nonna served whiskey to Indians. That became the first Indian story in our history.
Serving liquor, called firewater, to Indians was illegal then, so when the sheriff came in one day and saw an Indian passed out, sprawled across the bar, a glass of whisky in front of him, he shouted at Nonna, “I got you now, you old bitch.”
Nonna, who was indeed a tough old bitch, grabbed the glass, downed the whisky, and slammed the glass back on the bar. “Whatta you got now,” she said to the Sheriff?
She later moved to Reno where James married Maude Porch and had my mother.
Nonna became very wealthy and lived to a very old age. I remember playing dominoes with her when I was ten, fascinated with her shaking palsied hands moving the tiles, and terrified of her dark bedroom where she had an altar for the priest who came every week.
In 1949 she built her mausoleum in Mountain View Cemetery for $5,000, an incredible sum then, about three times the price of a car.
That mausoleum, called Nonna’s Dead House, caused the biggest fight in family history. There were only four crypts in the mausoleum, one for her and for….3 of her children, but she had five, so it was a Race to Death to get a spot.
The first to die was my grandfather, her favorite. But his wife Maud would not let him be buried there unless she could lie beside him when she died. Nonna said NO! Maud wasn’t Italian and Nonna wasn’t about to spend eternity with a Welshwoman; a Catholic convert.
As poor granddad spent a week on ice, the family fought over a spot for Maud, my grandmother Bart. Finally, Nonna relented; she deeded a crypt to my grandmother who then allowed James to go into The Dead House. After the funeral, Grandma Bart came to Atlanta to live with us. A week later, Grandma got an hysterical call from my Aunt Marie, her sister-in-law, Nonna’s second child.
“Ah, Maudie, Maudie, it’s terrible. I was just out to the cemetery. The smell! The bugs! Rats! The crypt must have broken open.”
Grandma dropped the phone and passed out on the floor. When she revived, she told my mother who called her brother in Reno. “Jimmy! Run out to the cemetery, something’s wrong with Dad’s crypt.”
My Uncle Jimmy rushed out to Mountain View to check on his poor dead father.
Of course there was nothing wrong. It was just Marie’s way of getting even.
Jimmy had more trouble with the family over The Dead House a year later when his son, my cousin Terry swallowed Drano; a glass with residue had been left on the sink. Terry was two. The acid ate through his throat and stomach; he lingered near death and funeral arrangement were made. But Nonna said he couldn’t get a spot in The Dead House because he had not been baptized; she was not about to spend eternity with the unbaptized.
Terry survived, leaving one crypt unaccounted for. Mom got it in 2002. She’s with Nonna and her mother and father. Marie and her husband, my Uncle Henry (Francisconi), are in plots in front of The Dead House.
Now back to Indians. Seventeen miles north of Reno was a Shoshone Indian Reservation in Hungry Valley (a clue to living conditions?); it’s still there. The most famous Shoshone was Sacagawea who helped Lewis and Clark on the Snake River.
With nothing to do on the reservation in the early part of the 20th Century, these fierce looking Plains Indians with broad faces, narrow eyes, and leather darkened skin would come into town and drink, sitting all day around the train station or passed out on the sidewalks before the casinos.
Indians and tales of Indians were still vivid in the West where my mother grew up. The massacre at Wounded Knee had occurred not many years before, in 1890. My father’s mother, who lived until I was in high school, was born in 1876, the year of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The Indians terrified the citizens of Reno, most especially my mother because her mother, my Grandmother Bart threatened, “If you’re not a good girl, I’m going to give you to the Indians.”
She held this over my mother’s head throughout her childhood. Bad behavior or bad grades meant the rest of her life as a squaw on the reservation. Once she even brought mother downtown to the train station to give her away, packing no belongings--“You won’t need anything. They’ll give you feathers to wear.”
Mom was raised a devout Catholic, but the threat of Hell paled to that of the reservation.
My own encounters with Native Americans began in the Marines; the USMC has long been an escape route from poverty for them, the most famous being Ira Hay from a Pima reservation in Arizona; he is immortalized in the bronze statue of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. His life, partly because of his fame, was sorrowful. He died at the age of 32 in an abandoned adobe hut on the reservation.
I met far more Native Americans in prison, mostly Lumbees, a North Carolina tribe not yet recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lumbees are an impoverished tribe, certainly compared to Cherokees who reap vast sums from casinos. Pep, a full-blooded Cherokee I knew received $10,000 semi-annually from casino profits.
Oxendine, a large friendly Lumbee who nevertheless would have terrified my mother, approached me one day on the rec yard for a favor. Most requests were financial for canteen items or stamps, but Oxendine’s request was special--he wanted my help to stay at Nash so that he could be closer to his family in Pembroke, North Carolina.
