Simon Ortiz’s “Starting at the Bottom”

I’ve finished reading Simon Ortiz’s Woven Stone, though I’ll have to admit that I was so angry and so depressed by the last section entitled “No More Sacrifices,” an interesting combination of essay and poems, almost haibun, that I had to take frequent breaks to finish the book. However, those concerned with the plight of the American Indian or the plight of all workers at the bottom of our capitalist system it’s an enlightening read. I don’t think that “Starting at the Bottom” is necessarily the best poem in the last part of the book, but it touches on several of Ortiz’s major themes.

Starting at the Bottom

The truth is,
most of us didn’t know
much about the unions
at any rate.
A job was a job.
You were lucky to have one
if you got one.
The truth is,
the companies didn't much care
nor did the unions,
even if both of them
were working our land.
When the mines came
to the Laguna and Acoma land,
the men and their families were glad
in a way because
the men wouldn't have to go so far away to work
for the railroad in Barstow,
Richmond, Flagstaff, Needles.
Or to pick beets and onions
in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado.
Or work for the Mormons
in Bluewater Valley
who paid you in carrots and potatoes.

When Jackpile opened up
on Laguna land, some Laguna men got on alright,
at the bottom.
You have to start at the bottom, personnel said,
for a training period and work your way up.
The Acoma men went to the Ambrosia Lake mines
and always got stuck by the space on the application forms
for previous mining experience,
but the mine steward explained,
you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.
So, almost thirty years later,
the Acoma men
were at the bottom of the underground mines at Ambrosia Lake,
and the Laguna men were at the bottom of the open pit at Jackpile,
they were still training, gaining experience, and working their way up.

And weekends, that city jail
was still full.

“Starting at the Bottom,” or, more precisely, living on the bottom is a theme throughout Ortiz’s book. His tribe, his family and he have struggled to survive in modern times, and Ortiz reveals many of the less obvious reasons why this is true. The arrival of industry, from the early trains to the later Uranium mines, has siphoned vital water away from Indian land, making it nearly difficult to even grow subsistence crops. As a result, the men had to take jobs further and further away from the land, creating a whole new set of problems.

I’m sure the mining companies would offer “valid” reasons why the Indians end up in dead-end jobs, but exploiting cheap labor seems to be the real business of mining companies. While reading the last section of Ortiz’s collection, I happened to receive this from PROPUBLICA:

If you don't have to pay the fine for having an unsafe workplace, why provide a safe workplace? Thousands of mines are operating despite owing safety penalties that go back as far as 20 years, according to an NPR investigation. In their years of delinquency, these mines reported injury rates 50 percent higher than mines that paid penalties. In a joint investigation, NPR and Mine Safety and Health News report that federal regulators are either unable or unwilling to get these owners to pay up. "Coal mine regulation is not a high-profile area of law enforcement. ... It's a fairly low priority," said one former assistant U.S. attorney. — NPR via @AnnaBoikoW

It’s hard to dig your way out of your problems when you’re at the bottom of a pit, so it’s not surprising that their frustration and despair causes them to end up in the city jail on weekends.

Enjoy Your Day Off

It’s probably not surprising since I’m a Vietnam Vet that I have mixed feelings about the day. When I was still teaching the only three Vietnam Vets on staff would meet in the parking lot during Veterans Day assemblies, not wanting to take part in what, too often, seemed more like a glorified war rally than a memorial for those who had died and those who had been irreparably damaged by their participation in our country’s many wars. Apparently there’s little value in recognizing that wars exact a heavy price on everyone who fights them.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”

captured for me how poorly my fellow Vietnam Veterans were treated by our government during and after the war.

Creedance’s “Fortunate Son,”

however, better reflected my own experiences in the war. My platoon, drafted from the Los Angele’s area, had two whites in it, a few black NCO’s and an awful lot of Hispanics, hardly representative of LA. Strangely enough, neither of the reserve units I was assigned to after I returned had a single black or hispanic in them. Wonder why that was? Hard to believe after my experiences that we were really fighting to preserve Democracy.

Apparently I share more than I first imagined with Simon Ortiz since we are both war veterans. He has a moving section entitled“Poems from the Veteran’s Hospital” written precisely for today. This is my favorite:

Cherry Pie

We had barbecue beef on buns,
cole slaw with crushed pineapple, coffee, and cherry pie.
Here in the VAH, at least,
America feeds well the men
it has driven mad.

