Bird Songs Don't Lie
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Bird Songs Don't Lie

Writings from the Rez

Gordon Lee Johnson

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📖 eBook - ePub

Bird Songs Don't Lie

Writings from the Rez

Gordon Lee Johnson

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About This Book

In this collection of essays and short stories, the Native American author explores reservation life through a range of genres and perspectives. In this moving collection, Gordon Lee Johnson (Cupeño/Cahuilla) distinguishes himself not only as a wry commentator on American Indian reservation life but also as a master of fiction writing. In Johnson's stories, all of which are set on the fictional San Ignacio reservation in Southern California, we meet unforgettable characters like Plato Pena, the Stanford-bound geek who reads Kahlil Gibran during intertribal softball games; hardboiled investigator Roddy Foo; and Etta, whose motto is "early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise, " as they face down circumstances by turns ordinary and devastating. The nonfiction featured in Bird Songs Don't Lie is equally revelatory in its exploration of complex connections between past and present. Whether examining his own conflicted feelings toward the missions as a source of both cultural damage and identity or sharing advice for cooking for eight dozen cowboys and -girls, Johnson plumbs the comedy, catastrophe, and beauty of his life on the Pala Reservation to thunderous effect.

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Some forty years ago, following America’s blossoming of flower children, there occurred on the Pala Indian Reservation, and other reservations, a marvel of sorts. White women began showing up in Volkswagen vans, in psychedelic pickups with homemade camper shells, in sporty little cars with convertible tops. They came wearing toe rings and nose rings and dangling turquoise earrings—they came searching for answers.
Some took jobs with Indian legal-aid services, or education centers, or health clinics, harboring high-minded intentions of bettering a downtrodden race. The bravest of them rented rusted Airstream trailers parked in pastures where brush cattle left squishy mines along the path to the outhouse. Others rented houses on the rez. The less courageous found apartments in nearby towns and commuted to the reservations.
These women were unlike the women Indian guys were used to. Indian women stayed in the shade, wearing extra-large T-shirts and jeans, worried the sun might make them darker than they already were. These white women paraded around in jean short-shorts and bandana-print halter tops, showing off long white legs they opted not to shave. Hair often bristled from armpits as well. Trading-post headbands, beaded in dime-store designs, kept their long hair in place. Many sported wire-rimmed granny glasses and Birkenstock sandals.
Even stranger, they spoke in multisyllabic words, asking about discrimination, oppression, cultural deprivation. Some even asked Indian guys to get metaphysical with them.
Most Indian men were clueless about what was happening. They just shrugged and went with the flow. “Hey, white women, go figure.”
These women carried beliefs in their backpacks, beliefs about shamanism, about noble savagery, about the four directions, about free love. Most of these women were college educated. They had read Black Elk Speaks, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Custer Died for Your Sins, A Century of Dishonor, The Feminine Mystique.
Most Indian women, while not prudes, didn’t go in for that free-love baloney. If you wanted sex with an Indian woman, you had to treat her right, buy her tortilla rolls at the fiesta, take her to the drive-in, shake hands with her dad. You couldn’t expect to show up at her door with a pocket full of peyote and get some free love. It just didn’t work that way.
But the white women came looking for magic. They wanted to get next to an Indian man who could teach them about shape-shifting, about astral travel, about herbal cures, about witchery, about Indian lovemaking.
About as far as most of them got was lessons in Indian lovemaking. Indian men were more than willing to teach them that. “You want a little Indian in you,” the men would joke to them. As far as the other stuff went, most Indian men had never heard of it, except maybe to drink a little elderberry tea to soothe an upset stomach. But the rest of it, all the magic the anthropology textbooks talked about, most Indian men couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver.
But I admired the persistence of these white women. They picked up on Indian cadences of speech, the way of drawing out words with a singsong quality. Something wasn’t just over there, it was “waaaaaay over there.” But they never quite got it right, and we laughed to hear a blonde braless girl in a white tank top talking almost like an Indian—“haaaahhhhh,” she’d say. Even blindfolded, you knew it wasn’t an Indian talking. And they became known as “wannabes,” as in they wanted to be Indian.
Oh, they tried to educate the Indians. Teach the Indians some of their New Age philosophies. More than one Indian man was given a healing crystal he had to wear on a leather thong around his neck. If you saw an Indian brother wearing one of those, you knew he’d been with a white woman.
One white woman, a legend of sorts, arrived midsummer in a white, wobbly-wheeled Volkswagen Bug. Tie-dyed T-shirts served as seat covers. A shriveled-up orange riddled with cloves served as a deodorizer. The car needed deodorizer, for the woman, in her quest to be totally natural, got a little ripe. She also traveled with a black Labrador retriever named Sweetpea, so old most of his teeth had fallen out, so old he smelled of decay, so old he sometimes forgot himself and pissed on the backseat. So the orange-clove deodorizer was welcome.
She went by the name of Feather, but her real name was MaryAnn. Some said she hailed from money and that she was testing her wings. A spoiled girl gone wild.
She rented a one-bedroom house on the reservation, a thin-walled shack with an outhouse out back. In the summer, with no insulation, no breeze coming through the open window, she soaked her old-man’s T-shirt with ice water, so her headlights were on high beam. Young Indian boys could be found hanging around her front yard, pitching pennies and looking through her window, hoping for a bit of titillation.
She took up with an Indian guy, a guy who was pretty worthless to begin with. While she went to work, he sat around and drank up the beer she bought. She tried to fit in, but the Indian women mostly gave her refrigerated looks when she said hello.
Feather lasted about six months on the reservation, then got sick of buying her boyfriend’s beer. One day, she loaded up Sweetpea and headed out, maybe back to Texas, never to be seen or heard from again.
Yes, we made fun. And we shouldn’t have. She was like many others—good-hearted women who just didn’t understand they were culturally out of their depths. They introduced new ways of thinking to us as well. They tried rez life, and several actually stayed on and are still here. But most came mispronouncing the word tortilla, and left a little disillusioned. Sometimes with a little Indian in them.


