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reed magazine logoWinter 2008

Listening to Indians

Gary Snyder ’51, Berkeley, California, 1955
(Allen Ginsberg Estate)

Snyder goes logging

As an undergraduate, Gary Snyder ’51 did folklore research on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. After graduation, he worked summers for the tribe’s logging operation—as a mill worker scaling timber and as a choker-setter in the woods.

“I got into not being a college student but being a fellow worker,” Snyder said in a recent interview, “which is a very different relationship. Did some pick-up driving around, drinking beer as we went all over the reservation, went to western-style dances in old airplane hangars, and went to Indian dances too. That was a very important time for me in terms of my poetic development. And I wrote one poem that came out of that, ‘A Berry Feast.’”

That first summer, while his friend Dell Hymes ’50 was living in a tent and studying the Wasco language, Snyder was living in a worker’s cabin and learning Wasco swear words from the men on his logging crew. “Being a worker is a big advantage in the world,” Snyder said in his Reed Oral History Project interview, conducted by John Sheehy ’82 in 1998. “The anthropologist only knows them in the employer-client or scholar-client relationship, and that was where Dell was. Meanwhile, I was going drinking with these guys. And they weren’t worried about whether or not I was going to ask them questions. I was very careful not to do that, except in the most innocent roundabout sort of half-drunken way.

“So I went to the big Berry Festival at Warm Springs, a very big cultural thing, the first fruits celebration, when they brought the first ripe huckleberries down from the mountains…And a lot of dancing and gambling, native dancing, and bone game gambling. And big stakes, people coming down from Yakima and setting up tepees to gamble…I got to wander around, tagging after some Indian choker-setter guys that were my crew members, who’d say, ‘Oh, he’s one of the choker-setters. He’s Billy’s friend.’ So I got to be right part of it…

“So it started with working up in the Warm Springs Reservation, working two seasons on lookouts, having jobs with ordinary people, and hanging out in the bohemias and underworlds of San Francisco, various things like that, working in the logging camp, realizing how many places there are in the world that all of your college smarts won’t help…”

Hymes had spent much of that first summer of fieldwork with Hiram Smith on the fishing scaffolds at Celilo Falls (flooded to create The Dalles Dam in 1957). Taking breaks from the strenuous work of dip-netting salmon, Smith had narrated a handful of brief texts in Wasco that would form the basis for Hymes’ first academic publication.

Back in Bloomington—now ensconced in an apartment located conveniently upstairs from a Chinese restaurant with Gary Snyder and a cat named Sapir—Hymes wrote to Kay French on November 8, 1951. He starts by reflecting on the summer’s experiences:

At Celilo I was very happy some of the time, mostly when Hiram, his partner and I were on the [fishing] scaffold. Tension seemed gone, for Hiram too…We joked before you left Celilo concerning the vague status I had: when out on the fishing platform, who was I? Afterwards, I became wholly amorphous. One morning early I was wakened by a middle-aged Indian woman friend of the Smiths, who had met me once or twice. She urged me to go with her friends to buy them beer. When I was adamant, sleepily but surely, she grew indignant. After exhortations and cajolings, she turned and left with the parting denunciation, “A helluva fine Indian you are!”

Hymes also reports news from Bloomington:

Gary is settled in till at least the end of the semester, perhaps for the entire year. [Carl] Voegelin [Hymes’ thesis advisor] “intuited” Gary’s discomfort with the Air Force…So, he arranged for Gary to work in preparing exhibits for the museum being established, incidentally at more money. Gary can now get his teeth fixed, repay Reed, and keep a comfortable conscience. Voegelin’s comment when he asked me to relay the new job to Gary was, “Tell him he’ll go to jail soon enough.” (That is, no reason to drop out of school, therefore be forced to be a conscientious objector when summoned for draft, therefore go to jail since conscientious objectors now verboten.)

“Regards to the anthropologists at Reed, sapient and incipient,” Hymes concludes. To Hymes’ signature Snyder adds a “hello” in all capital letters, but spelling the l’s with Greek lambdas (“HEλλO!”) and attaching his initials.

At Uncle Avex’s House

By the summer of 1952, the SSRC Fellowship had come through, and the Frenches were getting established at Warm Springs in a creekside house that was formerly inhabited by Avex Miller, the uncle of a local friend. Ed Harper—whom David had sent to Cornell to study with Opler—had returned, and on August 25, 1952, wrote a letter to an unknown person (probably a Cornell friend) that is preserved among the Frenches’ papers. “Greetings from the wilds of Oregon,” Harper begins:

Field work continues at Warm Springs. Dave and Kay are hard at work on an ethnobotany, while sandwiching other kinds of work inbetween. Also Mike Mahar is working for the Indian service, and in time off doing field work. In addition there is a fellow named Bob Wallace who is doing some work on Sahaptin child training under a SSRC grant. I find a fairly large group of people all working on different projects to be quite stimulating—much exchange of data, comparison of notes, and even exchanging gossip about informants.

Of course, the “informants”—who quickly became accustomed to the arrival each summer of a revolving cast of Reedies—exchanged gossip about them, too, carefully noting their comings and goings and savoring their eccentricities; details (including nicknames given to members of the Reed crew) were still being recounted with amusement in the 1980s when I was at Warm Springs doing my own linguistic and anthropological fieldwork.

reed magazine logoWinter 2008