BigWheels_Cover

Big Wheels Ranch

$12.95

Catherine Camp

A memoir of communal living in Northern California

  • Size : 6 x 9
  • No. Pages : 148 with six b/w illustrations
  • Published : 2019
  • ISBN : 2370000623287

Product Description

BigWheelsWriting about your own life is complicated and a little presumptuous. Writing about people you love and a place you love, people you are living with, people who may be the ones to help when you get even older and weirder, is also an intimidating undertaking. I am writing here about living through interesting and, sometimes, tumultuous times. It is also about a place I love, Big Wheels Ranch, and my own long connection with it. It is a story about family, a specific 40 acres, the times we have lived, about sharing a grand adventure.

This work is also about growing up, or growing old, and growing together. In the times I write most about, we were young and the storms of love and bad decisions and disappointing politics were new and upsetting. Passions often raged, in love and in anger. The ranch and the larger community reflected all the drama. Aging has let me see all that I owe friends and co-conspirators, bringing me to recognize that everyone needs understanding and, sometimes, forgiveness. Our lives individually are not so stormy today, although we are not immune to illness, disability, heartbreak, death. At this distance, it is easier to recognize our interdependence, our mutual indebtedness, and the joy of a long journey taken together.

The stories that follow are not an autobiography, exactly. They are not even a history of tumultuous times, although the political and cultural storms of the last nearly fifty years are characters that we will see in some of the stories. Most of all, the optimism and commitment of our time have something to offer toward meeting today’s challenges, I hope. The stories are also not intended to be a history of Big Wheels Ranch, or a how-to book for communards. Taken together, the stories are closer to a memoir of my connection to this place, those times, and these people.

The first chapter, Growing Up, provides a history of my own relationship with Big Wheels Ranch. I also explore the political tumults of the late twentieth century as I experienced them. Finally, I talk about how those tumults affected my courtship and marriage. The second chapter, Growing Family, tells the story of forming the ranch, learning to live together, and confronting challenges. The Women’s Movement, Gay Pride, and Aging all played, and continue to play, a major role in our time together. Chapter 3, Growing Land, is an effort to talk about the larger neighborhood in all its glories and challenges. At a time when rural parts of this country are changing rapidly, the history and reality of this very specific place have something to tell.

The times have changed, and perhaps we have all made less difference than we thought we might. Indeed, in these newly changing and terrifying times, we are all assessing the state of community. But here in this place and in this time we find ourselves with a beautiful home place, healthy children, strong relationships with each other, and some stories to tell.

 

headin home As I compiled these stories about a lifetime of challenge and change, our larger neighborhood of Northern California has faced unprecedented disasters in the form of fire. Multiple thousands of acres have burned; thousands of houses have been destroyed along with all the possessions of their residents; dozens of people have died. Winter rains are coming and the burned land and tent cities of survivors face a very uncertain future. These enormous problems have been faced by a community newly united and fiercely committed to a future together. Uncommon heroism by first responders has been matched by uncommon gifts of compassion and real assistance. This outpouring of ‘Redding Strong’, ‘Shasta Strong’ and now ‘Butte Strong’ has taken place in the face of a political climate that is nasty and divided. As difficult as the present may be, I remain optimistic that together, we will thrive in this special home place and in the larger community.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to fellow ranch members. Your willingness to let me share my own peculiar take on our shared history is humbling. To all those who have been a part of this ranch community, thank you.  To the members of the Carrie Nation Rises, another thank you, for the laughter and the tears, for the learning and growing together. To all the poverty warriors past and present a special respect, along with a  belief that we will prevail.

apple orchardWriting, at least in my case, has required a whole community of encouragement and support. I  owe special appreciation to Teresa Jordan along with Bob and the Yearlong Girls, for your care and critical support in our writing together for that wonderful year. It was the start of this work. Sally, your art work and encouragement have made a huge difference to the final product. Thank you to Kathie, for showing the way with your own work and for your unfailing friendship and support. Thank you to Gail for your own brand of love and your editorial eye. Thank you as well to Jaci for your willingness to read and edit draft after draft. 

Always, thank you to Bayliss and Andrew and to Ben and Maria, along with that quintet of fabulous grandchildren, for time together at the ranch, for helping me hone these stories, for hikes and swims and opulent meals in the mountains. Most of all, appreciation to Bill for support, encouragement, and ready offers to cook the meal if it kept the writing going. This has always been a family affair.