The San Ignacio Indian Reservation isn’t on a map. It’s a dream, a fiction, a nostalgia, a metaphor.
But in many ways, San Ignacio, or San Iggy, as some like to call it, represents many Southern California Indian reservations, and by extension much of Indian Country.
This being SoCal, San Ignacio winters aren’t so harsh, more like suggestions, and spring tiptoes in on squirrel feet. Dead leaves, soggy from morning dew, carpet the ground, but new leaves sprout green on winter-bare sycamores—you can feel rebirth.
Fruit trees blossom pink and white in the yard next to the potential classic he promises to restore someday, but that today rusts on cinder blocks. And folks who walk into their yards groan at the ugly inevitability of weeds, the bane of rez life, knowing that many hours at the wrong end of a grubbing hoe are in store. And you think maybe it’s time to finally break down and buy that weed whacker you’ve lusted after.
Spring bursts electric onto the rez. Butterflies wriggle free of cocoons, cottontails emerge from winter dens blinking in the sunlight, Indian women take more time and care in shaving their legs and scraping their heels.
Old, grizzled, battle-scarred rez dogs get a little frisky when a slender, shy pointer saunters by. Young guns wear slingshot T-shirts while playing basketball on the outdoor courts. Teen girls, cat-eyed and petulant, pretty as any God put on this earth, walk by the game, giggly and whispery, their young hips learning about fluidity. In their presence, jump shots get a little higher, the drive to the basket a little more determined, the blocked shot batted away with more oomph.
You know spring is in full bloom when wild lilac turns hillsides purple, and the scent is headier than any perfume shop. Spring causes men in T-shirts to suck in their guts as they walk into the rez store—just in case. Women exchange winter sweats for tight jeans, shorts, or even, for a brave few, yoga pants.
The ball fields, quiet for most of winter, resume activities, and kids chewing wads of bubblegum swing at balls thrown by patient coaches. Adults, too, have oiled their mitts after a winter in the closet, and turn out for pick-up games during the day. They play coed for fun, and linger in the parking lot as dusk turns to night.
Funny how, after the games, the bed of a pickup truck, loaded with an ice chest of beer, becomes such an aphrodisiac. The ball fields go dark and the stars shine white. The night air turns sultry, Pacific breezes carry whiffs of eucalyptus, the love potions kick in. The players, men and women, lean on truck beds to talk and laugh and tease. Eyes meet across the bed, conversations without words occur, women become a little more animated, quicker to laugh; men unnecessarily flex muscles when reaching for a beer.
In the seventies, eight-tracks played George Jones, Fats Domino, and Etta James through tinny speakers. Today iPods are plugged into fancy car stereos, and the young have a different music, a lot of rapping going on, but amid the hip-hop and thump you’ll still find a good stash of oldies. These newer generations have grown up with I Found My Thrill on Blueberry Hill via parents and grandparents, and teen girls still learn to two-step from dads and granddads.
In the old days, the truck cab might smell of brilliantine, Old Spice, and Marlboros. These days car interiors might smell of store-bought air freshener, Axe body spray, and vape lingerings.
As the night progresses, it’s not unheard of for couples to peel away from truck beds to wander off for a time on their lonesome, maybe to explore each other’s lips behind a cactus stand and give vent to shared feelings. It is, after all, spring, and love is in the air.
Teenagers meet each other on corners to walk dirt reservation roads, hand in hand. Grandmother Moon ascends, white as a hen’s egg nesting in clouds. Moonglow lights the way, illuminating her skin, dancing in her eyes.
But as they pass the cemetery, she picks up the pace and squeezes his hand a little tighter, because you just never know which spirits are about. Once past graves, the talk is low and slow; she’s dreaming of college, maybe being a teacher someday. He talks of signing up, being a soldier, like his dad and his granddad. But their talk of leaving the rez and consequently leaving each other is countered by the warmth and fit of each other’s hands, and with each step, with each word, with each laugh, it gets harder to let go.
In spring men uncover the backyard barbecues. The more fastidious might even scrape off last year’s greasy grit. The charcoal is lit and carne asada sears on the grill. The picnic table brims with fresh guacamole, beans boiled with ham hocks, salsas, both red and green, Indian potato salad made with generous dollops of Best Foods mayonnaise, and a stack of torts. Beers cool in a tub of ice, and people laugh and talk between bites. Dwight Yoakam is on the stereo singing about the pocket of a clown; heads bob as folks chew. After the meal, horseshoes resumes, iron shoes clanging against steel pegs. Men hoot and trash talk when a double ringer is thrown, but these days, more women throw shoes as well, and maybe she tosses the double ringer and trash talk commences in a higher pitch.
In spring a newlywed bride, who takes her new-wife role seriously, is a Native man’s dream. She looks terrific barefoot, in bun-hugging shorts and a tight halter top. She’s elbow deep in a bowl of dough, her inexperienced fingers trying to hear what her DNA is telling her. Her mother and g...

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Citation styles for Bird Songs Don't LieHow to cite Bird Songs Don't Lie for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Johnson, G. L. (2018). Bird Songs Don’t Lie ([edition unavailable]). Heyday. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Johnson, Gordon Lee. (2018) 2018. Bird Songs Don’t Lie. [Edition unavailable]. Heyday.
Harvard Citation
Johnson, G. L. (2018) Bird Songs Don’t Lie. [edition unavailable]. Heyday. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Johnson, Gordon Lee. Bird Songs Don’t Lie. [edition unavailable]. Heyday, 2018. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.