It was June, school was out and summer catechism had just begun. First grade was successfully under my belt—yes, by the end of the year I had completed the busy bee chart for learning reading, writing and math skills. I loved school!
The tiny classroom at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Madras, Oregon smelled of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and church furniture. Outside during recess (yes, recess even for catechism) we could run and play in the fresh desert air. My favorite game was hopscotch. We drew lines with chalk on the parking lot pavement beside the church to prepare for our game, and used stones we gathered from the dirt around us. I was kinda small for my age, and we were playing with girls of all ages. I immediately bonded with a sparkly first grader just my size—we played hopscotch at about the same level and enjoyed cheering each other on. Her real name was Helene Arthur, but everyone called her Spunky—cuz she was! I loved her smile, her voice, her humor. She made me feel happy.
Spunky and I became good friends that summer, although we never had a chance to play together after catechism ended. I lived on a farm outside Madras and Spunky lived in Warm Springs on the reservation. She was a member of the Warm Springs Indian tribe. The first letter I ever wrote was to Spunky in Warm Springs. We exchanged addresses at catechism, and I had learned how to address envelopes in first grade. My mom caught me putting the letter out in the mailbox across the highway in front of our house and, boy, did I get in trouble. I guess you have to put a stamp on a letter to mail it. Well, she did give me a stamp and so Spunky got the letter.
Over the years we saw each other in the summer at catechism summer school, and wrote sporadically in between times. We both attended Madras Junior High because Warm Springs didn’t have school past sixth grade. But we never had classes together and didn’t see each other much. She invited me to her birthday party, June 2nd, the year we turned 13, but I wasn’t able to go. When I moved to Gresham in ninth grade, we kept up our letter-writing and saw each other when she would come to Portland for Fancy Dance performances and competitions. Once we met at Lloyd Center for cokes and fries when her team stopped there after a performance. It was the usual teenage girl sort of thing back then. She told me she liked high school—better than junior high, was on the Marchettes Drill Team, and in acappella choir. Me, I was in drama, had no coordination, and could barely sing a note.
After our freshman year, we began losing touch. I guess we all experience growing up and moving away from friends, but I kept Helene’s letters and beads in my one special “memories box” from childhood. After moving, I didn’t visit Madras much, but hoped some day to find my friend again. At times I would think of her, and wonder how she was.
We had some stuff in common. Helene was one of seven kids, and I was the oldest of six. Her dad died of alcoholism when she was still in school. My dad was an alcoholic, but he died, not of alcoholism, but of multiple myeloma when I was a mom with my kids practically grown.
When I was young, I knew something of the conditions of the Indians in Warm Springs. I always knew about broken treaties and boarding school indoctrination—land grabs and assaults on the peoples’ ways in attempts to erase their tribal identity, but I didn’t comprehend the suffering. I remember, when I was young, being told that Indians on the reservation were rich because they received payments from the government. My family was poor and I was jealous of such payments. I didn’t realize the poverty and poor health conditions of my friend’s community. I didn’t really know much about my friend’s real-life situation.
In grad school, I learned more about conditions for Native Americans—the great struggle with alcohol that was brought in by white people, the chronic, long-term neglect by the US American government in the areas of education, health, and mental health for tribal peoples, and even forced sterilizations of tribal women that continued even into the 1970s. I learned about the soul wound, an inter-generational post-traumatic stress disorder—a wound at the core of the Native American being, disrupting a living experience of harmony with all. It manifests as ongoing trauma for the peoples, resulting from over five hundred years of oppression, that has been instilled and passed from generation to generation.
Once, at a writing workshop in 1999, I met a friend of Spunky’s mom. The friend gave me her mom’s address and, finally, I got up the nerve to write Helene a letter. She was married, and now her last name was Rubio. I wondered if she had kids, how many, how old. I never did hear back from Spunky. I wondered if maybe she thought my letter was stupid. Or maybe she was so busy with her adult life that she didn’t have time to write to a childhood friend.
