Neal Moore was weeks into a cross country paddle when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. After discussing with trusted friends and colleagues, he determined that with the canoe as his only home, sheltering in place meant continuing the journey.
Here is a selection of his stories:
A Spartan Life
By Neal Moore
ALONG THE SNAKE RIVER AT NISQUALLY JOHN LANDING, WASH. — Brian Bensen is a minimalist, a fisherman, a hunter, and a survivor. He lives along the banks of this river, of multiple rivers, out of a 7’ x 12’ motorcycle toy-hauler he lovingly calls his house. Attached are a quartet of solar panels, a trio of car batteries, an AC/DC converter, a drop-down bed, an air conditioner, a TV and DVD player, pots and pans and knives and forks, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a tarp, and a blanket hanging off of his higgledy-piggledy back shower featuring Marilyn Monroe. Bensen has spent the last three years shifting this home, along with a Kawasaki 650 off-road motorcycle that clamps down inside, an aluminum jet boat, and a GMC truck to pull them from camp to camp, Gypsy-style. “If you look, especially in the Northwest, in the twelve Western states,” he says, “there are campgrounds that are beautiful where you can spend 14 days, no money involved.” He laughed at the thought, at all the memories of Lolo Pass in the summers and this very spot on the Snake piled with snow come the winter. “And that’s about as long as I want to be in one place anyway.” Bensen is sixty-two and he’s been on the move for all of them. Civilization calls his elemental lifestyle homeless, but he calls it sweet freedom.
“I consider myself the king of campin’ because I’m off the grid,” he says. “I’ve been at it three years, perfected a lot of things. Literally, if I have to, I can survive. With nothin’. No help from nobody.” Although there are contradictions to being labeled a minimalist when you have a Kawasaki 650, he might be forgiven because he wants to trade it in for an electric scooter. But either way, he is still a minimalist. And that’s part and parcel of Spartan.
When folks less fortunate come around, Bensen is happy to share. “Just heat up the coffee if you want,” he told his neighbors, a homeless couple from the neighboring trailer at Nisqually John Landing here in Whitman County. “The heater is right there. The creamer and honey, it’s on the shelf.”
The world around Bensen, around us all, finds itself in a gut punch of a downward spiral and we don’t yet know what bottom will look like. When asked what advice he might have for others, for people that will soon find themselves, not by choice, but by necessity, out of doors, he thought and then raised his head and his voice like a preacher. “My advice to you if you find yourself in that situation, first off, it’s one day at a time. Think of nothin’ but base survival. And then modify it. That’s what I did. I started out with one panel and one battery – so I could afford about two hundred bucks. And then once I got to know the system, I continued to learn, to graduate farther and farther.”
Bensen bought most of his hardware at Home Depot in the 75% off rack. The solar panels, each twenty-five watts, came from Harbor Freight. The solar system is capable of 14.4 volts. The whole setup with the control module and lights, because he’s a preferred member and he had a coupon, was $149. On top of the trailer are coils that go back and forth in plastic garden tubing which Bensen reckons can handle between eleven and thirteen gallons of water. It’s mounted on a 30-gauge galvanized steel sheeting roof. It gets hot in the summer. So hot, he had to add a cold-water line to mix it. “So, the whole setup you’re looking at – I probably don’t have 2 grand into it, including the power and the trailer – the whole nine yards.”
It’s easy to glorify, but difficult to understand a truly Spartan lifestyle. The Spartans of ancient Greece lived with their armaments. They were warriors. They lived with physical emphasis. The emphasis was on combat. Bensen, who was born into the Home of Truth satanic cult in Moab, Utah, was raised up with the group’s, and later his family’s strict and simple ways. He is missing his left eye, and he told me his step-father, who he says he could never please, once yelled at him: “An eye for an eye? No! Somebody takes one eye, you gotta take both.” Bensen has been fighting for as long as he can remember, he’s been scrapping his way to happiness and freedom since he left home, his family and the commune at age thirteen. He admits to an “illustrious life,” including stints on the oil rigs, cowboying like a vaquero, raising his family as a single parent rough and on the road with a child in one arm and a “Will Work for Food” sign in the other, along with stretches in multiple county jails.
The road forward for Bensen and his menagerie of vehicles is fraught with Covid-19-related closures. His favorite camping spot, Heller Bar, surrounded by semi-arid mountain peaks and an entry point for power boats into Hells Canyon, recently denied him entry. Soon after we met, all free camps in Idaho closed their swinging gates. While I was here at Nisqually John Landing, state park rangers came by to cordon off the bathroom, and there are rumors of this camp, of all free camps in Washington following suit.
“I never go hungry because I’ve always got food around. Once the snow melts, and it gets warm, I get up into the mountains. If they block off the roads, I’ll take my Kawasaki – they can’t stop me. Man, there’s wild berries and wild lettuce. It’s a paradise. I eat a lot of fish because I am ‘the master of disaster spin-caster’.”
Bensen’s got itchy feet by nature, and you never know what’s coming next. When his wheels and his boat and his trailer are not in motion, his mind is. “I can literally go wherever I want, whenever I want, for however long I want,” he told me. “My goal for this winter is – I’m headin’ down to Yuma. And wanderin’ around the desert lookin’ for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. For somethin’ to do. To entertain myself.”
Roll On, Columbia, Roll On
By Neal Moore
Astoria, Ore. — When Jon Lee and his band Slimeline kicked into “Roll On Columbia” the tightly packed crowd at Astoria Brewing Company joined in. It was FisherPoets weekend at the mouth of the Columbia River, an annual gathering of grizzled fisher folk from Alaska to California who come to celebrate their craft with prose and poetry and song. Old and young here know Guthrie’s ditty by heart, and Lee, a descendant of over a century of Chinese cannery workers in Astoria, sang it with gusto.
But the Columbia no longer rolls – thanks in colossal part to the Grand Coulee Dam for which “Roll on Columbia” was penned – and this was Lee’s point: to encourage debate.
Lee had asked his friend Scott McAallister, a commercial fisherman from Juneau, Alaska, to interrupt him half way through. And so he did. The duo yelled back and forth for some time in pre-scripted fashion. McAllister arguing that Guthrie was a tool of the Corp of Engineers who never cared for the Columbia or the men and women who worked her. And Lee, that Guthrie, who could do no wrong, was being ironic.
“Ha, that would be the ultimate,” Robbie Law, Lee’s cousin and member of Slimeline, later told me. “To have the Bonneville Power Administration pay for you writing subversive lyrics.”
As big a boon as Alaska is for fishermen today, the Columbia River was once bigger. “It was just a wealth of big trees and salmon and water,” Lee said. “It should have sustained us. But we squandered it. It should have lasted forever.”
Lee’s friend, the writer Victoria Stooppiello, was born and raised in the Lower Columbia region. Her father, grandfather, and great-uncle were commercial fishermen their whole lives. In an essay titled “Denial is Not a River” she conjured the folly of over-logging and the damned dams and renewable energy through the lens of an economic enterprise zone.
Many of the professional fisher folk had a streak of activist in them. For they rhymed not only about the joys of the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, a region of Southwest Alaska, but the need for the EPA to reverse its recent verdict to allow the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process to consider mining it.
To once and for all disallow Pebble Mine, a porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit project that will replace the sanctity of the salmon and these waters for the bounty that lies underneath.
Closer to Astoria, the presenters here assembled were passionate about the Columbia River, reflecting on the over-fishing that led to smaller fish and lessened runs, along with other obstacles the salmon now face.
As one fisher poet concluded at the gathering’s farewell event on Astoria’s fabled Pier 39, referring to the dams and the engineers who built them, “Sometimes it seems instead of one apple, we’ll devour the whole damned tree … So, it’s time to step back and take a long sober look, and conclude, Mama Mia. Let’s go back to the software, and try to come up with what’s really a good idea.”
A Community Rallying Around the ‘Other’
By Neal Moore
HOOD RIVER, Ore. — The Hood River Valley has a history of ‘others’. The Finns of the late 19th century, the Japanese of the early to mid 20th century, and now those who identify as Hispanic and Latino. I recently spoke with a number of town leaders and bright light activists. Mainly women, both young and old, who are standing up in a unified voice of defiance. Here is a sampling of what they had to say.
