Thursday, July 30, 2009

Chief Schonchin Cemetery
Last Gasp of the Modoc War

Chief Schonchin Cemetery

What follows is the introduction to my Chief Schonchin Cemetery set on Flickr, which I recently posted. I thought the information about the participants in the Modoc War of sufficient interest to pass along.

I'd had four Indian cemeteries located prior to my recent "southern swing," from whence this series of cemetery visitations, but two were posted with "no trespassing" signs, which is perfectly understandable, but unfortunate. Photographing Indian cemeteries is a touchy subject; in fact, cemeteries are a touchy subject among some Indians. I can say from personal experience that the matter is so sensitive that some people are unwilling to discuss their funeral/burial practices at all and are angered if one inquires after the subject. It creates a Catch-22 situation of being damned for information one doesn't have yet which at the same time is withheld.

Chief Schonchin Cemetery

The incident to which I allude — old Flickrites will recognize the issue — is unique in my experience. Until running into a buzz-saw of spiteful reaction to asking a tribal historian about Native-American burial practices, I'd never found any ethnic group unwilling to discuss their particular customs. To the contrary, most other cultural informants are glad to give you more information than you could possibly retain or use.

Without boring you with trivia, the bottom line was that, after much huffing and puffing and threatening with law suits (God knows what they'd have done had they known where I lived) and contacting all the other tribes to warn them about me, only folks from the one tribe ever objected. I got one timid letter from the state office of cemetery supervision, trying to placate the natives, but that never amounted to anything either, other than cementing my "odd man out" reputation with them. (I'm the "odd man out" because I actually go to the cemeteries.)

Chief Schonchin Cemetery

I did get one letter from a Native-American living in Arizona who wrote and said that she took the tribe's advice, looked at my photos, and found them pretty nice and that she liked to take pictures in cemeteries, too. So, sensitivity is far from universal, but it exists.

In defense of NAs not wanting the location of their cemeteries publicized, given their long and painful history of having their sacred grave goods stolen or destroyed, I can understand their concerns; but since cemetery locations are posted on the Web, I don't feel I'm violating any trust by more precisely pinpointing them. I would like to assume that grave robbers don't surf the Net for targets; but I'm quite sure my audience of friends wouldn't steal anything from anyone's grave. I know you're a respectful bunch; my eccentricities don't appeal to the morally suspect.

Chief Schonchin Cemetery

The Intro

Chief Schonchin, also called Old Schonchin to distinguish him from his brother, Schonchin John, was the titular chief of the Modocs during their war with the U.S. in 1872-73 (there was some debate as to his legitimacy). Unlike John, the Chief didn’t participate in the post-treaty part of the war, and has hence been a favorite of the Americans ever since. This is Klamath Indian country and they were historical enemies of the Modocs (Chief Schonchin was born at Tule Lake, CA), but the two tribes were pushed together after the war, as often happened.

Aside from the memorial for Chief Schonchin, two other participants in the war are honored here with plaques. I didn’t see headstones for either Schonchin or the others, so they could be buried elsewhere, but there’s an implication they’re laid to rest here. The other two were a couple that went as interpreters to a famous council meeting between the Modocs and representatives from the U.S. government. Supposedly an unarmed meeting between the two sides, the Modocs came armed and ambushed the council party, killing a number of them, though sparing the interpreters; probably because the woman in the couple was a Modoc herself. In any event, that couple, Frank Riddle and his wife, Winema, are honored today in this three-plus acre cemetery under the ponderosas at the edge of a meadow. A cluster of pines greets the visitor at the cemetery gate.

You might note that the plaques for Schonchin and Winema were erected by the D.A.R. in 1932, while Frank Riddle wasn’t so honored until 1985, and that by the Klamath County Historical Society. (There’s a story there somewhere.)

This would be typical of Indian cemeteries on the dry side of the state, but there’s much more effort made here to keep order in the place than is normally the case. I have no idea who maintains it.

Bonanza Cemetery

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mr. Gaiman Came to Play

Jacksonville Cemetery

When I began visiting graveyards, I would worry about which way the headstones faced. Did they face over the grave, or away? It was important because I was concerned about walking on the graves as a matter of respect. Was it respectful to march all over someones grave? Enough visitations and it became a practical matter to not worry, because how else was one going to read a headstone without standing in front of it; and if that meant standing on a grave, then so be it.

