SEDONA, FOREST FIRES, AND RABBIT EARS [HUNTER BEAR] JUNE 20 2006 [WITH COMMENTS] ELLIOTT RICEHILL: BROTHER, UNCLE, WARRIOR [HUNTER BEAR] JUNE 22 2006
First, just an excerpt from a letter of yesterday sent
by my newspaper son,
Peter [Mack] -- part of which concerns the major award just won by his
paper, Lincoln Journal Star, for their fine series by two reporters [Mack,
himself, was much involved as their editor] on the colossal alcohol sales
and really heavy continuing tragedy via the tiny Anglo bordertown hamlet of
Whiteclay, NE which adjoins the Pine Ridge Oglala Reservation in South
Dakota. Within a short time following his posting the announcement of the
Award, I picked it up here in Idaho. Anyway, Mack writes:
"Thanks for the nice note on Whiteclay. Where did you find the story? It was
just posted on our Web site today. (I threw it together Saturday). It's a
pretty prestigious award: We beat the Christian Science Monitor in that
category. The panel of judges included some big names, including a writer
from the New Yorker.
And it's a nice image: You smoking your pipe after a walk in the hills.
Thanks for that, too."
Peter, I should add, graduated from the UND Journalism School in 1992 and
was immediately hired as a reporter by the Bismarck Tribune [Lee
Enterprises] which covers central and western North Dakota and eastern
Montana as well. Within a very short time, he was made State Editor of the
Trib and then headed the Anaconda [MT] office of the Butte-based Montana
Standard [another Lee paper.] In 1998, he and his family moved to Lincoln
[NE] where he is a key editor for the [also Lee newspaper], Lincoln Journal
Star, and sometimes travels the country conducting writing/editing
workshops. He has won a number of solid awards himself for his fine
While I watched television early this morning [I do this somewhat more than
was once the case], I waited for some news of the catastrophic forest fire
raging in and around Sedona, Arizona -- which is just to the south of
Flagstaff at the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon. Before the commentators reached
a mention of that, however, there was the inevitable lengthening trail of
continuing carnage in Iraq -- any words, of course, truly fall 'way short of
adequate description -- and one can only think, "Madness." [That btw, was
the concluding and timelessly apt pronouncement of the anguished British
medic as he watched the climactic and sanguinary all-around debacle in that
fine film, The Bridge Over the River Kwai.] I have several quite good
friends who are retired U.S. military officers and have yet to find one who
sees the Iraq and environs monstrosity as anything except that. Military
people are not robots -- nor is anyone.
In the long ago Old Days, Sedona -- tucked away in the always serene and
generally snow-less lower end of genuinely spectacular Oak Creek Canyon in
north central Arizona -- was a tiny hamlet, pretty much unknown beyond our
Coconino and Yavapai counties. Cowpunchers wintered there, often gathered
within and around what was known as "Dr Bird's Hospital" -- an informal and
excellent saloon owned and operated by the father of a school friend of mine
[who, with all of the Sedona kids, was regularly school-bussed up the
torturous winding switch-backs at the upper end of Oak Creek into the higher
yellow pine country around Flag.]
Well below Sedona, in what's called Lower Oak Creek, my folks owned a
respectable acreage with a cabin and creek frontage on three sides. [They
purchased it from a gambler who had to leave the state.] The few newcomers
into the general Oak Creek setting were mostly genuinely creative artists:
Max Ernst [the surrealist painter]; Cecil Murdock, a top painter [and a
Kickapoo Indian]; Nassan Abiskaroun, a fine sculptor; Bob Kittredge, a first
rate writer. My parents knew all of these very well and we often went down
to Sedona to visit -- sometimes with our very old and oft-visiting family
friend, the Mexican Indian artist, Jean Charlot. And Dad, himself,
occasionally spent some time there visioning and producing his own great
Like many idyllic corners, Utopia was not eternal. First came the Hollywood
film companies -- and some truly great films were produced amidst the lower
red rocks and the higher white rocks, the cedars and the manzanitas and the
blackjack oaks and the great gushing clear waters of Oak Creek, itself lined
with sycamore and cottonwood trees. New businesses began to emerge,
people -- often nice people -- moved in.