Interviewed for this piece (in order of appearance):
Adriana, 23 – Adriana is “a Mexican that happens to be undocumented in the place that is really hard to be undocumented.” A student and activist, Adriana works nights as a waitress/bartender. “We’re on the verge of a revolution here,” Adriana told me. “Either jump on or get off.”
Paul Blackburn, 52 – Paul is the Mayor of Hood River, one of the few (if not only) Spanish-speaking mayors in the State of Oregon. Paul has formed the Latino Advisory Council and would like to see more Latinos on the city council and as mayor one day. He told me that “as the federal tenor and tone go the wrong way, it’s really motivated us to rally around our neighbors and friends and to work together for inclusivity in our city.”
Maria Elena Casmo, 44 – Maria Elena is a health policy analyst who immigrated with her husband Carlos, a civil engineer, from Chile. After five years in America, her status was changed from ‘non-immigrant’ to ‘immigrant’. She gained permanent residence in 2002. Regarding the current anti-immigration atmosphere in America, Maria Elena told me that people of color like herself, “Woke up. [That] they are not going to tolerate this type of speech.”
Montserrat Garrido, 16 – Montserrat, daughter of Maria Elena, is a Junior at Hood River High School who would like to become a journalist. She recently found her voice as a student activist at Hood River’s “MLK Day” rally. Montserrat has travelled back to DC for the Women’s March and for the Anti-Gun March with the students from Parkland, Florida.
Vicky Stifter – Pastor of Riverside Community Church – United Church of Christ. Vicky’s background is in the law. She has spent years on the Texas border working with immigration issues. A member of the community of Hood River for many years, Vicky tells me that if need be, her church has voted unanimously to shelter those in need as a sanctuary church.
Gladys Rivera, 28 – Gladys was born in Hood River in 1989. At the age of four, her mother (at the time six-months pregnant) was deported back to Mexico. She tells me that her mother took her by the hand and hopped back over the fence into America the very same day. While growing up, Gladys told me that she felt confused about her identity, that she “was never Mexican enough and never white enough.” Today, Gladys is an outspoken community member with Latinos en Acción (Latinos in Action) and the Latino Advisory Committee, amongst other groups. She is a mother of three.
Graciela Gomez, 47 – Gracelia arrived in America from Mexico at the age of 14. She wanted to attend school as a child, but her father told her that they were here to work. Graciela has cleaned houses, worked in fruit packing houses, and has picked cherries, pears, and apples. For the past 33 years, she has petitioned the government for a green card, which she received this past year. But she says it doesn’t mean anything when others in the community have yet to receive theirs. “If we don’t say something we are going to keep living in the dark,” Graciela told me. “And it’s time to bring a little light.”
Matt English – Matt is the Hood River County Sheriff. He tells me, “In our area, at least a third of the community is Latino, and so many of those people have some cultural differences that we need to work together to understand. And there has been a real push within this organization to build trust so that the Latino community is trusting of us.”
This story was made possible by Robert Coberly.
The Undercurrent of America
By Neal Moore
ALONG THE COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON AND WASHINGTON —- I knew that as a journalist, traversing this nation’s first waterways in a canoe would be a challenge, along with the hope of a tribute to the first people who for millennia have called America home.
The word tribute is a great word because it’s a river word. Rivers that flow into larger rivers are called tributaries. Where they meet is the confluence. And their source point is the headwaters.
And if you scratch the surface by taking a traditional canoe out and onto and into the water, and take a good long look all about you, and listen, and most importantly, feel, you’ll find the undercurrent, the rhyme and reason of the journey.
There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge where people still speak about the village that once was, before it was washed away by the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957. The place was called Celilo Falls, where a cascade of high-current whitewater gave way to platform scaffolds and fishermen and the giant chinook salmon that swam up through the rapids and jumped over the falls.
If Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, is celebrated as the first U.S. settlement west of the Rockies (founded in 1811), it is important to note that Celilo Falls stretches back quite a spell further. For 15,000 years, Celilo was a gathering place for the Native American people, the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent, and a mecca for traders who came for the salmon from far and wide.
“I remember the sound of that river and of those falls,” Wilbur Slockish, Jr. told me. Slockish, who was raised on these waters, is the chief of the Klickitat people, a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest. “I used to make money by packing one or two fish – the fish were bigger in those days. And I packed them up for the fishermen so that they could fish and I would struggle up there. And that’s where I got my strength, for that was my exercise.”
And Slockish was not alone. During my time on this portion of the Gorge, I visited several of the 31 native fishing in-lieu sites. I toured and met with different tribes who make up the Columbia River Indians — the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce.
Down in Cascade Locks, I met with young Nez Perce natives who were busy getting ready with their boats and their nets for their ceremonial fishing. The first fish of the year, the spring salmon, are collected by the tribes for their ceremonial needs. Extra salmon are brought home to fill the freezers for the years ahead. Only once the quotas are met, will the tribes consider fishing commercially. Although this year’s spring salmon is late, these Columbia River fishermen were hopeful.
Bud Herrera, 54, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, fishes below the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. Bud, a Umatilla, tells me this could be one of the lowest seasons on record since 1939 for the spring chinook salmon. Bud fishes by scaffold and by line, and while this year’s catch is low, he likewise remains confident.
Bud’s cousin, Cort Herrera, 54, a Umatilla, spoke to me about how family and fishing go hand in hand. “It just goes together. You know, we catch the fish together and have good times here – make memories together on the riverbank. Just have fun, you know. That’s what it’s all about – to teach the younger generation, so they can do it when we’re not here. Just like we learned from our family relations.”
While I was documenting the Herrera family, Bud’s nephew helped his 9-year-old nephew land a spring chinook salmon. The kid’s face said it all. His gap-toothed smile was priceless.
The reason for the 31 in-lieu sites goes back to the Treaty of 1855, which Wilbur Slockish Jr.’s grandfather was a signatory of. When asked to remind us what the treaty promised the local native tribes, Slockish explained: “We were to retain our lands, certain lands, and to retain our fishing rights and our hunting rights. We were to retain all of our other food gathering activities. Places that we fished at. And we gave land to the federal government in exchange for that. We were promised adequate healthcare and they were supposed to build a hospital.”
Today, with the construction of the dams and the washing out of the villages, living conditions for the Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakama Native American tribes at the original in-lieu dedicated settlement sites along the Columbia River Gorge remain unsafe and unsanitary. As residents await the federal government’s decades-old promise of “adequate permanent housing” to replace their once-thriving communities washed away by the construction of the dams.
“A lot of people here,” said Slockish, “they seemed all to think that the government and the courts gave us hunting rights and fishing rights — not realizing who gave what to whom.”
There is a connection to this land and river that the native people understand. That live and breathe and practice and teach. “That is what is important and I try to protect it,” said Slockish. “Because these are the gifts that our creator gave to us. We protect them and take care of them and in turn they will take care of us. Because we don’t own them — the future owns them … So that’s why we value them. Our bodies are made from this land and everything will return to the land – the law of the land – go back to it. So why would you harm it?
“You know when people from the east came this way, they saw all of this land up by the Tri-Cities and down the Gorge and thought it was idle – Idle land, look at this. We can irrigate it. Think of the profits we can realize from it — but they didn’t think, they didn’t realize that it was our supermarket. There was deer, elk, rabbits, grouse, other birds that we ate. Medicine, roots, all within that idle land and that’s why they thought of the dams. That was in the 1920s. People from the east are always doing that — comin’ out here and altering — they altered the landscape. And our foods aren’t the same anymore. Our roots are coming earlier, our salmon are coming later. We should have already had freezers full.”
Cy Jim, 51, who identifies as a Warm Springer, fishes on the Washington side of the river just below the John Day Dam, one of four U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dams of the Columbia River Gorge. For him, it’s more than just subsistence. It’s a way of life.
“Fishin’ just keeps us goin’,” Jim said. “This river keeps us goin’. It’s something we’ll never give up. As long as there’s fish here, we’ll never give it up. We’ll always do it.”
