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Know the West

Hate speech on the Bitterroot

How a day on the river made me question my relationship to a place I call home.

Although I was born in New York City and caught my first fish in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I have spent more of my adult life in Montana than in any other state. Perhaps because our kids were born there, it feels more like home than any of the other places we’ve lived and worked: Aruba or Morocco or Mongolia or Japan, for example, countries with their own consolations and contradictions.

In the summer of 2019, however, something happened to me, only a few miles away from the Bitterroot Valley house that my wife and I had purchased 25 years earlier. For many months after this incident, I wondered if I would ever think of Montana as home again — or even think of it at all without an accompanying deluge of shame and anger.

 

Perhaps the timing had something to do with it: midday, on the Fourth of July. I’d just finished mowing the lawn and was ready for a break from yardwork. Because the weather was sunny and warm, I grabbed my fly rod and drove to a favorite spot — Poker Joe, a public fishing access on the western bank of the Bitterroot River.

I knew that it would be a busy place on a holiday afternoon, but I also knew that the river braids there into several channels, with plenty of room to wade. Sure enough, the nearer gravel bars were well-populated with sunbathers and their children, with ice chests, inner tubes, pool toys, dogs. So I walked downstream until I could cast, unencumbered, and stepped into the water.

That’s when I noticed the raft — or, to be precise, when the men on the raft noticed me. Four of them, one at the oars and the others splayed atop the inflated hull, rounding the nearest bend. They were still about 50 yards upstream, too far away for my nearsighted eyes to determine the finer details of their persons, but I could hear their conversation plainly enough.

“What does that chink think he’s going to catch?”

“Ssshhh. He can hear you, you know.”

“What do I care? I ain’t never seen no chink with a gun.”

When I looked up, my face awash with heat, the man in the rower’s seat pulled at the oars, steering the raft into the far braid, away from the channel where I stood, knee-deep in shared water. I stared after them — four white men in their 30s or 40s — my brain scrambled with rage. I turned to see if any of the nearby people had overheard, but none met my gaze. Not the young couple with the chocolate Lab, sipping their beers, or the older woman with sunscreen on her face, reading a book.

I took a few deep breaths then wound in my line, walked distractedly to the parking lot, and returned to the house. My mind was elsewhere and nowhere. I can’t say I was really thinking, because my thoughts were too disordered, shorn of all words except the ones I still couldn’t wrap my head around.

No chink with a gun? Although I have long been familiar with overt racism, this felt like something new. It was plain that the man recognized his talk as offensive — fighting words, indeed.

For the record, my hair — then, as now — is long and gray. Long as in over my ears and onto my shoulders. And gray as the windward side of our barn. So the speaker had declared his disdain for an unarmed man, aging but by no means feeble. Implying that he considered himself physically capable of defending himself against me, or was, in fact, packing. Which implies, in turn, that he believed he could speak with impunity, because he was prepared — even willing, if it came to that — to shoot me.

Because I’ve been a hunter for decades, I neither revere nor glorify the destructive power of a firearm. Not when I have used my own fingers to examine a deer’s broken heart, or to realign the feathers on a duck’s fractured wing. If it had been hunting season — the fourth of December instead of July — I might still have repaired to the very same place. But instead of a fishing rod, I would have been carrying a shotgun.

 

WHAT CAN I TELL YOU about love and ignorance that you don’t already know? Either you are in possession of ample supplies of both — or you are unaware of the fathomless depths of their abundance.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States is nothing new, of course. When I was in the fourth grade, my parents moved from the city to Perry, New York, a town best known, if known at all, as the childhood home of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. Despite Arthur’s initial misgivings, it was under his watch that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

Such legislative racism did not, however, dim the national appetite for more violent forms of action, including arson, shooting and lynching. For confirmation, just google “Rock Springs Massacre” (1885), “Tacoma Method” (1885), or “Deep Creek Massacre” (1887). Writing in The New Yorker, Michael Luo reports that Chinese workers were detested for being cunning, industrious and “nearly as white as Europeans.” Immigrants of Chinese descent would remain ineligible for U.S. citizenship until 1943, when a wartime alliance with Nationalist China against Imperial Japan provoked a reassessment of the policy.

For reasons I still don’t understand, I told almost no one about the incident at Poker Joe. After all, why taint the hundreds of memories I have of that treasured place with one disgraceful episode? The river there is handsome in all seasons. Our family has picnicked there, swum there, skipped stones, drunk wine. It’s where I trained my first Lab to retrieve, where I once spent two hours tempting an extraordinarily large trout to a dry fly (only to botch the hookset), where a young moose once galloped so close that I dove into a rose thicket.