And then, a flood of people began to come -- from the East, from California,
from Phoenix. [Some were nice.] My parents had purchased a large lot close
to Sedona but, disturbed by the invasion and the then exodus of many of the
bona fide creative folk [the old cowboys had already decamped], eventually
sold it [at a reasonable profit.] In time, the invasion moved toward and
into the Lower Oak Creek setting. My parents had deeded their acreage and
cabin to me and my two brothers. We hung onto it for years, grimly,
until -- totally surrounded by people with whom we had absolutely nothing in
common and waiting until the best peak sale moment -- finally followed the
lead of our old-time small rancher and farmer and retired hard-rock miner
neighbors and sold our land to a doctor from Phoenix. Long before this,
the Sedona area had had everything from paranoid paramilitarists to the more
dubious New Age followers -- before finally becoming submerged by the
wealthy. By this time, even our home town of Flagstaff had jumped from
5,000 to 70,000.
And now, apparently because of careless campers and their fire, there is a
massive catastrophe threatening the whole Sedona setting and all of the
houses in Oak Creek Canyon proper. If I were there and fit, I'd join the
fire-fighting legions pronto. My first extensive forest fire fighting came
when a huge inferno threatened Flagstaff itself when I was in my mid-teens.
We stopped it just short of the town and we saved Lowell Observatory on Mars
Much of this fire is in extraordinarily rough country: massive red rocks
giving rise -- as altitude climbs high -- to a plethora of sheer white-rock
cliffs with incredibly steep drops. Tangled thickets of cedars and scrub
pines and scrub oak and endless manzanita and cactus cover all save the rock
walls themselves, and the north sides of everything are almost jungle-like:
all of the foregoing vegetation plus high undergrowth which includes even
ferns. The threatened homes are far below all of this -- I doubt that many
of those folks have ever ventured Up -- but even a burning pine cone falling
hundreds and hundreds of feet down is tantamount to an extremely fast
expanding fire bomb.
As a kid and even into my 20s, I traveled much of that turf, but I was
always [and still am, of course] basically a Sycamore Canyon Wilderness
boy -- that even vaster region fortunately well to the west of this current
inferno. But I do know basically the type of country where much of the
present battle is being fought.
Back -- 'way back -- again in my mid-teens, an old cowboy friend, Lloyd [who
had long before lost two fingers and gotten a permanently mangled hand via a
cattle roping accident], pointed up into the roughest complex of cliffs on
the western side of Oak Creek, and told me that 'way 'way Up There was a
tiny passage between two of the most massive cliffs -- called Rabbit Ears
"Have you been there?" I asked Lloyd.
"Only once," he said, "maybe forty years ago. "I had to go up much of it on
foot. Too rough to risk a horse." He looked at me in a friendly, knowing
I followed his thought. "Do you think I could?"
He grinned. "Even if I said No, I'd bet you'll try." But he then went on
to pay me a supreme compliment: "If there is anyone who could make it up
there, it's you."
He added a final word, "If there is a little old barbed wire fence -- maybe
just eight feet long -- blocking the Pass, you'll know you got there."
And so, of course, not long thereafter I went -- Stetson and Levis and
carrying a rifle and knife and a canteen of water and a small backpack with
food and matches. I wore heavy logging boots -- a staple in Flagstaff and
its Ponderosa pine lumber focus. I started fairly early in the morning,
sometimes scrambling up the huge red rocks, maneuvering through thickets and
jungles. Sometimes I could use a part of a wild game trail. I rarely use a
compass -- and, in this case, the towering two cliff peaks -- the Rabbit
Ears -- were the only guides I needed.
It was high noon when I encountered a fairly well traveled animal -- mostly
mule deer -- trail that pointed up just where I was headed. That made
things a little easier. And I topped out at the Grail -- Rabbit Ears Pass --
in the early afternoon.
It was precisely as my old friend had described: the two sheer white
cliffs, now easily seen as somewhat pointed, continued to rise above. And
the gap -- the Pass -- was almost tiny.
And stretched across it was the same short length of old rusty barbed wire
fence with two gnarled fence posts -- clearly taken from surrounding
scraggly timber. No obstacle to wild game, it had indeed been set up many
ages before, probably early in the Territorial years themselves, obviously
to prevent a very rare stray cow from traversing the Pass and going down the
And that Other Side! There I could look right down on Dry Creek Basin and
over to Boynton Canyon and the Secret Mountain country. [I trapped that
whole region productively in the late winter and spring of 1957.] And not
too much further west from Secret Mountain, I could see Sycamore Pass and a
part of the rim country of my own Very Great and Special Canyon.
Away up there, it was timeless but not eerie. The Wind in the trees and
rocks sang a very friendly song to a happy and successful kid.
I was, fortunately, able to get back down well before dark. Tricky and
tough enough in the daylight, I would've camped over if night had caught me.