“My favorite used to be cherry pie.”

"Lemon is good too.”

"When I was a kid at Indian School,
I worked cleaning yards on weekends.
Walking back to campus at evening,
I'd stop at this café on Fourth
and order banana cream pie.
Two slices of pie, boy, that was good”

Deanda hasn't been yelling lately.
They've been feeding him more
and better mind silencers lately.

Kelly offers his cole slaw.
Nobody wants it, shake their heads.
He offers his bread, we shake our heads.
"He's a dedicated nut,” another nut says.

“The only pie I don't like
is mince meat, too rich.”

“I wish I was rich.”

“I almost married a rich girl once.
She was from Alabama”

There's always something that you almost
did that you should have done.

A cherry pie slips to the floor
off a man's saucer.
He stands there and everything is gone
from his face except sorrow and loss
and it's hard to lose those.

Ortiz almost lulls you to sleep with these mundane, understated details, which makes the last three lines all the more crushing. Even the sarcasm in the opening stanza is understated: “America feeds well the men/ it has driven mad.” We almost begin to think that these veterans are just like us until we’re told that Deanda hasn’t been yelling lately because he’s been fed “better mind silencers.” Hopefully you don’t need those; having worked as a caseworker, I know I don’t want them. But what could be more normal than thinking that “There's always something that you almost/ did that you should have done.” What the reader is left with, though, is a man who hasn’t just lost a cherry pie when he drops it, but someone who has lost everything except “sorrow and loss,” and we all know how hard those are to lose.

Ortiz’s View of Nature

I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear that I’m an environmentalist to anyone who visits here regularly, so it should come as no surprise that I share Simon Ortiz’s Indian viewpoint that Nature is Sacred and that desecrating it is sacrilegious. Of course, I think I also share this with Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, not to mention Taoists.

Living in an area where Asarco’s Copper Refinery spewed arsenic and lead into its surroundings to near toxic levels, it’s impossible not to identify with Ortiz’s condemnation of the Peabody Coal Company and Kennecott copper mine:

Long House Valley Poem

This valley is in northeastern Arizona
where one of the largest power centers
in this hemisphere is being built.

Sheep and woman.
The long brown and red land
looming unto the horizon.
Breathe in so deeply.

Tsegi,
a canyon. "Hello" and "Goodbye,'
but always Hello
and smile.

The old rocks, millions of years old.

A Mohawk camper trailer
pulled behind a big white Cadillac.
Tourists,
the crusaders.

A cop car
flashing frenetic orange.
down. I can’t
even remember my license plate number.

And then, suddenly the Peabody Coal Company.
Black Mesa Mine.
Open pit.

Power line over the Mountain,
toward Phoenix, toward Denver,
toward Los Angeles, toward Las Vegas,
carrying our mother away.

A sign reads: Open Range.
Bulldozer smoke and dust rise
from the wounded Mountain

A PLAGUE ON ALL YOUR DAMN HORSEPOWER
A PLAGUE ON YOUR KENNECOTT COPPER BLIGHTS

The old rocks, millions of years old.

Horses quietly grazing, quietly.
A skinny black one throws his head
at the sky, at the wind.

The Yei
and hogans and the People
and roadside flowers
and cornfields and the sage
and the valley peace,
they are almost gone.

As if it wasn’t enough that the peaceful valley been invaded by tourists with big white Cadillac pulling a “Mohawk” trailer and police pulling over Indians, the invaders build an open-pit coal mine alongside the Kennecott Copper Mine. It’s enough to make a skinny black horse throw “his head at the sky.” Is this the final destruction of the Pueblos who are already nearly gone?

I also share Ortiz’s love of the land, though it’s a very different piece of land. It’s Puget Sound that has always been home to me and will be for eternity once my ashes are spread. My family’s 100+ years here in Puget Sound seem insignificant compared to Ortiz’s family’s 800+ in Acoma, but it’s enough to convince me that we belong to the land as much as it belongs to us.

This Occurs to Me

It has something to do
with intuition and instinct.
a mixture of appreciating
how the physical quality
of dirt and stone exist,
how useful they are,
what you can do with them.
Working with fingers, hands,
the mystery—knowing
it is not a mystery
that you can't possibly
know anything about—
that is yours.
Watching sparrows,
sheer cliff wall,
the effect of light and shadow,
line of stone mesa,
strata of sediment,
touching with foot and hand
the tamp of sand
against cliff wall;
noting the undershadow
of stone ledge.