A more important consideration turned out to be the feelings of the residents. As far as they were concerned, they were happy anyone came by at all. Eternity, after all, is a long, long time; and a visitor now and again is the most one can hope for. Family’s nice, but anybody’s better than nobody.

So, that’s a role I play: ol’ better-than-nobody.

Jacksonville Cemetery

It takes time to get comfortable in a graveyard. Scarlett, the female protagonist in Neil Gaiman’s, inspired fantasy, The Graveyard Book, states the graveyard case succinctly: “I want to sit here and think.” She exclaims how Mr. Frost (another character) “thinks they can be the most peaceful places in the world.” Gaiman credits his son Michael for inspiring the book, when as a two year old he would “ride his little tricycle between gravestones in the summer, and I [Gaiman] had a book in my head.” Which he then took “twenty-something years to write.”

It was worth the simmering because the result is a small gem of a novel aimed at the early-teen years, but worth a delve at any age. It’s an English cemetery and the cast of characters is decently British (and earlier), but they’d be recognizable, accents apart, in any cemetery. Different sorts inhabit different parts of the graveyard, the paupers and witches, for example, holding court in their own unkempt corner, and each holds to the language, manner, and knowledge of its time. And as their store of information is only added to by the addition of new residents, their knowledge of the world is ancient, if incomplete.

The nuances of a good graveyard are well tended to. Consider this paragraph:

One grave in every graveyard belongs to the ghouls. Wander any graveyard long enough and you will find it—waterstained and bulging, with cracked or broken stone, scraggly grass or rank weeds about it, and a feeling, when you reach it, of abandonment. It may be colder than the other gravestones, too, and the name on the stone is all too often impossible to read. If there is a statue on the grave it will be headless or so scabbed with fungus and lichens as to look like a fungus itself. If one grave in a graveyard looks like a target for petty vandals, that is the ghoul-gate. If the grave makes you want to be somewhere else, that is the ghoul-gate.

The essence of the tale, a murder-mystery, if I can spill that much without letting the baby slip away, is of a child brought up by the denizens of an English graveyard. Gaiman displays a sure hand in keeping the story moving swiftly and engrossingly along, with each sentence riding to its destination with comfortable assurance. He credits Kipling as an influence, which is never a bad place to start, but I also detect notes of Tolkein in there as well, echoing the complex English love affair with language. The words are simply fun to read. Aloud would be even better.

The damps, drafts, and underplaces of a large and overgrown cemetery are lovingly sketched in this quick read of slightly over 300 pages. Characters are often introduced with their names followed, in parentheses, by their birth and death dates and epitaphs. It’s that attention to small detail and the ambiance of a cemetery which speaks to the years spent absorbing them. Gaiman has done his homework well, and the tale unfolds effortlessly. If a few details are glossed over, well, it’s a novel, after all.

A previous Gaiman novel, Coraline, was recently turned into an animated, 3D movie by a local shoe salesman here in Portland, although I assure you I have no connection with either. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this made it to the big screen, too. I’d go watch it.

[My copy of The Graveyard Book was published in 2008 by Harper-Collins and weighs in at 312 pp.]

Jacksonville Cemetery

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Del Norte
Photos of a Dying Tradition

Hilltop Cemetery

In my lifetime Mexico has transformed itself from being an exotic country down there somewhere, to being the neighbor that moved in to stay. The folks caught up in the anti-immigration and English-only movements more and more appear like King Canute ordering the tide to halt. Good luck, guys.

Hilltop Cemetery

And hang in there on the picket line. You won’t starve. A taco wagon will be by at any moment.

Hilltop Cemetery

Like your part of the world, the Mexican-Americans have transformed mine. Taco wagons are only the most visible benefit of having an admixture of people from south of the border. Having the opportunity to begin to learn and use in real time another language is perhaps even more important. Not to mention that we’ve been able to enrich our holiday traditions with the additions of Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead. Any culture that can talk the whole nation into celebrating two new holidays — take that, St. Pat’s Day — has a strong grip on the popular imagination.

Why, it’s as big as pizza!

Hilltop Cemetery

The first Mexican-American grave we noticed was that of Roger Santanus at the quintessential, Western cemetery, Lone Pine , on Smock Prairie outside the tiny hamlet of Wamic, OR. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of Roger’s grave, but it was a long time ago. We noticed it, though, because it was the most colorful grave in the cemetery, which was otherwise a typical somber graveyard. Roger’s grave, on the other hand, was festooned with gaudy faux fleurs that drew your eye immediately. I only had to see it once to know that those people had a whole lot more fun at the cemetery than my folk did. We were satisfied with a sprig of flowers or a tiny flag, but the Santanuses were not content with such modesty bordering on forgetfulness. Roger was definitely not forgotten and was evidently still a part of their world.