And I always remember vividly that Great Climb. Clearly, and along with
countless others, I much hope this massive fire can be quickly contained and
defeated on all fronts. But even though, as a general rule, I don't like
fences, I really do want that particular Little Fence to make it through
Assuming it does [and I somehow think it will], we are both in our way very
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi'kmaq
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
Hunter Bear, Congratulations to your son on his
newspaper's award. And
thank you for sending the beautiful piece of writing about Sedona. Can I
take that piece for Poetry Niederngasse? I am writing such sour old man
stuff that you piece would serve as an antidote! Chuck [Levenstein]
By all means use it, Chuck, I'm very much honored! I
very much like that
fine journal of yours.
While most of the Southwest continues to be plagued by profoundly serious
drought and all of the associated ills, we here in the northern Rockies have
had a great deal of snow and rain -- so much that our current fire dangers
center on fast growing underbrush!
I greatly appreciate your optimistic ethos. There's Sunlight ahead.
Take care, keep in touch, and all our best - H
[And Chuck adds:
OK!! I'm sending it off to Zurich!
I endorse Joyce Ladner's
I would like to add my congratulations to Mackie and his colleagues at the
Lincoln Journal Star for winning a prestigious award about a tough subject.
Alice M. Azure
Maryville, IL 62062
ELLIOTT RICEHILL, WARRIOR [HUNTER GRAY JUNE 22, 2006]
In an era where all too many ostensible activists
talk and write glibly
about "organizing" and too few actually do it, it's not easy to see yet one
more of the Real Tribe pass into the Fog and beyond. When my phone rang
yesterday, I was -- in the fashion of my late Native father [who
consistently refused to travel via air] -- not inclined to answer it. But,
of course, I did.
It was Muriel Ricehill [Sisseton Sioux], calling from Wisconsin. Her voice
slightly broken, she said, "I have very sad news, John. Elliott has died."
And Muriel and I talked for a long, long time. She and Elliott Ricehill,
Ho-Chunk [aka Winnebago], had been married since 1977. They made up a great
and courageous team indeed -- and both have been extremely close components
of our family.
I met Elliott first in the early spring of '74 -- in Iowa State Penitentiary
into which he'd been sentenced to 70 years or so on a dubious charge five
years before. A prof at the University of Iowa -- and the UI's counselor
for the Native students -- I was beginning the first of several years and
countless visits down to the institution at Fort Madison [90 miles from Iowa
City] with a group of Native and Chicano and Anglo students to lend support
to the incipient and subsequently quite enduringly successful American
Indian/Chicano Cultural Center. At that first meeting with our group,
Elliott, who was the spearhead of this organizing effort, was sitting in the
front row and I in the back. Suddenly, he turned around and looked directly
at me and I at him. From that point on, we were staunch friends and
consistent allies -- and family members. Soon enough, Elliott and I began
referring to each other as "brother."
We launched an effort to free Elliott -- and several others as well. These
efforts continued, broadening, and some Native prisoners were subsequently
paroled. The Cultural Center grew in influence and I wound up -- under the
aegis of a nearby community college -- teaching Native history and
contemporary Indian issues at the prison. [Some genuinely interested prison
officials wound up faithfully attending.] But, even though the Iowa State
Parole Board eventually moved to parole Elliott, that move was blocked by
the Work Release Committee -- under whose auspices most parolees were
placed -- and its red-neck chairman, a prison guard who hated Elliott.
In December of '76, I left University of Iowa for upstate New York and a key
social justice post with the Rochester Catholic Diocese. I saw Elliott at
the prison just before we left -- and assured him [we were standing in the
prison yard, the sky was dark, and snow spitting] -- that I had a Plan that
would get him out. He seemed understandably pessimistic and his basic
optimism had to fight to show through.
As soon as we arrived at Rochester, I began to put my [creative, if I say so
myself] plan into action -- Interstate Parole. With the strong backing of
an always-ally, Monsignor George Cocuzzi [the Vatican-trained canon lawyer
in the Diocese], and with the support of Mario Cuomo, then NY Secretary of
State, Elliott was paroled directly from Iowa to New York [bypassing the
troll-like Work Release Committee of the Hawkeye State]. Elliott married
Muriel, a great person of strength in her own right [who had visited him
consistently at the prison] and they came to New York.
We immediately tackled the extraordinarily repressive and totally resistant
[including armed guards] Bennett Mink Ranch in which migratory Algonquins
from Ontario and Quebec worked under peonage conditions reminiscent of
closed Deep South plantations. We all soundly defeated Bennett et al. [A
short account and analysis of this great and fascinating saga immediately
And we went on to many other campaigns together including several in the
most racist North Dakota settings.
