Friday, May 6, 2016

An American History Ch. 7: The Trapper

The following is from a work-in-progress called An American History.  It's a novel.

On a Tuesday evening, I stepped out for a stroll down Chapman Avenue.  Cars whirred by me as I slowly walked, a lonely pedestrian alone with my thoughts.  I tried to imagine what this landscape looked like 50, 100, 150, 200 years ago.  I wondered what it would be like to experience life unmediated by technology and advertisements, when my only cues for understanding the world were nature, other people, and my own mind. 

Since my first brief and reckless venture into the time machine, I'd learned a few things.  First, dress appropriately.  It was quite a shock to my system to suddenly find myself in the Ice Age wearing a t-shirt.  Before each trip, I would need to conduct some serious research, and dress accordingly.

For my next adventure through time, I decided to visit California of the mid-1800s, which is sometimes referred to as the "Mission Era" of California.  I'd visited Mission San Juan Capistrano (a popular tourist destination in Orange County) and the tour guide had given the impression that the early 1800s was the "Golden Age" of California, when kindly friars lived together with native Americans in a quaint, pastoral environment.  I'd seen the pictures in the museum gift shop.  After the harshness of the Ice Age, I wanted to visit a pleasant place and time, and so I decided to visit one of the old missions.

I researched clothing that an English-speaking white guy might wear in Mission Era California.  I learned that there weren't too many English-speaking white guys at this time.  California, at this time, was New Spain, and was therefore mostly populated by Spaniards and Native Americans.  The only English-speaking white guys were fur trappers, mountain men who wore mostly leather.

It took some serious thrift store hunting, but I finally managed to cobble together an outfit that looked sort of like how an early 19th century fur trapper might look.  I was too embarrassed to wear my leather outfit to the Cal State Fullerton library, where the time machine was.  I was trying to be incognito, and dressing like a 19th century fur trader is the opposite of incognito.  So, I dressed in normal clothes, and carried my mountain main gear in a duffel bag down to the basement of the library.  The door was, again, unlocked, so I walked in, put on my trapper outfit, strapped on the navigational wrist band (so I would not be stranded in the Mission Era), and walked bravely into the Golden Age of California.

The first thing I heard was a gunshot, and then I saw a man tumble onto the ground nearby, attempt to struggle to his feet, and fall back down, bleeding from his side.  The wounded man was a native American.  Who shot him? I wondered angrily.  Immediately behind me emerged a horse and rider.  The rider looked like a fur trapper.  For a moment, I forgot about the wounded Indian and compared my outfit to his.   Mine looked a little fake.  I hoped he wouldn't notice.

"Got you!  You Injun son of a bitch!" the fur trapper shouted at the wounded man laying on the ground.  Was he dying?

My thoughts were immediately ripped from the topic of clothing to the attempted murder I'd just witnessed.

The man on the ground rose to his knees and looked at the fur trapper on the horse.  There was  defiance in the Indian's eyes, and he said something in a language I did not understand that made me want to cry.

"Shut yer fuckin' mouth!" the trapper shouted back, and cracked the wounded Indian across the face with the butt of his rifle, knocking him out cold.  I'd never seen a man knocked out cold before, much less shot.  Let me tell you, it's not as cool as it looks in movies.  It's actually really horrifying.

I stood there a moment, awkwardly, in my ridiculous, fake-looking trapper outfit, unsure what to say to the violent man on the horse.  My fingers touched the navigational wrist band.  I wanted to zap back to the library.  Certainly, I had made a mistake in my assessment of the Golden Age of California.   But something, curiosity maybe, compelled me to stay.

"Who the hell are you?" the mountain man demanded, as he dismounted his horse.

I thought for a moment, afraid to speak.  I was sure my accent would sound as strange to him as his sounded to mine.  I tried to mimic the way he talked.

"Just a fellow fur trapper from them thar hills.  You seen any beaver around?"

The mountain man assessed me quizzically.

"Ain't no beaver to trap here, stranger," he replied, "Just Injuns."

"Why, may I ask, are you trapping Injuns?"

"Cus that's where the money's at.  Serra pays me good money to track and catch runaways, like this heathen dirt worshipper," the man said, nudging the unconscious Indian with the tip of his boot.

"I see.  And what did this Indian do?  Kill somebody?"

"Naw, he just ran away."

In that moment, I felt a heavy existential shock, and my view of the California Missions began to change.  Were the missions like slavery?

"Say," I asked, "Do you know the way to Mission San Juan Capistrano?"

"Of course, stranger.  That's where I'm headed now.  That's where I'll get paid for returning this Injun piece of shit."

"I wonder if I might come along?" I asked

"Don't see why not.  I could use the company of a fellow Christian man.  Help me tie the legs of this Injun.  I'm gonna drag him all the way back."

"You know, you could put him on your horse."

"What?!  And let him bleed all over my good saddle?  No way, stranger."

"I'll carry him," I offered.