But Jim wasn’t always able to fish. His father, like Slockish’s father, turned away from fishing the Columbia following the washing away of Celilo in 1957. It was too painful, and besides that, there was frequent animosity towards native fishermen over competition for fishing rights that followed.
“I’ve been shot at, I’ve had rocks thrown at me,” Slockish said. “I’ve had boulders rolled down the hill at me, and I’ve been cursed, all over my own food.”
And then there was the “Salmon Scam” of the late 1980s. “We were blamed for 43,000 missing fish when it was aluminum plants that poured fluoride at John Day Dam. See that dam right there? There’s a big gravel bed there – there used to be 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 pound salmon spawning in that area – and with those gravel pits they built the dam and killed it and they poured fluorides in there and the salmon, they lost their sense so they just spawned in a different area, they adapted, but we got blamed for it and I went to prison for three years for it.”
Slockish laughs at the memory of his incarceration at El Reno, a medium-security United States Federal Correctional Institution for male inmates in Oklahoma. “I always called it my government sponsored vacation.
“But I’m still here. This is my homeland.”
This story was made possible by Syd Goldsmith.
2nd Place at Lawdog’s Gopher Hunt
By Neal Moore
ELLISTON, MT — Across from U.S. 12 was a set of railroad tracks and a series of rolling green mountains that stretched right up to the Continental Divide, each dotted with larkspur and Douglas firs and lodgepole pines. There were huge rolling clouds and a bright blue sky and a succession-play of light and shadows as the clouds scuttled by along the road.
I was in Big Sky country.
I was wondering what that could be about when, as if on cue, a slew of laughing kids arrived. Their pickups skidded to a halt and swaggering through the dust kicked up from the road they emerged with gopher tails in hand, hauling them in through the front swinging saloon doors by the armful, in great heaps up and onto the bar. Here in the parking lot was a lineup of Harley Davidsons, American flags, 4×4 ATVs and just up from where I stood, a glistening “Lawdog’s Saloon” commercial sign with a bulldog and placard lettering that spelled out Gopher Hunt.
This story was made possible by Andre de Kock.
A Legacy of Diversity: The Finns, Norwegians and Chinese of Astoria, Oregon
By Neal Moore
ASTORIA, ORE. – It is home to the first permanent U.S., non-native settlement west of the Rockies. Astoria, Oregon, you see, is big on diversity.
In the early 1800s, this Pacific coast town at the mouth of the Columbia River was a mecca for fur trappers and loggers. And thanks to an abundance of salmon, this is where Bumble Bee Seafoods established a foothold in 1899.
The Finns and Norwegians would arrive in their greatest numbers in the early 20thcentury. But back in the 1880s, had you taken a stroll down one of these storied riverside streets, one in three people you would have encountered would have been Chinese.
Liisa Penner of the Clatsop County Historical Society explains that the Scandinavians could qualify for 160-acre homesteads in exchange for clearing and taming the land, the labor available to Chinese migrant laborers and immigrants was demanding in a different way. “The Chinese were brought here usually by labor contractors to staff the canneries, and unfortunately, once they were here, the work was extremely difficult.”
While the Scandinavians thrived, the population of Chinese laborers would dwindle due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which curtailed immigration, and the advent of the mechanized “iron chink”, which economized fish processing production. And yet, while Penner explains the population of Chinese in Astoria steadily declined from 2,317 in 1880 to 139 in 1940, there are still remnants of these early settlers, who have stayed on, and are thriving today.
Flora Law, age 91, who was born in this town, represents the third generation of American-born Chinese in her family. Her grandmother, born in 1870, hailed from Alemeda, California. And her father, Edward Yim Lee, born in 1899, and his two elder brothers, Mike and Fred, came to Astoria from neighboring Portland in the early 20th century.
The Law family, by and large, have stayed on, in Astoria and across Oregon, and as Flora told me, “have assimilated into the community with no problems”. Her son, Robbie, 64, practices medicine and younger brother Ronnie, 60, is an engineer. Out of Flora’s six children and seventeen grandchildren, all but one are in an interracial marriage or relationship, and all have gone to college, many with advanced degrees.
“Appropriately, salmon run in schools,” explained Robbie, who attended Stanford University and came back to open a medical practice in Astoria. “It’s a story of the immigrant process, the immigrant experience, that we’re a part of the fabric of the community here.”
Another long-time Chinese-American family with deep roots in the community is the Lums, who run the local Toyota, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, and Ram auto dealership.
“Where else can Chinese people sell Japanese cars to a Scandinavian community?” Julie Lum quotes her father, David, who established Toyota of Astoria back in 1969 at the site of the family’s long running green-grocery. “And you can in the United States.” The family’s forbearer, Lum Sue, first came to the town in 1891.
Today, Julie and her sisters Pam and Lori run the auto dealership. As I set up for my interview with these sisters, a host of locals, both young and old, came in to chuckle and to say hello, to tell tales of various business successes and to take a picture with the trio. There is a real sense of community here – a word that would come up again and again as I interviewed various ethnicities around and about the town, all of which went by the title “Astorians.”
Jorgen Madsen, 83, a long-time Astoria resident and immigrant from Denmark, explained, “Everybody is worth something, big or little one, we all are part of the community.”
Where the town was once divided between the Swedes in Downtown, the Finns in Uniontown, the Chinese in Downtown and Uniontown, and the Norwegians in Uppertown, Sari Vedenoia-Hartman, 48, who runs a hair salon and who immigrated here in the early 1970s from Kalajoki, Finland, summed up today’s atmosphere nicely.
“The plumber lives next to the school teacher that lives next to the retired naval officer that lives next to the homemaker,” said Vedenoia-Hartman. “So, I remember being a little girl here – and we spoke Finnish in the home, and then English in school. They didn’t have ESL programs, so the community came together to teach us English – the neighbor kids.”
When asked how the face of the American experiment was playing out here on the Pacific Coast, Liisa Penner pointed to “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, which was written in 1883 to adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty. A poem that epitomizes the American dream, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And that the punchline of opportunity in a town like Astoria is alive and well today.
The town is a prime example of e pluribus unum, out of the many, one. There is a strength here where the word “immigration” is an affirmation.
“We have a heart for that,” explained Berit Madsen, 75, who immigrated to the U.S. from Drammen, Norway in 1963. “Because I see the positive.”
Interviewed on camera for this story (in order of appearance):
The Law family (left to right): Roger, 61, Flora, 91; Ron, 60, and Robbie, 64. Flora’s three sons are fourth generation Chinese Americans. Flora’s father came to Astoria in the early 20th century.
Jorgen Madsen, 83, immigrated from Denmark in 1958 and his wife, Berit Madsen, 75, immigrated from Finland in 1963.
The Lum sisters (left to right): Julie, 52, Pam, 52, and Lori, 49, are third generation Chinese Americans. Their family’s forebarer, Lum Sue, first came to Astoria in 1891.
Sari Vedenoja-Hartman, 48, immigrated to the U.S. from Kalajoki, Finland. Her family settled in Astoria, Oregon in the early 1970s.
This story was made possible by Bob & Pat Yapp.
A selection of stories from Neal’s previous expedition down the Mississippi River (2009):
DECEMBER 14, 2009
Brad Pitt’s Green Building Boom
LOWER NINTH WARD, NEW ORLEANS
Considered one of the most famous neighborhoods in America, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is presently undergoing a transformation from the poster child of post-Katrina devastation into the epitome of green, sustainable living. I met with key players on the ground to discuss how this is taking shape and how the environment is playing an active roll in the psyche of the Lower Ninth Ward’s returning populace.
Interviewed in this piece: Tom Darden, Executive Director, Make It Right NOLA; Robert Green Sr., Resident, Lower Ninth Ward; Darryl Malek-Wiley, Regional Representative and Environmental Justice Organizer, Sierra Club; James Perry, President, Louisiana Housing Alliance and Mayoral Candidate for the City of New Orleans; Dr. Douglas J. Meffert, Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University; Professor Mark S. Davis, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Institute on Water Resources, Law and Policy, Tulane University.