 

 

Contents

Introduction

Growing Up

Beginnings……………………………………………………………….. 5
Where Are We?……………………………………………………….. 8
Four Corners………………………………………………………… 13
The Poverty Program………………………………………….. 20
Vietnam………………………………………………………………….. 29
Courtship and Marriage…………………………………….. 35
Jefferson………………………………………………………………….. 42

Growing Family

Carrie Nation Rises……………………………………………… 50
Ownership…………………………………………………………….. 57
Living Together……………………………………………………. 64
Holidays in the ‘Hood…………………………………………. 70
Fred…………………………………………………………………………. 73
Main House Changes…………………………………………. 79
Raising Children…………………………………………………… 84
Logging…………………………………………………………………… 89
Retirement House……………………………………………….. 95
Sue and Sorca’s Wedding………………………………… 101
Carrie Nation Re-rises……………………………………… 104

Growing Land

Lions, Oh My!…………………………………………………….. 114
Water……………………………………………………………………. 117
Fire………………………………………………………………………… 122
Snakes…………………………………………………………………… 127
One Year’s Round of Seasons………………………… 129

Epilogue


 Four Corners

In the fall of 1970, I traveled 60 miles into the mountains from Redding with a pair of local newspaper reporters to the site of the Pit River tribal land occupation at Four Corners. The site lies at the intersection of State Highway 299 and State Highway 89, just east of the town of Burney. Four Corners is part of the 3.4 million acres northeast of Redding that constitute the Pit River tribe’s ancestral land. The Four Corners site is claimed now by the U.S. Forest Service. More than 100 Indians, including men, women and child

It was a crisp fall day, with the vivid yellows and reds that are a part of this high desert, volcanic plateau area. In the background, the Hat Creek rim of blocky black lava defines the narrow valley through which Highway 89 runs. Vegetation is sparse in this arid country, but ponderosa pine, incense cedar, and Douglas fir dotted the area of the occupation. There is little understory to this forest, in part due to the dry climate east of the Cascade mountains. In addition, the land here is the product of eons of lava flows, resulting in a thin soil over porous basalt that does not hold enough water for shallow-rooting plants. The result is an open park-like forest. Mount Shasta is visible to the northwest, Mount Lassen to the southwest. Fire has shaped this land as well, periodically burning quickly through the forest. The Pit River Indian ancestors regularly set fires to drive game, stimulate growth of seed and berry plants, collect insects, and promote grass for deer. Today, lightning and careless campers do the job.

There was an American flag hanging in a tree, and a large sign inviting other Indians to join the gathering. Two Indian women were cooking venison stew on an outdoor fire, and the carcass of another deer was hanging from a tree limb near the flag. Other women were setting picnic tables with salads, cakes, and coffee. They were, of course, Forest Service tables.  Three older men were drumming, and a dozen children were tumbling about. There were battered old pickups parked helter-skelter around the raked dirt site. It smelled of campfire and venison and was welcoming when we arrived. 

It was romantic to imagine that the deer had been captured by digging big pitfalls along established game trails. Early settlers in this area named the Pit River and the Pit River Indians for the pits used by Indians for hunting. It seems more likely, however, that modern rifles were involved in the demise of the deer I saw that day. Indeed, I suppose that I had an unconscious expectation that an Indian occupation would be made by people in buckskins. The people assembled were dressed in jeans and t-shirts or flannel shirts, and tennis shoes or well-worn logging boots. Everything from the clothes to the cookware showed the relative poverty of the community, as well as a comfort with living partly outdoors and welcoming large groups. Indeed, a smaller version of this gathering could have taken place in any poor section of the county, including Big Wheels Ranch. The people here looked like who they were: poor, loggers and construction guys, motel maids or quick-stop clerks. The children looked delighted to be out of doors and not in school. Even the headbands and the drumming had been co-opted in enough non-Indian gatherings to seem familiar.