"It's at least ten miles to the Mission.  You can't carry him all that way.  And why bother?  He's just a fuckin' Indian."

"I don't mind."

"Suit yourself, stranger."

I hoisted the wounded, unconscious Indian over my shoulders.

"What's your name?" I asked the trapper.

"Names Wolfskill," the man said, "William Wolfskill.  And you better keep up.  Nightfall's comin.  Don't wanna get stuck out here at night.

And thus it was that I entered the Golden Age of California.  Carrying a dying Indian on my back, following the trapper William Wolfskill toward Mission San Juan Capistrano.

I was not physically fit.  I spent most of my time reading and grading papers, not exercising or lifting weights, so the task of carrying a fully grown Indian proved exceedingly difficult for me.  It was a shame, because the surrounding country, the landscape through which I was walking, was very beautiful.  Had circumstances been different, I think I would have been having the time of my life.

I was witnessing a landscape that was lost in my time.  It was a pre-developed Orange County.  I was sure we were walking along the route of what would become the Interstate 5 freeway.  Here, in this time, it was only hills and trees and birds and brush.  How easily, I thought, we come to accept the reality of the present as the way things have always been.  The day was lovely, with a clear blue sky and the air so clean and pure.  I didn't know air could be so clean.  Instead of the smell of exhaust from cars, there was the smell of sage and live oak and earth.

The Indian on my shoulders shifted and made a low moaning noise, as he slowly regained consciousness.  The blood from his side had saturated my ridiculous leather shirt.  Suddenly, he sprang from my shoulders, shouting in his native language.  It was, like this landscape, a lost language, a tongue not heard for nearly a century.  What dies, I thought, when a language dies?

It struck me, even in the chaos of that moment, that one task I could do would be to transcribe and preserve the native tongue of this dying Indian.

"Whoa there, Injun!" said William Wolfskill, speaking as one might address a horse, "Hold it right there!"

The trapper aimed his rifle squarely at the Indian, who was now clutching his wounded side.

"Hold him!" Wolfskill shouted to me, and I felt the weight of a moral dilemma.  I did not want to hold this Indian.  I wanted only to talk to him, to learn from him, perhaps even to help him escape from this violent man with the rifle.  Before I had time to react, Wolfskill had bound the Indian's hands with rope.

"Now, walk!" Wolfskill shouted, "We have far to go."

Quietly, sullenly, we continued our journey to the Mission.  My mind was filled with a rising anger, an anger reflected in the eyes of the Indian when he looked at me.  To him, I was just another Indian hunter, another enemy.  I looked at him with eyes of compassion.  I wanted desperately to cut his bonds, to set him free, but, being unarmed, I felt powerless.

On we walked, along the banks of a mighty river.  I did not remember a mighty river being in Orange County.  But then I suddenly realized--this is the Santa Ana River!  In my time, the Santa Ana River was an ugly cement channel with a trickle of water.  It was a sad, tamed river, like the Indian.  A river forced by violence to follow a certain path.  But here, in the "Golden Age" of California, the river was still wild.

As nightfall approached, we finally came to the Mission.  I was now afraid of what I might find.  I had an ominous feeling that the story of the Missions I'd heard as a tourist were a myth--that the reality was much darker, darker than anyone in my time could even imagine.  Why would this Indian run away?  And why would Father Serra hire a man like Wolfskill to force him back?

As we approached the Mission grounds, I began to understand.  Under the darkening sky, I could see the outlines of hundreds of Indians stooped among fields of crops.  They looked like the slaves of the old south, toiling in the fields.  I the midst of the slaves, a Spanish soldier sat atop a horse, holding a rifle in one hand and a whip in the other.  Could this be true?  Was this Mission like a slave plantation?

Inside a building nearby, I could hear a woman screaming.

"What's that?!" I asked Wolfskill.

The wounded Indian shouted angry words.

"Probably one of Portola's men having some fun with a squaw," Wolfsklll replied, nonchalantly.

"A soldier is raping an Indian?!"

"Rape?" he replied, "Ha!  It's not rape if it's an Injun."

I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to leave.  I felt I had wandered into one of the circles of Dante's hell, where slavery, violence, and rape were common.  This was not the version of the Mission I'd been told.  

The more I traveled through time, the more I came to believe that the worst mistakes and tragedies of history were not simply moral failures, but also failures of imagination.

One of the reasons a man like William Wolfskill could so mistreat the natives of California was because he'd forgotten, or never learned, to use his imagination.  He could not imagine, for example, that the Indian he shot and captured had an inner life that was as rich and varied (probably more so) as his.  He could not imagine the gods Chinigchinich or Weywot.  He could not understand the dance of the moon, or how the ocean was actually a living thing.  He could not imagine this Indian as a father, brother, or son whose love for his family was as deep (probably more so) as his.  I suppose you could also call this a failure of empathy.

In my travels through time, I came to see that morality, imagination, and empathy were not separate categories.  They were, like the religion of the Indian, deeply connected to the people and the world around us, all the time.


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