NOVEMBER 28, 2009
A Prison Without Walls
I had no idea there was no perimeter wall at Angola as I canoed along the natural barrier that surrounds three sides of Louisiana State Penitentiary – the Mississippi River. The sun had broken thru the morning mist as I made my way upstream from my camp the previous night on Shreves Bar Island, about one and a half miles downstream. The short upstream trip was work but at long last I reached the prison’s ferry landing. I had read online that this was a ferry for prison guards only, and as such, I had hoped to catch a ride into the prison. The ferry was not operating and I was later told that due to high water, they were using a “crew boat” for foot passengers only, but that this only took place during a shift change.
I was preparing to make the trek up to Angola on foot when I met my first convict “trusty”, Charles Martin. Mr. Martin had driven up in a truck while I was pulling my canoe out of the water and had busied himself working on the ferry structure moored into the banks of the river. When asked how far it was to the gate of the prison, Mr. Martin turned towards the road from where he had just come and replied, “What gate?”
Angola has transformed itself from what Collier’s Magazine once called “the most dangerous prison in America” into what observers are now calling the safest. According to Warden Burl Cain, this about face has taken place with two words: “morality” and “communication”.
The communication in the prison, afforded by Warden Burl Cain, gives the men a sense of freedom, a sense of hope. It is a psychological barrier that has been taken down – and the men are truly appreciative. From my interview with the warden, I was led to a meeting with the radio station, newspaper, and television station, before being brought to the prison’s hospice, into a room where Richard Vinet was on vigil, awaiting his death. Mr. Vinet, age 54, whose liver is failing, has been at Angola since 1984 and is officially now “on vigil” which means he was not expected to last the next 24 hours. As I spoke with Mr. Vinet about his love for the radio station and the chance he had had to request his favorite songs, a USA Today photographer snapped photos. When asked what it was that he wanted most to say, Mr. Vinet pointed towards his nurse, as well as one of Angola’s vice-wardens, Cathy Fontenot, stating, “I want to thank these two women here.” According to Ms. Fontenot, “No inmate here dies alone, a stroke of compassion which tends to lead the prisoners here in hospice to the realization of the gravity of their past actions.” When asked for specifics, Ms. Fontenot quoted a late prisoner who had spent time here in hospice as saying, “I realized the last person I was with when they died was my victim,” going on to say, “I’m truly sorry.”
Warden Burl Cain takes a similar approach when it comes to the men on death row, a people he refers to as “his children”, taking the trouble to hold their hand as they are executed by lethal injection. In so doing, Mr. Cain, who will have worked with these inmates on getting as right as possible with their maker, is able to “communicate” in a wholly different fashion. There is nothing fake or pretentious about Warden Cain. The man commands respect thru his presence alone – when he enters a building. Among multiple people I spoke with, both outside and inside Angola, the idea of Burl Cain as a good and honest guy was unanimous.
Approximately 86% of the 5,000 inmates at Angola are never going home – a sentence of “life” that in the State of Louisiana actually means it. The strategy of Mr. Cain is simply to let these men he has custody over have the chance to better their lives, to communicate, to be men.
As the sun began to set, I asked to be taken out to the prison’s old cemetery, a place where 1/3 of all those who die here will be buried, having no family or friends to take their remains away. I found a bronze marker set up for the “Unknown Buried Here” with the dedication: “Remember not my name nor my sins nor guilt nor shame; only that I was a man.”
In the end it was two inmates who pushed me and my canoe back out into the Mighty Mississippi. The sun had gone down, and the Mississippi was shiny black, reflecting the lights of the crew boat. I was not afraid. I knew exactly where my island lay, having approached the night before under similar circumstances. There comes a time on this river when you become one with your craft, where the danger of a seriously dangerous river is outweighed by a sense of calm, of a cocoon that envelopes you and lets you know you’re going to be alright. It could very well be due to the fact that I was only a visitor, but I felt this same safety – this same calm feeling the entire day at Angola – my very first day in a maximum security prison. My canoe with my gear in it had been loaded on a truck, and together we heaved it out and into the water. It was a strange feeling to step in and glide away. The convicts whose names I had forgotten to ask waved and wished me Godspeed. The sliver of a moon had broken thru the clouds for a moment and as the current took me, I waved back, feeling a certain camaraderie with the prisoners and their warden, but thankful to be free.
NOVEMBER 13, 2009
Life lessons of the dugout canoe
Canoe guru John Ruskey’s exploits along the Mississippi River have been featured in Southern Living, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic. But it’s his work with the at-risk children of this region of America that intrigued me: the idea of using a canoe as education; of transforming a log into useable art; of the dugout canoe as a life-changing experience.
Garon, Fredrick, Brooklyn, and Veronica, four KIPP Charter School Middle School kids from downtown Helena, Arkansas smile as they walk the levee from their school to Mr. Ruskey’s Helena-based workshop. This is their second class at Quapaw Canoes, and even though their friends are catching the bus for home, these kids walk with a stride in their step.
Helena has a rich and illustrious past. As one of the few original bluff cities on the Mississippi River, the boomtown that once was is now an economically-depressed region, save – one of the only things going for it – the hope, promise and vision of the children.
Mr. Ruskey has been volunteering his time with the local KIPP Charter School for over a year, so when the principal phoned and asked if it would be possible to transform a log into an original dugout canoe, comprised of KIPP-only students, the answer was, “We’d love to do that.”
Mr. Ruskey does not speak in sound bytes. He speaks from his soul and he speaks with conviction. When asked how art, education, and the Mississippi River come together, Mr. Ruskey explained, “They come together with each paddle stroke you take. If you watch the way a paddle cuts thru the water – it creates a double spiral on either side of it – and if you look at the shape of a classic canoe, it’s almost the same shape you see created in the water as you’re stroking the paddle. And that’s the wonderful thing about the Mississippi River and any moving water – but on the Mississippi you see it more than any other body of water I’ve ever experienced. You see expressions of patterns, of life patterns – the very basic patterns that govern our life – you see them expressed, constantly being expressed and then re-created over and over again. And so it’s actually there on the face of the water that you see all those things come together. One of our mottos here is that the River brings us together, and in that sense it literally does bring together education and canoes and art – they all come together as you’re paddling the canoe.”
The KIPP Dugout Canoe Project, as it is officially known, is a twice-weekly after-school class that begins with a pad of paper and a pencil. The students are asked to sit quietly and look at the log and visualize what it will one day become. Some draw the log as they see it while others draw a dugout canoe with an animal head. At some point, the kids, in coordination with their school, will vote democratically on what the final shape is to become. For now, part of the fun is just that idea alone. The idea that this cottonwood log can one day become anything and everything they hope and desire it to be.
NOVEMBER 4, 2009
Illiteracy to literature in the enlightened South
Known as the home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, the University of Mississippi, and one of the finest independent book stores in the nation, Square Books, it came as a shock to learn Lafayette County’s illiteracy level amongst adults equals that of the national average – dead even at 23%.
And so began a search for answers.
One of the first things that catches your eye in Oxford is that folks from all walks of life are serious about the arts. From a rich and illustrious tradition of Hill Country Blues to a celebration of outsider art to the local Arts Council which hosts and funds a revolving door of local events to the three Square Book establishments on Oxford Square, there seem to be multiple celebrations of the arts every day and night of the week.
One of these Oxford institutions is billed as Thacker Mountain Radio – a weekly variety show of music and literature – held via Square Books every Thursday night stringing back to 1979. The show is live and the public are welcome and for those who can’t make it in person, there’s the radio. Thacker Mountain is broadcast on both “Rebel Radio” and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
To take a seat at Thacker Mountain is to get into the groove of the local arts scene. The oversized windows at Off Square Books are opened up and those who don’t get seats pour out into the town’s Square. The night that I caught Thacker Mountain through the lens of my camera was the night I met authors Jessica B. Harris and Roy Blount Jr. Their advice for the public at large – “You’ve got to read” – a mantra which led me to the local Literacy Council.
Nicole Bass is an “Americaore Vista” which is a title and branch of the Volunteers and Service to America. While the council spends most of their time dealing with “preventative” measures – working with children – I thought it would be interesting to tag along for the first lesson of an adult, by the name of Sherry Crocker.
