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May 2018

Questions of Inheritance, Inhabitance, and Environment in "All Coyote’s Children"

"All Coyote's Children" by Bette Lynch HustedIn her first full-length work of fiction titled All Coyote’s Children, Bette Lynch Husted explores some of the questions that have plagued her all her life about living in America and the implications of being an American non-Native inhabiting this land. Through lyrical prose, Husted crafts a story that considers the complex life of a white family living on a ranch surrounded by the Umatilla Indian Reservation. She weaves an unforgettable tale of cultures and families caught in the inescapable web of who they are and what they have inherited. Today, Husted shares how she has grappled with these issues through writing and considers some of the events and environments that resulted in this remarkable novel.

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“We’re not just joining two people here today,” the Umatilla spiritual leader said. “We’re joining two families.” My son, wearing a ribbon shirt and moccasins, looked as happy as I’ve ever seen him; the bead and shell wedding veil he was lifting from his bride’s head was one he had made especially for her. His own heritage is mainly Celtic and Northern European; the bride, who is Umatilla-Cayuse and Apache, was a former student and my own longtime friend. Could it be this easy? Was this the answer to the troubling questions about America I had been asking all my life?

Well, no. (For one thing, there are issues of blood quantum and tribal survival.) But it did make me happy, and thinking about what that spiritual leader said is part of what led to a novel set on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

For years I had been grappling with my questions in memoir—my first book was subtitled Living on Stolen Land—but All Coyote’s Children is my first sustained work of fiction. I wrote much of it in the community room of a public library surrounded by homeless people trying to stay warm and Natives seeking Internet access. There were students, too, job-seekers, readers, people researching genealogy. And one man who, we would all learn later, had murdered a young woman as she worked in the motel across the street.

A library is a good place to think about your neighbors.

I wanted to write a story about a white family who recognizes the complex inheritance of their history. Could they live with integrity on land taken from its inhabitants? Almost all of the continent fits this description, but I imagined this family’s home on a ranch surrounded by the Umatilla Indian Reservation—a situation that happens more than people might realize; maps of reservations are often checkerboarded with privately owned land.

Bette Lynch Husted and her extended-family granddaughter.I knew there would be challenges. Most of us struggle to talk about race. What if we say the wrong thing? And there’s the issue of appropriation: Native people are understandably weary of non-Natives speaking for them or even about them. But inspired by that spiritual leader and the neighbors of my Eastern Oregon community—and with help from Natives and non-Natives alike—I found this story.

The bride at that wedding, my beautiful daughter-in-law, took the photo that inspired the cover of All Coyote’s Children. The view is one she sees every day from her family home at top of Thorn Hollow grade, where she and my son were married. The little girl in the author photo is my extended-family granddaughter, a gift even greater than writing fiction. Which is saying a lot, because writing a novel—meeting the people who live in this story—may be the closest I will ever come to experiencing magic.

Locating Insight for "The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett"

R. Gregory Nokes' "The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett"When R. Gregory Nokes began his research for The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California - the first book-length biography of Peter Hardeman Burnett - he hoped to provide insight into the oftentimes illogical behavior of this influential, though not well remembered, historical figure. Peter Burnett’s resume is quite impressive: he helped organize the first wagon train to the Oregon Country, served on Oregon’s first elected government, was Oregon’s first supreme court judge, opened a wagon road from Oregon to California, helped develop the city of Sacramento, and was elected the first U.S. governor of California. But, with the exception of the wagon road to California, he did not excel in any of these roles. In order to provide Burnett’s perspective on his decision-making and failures, Nokes embarked on a lengthy journey to locate Burnett's personal correspondence. He describes this journey below.

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There must be personal letters. Mustn’t there?

I was working on my new book about Peter Hardeman Burnett—The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California—whose behaviors in office frequently defied logic.

I was hoping to find personal correspondence that might explain his state of mind at given points of his career. For example, didn’t he know he would subject himself to ridicule by changing the day of Thanksgiving in California from a Thursday to a Saturday to attend a dinner in his honor?