Hilltop Cemetery

Ever since Roger, I’ve had my eye out for the gaily bedecked grave and have in particular sought out Mexican-American graves, hoping for the same exuberance the Santanus Family demonstrated. Alas, I have not often been rewarded. In the spirit of disclosure, I’ll confess to never having been south of Santa Cruz, CA, so I’ve never seen a Mexican cemetery live, but I’ve seen enough photos to know that, as a rule, Mexicans lavish a lot more attention on their graves than do Americans. Day of the Dead itself in Mexico is spent celebrating in the graveyard. As previously noted, I was hoping to run into more Mexican-American graves on my swing through central and southern Oregon, those regions being home to big agriculture and lots of immigrant labor, but was disappointed there, too. One finds, of course, the graves of many Mexican-Americans all through the state, but for the most part their graves aren’t especially distinguished from those of their neighbors, save for names and occasional writing in Spanish.

Hilltop Cemetery

The one major exception to that rule is Hilltop Cemetery outside Independence, OR, in the heart of the Willamette Valley. For a long time I wondered how come no other Oregon cemetery contained an extensive collection of Mexican-American folk grave memorials; but as it appears that truly none other does match Hilltop for its collection (I haven’t visited most of the cemeteries in the far eastern part of the state, but I’m running out of options here), the question is not why don’t the other cemeteries have them (folk memorials), but why Hilltop does?

Hilltop Cemetery

For that I have no answer. Someone’s going to have to dig up relatives of the people buried there and ask them.

Hilltop Cemetery

In any event, if you want to get a taste of a Mexican cemetery, however attenuated, here in Oregon, Hilltop is your answer. That may even hold true for Washington, as well, though I haven’t begun to comprehensively cover that state.

So, don’t lose faith; we still have Yakima.

Hilltop Cemetery

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Grave Torpedos

Last night’s (7/9/09) History Detectives on PBS had a segment sure to pique the interest of any cemeterian: Grave Torpedoes.

It turns out that in the latter half of the nineteenth century, largely due to the demands of medical schools for dissection subjects, the grave robbing, not for artifacts but for the bodies themselves, was a lucrative business. To deter would-be grave robbers, a variety of grave “torpedoes” were designed to blow said robbers to smithereens. A devise similar to the one exhibited was patented by a Thomas Howell in 1881, the year the law was changed to allow medical schools to use unclaimed and donated bodies, which effectively put an end to the torpedo business.

“Torpedo” in those days didn’t mean an underwater missile, as it does today, but instead included many sorts of explosive instruments. This torpedo was essentially an iron ball filled with gunpowder and a trip-hammer trigger to ignite it, should it be disturbed. Such as by a grave robber digging nearby.

The flaw, of course, was that it would also blow up if a legal grave digger happened to dig nearby.

The torpedo segment in the show is titled “Grave Alarm” rather than “Grave Torpedo,” because the current owner of the object thought that that is what he had, until research proved otherwise.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Siskiyous

Pilot Butte Cemetery

I am stalked by death. Many a morning I wake with a tight cold sweat and a taste of steel in my mouth. I feel the suspension of time that says a crisis is at hand. I am fine. Around me is death. Around me is a cancer eating at my friends and family. Around me people are waiting for the birth of a new child. Around me walk proud young women with newly extended bellies. A friend’s wife is told, “You have to decide on a place for him. A bed. A couch. Soon you will be unable to move him.” The doctor says months. The wife says no, sooner. He has seen the people he will see. I am on the long list. I have seen him for the last time.

Jacksonville Cemetery

Where do you go when you’re no longer here? Is there morning there?

Is there there there?

Chief Schonchin Cemetery

The Siskiyous

The Siskiyous are a jumbled mess of mountains straddling the Oregon-California border. They are what happens to the Cascades as they dribble out in their southern reaches. What distinguishes them from the Cascades is hard to say other than that they spread out into rugged terrain that for a time held one of the fiercest pockets of Indian resistance to the white invasion: the Modoc Indian War. Out here “Indian Fighter” on a tombstone is a not fanciful sobriquet, and the Modocs took down their share of soldiers. Gold strikes were common in these parts and camp town sprang up and disappeared overnight (cf. the introduction to Golden Cemetery on DeadManTalking, when it shows up). Life was as rough and tumble as the mountains.

