Meeting the Paiutes 1 – FortMcDermitt

The centre of the reservation. The old stone building and the jail in the distance to the left. Chatting. From left Alun Hughes (camera), Harold Abel, Emyr Young, Jimmy. From left to right.. Janice’s mum, Casey (standing), myself, Janice, Harold, Dennis. The town. The town. Sheds & shacks. The far right section is Janice’s home and used to be part of the church.

The Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation is about 250 miles north east of Reno as the crow flies. The town itself is little more than a blip that straddles the Nevada Oregon border on Route 95. We stopped for lunch at Winnemucca, the last civilisation before McDermitt, and were lucky with the weather. Although overcast it was a dry but very cold day. The town, with a population of around 700, consisted of little more than two small diner/casinos, the High School, a motel and an old, derelict saloon (the White Horse Inn), beyond which the desert and sagebrush ran to the horizon. The reservation lay a few miles south east of the town but seemed little more than a vague collection of ramshackle and sub-standard huts and shacks set on low ground to shelter below the banks and hills which offered the only protection from the extreme weather. In the distance we were circled by tall, snow clad mountains.

As we drove around looking for some sign of a central point the only sign of life we encountered was a dusty, beige van with the back window blown out. The Indians in the van buzzed us a couple of times. When we found the centre it consisted of a modern Community Centre, an older metal clad meeting room, a stone building which was the only surviving remnant of the original fort and an old jail. We hadn’t been there more than a few minutes when the beige van drove in and the three occupants approached us and demanded to know who we were and what we were doing there. There was a degree of hostility and it was not the most comfortable of moments. As the conversation progressed edgily we discovered that the spokesperson of the group was none other than Harold Abel, with whom I had corresponded some years before. As soon as I told him who I was the ice was broken. The other two paiutes were brothers Casey and Jimmy. They spoke freely about Brother David and his time at Fort McDermitt.

Before long Janice Smart and her family (mother and brother Dennis) arrived as arranged. I had been corresponding with and telephoning Janice for some years. She worked in the diner at one of the casinos and lived in a small section of a strange jumble of buildings in which three families survived – a long, thin, trailer like section and two wooden shacks. We learned that when the church had burned down the only section saved from the fire was the living quarters which Gareth had once inhabited. This section had then been moved a mile up the road to be used as housing and this is where Janice was living.

Casey and Jimmy invited us to their ranch to see their horses so off we went. We saw two race horses, one of which had won $100 recently. The pride displayed gave just a glimmer of a once strong and proud tribe deprived of their natural lives, sytematically stripped of their lands and assets and reduced to lives of difficulty and poverty. Harold, Casey and Jimmy always spoke Paiute to each other and to the horses. Janice has a makeshift sweat lodge near her house and observes many of the ancient traditions of her people.

These people live in an unforgiving but desolately beautiful landscape. There were glorious red and orange colours in the trees and shrubs and the smell of the sagebrush was staggering (in a good way). I could so easily see what the presence of someone like Brother David would mean to such a forgotten place. Among the many lasting memories of our visit is the notice board above the door of McDermitt High School which announced “Being challenged in life is inevitable. Being defeated is optional”.


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