When I was almost dead a number of times in 2003 and 2004 via systemic
lupus, Elliott was then in the Ho-Chunk country in southeastern Wisconsin
[he had a comparable base as well with that portion of his Nation that is
also located in eastern Nebraska]. He maintained important contact with me
at many critical points as I brushed the Fog. A leader in the Native
American Church [sacramental peyote], he quickly prepared the ground for me
should I ever wish to avail myself of the services of the Church here in
Idaho [and I may very well do so.]
Now Elliott has gone off to his Creator Grandfather. We shall always be in
very close contact with Muriel. And he, himself, will never be far.
Some members of our group here cried when we learned of Elliott's passing.
I didn't [because I don't] but my great sadness is bone-deep. John [Beba]
has just written, ". . .Elliott was a good uncle of mine, teaching me to
play pool and fold laundry--a prison skill?" And Peter [Mack] in a
comparable communication said, " That is sad news. He took me and Beba to
play pool, and he bought us
our first chess set, and he drove 80 mph in his Mustang."
Now that's our Family: Elliott and Muriel and All -- Now and Forever.
Here is the short piece on our Algonquin War Against Bennett and Legions. I
have also provided a Link to a much longer, detailed piece of mine.]
Quantitative -- And Other Measures -- In Gauging Organizing Success [The
Algonquins at Bennett's Camp] [HG]
This is a very substantially expanded version of something I posted several
weeks ago on a list where a dispute over success-measured-by-stats flared
briefly. This can be a significant -- and volatile -- issue for organizers.
It's certainly worth some comment.
Every single "people's struggle" is significant, important -- to the "people
of the fewest alternatives" who are involved and affected and to the Great
Cause. Numbers are very meaningful, certainly, but there are other
dimensions that transcend a purely quantitative measure -- among them,
seeds sown and ripples of constructive influence that can travel far beyond
the momentary ken of the organizers and their constituency. I've been
privileged by History to play a role in a good many grassroots organizing
campaigns. One was the historic Jackson Movement -- thousands and
thousands and thousands, massive, internationally known, cracked Jackson
wide-open and sent deep cracks across the rest of Mississippi and into
other parts of the Deep South.
But another was cracking the closed, heavily guarded and extremely
exploitative feudal mink ranch of Lester Bennett in Ontario County, New
During this period, I was director of the Office of Human Development -- the
social justice arm -- of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, New York:
12 up-state counties. During my stormy -- embattled -- tenure as OHD
director, we accomplished many solid and genuinely activist community
organizing things. Eventually, I was fired by the Bishop for
"insubordination" -- stemming from our vigorously pushing socialization of
the people-gouging Rochester Gas and Electric whose board chairman was the
largest single contributor to the Diocese. Things relating to all of this
are on our large website. http://www.hunterbear.org/rochester.htm
But back to Bennett and his feudal set-up which exploited a primarily Native
migrant work force from Canada [western Quebec and eastern Ontario -- from
such poverty-stricken reserves as Maniwaki and Grand Isle Victoria.] This
brutal arrangement had gone on for 35 years without protest from any
direction. The almost completely non-English speaking Algonquins were
brought down each season and virtually held hostage in Bennett's camp.
Taken occasionally to a small town to buy groceries [at a store owned by
Bennett], they were always accompanied by armed guards. Their pay was low,
they were flagrantly cheated -- and health and safety conditions were
Among other things, well before the fur season got underway and the bulk of
the migrant Indians arrived, I sketched Bennett's massive layout from a
wooded ridge far above his plantation -- and, with binoculars, studied all
of its basic details. [Reconnaissance is an old forte of mine.]
I saw the several lines of extraordinarily flimsy cabin-shacks used by the
Indians. We knew there had been lethal fires at some -- and frequent
pneumonia stemming from the icy winds of the Lake Ontario winters.
I carefully developed The Plan. The Trap.
So then, in due course, as the mink season of 1977 got underway, I pursued
some extremely creative techniques. One of these included, using very early
on, a friendly cooperative migrant program [to which our OHD office
channeled money] to place a key operative of ours-- an old Winnebago friend
of mine fresh from Iowa -- Elliott Ricehill -- into Bennett's set-up as an
"alcohol counselor" at no cost to Bennett. This was a first -- since no
outsiders had ever been permitted therein. But alcohol was making its way
surreptitiously into the massive compound -- probably via some of Bennett's
regular employees -- and the old man was worried about his mink skinners'
"steady hands on Monday morning."