Sherry is in her late thirties and has two young children. She wants to break the cycle of illiteracy in her family and has asked the Literacy Council for help. According to Sherry, she’s taking lessons to “help [her] four year old with homework” as well as to “read [the notes] he brings home from school.”
The idea of taking that first step into a first lesson in reading is a daunting prospect for many adults who in so doing are forced to acknowledge they don’t know how to read. There’s a stigma attached to both being unable to read as well as the fact a healthy percentage of our nation cannot read, like unto a secret. A secret that isn’t talked about in polite society – a secret that as painful as it might be, needs to be brought out into the open and turned around and discussed.
The lesson for Sherry was intense and at times difficult. She was not able to pronounce many consonants, but she tried and although visibly embarrassed, was determined not to give up. When asked why it might be scary for folks around the nation to take the bold step that she took this day, Sherry, full of confidence on having completed her very first lesson, beamed, “They’re just scared – but me – I’m not scared at all – I’m enjoying … learning how to read.”
From the basic grasp of consonants to the next step up the ladder of literacy – actually craving the concept of literature – I found the idea of introducing a literary mantra in the epicenter of what some folks refer to as the “Enlightened South” an interesting prospect.
David Swider and Michael Bible are affable and giddy and very much sincere about literature. I joined the duo for a beer at the Square’s greasy spoon, Ajax, to talk shop about the region before sitting down for an interview back on their work-turf of Square Books. Their energy plays off each other when they talk, turning every conversation into a brainstorming session of what would be cool or what could work out literary-wise for the literary journal, Kitty Snacks. At ages 25 and 28, respectively, David and Michael are relatively young to undertake the launch of a literary magazine – but this is their point. They want to make the rather lofty idea of literature a possibility for folks of all ages by offering it to the public as bite sized snacks.
According to Michael Bible, Mississippi “is the fattest, poorest, dumbest state in the country – that is full of geniuses. You have people that can’t read right next to people that win Nobel Prizes – and it’s this weird kind of dichotomy that works to both illuminate that kind of difference but also recently, bring it together.”
“The book is kind of a hard commodity right now,” explains Wayne Andrews, Executive Director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, who immediately saw the potential for the journal and helped to get it published. While “publishers [are] not taking risks on new authors [nor] publishing diverse works, we’re finding new ways to do it.” According to Mr. Andrews, quarterly publications like Kitty Snacks are “leading [people] down the path to discover a magazine and then hopefully discover a book.”
NOVEMBER 2, 2009
Beth’s Bucket List: To Ride a Horse
OXFORD and HERNANDO, MISSISSIPPI
When Jay and Beth VanWinkle saw that their favorite actor, fellow Mississippian Morgan Freeman, was coming out with a new movie titled “The Bucket List”, Beth turned to Jay and said, “I’ve got to see that.” One year previous, Beth VanWinkle had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and has been, as she puts it, “grasping for everything I could get [out of life – before it’s too late].”
The film inspired Beth and Jay to write down a short list of ideas they wanted to accomplish before Beth permanently goes into, what she describes as her “cave” – a place where she will be in her very own world.
Beth’s list included three things she had never before had the opportunity to do: 1) Meet actor Morgan Freeman – which she has done; 2) Skydive out of an airplane – which she has now accomplished twice; and 3) Have the opportunity to ride a horse.
In this report, we witness Beth leading the first annual Oxford Memory Walk as well as the story of Beth’s realization of her third and final wish – to ride a horse – a story which she will now be able to replay again and again, as her memory continues to fade.
OCTOBER 29, 2009
Livin’ the Blues with James “Super Chikan” Johnson
James “Super Chikan” Johnson’s chicken shack, out back behind his family’s Clarksdale home, is a work in progress. He’s currently expanding it out to accommodate his art, guitars, and inner sanctuary that he calls home.
Blues enthusiasts from all over the world celebrate Super Chikan’s unique, old school take on the blues – including a wide variety of homemade guitars that he both plays and sells. Here you’ll find the diddley-bow hybrid he calls a “bow-jo”, his rooster guitar, ax guitar, 38 calliber gun guitar, and ceiling fan guitar. A simple cigar box guitar will set you back around $3,800, while a diddley-bow bow-jo will run you closer to $5K. And they sell.
But before his success, Mr. Johnson “lived the blues” in a different context – as Wikipedia explains, “moving from town to town [as a child] in the Mississippi Delta and working on his family’s farms.” From a sharecropping existence, picking cotton, to working the John Deere tractors that replaced the sharecropper, to driving truck throughout Arkansas and Tennessee, Mr. Johnson made a conscious decision to stay in the South and to do it with a smile.
Which life lessons led him back to his early childhood memories, back onto the front porch where he’d listen to the likes of blues legends Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, among others, who would stop by to visit his grandfather, to talk shop, play their music, and in so doing, to quite literally live the blues.
OCTOBER 26, 2009
Embracing the Economic Blues
When you walk the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, you can still hear the voice of blues legend Robert Johnson – ringing from the shop windows as well as from passing cars. There’s a revival going on here and it’s all about the blues – about a respect for the first generation bluesmen who are honored and revered.
But it’s not just about a cultural renaissance. The blues pays, a concept that folks from all walks of life have begun to latch on to.
OCTOBER 24, 2009
Politics Meets the Blues with Mississippi’s Bill Luckett
Here at Ground Zero Blues Club of Clarkdale, Mississippi, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial contender, Bill Luckett. In this complete and uncut interview, Mr. Luckett, who co-owns the Ground Zero Blues Club with Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, answered a barrage of questions ranging from the cultural renaissance of the blues to his candidacy for governor.
OCTOBER 19, 2009
A safe place in the City of Good Abode
I had the pleasure to visit the “Youth Villages” Poplar Group Home of Memphis, TN, which is designated as a “safe place” for the abused, runaway, and homeless children of the area. Here the boys of the house are carving pumpkins and preparing their first pumpkin roasted seeds. Thanks to the outpouring of volunteers from the local area, via Volunteer Mid-South.
OCTOBER 17, 2009
In Her Shoes: Surviving Domestic Violence
Upon entering the Cairo Women’s Shelter, in Cairo, Southernmost Illinois, one is immediately greeted with the smile of a lifetime.
Meet Jeannine Woods, Executive Director of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, who along with her rather gregarious staff, have made it their life passion to bring a sense of normalcy to the many battered women and children who, on a daily basis, buzz their way into the shelter. From that smile comes the prospect of a bona fide safe haven where the woman or often mother can begin to consider the prospect of – quite possibly for the very first time in their lives – thinking about themselves. Which can lead to positive goals.
When asked about the importance of goals, Natasha, mother of seven and resident of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, explained, “I pray every day for strength to keep me to do this – to give me the power to keep going … to keep it in me that I am here and I’ve got to protect my kids and that when I leave here, that it’s still going to remain the same.”
Buzzing with activity, Jeannine and myself, looking for a place to conduct the interview, decided it best to step outside, seeing as how it was such a picture-perfect day. Which brought us in view of the projects of Cairo – a place that Jeanne explained was safer than one might think.
“See that mother, just down the road, that one with a baby on her hip and another holding her hand?” Looking just down the road from where we sat, I could see it, the silhouette of the trio moving positive in the other direction, along the lane between the government formed homes. “She’s not scared,” explained Jeannine. “She’s walking with confidence, and she’s walking with pride.”
Above and beyond the shelter, Jeannine wanted me to see and experience the brighter side of Cairo – a town which has been on the decline now for several decades – often stereotyped by the media in a rather negative light. In so doing, she asked me “not [to relate] the plight of Cairo, but the positive of Cairo.” Which, thanks to a number of community and political leaders quite busily making a difference, turned out to be an easy task.
“The people who choose to stay [in Cairo] represent [a] picture of hope for our community. They don’t represent the dwindling and dire circumstances… they stay because they have hope for their community… because there is a glimmer of hope here.”
A positive spin on hope, to be sure, which in turn plays directly back into the shelter’s mantra of inner strength – a strength which helps the women of the Cairo Women’s Shelter find the wherewithal to move themselves forward.
