Surviving the high desert nights of eastern Oregon for the Northern Paiute (Wada-Tika) people required that each member of the tribe own a rabbit blanket to keep them warm. Each blanket required a hundred or more rabbit pelts…
…Jack rabbit were plentiful in the old days…today it is difficult to make these blankets, due to the scarcity of jack rabbits in Harney County. In the last 50 years the rabbit population has dwindled so much that it is difficult to get even 10 to 20 hides in the winter, when the fur is thick (and thus preferred). Rabbit bounties in the 1950’s and other means of eradication have left few rabbits…”
— Minerva T. Soucie (Burns Paiute),
“The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon”
“Dr. Bryce,” Newton said, “…To tell you the truth, it dismays us greatly to see what you are about to do with such a beautiful,
fertile world. We destroyed ours a long time ago, but we had so much less to begin with that you have here.” His voice now seemed agitated, his manner more intense. “Do you realize that you will not only wreck your civilization, such as it is, and kill most of your people; but that you will also poison the fish in your rivers, the squirrels in your trees, the flocks of birds, the soil, the water..”
— Walter Tevis, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” c. 1963
The little birds in the front yard are pale gray. When they arc through the evening, sunset turns their belly feathers to petals of flame. I’ve just read Thomas Newton’s prediction to Dr. Bryce. It had seemed important to look up from the book and see what was around me — the Engelmann Spruce, the apple tree, sunflowers on their way to autumn light. But, it is the underbelly feathers of the little birds that bring Thomas Newton’s words alive.
I remember the salmon feast at Warm Springs a few days earlier. The Warm Springs people invited friends and strangers to help them celebrate the opening of their museum exhibit, The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon. I arrived just in time for the Round Dance.
“Everybody dance,” the leader cried out. The drums began. Slow. Steady. The Warm Springs people and their guests linked hands. We stepped side-ways, going slowly and steadily in the direction of the sun. Fancy Dancers spun in smaller circles in our big circle. The drums began to slow. The Warm Springs woman who had led off the dance moved back the other direction, stopping to greet each of us with a handshake and a smile.
It had been twenty-three years since I had danced the Round Dance. The last time had been at a Havasupai gathering near Red Butte in Arizona. We had come together to pray for a little meadow a few miles from where we danced. Energy Fuels Nuclear, a Denver mining company, was planning to drill a breccia pipe uranium mine into the meadow. The Havasupai knew that the meadow was the belly of The Mother — the beautiful and fertile Mother.
The Havasupai and the rest of us did much more than dance. We demonstrated at the Grand Canyon, got arrested, filed legal appeals to the Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement. In the long run, there were three more prayer gatherings. In the long run, the price of uranium dropped and the minesite was abandoned. The fence still stands. Energy Fuels Nuclear no longer exists. And, because of the 1872 Mining Law, the belly of the Mother is not safe. The mining companies and their petitions to extract uranium are back.
The Warm Springs Round Dance ended. We went into the regalia exhibit. I came to the Wada-Tika rabbit fur robe. A white card read: Please don’t touch.
I’ll never hold the robe. I may never go back to Red Butte. And still, I contain the stories of birds with radiant belly feathers; of the roaring sage fire that lay at the circle of the Red Butte dancers; of the smiling Warm Springs woman who reached out to take my hand. I will hold the stories lightly and pass them on. That will not be enough. The times Walter Tevis envisioned are here.
Long-time MG contributor Mary Sojourner is the author of, among many other books, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction” and “Going Through Ghosts.” She recently moved back to Flagstaff, after stints in the Mojave and the Pacific Northwest.