Art / Painting / Short Story / Writers / Writing

Homes for the Apache by Glenn Johnson

man called raven

Man Called Raven

Claude Heldt was engrossed in reading a report on the status of housing for his White Mountain Apaches. He unconsciously stroked his groomed brown beard, same color as his collar length hair. His long sleeved shirt was rolled up at the sleeves with a silver bolo tie finishing it off. The report had been ordered a year ago in 1966 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for all federally recognized American Indian reservations. The results were not pretty; in fact, for all tribes it was appalling. Embarrassingly, his reservation was among the worst of the worst. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent of the White Mountain Apache reservation, he knew they would blame no one but him—the buck stopped on his desk. The fact that his reservation was grossly underfunded for housing projects was of no consideration to the government’s powers to be. They needed to blame someone, so Claude and his fellow reservation superintendents were tagged it.

Looming large in Claude’s mind was the option of resigning and letting some other sucker take on the inescapable political heat. Vying with that option was Claude’s love for his job of working with the White Mountain Apaches, and their beautiful reservation in the alpine region of Arizona. Over his 8 years as the reservation Superintendent, he had grown to greatly respect the tribal pride in their ferociously defended customs and traditions. Claude reminisced how it had taken three years to gain the Apaches’ trust. They were a very proud people who preferred their own company. He had learned that mistrust was imbedded in their history as a warrior society which was still a source of great pride. It was not lost on the Apaches that their not so distant war chiefs, Geronimo and Cochise, were the greatest warriors in the Southwest. For years, Geronimo and Cochise had run the U.S military forces around in circles through some of the most unforgiving terrain in the Southwestern United States. They had driven the Army crazy; not hard to do because the Inde believed they were crazy in the first place. It was not until 1886 with the capture of Geronimo that the American Indian wars ended in the West.

Claude had learned that the name Apache was not traditional. The historians he read concluded it came from the Yavapai word “pace” that translated to “enemy” which over time became Apache. In his reading about American Indian tribes, Claude found it fascinating that the vast majority of traditional tribal names, when translated, meant the same thing: “The People” and then words that described their land; thus, Dzil Ligia Si’an Ndee—People of the White Mountains.

Claude slumped, over resting his forehead on his desk. He was overwhelmed, as he often was, as to how to help these people. He felt immensely responsible—who else was going to do anything? Housing was rotten, no jobs, Show Low’s businesses hours away as if that made any difference anyway because few of them could afford cars, reservation wide electricity and phone services were decades away. He was at a dead end with job development already used funding from the 1956 Adult Indian Vocational Training Act. No more government jobs to train for that didn’t require a college degree. Even with the HUD funds available for building homes, it was slow going because construction crews were hard to find that would live out in the boonies for months on end. Claude’s brain started to percolate. Housing construction and job training kept bobbing around in his head. They started to drift closer and closer together. “I’ve got it!” he yelled as he jumped up out of his seat. The answer was now clear as day. He would use the Vocational Training Act funds to teach Inde men to learn all of the construction skills needed to build their own homes. And HUD funds would pay for their salaries and for all the building materials once they were ready to start working. He knew that combining the two programs had never been done before by the BIA; but he was sure he could get it approved as a demonstration project.

Claude started immediately, and happily spent the next two days researching both programs and writing as tight a proposal as possible. He wanted to insure approval and funding. When it was finished, he personally drove the two hundred miles to Show Low’s post office, and posted it overnight express to BIA headquarters in Washington D.C. Now the excruciating part: waiting to hear back. One week went by. The second week passed, and finally Claude received a letter from D.C. He tore it open. His heart sunk, not all the way, but a ways. Headquarters wanted to know what accounting procedures would be in place to prevent comingling of funds. Claude thought that he could kick himself for not covering that in his proposal. Finances were not his best suit. “Shoot,” he said to himself, “Should have run it by Phil in the accounting department.” Claude raced over to Phil’s office and gave him the office copy of the proposal and the letter from headquarters. Phil looked at Claude. Looked at the proposal and said, “Hmmm. “Homes for the Apaches.” Not all that catchy but it does get to the point. I’ll read it over next couple of days so I know what I’m talking about.” Claude was very anxious to get the proposal back to D.C., but he greatly respected Phil’s expertise, and knew he was going about it the right way. “Phil, this is top priority. Drop everything else. My goal is to send it off to D.C. in three days. Do able?” Phil skimmed through the proposal, and then looked up at Claude. “You got it boss. Oh, yeah, for what it’s worth–great idea.” Claude smiled proudly and headed back to his office.

Again, he personally delivered the revised proposal to the post office in Show Low. Popular stories had it that Show Low got its name from a poker game in the late 1800s. The future land of Show Low was put on the table as a last chance bet. The winner made a show low bet and won–the name stuck. On the drive back, Claude had the windows open taking in the sweet smell of the Douglas Firs. He thought about how the Apache reservation was not the permanent traditional home of the Western Apache. Like many tribes they followed the migration of game with quickly built temporary shelters. But the Apaches were not just hunters, they were raiders, to the great consternation—putting it mildly—of Spanish and then American settlements all over the southern region. Just the word Apache struck fear into many a non-Indian and equally Indian’s of other tribes. Their swift and devastating hit and run guerilla tactics were the stuff of legend to this day.