“When she takes her shoes and plants them in her new life,” explained Jeanne, “she’s [facing the prospect] of a new life … [of a] hope for her children.”
OCTOBER 11, 2009
The Great Migration of Cairo, Illinois
The positive voices of Cairo, Illinois are drowning out the exteriors of a now legendary, crumbling Main Street. When one takes the time to step behind this facade, there are a group of local leaders who are putting their best foot forward, hopeful of a future that has no other option but to be bright.
OCTOBER 29, 2009
Moving positive with Habitat St. Louis
ST. LOUIS, MO
Alfton Denise Jackson, a single mother of two young boys, was in tears when the news came through that she had qualified for a new home. “I received a letter from my case worker,” reported Ms. Jackson, “stating it was a program to build your own home and if I was interested in the program, to come to the site.”
The “site” is one of the largest Habitat for Humanity projects in Habitat St. Louis’ history, encompassing twenty-four new homes for this year, adding up to ninety-one total for the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood alone.
The Jeff-Vander-Lou district of Mid Town St. Louis is historic – first and foremost due to the fact it was the first place in St. Louis where African Americans were allowed to own property. Explains Habitat for Humanity St. Louis Director of Resources, Courtney Simms, “A lot of African American businesses were down in the corridor … a couple of blocks over, so to be able to come into this neighborhood and build homes… is quite significant.”
Alexander, age 12, and Ledra, age 7, the two young sons of home-builder Alfton Denise Jackson, are excited about the family’s new prospects. Their reasons are first for safety, and second because they will now each have their own bedrooms. “We used to live next to a man who would beat on his wife,” explained Alexander. “But now we’re moving to a safer place.”
When asked if the present neighborhood where Ms. Jackson, Alexander, and Ledra now reside is safe, Alfton was quick to reply, “No … We [currently] stay in some nice apartments in an area [St. Louis] is trying to build up around here but we’re right next to some of the projects … it’s somewhat scary but [although] we [have] learned to cope with it … it’s not a place I would want to raise my kids because it’s kind of dangerous.”
Asked if he was at times scared of his present location in life, Alexander reported, “Yes. There was a shooting,” going on to explain there are gunshots nearby that ring out at night.
The Jackson family are gregarious and affable. They smile frequently, and it’s not only for the camera. There is a love and a bond that one can readily detect. Alfton is quick to tell me of her sons’ recent school honors, of “all E’s” and awards, and of a hushed thankfulness that her sons are so fond of their school – a school they will not have to change when they move into their new home in Jeff-Vander-Lou come late November. Catch phrases like “peaceful” and “pride” and even “college” are part of her young boys’ vocabulary. As is an excitement for a future they are proud to step into.
Looking around the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, it is exciting to see a community quite literally on the rise, rolling up their shirtsleeves in an effort to reclaim a past pride, a past history that folks around here point to with symbolic reverence. There are the odd dilapidated structures of days gone by, before the factory jobs moved out of town. There are a large number of vacant lots, and amidst the vacancies there is a whole new community that is quickly taking shape, rising up from the dust.
Driving up and down the streets, Courtney Simms smiles broadly as she explains which new homes were built in which year, which vacant lots are owned by Habitat, as well as an impressively large row of homes, set out on multiple city streets, which are currently under construction. She takes a genuine pride in her work, showing and explaining the LEED Certified achievements of the new Habitat homes, of where a holistic approach to plotting and planning is merging cost saving features with the natural environment. “When you consider that … where these houses [now sit] were vacant lots and now they’re thriving families that will be raising their children … [we are together] rebuilding the community.”
And yet while folks are hopeful, the fact is that the recent history of Jeff-Vander-Lou is not exactly rosy, as seen most readily in the multiple stop signs strapped with stuffed teddy bears, of stuffed dolls of various shapes and sizes, pinpointing the intersections where children from the neighborhood have at some point in time lost their lives.
Which is where the desire for hope and for change have caught fire, where the sense of community, at least locally, is making a sincere power play. Where “ninety-one thriving families” are most certainly coming together, hammers in hand via Habitat for Humanity, made up of volunteers from CEO’s to Senior Vice Presidents to the average, typical “Joe” – together here unified, quite busily making a stand.
2006 Habitat homebuyer Wendy McPherson, who is now volunteering as a “mentor” to Alfton Denise Jackson, amongst others, explained the phenomenon of what is happening here best by bringing the word ‘community’ down to its brass tax. Explains Wendy, “It says a lot about ‘community’ because it teaches your neighbors to come together as one and not just be next door – but to get involved … It helps others to become more aware of their surroundings and to draw together as a community and work together. It makes a difference when you know your neighbors and you look out for your neighbors and everyone comes together.”
SEPTEMBER 21, 2009
The renaissance of America’s Hometown
Like unto Samuel Clemen’s legendary protagonist, Tom Sawyer, Alex Addison, the present-day, barefoot ambassador of Hannibal, is all business. “I see [riding the economic downturn] not as a challenge but as a goal – it’s starting to click, [things locally are] going to be really good,” explained Alex, age 13, holding his own in a round-table interview with Mayor Roy Hark, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Terry Sampson, and City Planner Jeff LaGarce.
Taking a day out of his busy schedule as Hannibal’s official “Tom”, Alex took me for a tour of ‘America’s Hometown’ with the polished grace of a professional politician. Together, we visited everybody from the local, modern-day judge, to the minister, to of course, the city’s old-school mayor.
As we talked about the building blocks of America – of what made America great – I learned that Twain’s literature, along with a now bustling Main Street, is making all the difference, at least locally here in ‘America’s Hometown’. There is a buzz in the air along Main Street, as shopkeepers brave the financial crisis in hopes of a year that for many is landing solidly in the black.
The trick, as far as I could see, was a love and rallying cry from business owners and citizens alike to preserve the downtown district. “Preservation doesn’t cost – it pays,” exhorted local resident and former PBS television personality, Bob Yapp.
After traveling the world as a foremost expert on home restoration, with his own show on both PBS and NPR, Mr. Yapp decided to settle for good here in Hannibal, describing himself as one of “Hannibal’s expats” who “are coming to Hannibal [with a love of Hannibal’s] architecture.”
But it isn’t just Mr. Yapp’s generation of eclectic friends, ranging from potter Steve Ayers to the next-door Bed and Breakfast innkeepers of the Dubach Inn, that are excited about restoring America’s architectural past. Yapp is busy mentoring and teaching at-risk youth from the local high school, many of which enjoy their time “on site” so much they plan to take up the trade. “I actually want to do exactly what Bob is doing,” explained one Hannibal High School student, going on to exhort, “when you’re here you actually get to do stuff and work on stuff that you actually want to do.”
Which could describe the new Mark Twain Boyhood & Museum Executive Director Cindy Lovell’s take on Hannibal to a tee, self-describing her time in this town as “being intoxicated with the history [of Twain] ever since stepping foot into Hannibal.” Dr. Lovell’s eyes glance around her as she walks these streets – observing the very homes and hills and river and buildings that directly inspired Hannibal’s favorite son – Mark Twain – with an all-knowing smile that one can’t help but find contagious. “I think Hannibal’s history is so linked to the past,” continued Dr. Lovell, “in the preservation of the past, the lessons we learn from the past. And we have to be vigilant.”
From the city officials I was most fortunate to meet, to the next generation of high school artisans, I believe that Hannibal, and through her example, America’s hometowns around the country, will continue to experience a re-birth of sorts as revitalization begins to hold sway. “Across the nation, small communities are reinventing themselves,” continued Mr. Yapp. “And they’re having a renaissance in the sense that… things change.”
Continuing that walk, Dr. Lovell looked up, gesturing to the top of Main Street. “Tom always has his eye on the future,” explained Dr. Lovell. “That’s why when you look at the statue of Tom and Huck, lording over Main Street from the base of Cardiff Hill, you will see Tom stepping into the future.”
“Not only do we have a good past,” explained young Alex Addison, “but I think it would be better to have a good past and a great future than a great past and an okay future.” A future that judging from the next generation of Hannibal, is most certainly going to be bright.
