The publisher of a straight western novel I have slated to come out in the foggy future had been bugging me for some time to come up with a cover image for the book. As it’s set against the backdrop of the big buffalo hunt of 1874, I envisioned something with a buffalo motiff – maybe a close up of a buffalo’s eye.
I’m not a professional photographer, but I thought maybe I could save myself some money and do it myself. Finding buffalo in Southern California isn’t as hard as you’d think. A little digging turned up a small herd of bison given to the silent western actor William S. Hart by Walt Disney. The herd still lives on his property, ‘La Loma de los Vientos,’ which is now home to a museum and park.
I had been looking for an excuse to head up to Newhall and get some pictures of the herd, when I came across a notice about an intertribal powwow occurring there this past weekend. So, I loaded up the van with wife and girls, sammiches and drinks, and braved the 100 degree weather to watch the dancing, plus hopefully sneak away to get some shots.
It was hot.
Yet still, the dancers, Oglala, Paiute, and I believe Chiricahua among others made a good showing in full regalia, young and old, though they had to take frequent breaks to hydrate.
About halfway through the day the MC related a custom of holding dances for warriors who had returned from battle. I’d read some about this custom, which occurred across a variety of tribes. Veteran Blackfoot warriors were said to blacken their faces with ash from the campfire upon returning to the village, to show that the fire of anger, unleashed in wartime, was now extinguished, that the man had returned home to his family and was the same man who had left.
I got to thinking about PTSD and some of my own friends and acquaintances who had returned from service overseas, and of past veterans of foreign wars and their problems re-assimilating to civilian life. I don’t know how successful the Indian custom is in dealing with the psychological effects of war. Perhaps in the past it was more effective that it is now.
Nonetheless, the MC asked veterans in the audience both Indian and non-Indian to come up and share their names and tribes/talk about their service if they wanted to. About a dozen older men came up, Apache and Sioux, Yuma, Yaqui, and Paiute, and interestingly, one craggy faced old British man who claimed some Cherokee descent. There were marines and sailors, soldiers of two countries and half a dozen different wars. Men who had fought in jungle and sand.
After the last of them had come up, a pair of young Indian women went around the audience and formed a line of people willing to go up and basically welcome the men who had come forward home, as one of the circle of drummers sang.
I’m not a supporter of war in general. Though I do recognize it’s necessity at times, I don’t think any of the wars we’ve been involved in recently have been entirely necessary. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a man or woman somehow automatically becomes a hero by enlisting either. Soldiers are soldiers, and very often not saints.
But I did see the power of this gesture. This was not a ‘thank you’ for defending my liberty in some nebulous cause, but a simple and sincere ‘welcome home.’ My grandfather died in a tank in France near the end of World War II, and as the women in their bright colors came along, I found myself thinking of him – a man that I and my own father know only through black and white photographs (him in his helmet and fatigues, holding my infant father outside a nameless barracks, him clowning with my smiling grandmother – one rolled up pant leg propped on the runningboard of her car, thumb stuck out like Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night.). I excused myself from my family and joined the slow moving circle, and shook hands with a dozen men I didn’t know. There was a bit of a flutter in my chest I didn’t fully understand, and even now can’t quite put to words. Were they surrogates for a ghost I never knew? I said a sincere ‘thank you, sir’ to each of them, though at least one was my own age and I have never held any rank.
What was I thanking them for? I don’t believe soldiers in Vietnam defended my personal liberty against any serious threat to America…was I thanking Gulf War veterans for taking my place? For filling a quota so I wouldn’t be drafted? I don’t believe it was any of these things. I think I was thanking them for coming back safe. Maybe I was thanking them for that because I don’t remember if I thanked myown friends who served or not for doing just that. Just for coming home alive, no matter how they’d changed or what they’d done.
Anyway, we went to see the animals penned over at William S. Hart, to delight the girls. There was the largest dairy cow I’d ever seen (I mean large – it was at least five foot ten at the shoulders), some ducks, hogs, and a few pheasants.
Then they returned to the picnic area and I walked alone up the hill that led to Hart’s house, taking a few idle shots of his dog graveyard along the way.
Several signs warned me to beware of rattlesnakes, and though it was a perfect day for them to be out sunning themselves as they do in books, I guess it was too hot for them even because I didn’t see any. Just a couple lizards ducking out of sight.
The buffalo were feeding at the crest of the hill and unfortunately there was a double row of fences and the sun was shining right in my viewfinder. I only got one really salvageable picture because it was nearly impossible to focus, and it’s really nothing cover worthy.
When I came back down, sweating like a hog the whole way, the MC was announcing a sort of tiebreaker between a pair of young dancers, and I sat on the hill overlooking the whole shebang before I rejoined the wife and kids.
Not a bad day.