Waiting for the response from D.C., had Claude constantly on edge; it was hard to do even his routine duties. Finally, he got the call from Show Low that he had a certified letter with a BIA D.C. return address. Good thing there were rarely any state troopers in this isolated area of Arizona because he was 15 mile over the speed limit all the way to Show Low. He rushed into the post office, and nervously tapped on the counter—the clerk just could not move fast enough. As soon as he was handed the letter, he tore it open. “Hallelujah,” he yelled. His idea was approved. He was proud, but also thankfully optimistic that this was going to be a major game changer for his Apaches. Jobs. Housing. What a coupe. He drove the speed limit back to his office relieved, but also excited and anxious to get started.

He jumped out of his government car. Rushed into the building and went to Chesly’s office and with great restraint said, “We got it. We got it.” Chesly smiled broadly and said, “Congratulations. “Claude had decided that he would not talk about the construction of reservation homes to any Apache other than Chesly and have Chesly keep it confidential between the two of them because he did not want to overwhelm the trainees. First things first, and the training was first. Chesly Goseyun was the Claude’s Tribal Relations Representative. Chesly Goseyun, who was Apache and fluent in both Apache and English. Of even greater significance, was that he was a member of the chieftain clan, and the current chief was his uncle. Claude had tried to learn the Apache language from Chesly who was very patient, but the Apache language was beyond daunting. Being indigenous to what was called America, the Apache language, like all American Indian languages, had absolutely no Greek or Latin derivates to hang your hat on, much less give you any clue to even begin to recognize a single word. Chesly said, “This money will help many families. I will go now to my uncle and tell him you request to meet with him. He is busy so you may need to wait.” Claude responded, “Please tell the chief I will be honored to meet him when he can.” Chesly put on his black cowboy hat, and walked out wearing his blue jeans and signature leather knee high moccasins. He had no choice, but to be patient. His being the superintendent meant very little to the Inde. This was their land. They were a sovereign Nation with their own self-determined government, laws, courts, and police–all characteristic of a sovereign nation. The White Mountain Apaches were citizens of two nations: their own and the United States of America. They, like other members of American Indian tribes, had served with distinction in every war of the modern era. In World Wars I and World war II they were segregated into American Indian only divisions; the same as African Americans. Actually, this was just fine with most American Indians because they preferred to have a fellow Indian warrior by their side. The difference between them and other soldiers was that they were not fighting for the U.S. government; they were fighting to protect their own tribal lands. If the U.S. fell, their tribes fell.

After two weeks, Chesly told Claude that Chief Manza would meet with him. Claude traveled deep into the reservation to the Chief’s home. They had met but a handful of times at Tribal functions. Claude gently knocked on the weathered wooden door. Chief Manza opened the door and motioned for Claude to come in. Claude said, “yaa’ ta’ sai’ an Apache greeting that Chesly had taught him. The chief motioned for Claude to come in and sit in an antique oak chair. The Chief sat in another wooden chair of a different design. Claude was a bit surprised because he had fantasized sitting cross legged on the floor. Adjusting to the reality of the sitting arrangement, Claude spoke about the weather, and the many elk that the Inde were harvesting—his words—not theirs. Chesley had explained that it was rude to immediately talk about business. After twenty minutes of pleasantries, Claude asked if he could talk about the construction training program. Chief Manza nodded. So Claude explained how this training would pay in construction skills for 25 Inde men. Claude stuck to his plan to reveal the whole project in stages with home building as the last stage to be revealed. The Chief approved the training and thanked Claude for providing jobs for Inde men.