I wondered if I would ever
think of Montana as home
again — or even think of it
at all without an
accompanying deluge of
shame and anger.

But along with avoidance went confusion. Try as I might, I couldn’t make sense of it. Why, I wondered, had it been so important for that individual to speak his thoughts aloud?

Then, just a week before the Fourth of July, 2021, a young man named Nathan Allen, recently married and in possession of a graduate degree from the MGH Institute of Health Professions, shot two people in the Boston suburb of Winthrop. One was a retired Massachusetts state trooper, the other an Air Force veteran. Neither was white. Both were about my age. The vet was shot three times, in the back, as she crossed the street. The former trooper, who may have tried to confront the man, was shot four times in the head and three times in the neck and torso.

Neighbors said the shooter “seemed like a normal guy.” Except that he drew swastikas in his notebook, wrote about the superiority of “the white race” and considered himself an “apex predator.” 

As a boy, I read biographies of Revolutionary War heroes with the same enthusiasm that I collected baseball cards, and so the murderer’s amalgam of names immediately reverberated with the history of our nation’s origin. Nathan Hale was a spy for Washington’s Continental Army, captured by the British and hanged in the autumn of 1776. Ethan Allen, leader of one of North America’s first secessionist militias, was captured in 1775 and survived three years as a prisoner of war before gaining his release. Although Allen’s Green Mountain Boys are best remembered for capturing Fort Ticonderoga, they began their career harassing settlers from New York, who were themselves confiscating Native American territory through the colonial land-grant system.

Which brings me back to Poker Joe. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks acquired the site in 1973 and named it in honor of a member of the Nez Perce Tribe who was better known to the region’s Native residents as Hototo, or Lean Elk. He was said to be a small man with an uncommonly big voice, half French Canadian, with a command of English apparently honed at the card table. Along with Chief Joseph, Chief Looking Glass and others, Lean Elk led the Nez Perce from the Battle of the Big Hole on a deft and arduous escape, across many hundreds of miles of Montana Territory, to within a day’s journey of safety in Canada.

After U.S. forces — including the 5th Infantry, 2nd Cavalry, 7th Cavalry and a contingent of Cheyenne scouts — eventually caught up, Lean Elk was killed by one of his own warriors on the first day of what would become a five-day siege in the Bear Paw Mountains. You might say that his looks betrayed him: The Nez Perce marksman who fired the shot apparently mistook him for a Cheyenne. Later, Chief Joseph said, “We could have escaped from Bear Paw Mountain if we had left our wounded, old women and children behind. We were unwilling to do this. We had never heard of a wounded Indian recovering while in the hands of white men.”

The irony of naming a public fishing access for a man who died fighting against the wrongful taking of ancestral lands is not lost on me.

After their defeat, the Nez Perce fighters were lauded by William Tecumseh Sherman as displaying “a courage and skill that elicited universal praise.” Such words did not, however, prevent Gen. Sherman from reneging on the terms of surrender. The U.S. commanders in the field had promised that the Nez Perce could return to a reservation in Idaho; instead, Sherman ordered the captives to Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas.

I don’t tell this story to equate the racism of the 19th century with that of the 21st. But the irony of naming a public fishing access for a man who died fighting against the wrongful taking of ancestral lands is not lost on me. Back in the 1990s, when I had just moved to Montana and was first learning to hunt, I was probably as naive as many of my neighbors. I didn’t know Poker Joe as the derogatory nickname of a famed military strategist, only as a beloved landscape, with expansive views of the same craggy peaks that — before a box elder tree overtopped our house — I could see from our bedroom window. A place where, if I looked sharp and kept quiet, I might be rewarded with beauty and nourishment.

I was ignorant then, but not hopelessly so, and I forgive myself now for not knowing better. Personal history — like the history of place — is a sedimentary affair, accruing in layers that can be sometimes obscured, sometimes eroded. Even if most of us declare that some truths should be self-evident — that all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights — others may choose a path destructive of these ends. I can’t guess what Nathan Allen might be thinking today, if he had lived. But shortly before his mind turned actively murderous, he wrote this in his journal: “Racism is healthy and natural. And holding it in is bad for you.”   

Peter W. Fong is the author of the award-winning novel Principles of Navigation. In 2018, he led an international team of scientists on a thousand-mile expedition from the headwaters of Mongolia’s Delgermörön River to Russia’s Lake Baikal. The Coconut Crab, a chapter book for children and adults, is forthcoming from Green Writers Press.

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