Last week Steve and I went camping at Cove Pallisades state park outside Metolius—near Madras in central Oregon and on a plateau overlooking the Crooked River. Visiting my childhood home, memories flooded back to me. The smell of sagebrush and juniper, hot dry winds, clear blue skies, open spaces, red rocks, and quiet. All memories held deep in my bones. It was a wonderful week of relaxing and exploring—even boating the three rivers one day. On our way home, we decided to stop at the Warm Springs museum. I never had been there before and was curious about the history they were able to share with the public. Of course first thing, I went up to the lady at the gift store and asked about my friend—Helene Arthur, Helene Rubio. The young woman stepped out from behind the cash register, came around the counter, and spoke to me directly in a soft voice I will never forget. “Those people passed a long time ago.”
I was stunned. What did she mean? “You know, after awhile there is nothing you can do. It is too late. The doctors say they can’t do anything.”
“Alcohol?” A nod. “Liver disease?” Yes. Helene, and all her brothers and sisters except one. That is six young adults in one family taken by alcoholism. How many people really die of alcoholism anyway? I didn’t know of a single person—until now. We think we can empathize with the suffering of a people when we understand about it in more depth. And that was true for me. But I could not fathom the depth of grief and despair I would feel over losing someone I loved, and realizing that she and her family had lived such suffering. The pain became intensely personal.
At the museum, an old classmate, Jerry Polk, took me into the exhibit and showed me a life-size cutout of Helene and her family. They were one of six families on display—family groups present in their tribal regalia for the ground-breaking ceremony of the museum. That was 1990. Helene would have been 35 years old. I just could not take my eyes off of her image—she looked so much like the Spunky Arthur I remembered. Spunky, what happened to you? And how many people in this picture are still alive? I wondered. They told me that her mom, MaryAnn (Winishut) Meanus was a beloved tribal elder who passed several years ago. She made traditional dolls and taught children about tribal ways. Several of her dolls are displayed in the Smithsonian—and in the entry hall to the museum.
MaryAnn was 78 years old when she died. She raised most of her grandchildren, whom she loved dearly. That included Adam and Marta Rubio—Helene’s two children.
The Arthur kids really did die a long time ago. Helene’s brother Clifford died in 2003, at the age of 42, and was preceded in death by four sisters and another brother. Helene probably died long before her younger brother, Clifford. My god.
That night after we returned home, I got on the internet. I found an article on line that included an interview with Helene’s son, Adam Rubio, about the 2004 presidential elections. At that time Adam was an unemployed father of three, living in a poor area of Warm Springs. The article said, “Both of the 25-year-old’s parents died of alcoholism – an addiction common on reservations that Rubio faults the white man for bringing.” There, in black-and-white, in my face, both the death and the collective pain.
I still have a story Spunky sent me, that she wrote her freshman year of high school:
I remember going to my first War Dances. I went without realizing that I myself was an Indian.
As we drew near the longhouse I hear drums beating of real old songs and the dancers bells.
As I entered the longhouse the bright lights and beautiful costumes dazzled me, it was a spectacular sight to see.
The dancing seemed to go on and on all night it seemed. When they were finally through I had the feeling I wanted to wear the costumes and dance too. I then realized what I was. An Indian.
She wrote, “How you like it? My mom says that I should keep it up.”
This grief in me. I can’t express. Two little girls. As teenagers, we both had dreams, aspirations, talents. But even before we were born, our lives were destined to be different. What chances did my friend have? Compared to me? What has been done to these people? That continues even up to today. I feel changed. I know something now I did not know before. In my heart. In my bones. It was on the second anniversary of surviving an aortic dissection that I learned about Spunky’s death. How lucky I am. How privileged. I survived trauma. She did not. Will I ever stop crying for my friend, her family, her people, my people?
As I watch Warms Springs women doing traditional dances on YouTube I think of Spunky. I imagine her laughing and fancy dancing along the ridges above her home in the brilliant sunset of late summer. Her life was probably full of suffering and pain, but I believe her spirit was and always will be spunky. That is how I remember her.
Link to MaryAnn’s obituary: http://www.madraspioneer.com/archives/Story.aspx/9772/obituaries-for-week-of-9-3-08
Link to an article on MaryAnn’s work: http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/historical_records/dspDocument.cfm?doc_ID=A303B9DD-9E72-D52C-3B76861E7E456295
Link to Warm Springs and Museum: http://www.warmsprings.com/