As soon as Claude got back to his office, he called a meeting of his staff and ordered them all, except for administrative staff to drop all they were doing and spread out over assigned heads of families in every nook and cranny of the reservation, spreading the word of the paid construction training jobs. He gave two months for the word to spread and men to come in and apply. One hundred men applied for the training positions. Claude narrowed down the applicants with the criteria of selecting those with the highest level of education because there were manuals to be read. This dropped the list to 35. Claude interviewed all 35, and selected the25, promising the other 10 that they would be on the top of the list if he got another project approved. Much more difficult was finding a trainer who was experienced in all of the skills of construction, and had the potential to be able to teach those skills in a manner appropriate for the Apache men. The proposal had anticipated that long commutes would be a serious impediment to hiring, so the proposal provided for a generous sized trailer that would be situated next to the BIA building providing for plumbing, heat, and cooling. But there was still the isolation in a community where you were in the minority of an unfamiliar culture; it was a lot to ask. And the salary was nothing to brag about. The position was advertised in the Show Low and Parker community newspapers. Only two men applied. Both had the required broad construction experience, but one of the men was a man about 60 years old, and the other 40. Claude found the 40 year old very gung-ho; he had been a sergeant in the marines, and had served in Viet Nam. He had the great likelihood of offending and alienating the trainees with his military authority attitude. Inde warriors were not going to take orders from a Whiteman—no different than their warrior ancestors. The older man had much in his favor. He had forty years of construction experience and was very easy going. He spoke calmly and knowledgeably in common terms about teaching construction skills. Plus, just the fact that he was an elder, non-Indian or not, the Apaches respected the elderly. Claude gladly hired the older man, Michael O’Brien, who went by Mike. He was asked if he could start in two weeks, and he said he could. Actually, commuting was going to be the hardship of the trainees. Not only were they from all areas of the huge White Mountain Apache reservation, but only three of them had vehicles. Few Apaches had vehicles—a luxury few Inde could afford. The vehicle owners, all pickup trucks, could give rides to the trainees close to them or on the way to the training site. Mileage reimbursement was built into the proposal. The remaining eleven were picked up by a BIA van operated by a paid Inde driver who knew the dirt vast stretch of the reservations dirt roads.

The van started picking up trainees at 4:00 in the morning to arrive at the training site at 8:00 a.m. There was no complaining about the commute by a single one of the trainees; they were used to long drives to get just about everywhere. Still, the trainees were paid the same minimum wage for their travel time. Claude had thought of everything to be fair to all of the trainees; he just could not do anything about the travel time.

The one year of training was kept on schedule, thanks to the excellent organizational skills of Mike. Plus, the trainees proved to be eager and quick learners which should not have been a surprise to Claude. He felt a bit ashamed that he had at first had lingering a lingering concern as to how timely the Apache men would take to the training. The training got off to very successful start. He thought, happily, that he had been very wrong. These Inde men were going to make this project a smashing success, and it was his revolutionary idea. He would raise the reservations standing in the housing statistics.

Claude was amazed how fast the training had gone. All of the Apache men finished the training. A testament to their dedication and high level of aptitude. Now it was time to introduce the next step of the project to the trainees, the first construction of one of the trainee’s home. Claude organized an awards ceremony for the Inde trainees, their families, and the reservation community. Each Apache of the project received a certificate and the gift of an Apache woven burden basket. All of the awards given, Claude was now ready to announce the next phase of the project—the building of the first Apache trainees home. Claude explained it all in great detail, especially how their pay would be greatly increased to maximum HUD wages. And to make it fair, there would be a lottery to decide which family would win the first home. Since this was a Friday, construction on the first home would start on the following Monday. Mike would now become construction foreman. Speech finished. Claude asked if there were any questions. Not only were there no questions, there was a pervasive silence. Claude puzzled over the silence, but since there were no questions, he closed the ceremony, once again praising the Apache men. Walking back to his office the silence nagged at him, but he concluded that the likely feeling of being overwhelmed had occurred anyway even with his doing it step by step. He relieved his discomfort with his trust in Mike and the excellent training the Apache men had received and to which they had excelled. Once the Apache construction workers adjusted to applying their skill, they would be just fine. Claude decided he would ask Mike to go especially slow at first, insuring a successful adjustment.

Claude had a hard time sleeping over the weekend because of his great excitement about Monday’s momentous event. His excitement had a head start a week before when the cement pad for the home was poured and prepared with the plumbing pipes sticking out. Claude thought: we are ready to roll. Monday arrived none too soon for Claude. The start of construction time was 8:00 a.m. Both Claude and Mike were there at 7:00 a.m. They were pleased to see that Apache women were already there with a fire close to coals for cooking breakfast for their men. Claude admired the community participation. As he kept checking his watch until it ticked away to 7:30. Claude was getting more and more excited; he couldn’t even say a word to Mike. His excitement left him speechless. He kept checking his watch until the hands were straight up at 8:00 a.m. Soon it was 8:30 a.m., with no sign of the Inde construction workers. Claude was becoming more and more worried. He wondered if there had been an accident. But he quickly ruled that out because they were coming in more than one vehicle. When 9:00 a.m. rolled around, Claude turned to Mike and asked, “Did they know that today was the day.” “Sure boss. I couldn’t have made it any clearer,” Mike answered. At 9:30 a.m., Claude was beside himself. He feared his prized project was going right down the toilet. He looked over at the Inde women who were now eating breakfast with no care in the world. Claude did not know what else to do so he walked over to the women and out of respect asked the elder Apache woman, “Where are your men? They were supposed to be here at 8:00 a.m. What happened? The elder was quite for a few minutes, and then said, “Don’t you know? Apache men never build the home, it is woman’s work. An Apache man would be shamed to do women’s’ work.”

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One thought on “Homes for the Apache by Glenn Johnson

  1. Glenn Johnson is a member of the Cherokee Nation. He is a father and a widow. He has lived in Tucson, Arizona for 56 years. He is a retired Marriage & Family Therapist.

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