The occupation took place to mark the start of a trial in nearby Burney of ten Indians, who had the previous June taken over a campground claimed by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in Big Bend, twenty miles away on the Pit River. The Indians were charged with trespassing. The Indian defense was that the Pit River tribe never signed a treaty for the 3.4 million acres that was their ancestral land. PG&E has built a series of dams on the Pit River and one result is that salmon, historically a mainstay of the Pit River people, no longer move up the river. A proclamation at that first occupation issued by Pit River Tribal Leader Mickey Gemmill stated: “We are the rightful and legal owner of the land. No amount of money can buy the Mother Earth……The Earth is our mother and we cannot sell her.”

I was drawn to this conflict in large part by a fascination with the words and spirit of tribal elder Raymond Lego. I had met Raymond as part of my job at the poverty program. Typically dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, wearing a bead necklace with a bear tooth, Raymond was blocky like many in this tribe, but wiry with a face lined by lots of time outside. He moved quietly and spoke softly. He also had a quiet and strong moral force to his presence. Earlier in the fall he had encouraged me to attend a salmon ceremony outside Redding, where salmon still travelled upstream. Indian men stood in the fast-running stream until their hands and feet were the temperature of the water. The water was freezing cold, almost literally freezing in the crisp early morning. The men then walked up beside the salmon and simply plucked them out of the water. It took my breath away. Raymond had said about the earlier Big Bend occupation that “An Indian is not an Indian if he has no land base…We have been rendered powerless. We have lost our voice. We want to rebuild it.”

These occupation efforts had ties to the occupation of Alcatraz Island by the American Indian Movement. The urban multi-tribal mix that occupied Alcatraz focused on the breadth of broken treaties and unrecognized tribal rights. The Pit River tribal occupation was very rural, in a small community where tribal members had gone to school with the law enforcers and worked alongside white timber workers. Land use was driven by Pacific Gas and Electric dam building and by large timber companies. Local law enforcement, the district attorney, and the judiciary in Burney were concerned that the strategies of urban politics might be used in this rural area. Judge Phelps in Burney had already warned the defense lawyers representing the Indians during the earlier occupation that he was not going to let the case become “another Chicago,” referring to the publicized trial of the Chicago Seven on conspiracy charges after the Democratic National Convention in 1968. I was so moved by the rhetoric of Raymond, and the injustice of the treatment of these proud people over the last hundred-plus years, that I thought I knew them.

There was wood smoke in the air and the happy shouts of children on a camping adventure. I was welcome because of my connection with the poverty program that had produced the backhoe and grader. My two reporter friends were welcome because of their ability to articulate the purpose of this occupation to a broader community. The tribe, in any event, was eager to welcome private individuals to the discussion and to assure us that their intention was not to disturb individual land-holdings. In this rural area they knew, of course, of my connection with Big Wheels Ranch. Their fight was with the government and the corporations like PG&E that benefitted from the land and from the wealth of its hydropower. There was a powerful metaphor in the erection of this camp next to the huge power lines that carried that hydropower southwest to urban power users.

Despite the welcome informed by politics, our white faces made us “others.” I joined the women setting out a meal, recognizing Diane whose child was in Head Start and who served on an advisory board to the poverty program. She was a beautiful woman with a fall of shiny black hair and a big grin, but she was also fierce enough to back down her tall, handsome husband despite his tribal leadership position. I tried to feel comfortable, even though tribal members do not engage in the chit-chat of urban folks. In my own mind, I found myself looking at the scene as though it were a movie. Political sympathy on my part did not turn these occupiers into friends. When these folks said ‘this land is my land,’ it had a resonance that I don’t think I fully understood. I was, after all, a white girl thinking of the distant past compared to an Indian reliving a virtual genocide. It took some time for me to recognize the extent to which cultural differences and unshared history created a gulf between us. Moreover, underneath the air of camping, the adults were tense. Diane had the look on her face that she had when she told me in a poverty program meeting that my antiwar attitudes were not shared by her people. Diane’s husband, Junior, who was affable when he arranged for the loan of road grading equipment, was stern and distant, looking like the model for a nickel. The rumors that brought the reporters here had reached the occupation site as well. Law enforcement intended to evict the occupiers from what officials believed was Forest Service land.

