Regional Writers’ Forum hosts first
annual The Language of This Land
GRAND JUNCTION … Frank Coons writes: “We came from other places, other times … all at a crossroads, a junction.” It’s perhaps the greatest beauty of the Grand Valley, beyond its Book Cliffs and National Monument – a generous mix of human traditions. Grand Junction is on a major national east-west trail. Commerce moves along its highways and rails, as well as its busy Walker Field. Geographically, it’s the northernmost reach of the Southwest’s Colorado Plateau in our state. Ecologically, many southern species flora and fauna thrive here, but no further north … Having been through energy’s boom and bust more than once, there seems to be a new spirit in the air at the Western Slope’s queen city. Mesa State, under President Tim Foster, has changed its name yet again, as if the community were still searching for a sustainable vision of itself. Colorado Mesa University certainly sounds more prestigious and serious. If growth is still coming to this state (and it’s hard to see us as a nation denying ourselves anything), much of its Western Slope swagger will come through here … Maybe nothing more dramatizes this renaissance than cultural richness. This past weekend the nascent Western Colorado Writers’ Forum kicked off their first writers conference, with the goal of fostering “a dynamic literary and writing community that advances the cultural life of Western Colorado” … But the gathering wasn’t just about writers. Although MacArthur awarding-winning Native-American author Leslie Marmon Silko and Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason both read, and dozens of us lit types gave various workshops and readings, the core of The Language of This Land for me was hearing the oral stories from elder members of this crossroads community … Wisely, organizer Sandra Dorr, invited speakers from many different local traditional groups to present.
FIRST PEOPLES ... Ute “historian” Clifford Duncan – a much respected tribal leader and storyteller – spoke about the removal of his people from the Grand Valley, though without bitterness, and commented lyrically about his own upbringing, including a stint at a BIA Indian school where he was punished for speaking his language. But, as an elder now, he also spoke to us in Ute, as well as translating – so we could hear the timbre of his Uto-Aztecan tongue and still understand its meaning … Most interestingly, he put to rest certain historical misconceptions … Chief Ouray was only chief because the assembled Ute leaders in DC thought the government wanted to know whom their translator was (not the head chief to sign treaty documents) … Chipeta, Ouray’s second wife, was a Kiowa survivor in a camp raided by the Utes ...The Utes never called the Rockies “The Shining Mountains” – that’s a Whiteman’s fiction … And their name for the Uncompahgre was Davi (“sun”) + watch (“those that live in”), since the Uncompahgre Valley and the Uncompahgre Plateau were so much warmer than the Rocky Mountains … We get the word “Uncompahgre” from a corruption of the Ute phrase: edká (“red”) + bahahree (“lake, pond”), and it referred to the iron fens below Red Mountain up in Ironton … Duncan also spoke about the importance of keeping language and culture alive. He received a standing ovation both before and after his speech.
FRANCES WHEELER … From her wheelchair, 93-year-old Frances May Dorr Wheeler – Grand Junction’s Rhymester Laureate -- recited several of her “cowboy” pieces from memory: “The difference,” she explained most lucidly, “between poems and rhymes is that everyone can understand what a rhyme means” … Her sister Helen also read a rhyme from memory.
GRAND VALLEY ELDERS … Grand Junction-born Josephine Dickey spoke about Handy Chapel, and the hundred-plus years of African-American community presence in the valley. Al Grasso spoke of the Italian-American heritage in stone masonry construction there. One woman read an account of a Japanese-American hero from World War II living in the city. Another woman talked of the Basque-American heritage in Grand Junction and all over the Western Slope. Jose Lucero spoke to the Hispanic-American legacy of over 300 years in the region. The local attorney who bought the church where the conference was headquartered addressed the serendipity of his ownership and restoration work … For all the wonderful literary connections and marvelous new writers and old friends I met at this ground-breaking event, the stories of the elders from the community were easily the weekend’s most moving moments.
THE TALKING GOURD
First Fall Storm
Pluck with the long bar
the last of the Macintosh
tomatoes turnips & beets
for post-storm’s first frost
to kill the spud plants
so we can dig up the tubers
& put the seed crop to bed
in the well-house’s cold storage
that I won’t let freeze
Photos of my younger
brothers (both gone)
yellowing like the leaves