AUGUST 28, 2009
Rethinking the American family farm
I found it interesting that the boyhood farm of Norman Borlaug, the father of the “Green Revolution” and “god” of conventional farming as we know it,
now inhabits an organic, sustainable-farming strategy. The Natvigs and
Borlaugs have been neighbors for as far back as they can remember, and as a result, they just happen to be related. I spoke with Godfrey Natvig, age 89, former Howard County Soil & Water Commissioner and life-long farmer; Mike Natvig, age 44, quite busy on an organic, sustainable revolution of his own; as well as Mary Damm, a soil scientist from Indiana University. The answers given — both from the soil, as well as from a six generation farming family — might surprise you.
AUGUST 21, 2009
Islands in the stream
A number of habitat islands are taking shape in the Upper Mississippi River just below Brownsville, Minnesota near the Minnesota-Iowa boarder – islands in the stream now being reclaimed for wildlife that were once prevalent before the Corps’ locks and dams were introduced back in the 1930s. The project is an effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with Fish and Wildlife, and Minnesota and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to “restore lost and diminished fish and wildlife habitat in the pool by restoring islands.”
According to Jesse Weymiller, a local tow-boat sub-contractor tasked with moving rock via barge to help construct the approximate 22 islands in the project, the work is moving along well – now in phase three of three phases.
Jesse represents three generations of river-men who presently man their set of two tow boats and multiple barges – a local family run business who represent over 100 years of experience working the river between them.
“I started working when I was 15 – first working summers,” explained Jesse, now age 29. “I guess my future was pretty well set out before me.”
Jesse’s uncle, Tim Weymiller, who has worked dredging, towing, and construction on the river with his father from the age of 12 likes the idea of local workers included in the project. According to Tim, most jobs go to out of state contractors and sub-contractors, up from Mississippi and Louisiana, with locals making up about 20% of the current workforce. “But that’s really okay – because we also travel. We go where the work is. It just so happens we’re now working local.”
The islands are comprised of a layer of sand which is dredged from up stream in the river, a layer of rock, followed by the planting of native grasses and rows of willow trees to help buffer the island while attracting a number of waterfowl, turtles and fish.
I spoke with local resident and fisherman Jody Sonsalla who talked about the cost involved – stating it was a very good thing. “A number of years ago, the Mayor of Brownsville – Tim Sears – stood up and told the different people at the [town] meeting – ‘You know, $100,000 worth of rock in 1980 would have saved us $15m today’ – and it’s true – and you know, it’s one of those things that if we wait till tomorrow its just going to cost us more.”
While I canoed through the three-mile construction zone taking shape in the middle of the river, it was pleasing to see a return of the waterfowl that were once so prevalent in these parts. I noticed bald eagles, pelican, seagulls, as well as a great egret who stood watching the cranes, tugs, tow boats, and barges, busily re-creating a once-lost habitat.
AUGUST 14, 2009
The Somali-American Journey
The Muslim-American girls of Minneapolis are engaged in a triumphant journey of education, art, and community service, paving the way for what is to become the next generation of local doctors, lawyers, and political leaders.
Helping to lead this charge is educator, leader, and community organizer Farheen Hakeem, mentoring a number of girls through her involvement in the Girl Scout movement as well as a new Muslim-based initiative dubbed the “Me” program.
Ms. Hakeem and her loyal band of Girl Scouts are no strangers to the media – they have been featured on the front page of the New York Times (11/28/07), as well as in the 2008 College Emmy Award-Winning documentary “Bismillah”, produced and directed by Jolene Pinder and Sarah Zaman (destined for the Film-Festival Circuit and PBS in early 2010). I spoke with Ms. Pinder regarding this story and asked, upon viewing the film for myself, about her take on the effect Ms. Hakeem is having on the girls she has come to serve. “Farheen is empowering a new generation of girls,” gushed Ms. Pender. “She’s an amazing role model … shap[ing] how the girls see their role in the community – the power and voice they can have.”
And it’s true. The girls I met from the film are enthusiastic about life, about the power of their voice, as well as a future that Hodo Ibrahim, age 14, described as “beautiful and bright.” Such optimism helps foster creativity, courage, and success.
I was able to shadow two additional girls from “Bismillah”, Mary Metchnnek, age 15, and Ayan Deria, age 16, as they traversed their Cedar-Riverside community of downtown Minneapolis – dubbed by locals as Little Mogadishu.
Starting from the Brian Coyle Center of the University of Minnesota where Somali children of all ages worked on computers, talked music, and played basketball, we moved through the inner-city landmark of Cedar-Riverside Plazas, a low-income housing set of buildings – all colorful beyond belief – which have been reclaimed from a once drug/gang infested stronghold. “You used to not be able to enter that area,” explained Ms. Hakeem, who ran for City of Minneapolis Mayor back in 2005 under the Green Party banner. “But now you can walk around freely, even at 10pm at night. When the Somali refugees began to arrive, they naturally moved into the least expensive section of town – Cedar-Riverside.”
As I entered the neighborhood to meet Ms. Hakeem and the girls, my taxi driver, Hassan Mohamed, age 25, explained how this is so. “We [as Somalis] get along in America … when we came to America we are very helpful to each other and other people too … Back in Somalia it’s all about tribes and every tribe wants to be the president. But here [in Minneapolis] we put the tribes to the side – to come together.”
Part of learning about pride in your community comes from actively pitching in to help it out. As we moved along the streets and under the bridges, Ayan and Mary introduced me to their latest community project – a mural of Minneapolis they are working on in conjunction with “Articulture”. Here, Executive Director Elizabeth Greenbaum explained that when it comes to at-risk kids mixed with art, “art is a wonderful equalizer, especially for students who don’t succeed in other subject matters. When you think about it and take it a step further, we’re talking about the basic understanding and the basic concepts to write – and that leads into reading and that leads into learning – so [the] arts are very much orientated to learning on all levels.”
When asked what the mural of Minneapolis she was busy working on meant to her personally, Ayan smiled broadly before exhorting, “I guess I’m proud of it because we worked on it for months and I feel really great looking at it.”
Adjacent to Articulture is Jim’s Barber Shop, who between himself and his father, have manned the shop for the past fifty years. I asked Jim what he thought about the mural, now bordering one side of the building his shop inhabits. Without thinking, he simply said, “I think it’s a great idea. I’m very impressed with the groups of people who go there.” When asked how the old-school, predominately German and Swedish community is adapting to the large influx of Somali refugees, Jim thought before explaining, “While most people are okay with it, overall I think a lot of the seniors aren’t adapting.” Although he was quick to point out that after all, these same old timers had once been immigrants as well.
Part of a journey is looking back, as with Somali immigrant and political refugee Safia Wardere who, along with her husband, took part in the physical journey to America back in 1993. While for the next generation of Somali-Americans, like unto Safia’s daughter, Shachi Hussin, age 13, the journey is two-fold: one foot here and now meets the next step firmly planted in an American-based future – a future that is indeed both beautiful and bright.
JULY 29, 2009
Small Mississippi River town rallies against cancer
Here in the town of Aitkin, up in Minnesota’s Wild North, folks don’t mess around when it comes to cancer. “We decided we would promote awareness,” explains Elaine Hill, co-chair for the county’s Relay for Life Committee. And they’re doing it. In the week leading up to the town’s big event, Aitkin is draped in purple (the designated color of the American Cancer Society), decorating their shops to celebrate survivorship, drinking purple smoothies, and raising money on a business and personal basis.
Relay for Life is in association with the American Cancer Society and is billed as their signature [nationwide] fundraising event to be held locally this coming Friday. The money collected “goes to research and to different services that are available,” explained Elaine, “including free wigs, a feel better program” for women and men, and in many cases, when needed, “a free hospital bed”.
But the story of fighting cancer in Aitkin runs deeper than affiliation with Relay for Life. In a town of 1,984, when somebody gets cancer, it’s personal, because everybody knows everybody. In a single day in town I found myself surrounded by stories of survival meets images of hope.
I spoke with multiple cancer survivors, many of whom had benefited by town fundraising events in which the good people of Aitkin stepped forward to help each other out. Silent auctions, live auctions, family and friends not waiting to be asked for help. But more than monetary support, this town truly lends moral support, as one young man explained, “even if it’s just in one person’s life – it’s still a difference in their life and it’s very important to them.”