At the time, rumors swirled that hundreds of inmates would be shipped to other institutions because of severe overcrowding. Nash had grown from 600 inmates to 900 with 60 men on bunks, me one of them, in the dayroom sharing 4 bathrooms. The US Supreme Court had ruled that similar conditions in California were unconstitutional.
Guards fueled the rumors and said a list of inmates to be shipped and another of guards to be downsized had already been drawn up. Even though Nash was overcrowded, most of us felt it was a safer and more desirable prison than others in the state. For me, Nash was closer to family and friends who visited weekly; I did not want to move, but word was that the first inmates to go would be trouble-makers on bunks without jobs.
Me! A major trouble-maker on a bunk without a job.
I was sufficiently worried to contact my lawyers to ensure I wouldn’t be shipped away because of the impending hearing and my need to be close for attorney consultations, but Oxendine didn’t have a lawyer to help him, so he approached me. He wanted my help to get into GED class. He told me he couldn’t read or write and wanted to take the Adult Basic Education course, but because so many guys were trying to get into the course, no more applications were being accepted.
“They’re all trying to get into GED so they won’t get shipped,” he said.
“Like you,” I said.
“Exactly,” he answered. “Help me get to the head of the list.”
I asked him if he really wanted to learn to read and write. He said yes; he was ashamed that he couldn’t even write a letter to his children. Though I understood his desire to read and write, I knew it didn’t match his desire to stay at Nash close to his family, but I said I’d do what I could.
There was no point going to Ms. Snow, the head counselor who made all inmate assignments; I’d had a contentious relationship with her for years; indeed, that would have sunk his chances, so I approached Ms. J, the GED teacher. I’d been her assistant when I taught GED before I went to The Hole. I’d gone to her several times before, and because all my recommendations had caused no trouble and graduated, she put Oxendine on the list to be tested, and then placed him in the Adult Basic Education program.
Oxendine was so grateful that he badgered me endlessly on the rec yard. “What can I do for you? What can I get you?”
I told him I didn’t need anything, but that didn’t deter him; he’d bring me bags of chips and candy bars until I said stop.
Finally, I told him there was something he could do: Tell me Lumbee stories.
He did. We’d sit on the barren dirt yard and he’d tell me sad tales of Pembroke and life on that reservation--awful stories of misery and want, brutality and corruption, stories like his of young men who ended up in prison like himself, barely able to read and write.
I encountered many Lumbees at Nash, a number way out of proportion to the general population, much higher than that of any other ethnicity. They were all quiet, even gentle guys who stayed pretty much among themselves.
The homicide rate for Lumbees has ranged from 10 to 20 times that of the rate for whites in the United States, and 5 to 7 times that of whites in North Carolina; it is almost double the rate for blacks in North Carolina. The suicide rate is likewise wildly out of proportion. In a tribe of only 55,000, a thousand Locklear’s, Lowery’s, Hunts, Chavis’s, and Oxendine’s have been incarcerated.
I asked Oxendine why? Why so many Lumbee murders and suicides?
“There isn’t much else to do,” he said, and I thought of my mother and that desolate reservation outside Reno a century ago. There were also Shoshone reservations in Death Valley (Furnace Creek), Skull Valley (Utah), and other desolate places as awful and forlorn as Apache and Navajo reservations in New Mexico and Arizona where Native Americans account for an inordinate number of prisoners in jails and prisons.
Oxendine didn’t have an answer for the future, and I doubted his own would be brighter after he had learned to read and write and went back to Pembroke.
Probably not for Chief either. Chief was in my unit, but we never exchanged more than a couple words; he was the stereotype of the quiet Native American. Strong; a massive weightlifter.
We spoke more in The Hole where we were not supposed to talk at all. That story is in the book, but the epilogue was when we met in the 6x6x10 wire dog cages outside. We each had gone out for some fresh air. Fifteen minutes allowed every day.
Chief had gotten into a drunken, eye gouging ear biting brawl (Chateau Tomato Paste) with several gang members (Folk Nation) over a radio. He was a very tough guy my mother would have run screaming from.
That day, I watched him bend over and gently pick up a caterpillar. He let it crawl up and down his finger, then he carefully placed it in the grass outside his cage.
“I wonder how it got in my cage,” he mused.
I pointed behind him to a bird’s nest in a drain on The Hole’s roof. “Probably a bird dropped it on the way to the nest,” I said.
He nodded, then stared with the most—yes, enchanted—look at the baby birds until he was cuffed and brought back inside.
I didn’t tell him that the mother or daddy bird would probably swoop down and get the caterpillar after we left.
Who needed more tales of carnage?