Jacksonville Cemetery

Today the region is dotted with agricultural valleys separated by precipitous hills. Outside of the valleys it is sparsely populated, but the valleys hold concentrations of people that allow for quasi-independent development, and each city is the Mecca for its own micro-world. In the early days of white settlement Jacksonville was the center of travel and commerce and its cemetery reflects that former glory; it is one of Oregon’s great pioneer cemeteries and worth a trip to the restored town for it alone. Since those days, Medford, Grants Pass, Ashland, and Klamath Falls have run the show. Famous for fruit trees (Harry & David are from Medford), the region has long been a magnet for migrant workers who provide a vibrant addition to the cultural landscape. (Thanks to them, I can attest that you can find an excellent taco in Merrill among the braceros and the teenage girls in their skin-tight Levis.)

In 1941 the Army built a training camp, White City, north of Medford, which left its stamp on the character of the region, even though it was abandoned by the Army after the war. Nonetheless, the region prides itself on its conservative bent and the road signs for Klamath County (I believe) read “We support veterans.” (Let it be known that other parts of Oregon do support veterans, as well.) One legacy of White City is the nearby Eagle Point National Cemetery, which began in 1952 and has bucolic views over the neighboring farm land stretching off to deep-clad mountains.

Antioch Cemetery

Another nearby cemetery, Pankey Cemetery, had a curious involvement with White City. It was located in the middle of the gunnery practice range, not an ideal situation for tombstones; but the Army, bless its heart, sympathetic to the descendants of people buried in Pankey, prior to bombing the bejeezus out of the place, laid all the tombstones flat and covered them with six feet of sand. When they were done, they sucked up all the sand and tilted the stones upright again; although a volunteer caretaker confessed to me that she had a slight concern in the back of her mind that one day she’ll run across a live round left over from those times and meet her demise in that very spot. A short trip, she figured, provided they find the pieces.

Chief Schonchin Cemetery

Thanks to Southern Oregon University in Ashland along with a regional Shakespeare company, the region has also long been a draw for a more lettered and artistic class, which was joined in the 1960s and 70s by a wave of hippie immigrants who brought their own indelible style with them. More recently wine makers and organic, sustainable farmers and ranchers have begun to transform the region’s agriculture and, frankly, cultural life, as well. It’s a heady mix in an area where at least one town (Grants Pass) boasts a banner across its main street proclaiming: “It’s the climate.”

Woodville Cemetery

Scenery’s not bad, either.

Tag Ends

Chief Schonchin Cemetery

Nearly half the photos I brought back, though, are not from the Siskiyous but are distributed between central and south-central Oregon. I’d located four Native-American cemeteries before I departed, none in the Siskiyous. I found the four, but two were adorned with “no trespassing” signs, so there you have it.

I had hoped in this swing through Oregon’s high, dry farm and orchard lands that I would find quintessential Mexican grave sites, but alas, I was disappointed. Still, the best collection of Mexican graves in the state are in the Hilltop Cemetery outside Independence, in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Yet the proliferation of taquerias and taco wagons almost made up for the lack of colorful headstones. Aside from the outstanding tacos from the Merrill taqueria, I had serviceable ones from stands at the Deschutes River Crossing in Warm Springs and at the intersection in Wolf Creek, of all places. I never did find the Wolf Creek Cemetery, but a stop at the fire station directed me to the unmarked cemetery at Golden.

Pilot Butte Cemetery

All in all a successful trip, rich with photos. And aside from getting snowed off Hart Mountain on the Solstice (where the mosquitoes were pestiferous), the weather cooperated just fine.

Milo Gard Cemetery

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


And a note to Deez. I'm still having technical difficulties and can't email you or leave a comment on either your stuff or my own stuff, but, hopefully, this will get published, and, if you see it and could send me an email address that I can actually see, I'd write to you about eh banner proposals, which I enjoyed a lot. There are technical question, such as how to employ it, but that can wait until I've got myself operating smoothly. I'm looking to buy a new computer soon and will wait till that's up and running before I get on to refinements.

The photos have been saved — Thank God! — but it will be some time before they get organized and posted on Flickr. I visited 30 cemeteries on my swing through the Siskeyous. Two were posted with "no trespassing" signs and three were lawn cemeteries for which I did minimal drive-by shootings; but the other 25 produced some 900 photos.