GRAY LANDS, GRAY GHOSTS: NATIVE EARTH, ACTIVISM AND ENDURANCE
hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Wed Nov 6 14:44:21 MST 2002
GRAY LANDS AND GRAY GHOSTS: WHERE THE COYOTES HOWL AND THE LIONS AND
BOBCATS PROWL [HUNTER GRAY NOVEMBER 6 2002]
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] [John R. Salter, Jr. ] November 6, 2002
The setting was a ruggedly beautiful one on the present border of
Northeastern Utah and Southeastern Idaho. And the day was May 24, 1825 at
the camp of Peter Skene Ogden, a major fur entrepreneur for the Hudson's Bay
Matters were not tranquil at the HBC bastion -- and the dark clouds of human
storm were very low indeed. The long smoldering resentment of the Native
trappers of the beaver -- Indians from the Northeast and virtually all
Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy -- was heating rapidly. The issues
involved their multi-faceted exploitation by the HBC which paid only
modestly for beaver skins, charged high for goods, and kept them in a state
of continual debt and quasi-indentured servitude.
And now the pine needles were beginning to burn openly.
Following a meeting at his tent, John Gray, Mohawk of St. Regis [Akwesasne]
of far up-state New York, and the always fighting leader of the Iroquois and
related fur trappers in the Far West, strode to the tent of Ogden and
denounced the Hudson's Bay Company leaders -- "the gentlemen of the
Columbia" as he sarcastically put it -- as "the greatest villains in the
He vigorously added a thoughtfully significant threat: "And if they were
here this day, I would shoot them."
At that point, John Gray, with eleven other Iroquois trappers, led a
historic labor strike as they all walked out on Ogden and the HBC. The next
day, they were joined by five other Native trappers -- including Joseph
Annance, a St. Francis Abenaki of Quebec, from a famous Native family of
The strike, its walkaway, and its far flung implications -- inspiring other
Natives and Anglo trappers as well and frightening a wide array of fur
bosses -- was probably the first such labor action in the Intermountain
West. It successfully boosted the payment for beaver pelts, eliminated the
viciously exploitive pricing system, and ended the quasi-indentured
servitude over the whole, entire wide region.
John Gray was my great/great/great grandfather. And so, too, was Joseph
In the year 2002, the big fresh rounded male mountain lion tracks in the
Fall trail dust of a steep rugged valley/canyon in Southeastern Idaho were
very large -- maybe even four inches across each paw print -- and among the
biggest I'd ever seen. I was personally not surprised. He'd been coming
down the Trail, probably early in the morning and I was climbing up at high
noon -- and we were both in a very special place indeed where always
interesting and sometimes unusual things occur. He lives there. I and
various family members go there much.
Our family calls this Gray Hole. We believe the Creator designed it for the
Winter season especially. It's part of a complex of fascinating and
smoothly related geography that has deep and enduring meaning for our Native
family -- and it always will.
This is how it's all laid out:
In a broad and fascinating array of mountains and extremely high hills --
all public land -- there's a tremendously high and steep, juniper-covered
ridge that we call Lookout. And on its eastern slope lies a small downward
flowing semi-hidden valley. We call that Winter Camp. And from mid-Fall
onward into Winter, the initially southward-shifting Sun strikes it with
early and increasingly warm force in the morning -- just as soon as the
yellow glow rises over the snowy eastern mountains yonder. And then, in
mid-Winter and well into Spring as the Sun moves northward, it continues to
reach effectively into that valley.
For most of the year, there is much wild wheat grass handy and, from Fall
well into Spring, there's snow and snow water in the valley -- which tapers
slowly down, eventually becoming a half-mile run-off
into the Portneuf River. There's wild game in the valley, especially in the
Winter: mule deer and moose, rabbits, wild chickens.
There is always plenty of firewood close at hand. All over.
And when late afternoon comes and the Sun is going down, it darkens early.
But the basic warmth remains in the Winter Camp valley until actual
Immediately on the other side of Lookout ridge, there is much, much game
indeed. That's a very deep and steep and always moodily mysterious and
extremely rugged canyon valley. That's our Gray Hole. And it's formed by
several substantial tributary canyons that come down from other geological
upsurges of super-high country rising skyward to its immediate south. And
Gray Hole is molded as well by side canyons dropping sharply down from
Lookout itself on the east -- whose high, high ridge slope lifts even more
sharply on this side than on the other. The slope of Lookout ridge rises
starkly -- and almost darkly for much of the day -- since the Sun never
gets in there until the morning is very well along. And on the western edge
of Gray Hole are two moderately high ridges -- in between which the long
and widening fingers of sharply defined contributing canyons also press
downward into the main canyon/valley.
Junipers and sage abound all over. In many of the side canyons, and at the
major seasonal stream flow at the bottom, are groves of wild red maples.
