Unheard stories, unseen lives: A review of Southern Paiute, A Portrait

  • Two members of the Southern Paiute Tribe, Lora E. Tom and Eleanor Tom.

    Michael L. Plyler, photo courtesy USU Press
  • Clifford Jake

    Michael L. Plyler, photo courtesy USU Press
  • Roger Benn

    Michael L. Plyler, photo courtesy USU Press

Southern Paiute: A Portrait
William Logan Hebner and Michael L. Plyler
208 pages, hardcover: $34.95.
Utah State University Press, 2010.

In all of Native America, few people have been less understood or more maligned than the Southern Paiute Indians and their desert cousins. Mark Twain denounced them as "inferior to even the despised digger Indians of California." Except for occasional mention of their alleged role in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah -- a scapegoating that the Mormon Church has only recently acknowledged -- they have been largely ignored in both popular and academic surveys of Native culture. Southern Paiute: A Portrait revives a people's collective voice. As the 32 individuals interviewed in this oral history describe the pain of unthinkable loss and injustice, a picture emerges of the distinctive world they inhabit. Historical events -- the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the devastating government policy of "termination," which ended the recognition of tribal sovereignty -- and the forced removal of Indian children to boarding schools are interwoven with the activities of everyday life: footraces and bean harvests, Christian baptisms and peyote healings, weddings and divorces, births and funerals.

William Logan Hebner is an unusual conduit for these stories. He was born in Delaware and fresh out of Vassar College in 1981 when he moved out West and bought the Bit and Spur bar in Springdale, Utah. He got to know the Jake family and other Southern Paiutes through his opposition to a massive hazardous waste incinerator proposed for reservation land. Over a period of nearly two decades, he developed the friendships and trust that made these interviews possible, often traveling with his friend Michael Plyler, a celebrated photographer whose powerful black-and-white portraits lend visual weight to the dignity already evident in the stories.

These interviews will help bridge the gap between Natives and non-Natives, but they are first and foremost intended for the families and tribes from which they sprang. As Vivienne Caron-Jake writes in the foreword, "In the past, when asked the question, 'Who are you?' I didn't always know how or where to begin. Today, I can tell you -- not only based on my personal journey through this life, but also through these stories from my tribal elders, who tell it like it is."

Will Rogers, a Shivwitz, is more blunt: "Are you listening to me? There's a lot of things that got to be told. There's things that shoulda been said that nobody said."
Now, finally, somebody has.

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