Thacker Pass remembers the world we used to live in. She murmurs these memories in the long strides and white haunches of mule deer fleeing the scents of humans over the sage. She sends her reminiscences in sudden March snow squalls on otherwise sunny days. She flashes her reminders with the sunrise over the snow-covered Santa Rosa mountains and blazes her recollections with the sunset’s last flames over the King’s River Valley.
I caught glimpses of the world we used to live in while helping local Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone elder Myron Smart build a wind-break at the Protect Thacker Pass camp. As we pounded t-posts into the dry Nevada dirt and wired ply-wood boards to them, Myron told me stories.
Myron’s bright, brown eyes shined and he spoke with an enchanting lyricism as he told me about one of his ancestors who had been able to run faster on his two feet than the fastest pony had ever run on her four. This ancestor often served as a decoy when enemy warriors approached. As enemies approached, stirring dust on the horizon, Myron’s ancestor would run away from his village, creating a dust trail of his own, and giving his people time to escape. When Myron’s ancestor ran, he did not leave tracks of human feet, he left tracks of horse hooves.
Myron also told me of an ancestor whose twin brother was killed, scalped, and dragged away by an enemy raiding party. This ancestor tracked the raiding party down, daringly stole his twin brother’s body away, and escaped with the body into the Santa Rosa mountains. While in the mountains, Myron’s ancestor created a new scalp for his brother out of deer skin and, then, in a sacred place, prayed over his twin brother’s broken body. His prayers were so powerful, the dead brother came back to life and lived the rest of his days with a deer skin scalp.
“We used to have that power,” Myron explained, leaning on a shovel as we leveled a space within the ply-wood windbreak for our camp fire. “My people used to know how to speak with the Creator, used to know how to speak with the land and all the animals, used to know how to ask for the Creator’s power to run faster than ponies and to raise the dead.”
I paused with my own shovel, hoping he might explain more. When he bent back to his work, I did, too. We didn’t speak for another half-hour or so until Myron chuckled and brought his shovel over to me. On the shovel’s blade was a big insect with a red head and legs. The creature’s body was striped in alternating whites and blacks. I recognized her as a Jerusalem cricket. But, Myron called her a “potato bug.” When he said that, I saw how the insect’s body resembled the flesh of a slightly rotten potato.
“My grandma used to say if you let a potato bug bite you, it will make you stronger,” he said. I imagined letting the potato bug bite me. I figured the potato bug’s bright colors and large size probably meant her bite would be painful.
Reading my mind, Myron laughed and said, “I don’t know if she was right. I never let one bite me.”
When we finished the wind-break, we escaped the strong sunshine and sat in the wind-break’s shade drinking cold water. Myron gazed east across Thacker Pass to the Santa Rosa mountains and I wondered if we was thinking about his ancestor’s prayers that brought his twin brother back to life.
“It seems like we’ve lost those powers,” Myron said softly. “We lost them when they took a whole generation of us and put us in the boarding schools. A whole generation wasn’t allowed to learn our traditional ways. We lost the world we used to live in.”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew some of the history. I knew that the American government had implemented a policy across Indian Country where native children were forced into boarding schools away from their families, away from their homelands. They were educated in the European style. They were beaten for speaking their native languages. They were taught by teachers who were instructed to “kill the Indian and save the man.”
Long after Myron left to return home to feed his horses, I sat in the wind-break, toeing the dirt we had leveled and thinking about the lost power Myron had described when I noticed a potato bug waddling through the dust towards me. I admired her striking crimson head. I marveled at her beautiful ivory and ebony stripes. Then, I asked her: “How do we bring back the world we used to live in?”
She stopped cold when the words left my mouth. Her antennae twitched. She showed me her fearsome mandibles. Her black eyes met mine. Despite being hundreds of times bigger than her, I feared her bite.
It’s going to hurt, she said.
And, I knew she was right. Bringing back the world we used to live in, regaining our connection to the Creator, regaining the true power that comes from serving the natural world – the source of all life – will first require stopping those who destroy Her, stopping those who sought to destroy Paiute, Shoshone, and many other indigenous cultures through forcing indigenous children into violent boarding schools, and stopping corporations like Lithium Americas with their ecocidal, industrial projects. It will not be easy. They will not simply let us bring back the world they’ve been so effective, so tireless, at destroying for their own power. They will bite. And their weapons are infinitely more terrible than a potato bug’s.
It’s going to hurt. But if we can withstand their bite, like Myron’s grandmother told him, we will be stronger. We will bring back the world we used to live in.