Our inside man immediately feigned a love affair with Bennett's "control
person" -- an opportunistic [and totally Machiavellian] Algonquin woman, a
classic Apple, who was very well paid by Bennett to help manage the captive
work force. She fell for my friend's charm and wiles -- and he
subsequently gathered invaluable information which we received each evening.
[My Winnebago buddy and his wife, Muriel, a Sisseton Sioux, were staying at
our home at Rochester during their relocation period from Iowa -- so we met
literally at our dinner table.]
Now, with a growing list of potential Algonquin leaders and with maps to
their respective cabin/shacks, I crept onto the plantation via thick woods
and under heavily barbed wire at night, again and again -- successfully
avoiding the armed guards and dogs. They never even sensed me. A young
Algonquin who knew English regularly met and assisted me in translation.
In due course, very ably assisted by one of our most activist young
staffers [Tim McGowan] and by our very cunning inside agent, we organized the slightly
more than 100 non-English speaking Algonquin Indian workers plus their
families into a highly successful short strike -- and, subsequently,
substantial related actions involving formal health and labor complaints and
court action. And those were also quite successful.
Bennett et al. were taken completely by surprise! The "control woman" was
crushed. And, in the middle of this, Bennett's daughter, Rowena, 65, who had
long wanted a red convertible car, absconded to Florida with some of his
The speed with which this long repressed work force of Canadian migrant
Native people developed extremely effective and courageous local
leadership -- much of this including their very strong wives -- speaks
volumes about the great capabilities of the human grassroots in every
setting and in every time.
This cracked and completely opened Bennett's plantation system: one of the
three largest mink ranches in the U.S. [more than 60,000 mink.] We then
formally met with the other mink ranchers in the region -- who used migrants
of various ethnic backgrounds, including some Indians -- and who immediately
met our demands.
Back in Canada, following that unexpectedly turbulent season, a number of
the Algonquins from the Bennett struggle became very effective labor and
rights activists in western Quebec and eastern Ontario. Many are still at it
today. The courageous Algonquin struggle at Bennett's had a very
significantly inspiring impact on Native people throughout upstate New York.
[Elliott and Muriel made several subsequent trips to the relatively remote
Algonquin reserves in Ontario and Quebec.]
[In an interesting postscript, I later gave a long social justice
presentation to a large class of incipient priests at St. Bernard's Seminary
at Rochester. The class, social theology, was taught by my good friend,
Professor Joe Torma [now at Walsh University, Ohio.] The gathering was
fascinated by the Bennett account -- but some were disturbed at our
deception vis-a-vis the Algonquin control woman. At the end of my
presentation, Joe polled the class. About two-thirds felt we were justified
under the circumstances.]
For a discussion of the Bennett struggle saga, see our website at
The famous Mine-Mill "Salt of the Earth Strike" -- October, 1950 to
January, 1952, Hanover, New Mexico, Empire Zinc -- involved 128 workers.
Its impact on New Mexico was tremendous and, through the extraordinarily
fine film, it affected people all over the world [and still has a
significant impact today.] BTW, if you haven't yet seen the excellent and
enduring "Salt of the Earth", do so! It was officially blacklisted for
years but widely shown outside of movie houses. Now available on video
cassette, it was recently chosen by the Library of Congress as one of the
100 most important films ever made in the United States.
Every social justice fight -- "big" or "small" -- is well worth it from many
rich and enduring perspectives. Not the least of these is what the
organizers themselves learn for the battles ahead and beyond.
Fraternally - Hunter Bear
Hunter,I want you to know that my thoughts are with
you during your time of
sadness.Joe hill once said don't mourn, organize. I do agree that we need to
organize like hell.Unlike hills statement, I think it is ok to mourn. Be
Asured that you have friends on this list who are more then glad to be with
you during your time of sadness.one of the reasons I am an anticapitalist is
because I believe in sharing;that includes sharing good times with our friends
and sad times.
I just want to let you know that I always enjoy your posts, whenever I read
them I am taken to a place of calmness where the worries of the world are
furthest from my mind,and for that I want to thank you.hope you feeling better
Sad news, but a great struggle.
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi'kmaq /St. Francis
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
Check out our massive social justice website:
Honored with The Elder Recognition Award by Wordcraft Circle of Native
Writers and Storytellers:
In our Gray Hole, the ghosts often dance in the junipers and sage, on the
game trails, in the tributary canyons with the thick red maples, and on the
high windy ridges -- and they dance from within the very essence of our own
inner being. They do this especially when the bright night moon shines down
on the clean white snow that covers the valley and its surroundings. Then
it is as bright as day -- but in an always soft and mysterious and
remembering way. [Hunter Bear]