To be sure, I had found letters, dozens of letters. Indeed, it seemed Burnett, who for a time led the first major wagon train to Oregon in 1843, couldn’t stop writing letters. Many of his letters were to newspapers on such issues as encouraging emigration to the West, promoting territorial status for Oregon, promoting statehood for California, and similar weighty topics. A one-time slaveholder, his advocacy of exclusion laws to ban blacks from the American West was well known.

A letter he wrote to the New York Herald in 1845 on his experiences in Oregon ran to 125 pages and was printed in serialized form. Another to the Weekly Tribune in Liberty, Missouri, took up seven columns of newsprint. Burnett’s second address to the California Legislature as governor on January 7, 1851, filled twenty-seven pages of the Legislative Journal.

But nothing personal.

There were hints of events and slights that shaped his later life in his 488-page autobiography, Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer, completed in 1880. He told how as an adolescent he was sent by his parents, who were poor, to live with wealthy relatives in Tennessee, who, intentionally or not, made him feel inferior. Two girls he fancied wouldn’t give him the time of day, which he seemed to blame on his poverty and shabby clothing. As a result of these slights, perceived or otherwise, he resolved to become rich.

That much I could glean from his autobiography. And while it served as a useful guidepost to Burnett’s life, it is for the most part self-laudatory in the extreme, glorifying his successes, while entirely ignoring his failures, of which there were many.

But where was the private correspondence, letters to family and friends? After he shot and killed a black slave breaking into his store in Tennessee in 1830, did he share his feelings of remorse with anyone—he said he felt remorseful.

Burnett was separated for six months from his wife, Harriet, when he left Oregon for the California gold fields in 1848. He must have written to her and their six children during their separation. One would think someone would have saved those letters.

I visited the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, which had a file of Burnett’s correspondence as governor. But, not surprisingly, it was official correspondence—some of it quite interesting, such as Burnett calling out the militia in response to reports of attacks by native tribes on emigrants—but nothing personal. Indeed, a letter of supposed congratulations to a general for arranging peace talks with several Nisenan chieftains in El Dorado County was so stiffly written it might be read as insulting.

Historical societies will often preserve troves of letters written by early leaders, but I found little for Burnett. While I still had plenty of material for my book, that important personal touch—such as Burnett’s thoughts on resigning as governor—would be missing.

Burnett's desk: Finally a lead (Courtesy of Judge Paul Bernal, museum chair and official historian of the City of San Jose)Resolved to go without, I had written two-thirds of the book when I finally got a lead. I stumbled on the internet—if one can stumble on the internet—across a 2014 copy of “Trailblazer,” a publication of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, featuring a photo of Burnett’s desk. The accompanying article said the desk was on loan from a Burnett descendant, Francisca Burnett Allen of Los Gatos, to the Roberto Adobe and Sunol House Museum in San Jose. Burnett had lived in San Jose while governor.

The author of the article, Judge Paul Bernal, put me in touch with Ms. Allen, who herself didn’t have any letters, but knew of another descendant, Emily Douville of Antioch, California, who had some letters.

Ms. Douville proved to be more than helpful. She had twenty or so letters left by her late mother, who had always intended to write a book about Burnett, but never did. Ms. Douville texted copies to me in Oregon. Most were written by Burnett to a brother, George, in Lafayette, Oregon.

I finally had what I needed to apply a human touch to Burnett’s character. Among revelations were his growing discouragement as governor and longing to return to civilian life: “The work for me is tiring and it is hard for me to keep along,” he wrote George on September 2, 1850. “My mind is too much occupied. I shall be glad when my time is out. I hope I shall never be in such another predicament.’’ He resigned four months later on January 9, 1851.

Other letters revealed his sadness at the death of two of his children, of his wife’s trip to China, a complaint about another brother who hadn’t repaid a debt, and illnesses affecting both himself and Harriet, which he wrongly thought would bring his premature death.

Of course, Burnett almost certainly wrote more letters to more people, including Harriet. Maybe those letters gather dust in an attic or closet somewhere, and will turn up someday. But it’s also quite possible they were destroyed, lost or discarded.