Fifty-two law enforcement personnel, including federal agents, state troopers, and county sheriffs arrived mid-morning with 50 forest service personnel. This made about as many enforcers as there were occupiers. Law enforcement announced that they were there to arrest people on charges of illegal timber cutting and illegal construction of the hut. A scene that had included conversations and the laughter of children stilled and we all held our breath. Ross Montgomery, another tribal leader, began to cut a cedar tree near the Quonset hut with a chain saw. The officers told him to stop. When he did not, the officers said they would take away his saw. The drummers continued to maintain a slow beat as the situation deteriorated. Most of the women and children moved inside the Quonset hut, not afraid exactly, but protective. Men, from teenagers to elders, massed to defend the tribe and the hut. Mickey Gemmill and Ross Montgomery both restated that they did not want violence, but that every member of the tribe would resist dismantling the occupation. The discussion over the saw failed and a club-swinging confrontation broke out. Some of the women came out from the Quonset hut to help their men and to curse at the officers. Groups of people rolled on the ground. Men and women were sprayed with mace and clubbed. The sheriff said that his officers were attacked with pine clubs. Indians were wrestled or beaten to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged to squad cars.

All of a sudden my movie of valiant Indians defending the Mother Earth had become an immediate and threatening reality. The casual violence of the encounter, on both sides, was way outside the comfort zone created by my urban childhood. The only time I had hit anyone, or been hit, was in childhood squabbles with my four brothers. I thought of myself as a pacifist. I believed that the world would be a better place if we talked together. This violence included law enforcement beatings and mace spraying. It reflected an Indian belief that their land and their culture was dying. I had been in trouble already at the poverty program when I urged a woman member of the Montgomery clan to report domestic abuse over her black eye. She told me to mind my own business: her husband was nursing a broken jaw after the incident. On this fall day I was brought face to face with the distance that my youth and cultural otherness brought to the table. I fled to our car and cried.

When most of the fighting Indians had been subdued, Forest Service workers advanced on the Quonset hut with crowbars and hammers. Women and young men fought in the dark hut to hold them back, in the end fleeing out the back door. Twenty-three Indians were arrested on charges of interfering with law enforcement officers. None were arrested for trespassing, which would have potentially raised in court the question of whose land this was anyway. One of the reporters I traveled with was arrested on charges of interfering with a federal officer, despite (or perhaps because of) being armed only with a reporter’s notebook. One of the Indians was hospitalized with injuries after the battle.

There was a strong belief in the Indian community that the violence of this confrontation was historical and predictable. It had to do with more than the enforcement of what was, in their view, bad law. There were persistent rumors of a white supremacist organization in the area. My own experience at the poverty program was the discovery that every single child identified for Special Education in Burney was Pit River Indian. This passive violence against a culture was enforced by white administrators. But I was new to my job. Even though I had met the tribal leadership, these relationships were tentative. Fundamentally, I was not prepared for the violence on display that day.  The violence that troubled the Pit River tribe was that done to the river, to the salmon run and to tribal traditions. Their children were treated unfairly in school. This day was part of a nearly 200-year-long clash of values and culture. The violence that troubled me was the prospect of people hitting people. The reality here was more complex and the stakes more grave. So I cried. I cried for my own safety; I cried for my reporter friend’s arrest; I cried over the end of a gallant political stand; I cried a little for those salmon. Perhaps I cried at the discovery that violent revolutionary confrontation was not in my nature.

The courts in the end did not ratify the claims of the Pit River tribe. The government’s legal argument appeared to be that the federal government could, and did, appropriate land in the 1850’s without a treaty and without compensation. Only one of those arrested served any time, and that person was convicted of assault. I spent many hours explaining to the FBI why a grader and backhoe belonging to the poverty program were confiscated at the occupation site. My argument was that when the tribe asked for equipment to prepare roads for the winter, it was my job to provide whatever we had. This was the people’s backhoe, after all.  It seemed to prevail, although the government held onto the equipment for months and months as the various court cases wound their way through the justice system. Far too many members of the Pit River tribe continue to live in poverty today. Salmon still do not move up the Pit River.  A casino and gas station in Burney provide more employment and the funds for better health care and housing. Still, too little has changed. A new version of land occupation is unfolding in the 21st century a couple of hundred miles north of here at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. So-called cowboys occupy federal land in support of beleaguered ranchers. In the course of the occupation, the cowboys drive backhoes through sacred areas, disturbing Indian artifacts. A plea on behalf of a century-old ranching culture appears not to recognize a 10,000 year old land use culture. We haven’t made much progress in sharing this land.