Eagle River Coal LLC. Early on Sunday, to the not unreasonable consternation of the student hired to drive our van, we pull into the parking lot of the Eagle River surface coal mine & sneak around the locked gates, past the empty guard shack, our rag-tag team following the road up to the muddy edge of the mine. An enormous alley dug into the earth, with 50-foot mountains of mud heaped up in piles here and there. A quarter mile away there are a few trucks parked next to an office, but no one seems to notice us as we wade about, up to our ankles in red clay on this cold, gray early spring morning.
In the Shawnee National Forest. We turn the bus around to see a cave by the highway just large enough to hold a small picnic table.
We are in the southeast part of the state, where there are the most dramatic ridges and hills, and some of the best fresh water in wells and springs. Barney has a spring on the property that we cross on our way into the forest; the water is brilliantly clear and delicious. People who understand fracking are really freaked out about it around here and are campaigning through political lobbying and more recently, direct action trainings. The actual first wells have gone in allegedly; they are about 50 miles farther north. But there are all kinds of shenanigans between energy corporations and the multiple layers of governments (federal, state, county) with a lien on the land down here (ultimately the government has sovereignity); last year Peabody coal proposed a “deal” that involved exchanging pristine forest service land for their stripped out property.
Meeting with Barney Bush, Frank & Kathy. The dogs greet us first, barking, wagging, snickering, shying. Auburn leaves & mud rising on moranal ridges behind several houses in various states of construction and repair. Barney first leads us through leafless spring trees to a circle cleared for the stomp dance ceremony. A social dance—men, women, children and old folk in that order, with beads in turtle shells or mushroom cans tied to the ankles, to make a buzzing like cicadas: hearing the ghosts of past stomp dancers.
We travel a few hundred feet down the road to the cabin, which is used by guests of the family and tribe visiting for the wild onion ceremony, as well as rented to tourists looking for a weekend getaway. My first impression is the of the many different textures. Efficient & cozy, with dark wood beams & walls. Framed images on the walls include a poetry broadside—a silkscreen published by Telluride Colorado’s Ah Hass School Press, dated 1992. Poems by Barney Bush, Mazil Dineitsoi, Lance Henson. Barney’s poem:
Also a pastel of a man in tribal skirt, feather in hair, in a cell—one wall a barred window, another covered with symbols. A U.S. flag as the floor, the third wall is the prison fence, with barbed wire and a guard tower in the distance. Signed 48114. A painting, dating from 1975, depicts two figures sleeping side by side under a purple blanket with a fire, trees, corn & a river. Oils of western landscapes—striated cliffs, tumbleweed, desert scrub. The charcoal of a young woman’s face and neck.
Barney begins cooking us lunch as we mill about. He is frying salmon cakes—the salmon brought down from Alaska, along with wild rice—all brought to us by other Indians passing through— “that’s how it works in Indian country,” Barney explains. An enormous collection of food heaped on the table—the fish, fried bread, salad, rice and so forth. After we have all eaten—sitting and standing on chairs, bed, floor, the small cabin full of us—Barney begins a conversation, his friends Frank and Cathy sitting alongside.
The Shawnee people always have food, he explains. Hunting, fishing, foraging—“we’re not starving,” he tells us, “this food is good for you.” “We like it for people to come to eat,” he continues. “If invited in, you should eat. And then leave a hundred dollar bill under the plate!” We laugh. “When visiting Indians,” he tells us, “bring some food, but not too much—we’re not going to be hungry.”
The fried bread, he tells us, is a salvation but also a curse. Made with flour that has nothing in it of worth—the flour turns into sugars, resulting in diabetes. Everybody in his tribe has gardens—secret gardens in the woods. When he was growing up everyone had walnut and hickory trees they’d located in the woods—black walnuts. Crazy people cut them down in order to get rid of the red squirrels. Barney’s first story is about eating. His brothers visiting and they were very hungry. It is the custom when you have visitors to keep eating until you’re guests are full. “It’s not an obligation,” Barney says, “just something you do.” (Other customs include: Don’t kill anything around the house. Feed the animals that come for protection.) They ate wilted lettuce with bacon grease & bowls of strawberries. (“We’re strawberry-eating freaks,” Barney insists.) They ate & ate & ate. When one finally says, “You know, I think I’m full,” the host says, “Oh, thank god!”
Family stories. People from Oklahoma who have raised hell. “Our history is recorded in our minds,” Barney explains. He speaks of a Shawnee village in the 1800s, showing resistance, faced by a U.S. militia. Ancestors crossed the river around Indiana border into Kentucky, made it appear that they had traveled north to Cornstalk, a town on the Ohio river. Fooled the Cherokee scouts working with the militia and actually headed south to Shawneetown. The official history says this was around 1809, but “our ancestors weren’t big on the colonial calenders.”
At Shawnee town the ancestors stayed for two nights, they moved on before the militia arrived. An exchange of gunfire. A German family by the name of Vinyard. The ancestors camped at Captain Vinyard’s hollow, stayed. “It’s our land now but we don’t have the title to it,” Barney explains. By staying they avoided the death camps other Shawnee were taken to, like Cape Girardo.
Around 1850 many of the Shawnee moved to Kansas—the Loyal Shawnees (who fought for the north), the Absentee Shawnees (assigned land in Mexico and Texas) and the Eastern Shawnee. But at the Vinyards the Shawnee stayed, taken to be part of the family. They have since lost much of the land—of the twelve daughters, all but two married white gamblers, who sold the acres. People faded away. The clans forbid marrying close relatives and so people married outside the tribe or traveled elsewhere—aunts who got teaching certificates in South Dakota, where they met survivors of Wounded Knee. (You want to learn to speak Lakota—get a mouth full of spit & try to speak French.)
They want to reinvigorate the Vinyard Indian settlement. “We have counties here with no Walmarts, no McDonalds—none of those other-world things,” Barney explains, “except fracking and strip-mining.” Hard to say how many Indians are living here now, because everyone in high school lists their race as white in order to produce a documentary profile that will get them into college. Seeking white privilege. (Although it’s not enforced, it’s still on the books that no Indian can sit on the jury of a white man.) So many members of the Indian population are not know even to each other. “The politics of identity, and that sort of thing,” Barney says. Some are working on getting recognition by Federal and State authorities, but it’s not always possible to get recognition, even when “you’re flat-ass Indians.” Some tribes are thinking of giving up on the quest for federal recognition in favor of creating Native corporations.
Barney and his friends need grant writers, people to help with the creation of a cultural center, people to help work on getting reparations to buy local land. Vineyard Indian Settlement in Herod, Illinois