Mine is the first book ever written about Burnett, whose promising early career was doomed by his own faults, among them his prejudices. But it doesn’t mean there won’t be another. One of the exciting things about being an author of nonfiction history is drawing on the work of previous writers and knowing that others will come along and build on your work. So perhaps some future writer will locate other letters with material for another book on Burnett. But my work is done.

Kaiāulu: Gathering the Tides of Resilience, Stewardship, and Community

New author Mehana Blaich Vaughan explores resilience, community, stewardship, responsibility, and sense of home in her book, Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides. Just as Kauaʻi’s unique and colorful rivers and streams flow into the stunning Pacific Ocean, Vaughan’s interviews with more than sixty Hawaiian elders, leaders, and fishermen and women gather together with clear and vibrant prose. Vaughan's book is a deeply personal tribute to a community based not on ownership, but reciprocity, responsibility, and caring for the places that shape and sustain us. Below she shares an example of the resilience of this community – Kaiāulu – in the face of natural disaster.

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Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides by Mehana Blaich VaughanIt is one am and I am awakened from sleep by rain so hard it feels like our roof will cave in. It has been raining all day, for a month really off and on, here in Haleleʻa, on the north shore of Kauaʻi. But this rain is different, this rain thunders. Minutes later my husband’s radio starts going off. He is a fire fighter on our small island and the radio is relaying the 911 calls from nearby Hanalei valley. Hanalei is known for its long crescent beach, lined by vacation rentals, consistently rated one of the best beaches to vacation on in the world. The flatlands behind the sand are cut by two rivers, feeding into the wetlands behind the town. Tonight the rivers are lunging out of their banks, the increasingly frantic calls coming from near by the usually placid Waiʻoli stream. “The water is two feet from our door and rising quickly. What do we do?” We hear the firemen trying to respond, radioing in that they’ll need to evacuate the shelter at the local elementary school as it is flooding too, but they can’t get there because the highway is under ten feet of water. I am up and texting friends in low lying areas to see if they are alright. They are awake and watching the waters approach, grateful for our concern. Then our cellphones go blank. The next afternoon thunder and lightning lash the island bringing more flooding. The rivers rage café au lait, scenic waterfalls thundering under the roadways, tiny rivulets swelling to tear homes from their foundations. Landslides close the highway in six separate locations cutting off each valley, each community one from the other.

Now, two weeks later the two-lane highway along our coast is just slowly opening to a shuttle operating twice a day for residents. Over 600 tourists were boated and helicoptered out of their vacation rentals in these isolated communities in the days after the floods. Residents are now slowly emerging from their valleys for the first time, and official Red Cross or FEMA assessments are only just beginning to reach them.

But the community has not been waiting. Within days of the flood boats mobilized to run food, water, and supplies down the coast to cut off areas. Off duty firemen, the only emergency responders in some areas, worked four days straight to be sure people were alright. Neighbors helped one another to muck out houses, and haul away wet mattresses, couches and other wreckage. Community members with excavators and bobcats went to work clearing mud as high as the power lines, to make it possible within four days, for state crews to access the roads.

When asked how her family survived the most recent hurricane on Kauaʻi, Aunt Anabelle Pa Kam responded:
“I guess the way we grew up, because we never had money, money was nothing to us. You know, everything was hand-me-down. And I was happy to have the hand-me-downs. We didn’t need anything new. We learned survival. That’s how, when [Hurricane] Iniki came, we could live. We didn’t need anything. We could live off the land. And that’s what I teach my children and my grandchildren, how to live off the land” (Anabelle Pa Kam 2015).

This is the community, our Kaiāulu, that is the focus of this book. This excerpt, describing how the people of our area got through past tidal waves and hurricanes, resonates with everyday life for many in Haleleʻa now.

I hope that readers will enjoy this book, and that it will help us all to consider how we build resilience, connections between neighbors, and responsibility to one another, and to the places we call home in our changing world today.

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