At the age of 36, one town cancer survivor, Kathie Smith, a mom of two young children, explained that it was Austin Price, a young boy who was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 1/2, who “paved the way for my kids to handle me being diagnosed with cancer.” “I graduated from high school together with [Austin’s mom] and Austin was in day care with my children. He taught my kids that just because you have cancer [it] doesn’t mean it’s fatal.” Somewhat of a living legend here in Aitkin, Austin, now age 6, has survived a year following eight months of hospitalization and treatment down at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. “He’s made it,” beamed Kathie, fighting back tears.
When asked for advice for others who might be fighting for their very lives around the world, Austin, moving between examining the camera and sitting on his mother’s lap, rubbed his head before answering: “Be strong” – to be followed by the simple, hard fought admonition – “be brave.”
JULY 19, 2009
Passing on the dance of the Ojibwe
BALL CLUB, Minnesota
When the children dance at the Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Days pow wow money is thrown at their feet in a symbolic gesture of respect. The money is then collected and given to the elders, who watch on with great smiles from the elders’ booth.
Veterans, the youth, women, and elders are all honored at this traditional pow wow, now celebrating its 47th year, in multiple ways. Many of which are sacred and cannot be recorded by camera or sound. For example there are the songs of the drums. Each drum possesses within it a song which is special – a song within that only that drum can play.
Then there are the power rings which form a circle around the pow wow ring, used to hoist individual flags for family members who have passed on in active combat overseas. These flags must be raised by a veteran, and preferably a veteran who is a member of the family. I spoke with Don Schaaf, a veteran that saw combat in Beirut. Don was there to raise a flag for his father, Al Schaaf, who had fallen as a paratrooper in Korea. “It’s basically how [we] grieve and how [we] deal,” he explained.
What makes this particular pow wow special is that it features approximately 300 dancers and concentrates on the old and the young. My take for a story was to attempt to document how the knowledge of the dance is passed down from the old to the young, from generation to generation.
When I went to the source – a senior elder of this Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe – he instructed me in the best possible method. Instead of answering my series of prepared questions, he encouraged me to watch and to listen and to feel – to learn about the pow wow by witnessing it firsthand, for myself. Good advice from a professional educator. John Mitchell, the elder, is 87 years old and just won the National Education Indian Elder Award. He told me that dancing cannot be taught – that it must be watched and appreciated. That there’s a love about it that must come from within – a love that can be passed from generation to generation.
And funny enough, when I spoke with Andrew Wakonabo, a winning boy crowned “Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Brave” from last year, he said the same thing, explaining, “I pretty much learned myself – watching other people dance.” The winning dancers are crowned “brave” and “princess” and their title is more complicated than simply wearing a crown and a banner. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Councilman Joe Gotchie explained that once they win, for the entire year they must “demonstrate responsibilities [so] that other youth look up to them.”
There are all sorts of dances at the pow wow and members must be dressed in full regalia to be permitted to participate in competition. Here we witnessed grass, traditional, jingle dress (healing dress) and fancy shell dancers. There are also dances for everyone in the audience, dances for the entire community and all visitors to participate in.
When I met with the councilman the night before the pow wow he told me of an aunt of his who back in his rebellious youth was a real hard case. She’d get all the boys riled up and excited about the pow wow. “You know the pow wow’s coming,” she’d exhort, “yelling and cussing and telling us we had to sort ourselves out and get ourselves in line.” Joe broke down while he told me the story – he said that it was for her that he would dance – that to this day he’s going to all of this work year in and year out (now running the show) just to make this aunt proud. Even though the aunt has been gone now for several years, he can still hear her.
There’s a bond between the old and the young within the Native American community that other cultures can learn from. The Ojibwe historically used complex pictures on sacred birch bark scrolls to communicate their knowledge.
Today, I learned that for the Ojibwe, dance communicates love. I saw a lot of smiles and felt a feeling that as one older member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe explained “is impossible to put into words”. A language all its own which is positive and knows no age.
JULY 16, 2009
It was approximately 4:30pm on Tuesday, July 14th when the town siren went off in Blackduck, Minnesota. Everyone is familiar with the siren here because they do a practice test every day at precisely 12 noon. The siren went for a good long time. It was eerie to hear it drone on and on through the rain and the wind just outside and it made me apprehensive. I imagined a fire in the downtown district or hopefully a cat up a tree. Thinking I might witness some sort of rescue I grabbed my cameras and ran for my niece’s car.
I had been off the river for one day, hold up in my niece’s house, 25 miles north of Bemidji (the first town on the Mississippi River), drying out my clothes and goods and preparing for a series of interviews here in the general area. A fire engine and a rush of police cars were headed straight through the town and as they passed some local residents watched from the sidewalks. Others were already in their vehicles and as I approached the stop sign at the nearby highway there were a good three to four other cars and trucks between myself and the emergency vehicles. We all followed. Everyone was going the same way. What I didn’t know at the time was that the town siren hadn’t rung for an emergency like this in some time, nor that these residents were not following the fire truck to watch and gawk or to take pictures. They were going to help.
Not long after I saw a Sheriff four wheel drive racing behind. I pulled over and as I did I saw he was towing a speedboat. Immediately I knew. The emergency was on the lake. Blackduck Lake is a straight shot from the town, about a mile off the highway.
I found a dirt road away from all other vehicles and I got out to take a look. There were reeds and muck between myself and the lake where I parked but it was the closest to the lake that I could find without being in the way. A fireman on foot approached me and I asked him what had happened and if I could help. “Boating accident – two bodies still in the water – I’m going to search the shore here in the reeds. They could have tried to swim.” We both tried to wade out in the reeds but it was a bit too mucky. He went one way and then I looked on top of my niece’s car and saw my canoe. And just inside, my paddles. For some reason I had forgot to take them out when I unpacked everything else from the car late the night before.
A local resident came and helped me launch from a private dock. There were lots of bigger boats out in the water but as far as I knew, no canoes that could cut through the reeds and cattails. I was then told the owner of the house from where I launched had just launched her kayak. I followed suit.
The water was choppy but out in the cattails you could keep your course. I looked and I looked and went further and further around the shore. I searched for two or so hours. In the end when the wind picked up and the waves began to rise I was on my way back when I saw the blue boat almost completely submerged, surrounded by Beltrami Sheriff rescue boats. There had been a foreboding in the air but it wasn’t until this moment that the gravity of the situation hit me. The two people who were lost were not going to be rescued. The deputy sheriffs around the capsized pleasure boat were marking off orange buoys for the divers to come in and search. The search would be called off for the night not too long after that as the weather would again take a turn for the worse as the wind picked up something fierce.
I didn’t report on this story and I didn’t end up taking any pictures. I only recount what I experienced now because I was touched that a town like this one could band together to try and help. The other, rather selfish reason is because the whole experience has left me a bit melancholy and reflective and I wanted to try to get it off of my chest. Tonight is the second night that I can’t sleep.
I don’t mean to say that I was a great person for launching my canoe. The point is there were many, many boats out there, all searching, all trying to help. It was a community that was coming together – it was a community in action that you can just tell comes together in different ways to help each other out, each and every day. Small town America has a completely different feel from the big city where I grew up. People take the time to greet people. When you try to cross the street, people stop their car and let you go first.
I’ll never forget the look on the searchers’ faces out on the lake as you’d pass by them. You’d take a moment to look at each other and you’d just nod. Others without boats were in the reeds in their wetsuits. I read in the paper today that other locals were preparing food and coffee for the searchers. Others still were there to comfort the mother of one of the missing young men who had come to the lake and was calling his name late into that night.
Life is fragile and every life is special. Two young men, Justin Daryl Anderson and Cody James Kruegerboth, both aged 21, had been rescued by locals directly following the accident. While the bodies of Adam Joseph Bobick, 26, of Little Falls, Minn., and Shawn Allen Ramsdell, 33, also of Little Falls, were recovered the following day. Although this story is not the sort of “positive American story” I intended when I set out on my Flash River Safari, I see now that it is an important one to understand and to share.