And some of those trees hold high the large and visually
ominous dark-twigged and almost black nests of very large and aggressive
In addition to being shadowy well into the morning, Gray Hole is always
secluded. And, for us, it's always friendly -- very friendly indeed. That
goes back a long, long way -- back to Another Time.
Down at the bottom and about half-way up from the sloping lower end of the
canyon/valley is an extremely thin but well-defined and ancient game trail.
So hidden is its origin at the bottom -- as well as its
exit/origin far above -- that we call it simply the Secret Trail. It winds
its circuitous course for several hundred yards up ridges, maneuvering
intricately along, sometimes dipping slightly and then rising very sharply,
becoming ever more rocky -- until, at its final stretch, it goes virtually
straight-steep up for a long and extraordinarily challenging pull. It
finally surfaces, still inconspicuously, still hidden, onto
and into a vasty sage-brush covered gap with the southern end of Lookout on
the left and, on the right,
another high mountain and tributary feeder into Gray Hole.
And in the Winter, Gray Hole fills not only with some snow -- but with much,
much wild game coming down from the country of the very high mountains.
And there are always, at Gray Hole, its permanent residents. Mountain lions,
bobcats, coyotes. Now and then there's a rattlesnake, its tannish skin
with many light and darker brown splotches blending easily into
the earth and sage and dry grass.
We see all of these. All of the wild kin of ours.
The lions and the coyotes and the bobcats travel widely -- back and forth
over Lookout ridge, up and down and along the Secret Trail. But for them,
and for always, Gray Hole is home.
And us -- we Native folks?
We live very close by all of this. So close we can walk right out of our
house -- and up and beyond any
time we wish. And this is very often indeed.
In the Summer of 2002, a young woman at a choice Eastern university working
on her PhD dissertation, and from that a book, made contact with me through
the Ethical Humanist Society [Ethical Culture.] Her determined and splendid
work focuses on the great American philosopher, William James, with a
significant dimension on his worthy philosopher/socially activist
brother-in-law, William Mackintire Salter. It was William M. Salter, a
founder and a major leader of the Ethical Culture Society -- and a vigorous
member of the almost all-white Indian Rights Association -- who adopted my
essentially full-blooded Native father, Frank Gray, as a somewhat older
child and changed his name to John Randall Salter. The adoption was a
difficult one for my father who eventually broke away from the Salters in
his mid-teens for a dramatic life of his own -- but who maintained some
connection with them, and especially with the always supportive
James family who later played a major role in effecting his education at
the Chicago Art Institute.
This very capable scholar of today, fascinated by all of this, prepared a
long list of excellent questions about my father's relationship with the
Salter and the James families for her chapter on pluralism and ethnicity.
And one of those questions was:
"What were your father's views on religion and how did they change over
time? Would you call him an essentialist or a relativist?. . .How much of
these views would you attribute to his relationship to Salter or to
To this, I responded in part: "If you are using "essentialist" as
essentialism or biological reductionism, my father never even remotely
believed anything like that. He recognized the power of culture -- and
socio-cultural environment. But he also always accepted, as do I always,
the presence of ancestral spirits -- a
component of his Wabanaki [Abenaki and closely related tribes] and Iroquois
[Mohawk] family lines."
When he came West in 1816, into the remote and beautiful and frequently
dangerous Columbia and Snake River country as a beaver trapper with the
Hudson's Bay Company, John Gray -- Mohawk of St. Regis [Akwesasne] -- was 22
years old, Jesuit-educated. His saint was Ignatius of Loyola, founder of
that Order, patron of warriors. [Occasionally in the Far West, John Gray
used the name Ignace Hatchiorauquasha.] And his wife, Marienne Neketichon
[Mary Ann Charles], Mohawk of Caughnawaga [Kahnawake], was 16.
The eastern reservations were increasingly circumscribed, dull and
land-dwindling. Adventure beckoned -- the Call of the Far Away Hills. John
Gray and Marienne took the Wind and rode with It.
He was the son of a Scottish-American veteran of the Revolutionary War,
William L. Gray, who married into the Akwasasne Mohawks, became an important
interpreter for the Indians -- and then also for the United States during
the War of 1812 in which he was wounded, dying in British captivity in
Quebec. [Occasionally, in a few of the numerous histories mentioning John
Gray, one encounters the erroneous spelling, Grey --
a mistake initially made by the adversarial HBC field operative, Alexander
Ross. Every generation of the family itself has consistently used Gray.]
He generally had several rifles at any one time, about six horses, and at
least a dozen beaver traps. For he and other Mohawks, the ballad of the
Mountain Men, Shenandoah ["Across the wide Missouri"]
came to blend with the old Iroquois songs.
He was an extraordinarily committed and enduring activist -- from the very
beginning, He fought for the Iroquois fur hunters and their allied Native
trappers from one turbulent crucible to another. And,
in time, he became a vigorous advocate for the Flathead Nation of the
Northern Rockies -- warning them in detail about that which had happened to
the Natives of the East at the hands of the
Europeans and the Euro-Americans.