All these, working in the mind,
the vision of weaving things
inwardly and outwardly
to fit together, weaving stone
together, my father tells me
how walls are built.

The Acoma pueblos have lived in the same place for more than 800 years. Their adobe homes are an architectural masterpiece and they are known for their exceptional pottery, both made of “dirt and stone,” both mirroring and made of the canyons and mesas where they live. Of course, they are also known for their fine weaving so it seems appropriate that Ortiz should tie them together in a poem that clearly reflects the title of this collection of poems.

Though the poem has specific images (i.e. “sparrows,” “sheer cliff wall,” “strata of sediment,” etc. the vision itself, as described in the last stanza, seems strangely undefined, perhaps because “love of place,” the feeling that a particular place is “Sacred,” can never be defined; it is infinite in the same way that any vision is infinite. Transcendent. And, ultimately, undefinable

It Was a Good Day to be Alive

Before they closed down the five-mile-trail at Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, I saw River Otters quite regularly. Now I rarely see them, though the copious scat and multiple paths across the dike at Theler Wetlands in Belfair are sure signs that otter frequent the area. I’ve even managed to see them in the distance once this year, but so far away that they were barely recognizable in the shots I got.

Luckily, if you’re birding you have to keep an eye on the whole environment or I might have missed my most recent sighting. I happened to be looking at Union River and saw an unusual ripple in the middle of the river. Thinking it might be a duck trying to avoid being seen, particularly since it’s hunting season, I kept my on the ripple as it made its way down the river and was rewarded by the sight of two River Otters swimming side by side.

PairOtters

I figured they would spot me

ChkngMeOt

and leave since they’ve certainly appeared shy every time I’ve seen them before. But as this one was giving me the once over the other one suddenly shot up right next to it,

ItBegins

and the fun began. Pretty hard to capture a game that takes place largely under water, but they were obviously having a good time wrestling

Playing

and were far too preoccupied to pay attention to me.

Their amorous intent was more obvious when they finally finished wrestling and crawled up onto a nearby log.

GtngRomntc

Unfortunately, the female seemed to rebuff his advances. Miffed the otter turned down the log and looked back at me, as if accusingly.

LkngBk]

However, it wasn’t long before the female looked like she wanted to snuggle again,

MakngUp

though the male didn’t look entirely convinced. At that point I decided that a little privacy was in order and went back to looking for birds, though I knew that this was a Good Day to be Alive.

Any Parent Would Identify With These Ortiz Poems

Although I was originally drawn to Ortiz as a Native American poet, I find my favorite poems are those that could probably have been written by anyone, even a Chinese poet in the 4th century. In other words, I like poems like:

Speaking

I take him outside
under the trees,
have him stand on the ground.
We listen to the crickets,
cicadas, million years old sound.
Ants come by us.
I tell them, "This is he, my son.
This boy is looking at you.
I am speaking for him.”

The crickets, cicadas,
the ants. the millions of years
are watching us,
hearing us.
My son murmurs infant words,
speaking, small laughter
bubbles from him.
Tree leaves tremble.
They listen to this boy
speaking for me.

I suspect that any parent could identify with this poem, even though it veers toward being Native American Poetry at the end of each stanza. Though most of us have “introduced” our children to nature and been amused, and, hopefully, enlightened by their amazement with what we’ve come to ignore, I doubt many Americans would even think of the kind of formal introduction that ends the first stanza. You would have to have a different view of nature than most of us have been raised with to ever think of making this kind of introduction.

Most of us have shared our children’s joy in being entertained by their outdoor discoveries, but most of us would never think that Nature also listens to the boy, much less “tremble” as they listen to him play. For us, Nature is seen as indifferent to our feelings or words.

My favorite poem like this, though, is this one:

Pout

Daughter sits straddle-legged
on the floor. Smiles
as she turns the pages
of a catalogue. Toys,
books, clothes, rocky
horseys. Smiles and mur
murs. And then, watching
her, several pages stick
together, and the crinkle
of a frown edges on her fore
head and her lips purse
and push forward in con
cern. And I smile
and pout my mouth
in sympathy and love.

It’s been a long, long time since I had this reaction to my granddaughter’s discovery of life’s problems, much less to my daughter’s, but I identified with the scene immediately. As they age our worries for them increasingly become “intellectual” where we try to discover solutions to their problems in the same way we try to solve our own problems, but at that age we feel their emotions immediately, unconsciously.