Occasionally, he and his band of almost twenty Native fur hunters and their
growing families were grouped together. But, usually, in the traditional
fashion of trappers, they were scattered for much of the year. Now and then
they gathered at the wild rendezvous affairs -- drink and singing and
sometimes women -- organized by fur companies and frequented by the Anglo
mountain men. More often than not, however, they had their uniquely Native
gatherings in special and hidden places of wonderful ruggedness.
They lived with their individual families over a very wide range indeed -- a
great area where "the world opens out instead of in" -- a vast array of
mountains and forests and high deserts and deep canyons
and rivers-of-no-return. All of this was seen by most whites as
wilderness -- and by all of the Indians, whatever their respective origin
and tribe, as quite familiar lands.
Very early-on following his arrival in the Golden West, a deep valley right
on the edges of the Teton country and just into the Idaho side of the
present Idaho/Wyoming border, came to be known as "Gray's
Hole." This was the late Spring and Summer base for him and his family.
And, in time, a small nearby river came to be known as John Gray's River --
and a close-by lake, now a national wildlife refuge just inside Idaho and
presently bereft of most water, is called Gray's Lake. From this camp, the
Grays tended to travel
All through this region of high elevation, the winters are rough -- with
much cold and many heavy snows.
Almost as soon as he had his good-weather home established at Gray's Hole,
he and his family set up another major base at a somewhat lower
levation -- a winter camp -- in the almost hidden valley flowing directly
down from the high eastern slope of Lookout Ridge, not far above what
came over time to be called the Portneuf River. Here, in a world of rolling
sage-brush plains and high rounded hills and knife-edge
ridges and sharp-tooth mountains, the early morning Winter sun shines
directly onto the camp area from the rugged horizon just at the mountains to
the east, And its warmth and light pour in from the early morning into the
And then, moving down from the other very steep -- western -- slope of that
far up Lookout ridge, lies the oft-shadowy and secluded and Winter
game-filled valley/canyon that we simply call Gray Hole.
And that's where John Gray loved to hunt.
They were in this setting from the mid-Fall well into the Spring -- every
basic Winter season for almost twenty years. Here at this Winter Camp --
and at the Summer base as well -- some Gray children entered the world. The
first born of all was my direct ancestor, Peter Gray, for whom the family
and census records say in remarkably succinct fashion, "Born 1818, born in
the Rocky Mountains." He was born right in the Winter Camp in the almost
Well before the angry -- and eminently successful -- confrontation with
Peter Skene Ogden on that May day in 1825, the hard-advocating and fiery and
math-knowledgeable John Gray was the focus of an increasingly jaundiced view
by a growing number of British HBC managers and representatives. This
hostility following the report by key HBC staffer, Alexander Ross, who had,
from his perspective, the great misfortune of spending a part of a trapping
season with John Gray and the other Iroquois in an atmosphere
of significantly mounting mutual acrimony. Much of this stemmed from John
Gray's fully successful campaign to hold up any Iroquois cooperation with
Ross until the HBC man cut the costs of company
trade goods in half and redid all of the account books to retroactively
reflect the considerable change. In the aftermath of this, Alexander Ross
referred frequently to John Gray with such hostile descriptions as "
turbulent blackguard" and "a damned rascal."
And after the very successful showdown with Ogden , and all of its rapidly
broadening ramifications in which the payment for beaver pelts was much
increased and the entire pricing system underwent sweeping and substantial
reformative change -- and all of this across the entire region -- the
British view of the Mohawk of Akwesasne was one of universal hostility.
It was certainly extremely mutual. After the Ogden crisis, John Gray and his
Native band tended to work much more closely with the Americans in, say, the
Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The Blackfeet, who resented the growing
Iroquois alliance with the Flathead Nation and who often tilted toward the
British, killed John Gray's close colleague, the older much-seasoned Mohawk
mentor, Old Pierre Tevanitagon.
And then they almost killed John Gray himself.
Suddenly jumped while on horseback by a number of Blackfeet who wounded
him, John Gray rode like the highest of high winds straight to the Portneuf
River. There, dismounting, he plunged into the Winter-cold waters,
concealing himself in reeds -- from which he then made a kind of rudimentary
raft. With this, he
traveled the Portneuf down river for a short distance and then, with extreme
difficulty, made it to his nearby camp. It took him a full two months to
His taste for danger was, however, unabated. He had an increasingly
demonstrated penchant for fighting and killing grizzly bears -- themselves
the epitome of lethal ferocity. In addition to his guns, he used knives
with great skill.
And at Bear River, in the southeastern corner of Idaho, Milton Sublette --
he of a very well known Western fur family -- made the signal mistake of
physically demonstrating unwelcome interest in one of the very young Gray
daughters. Deeply slashed in several parts of his body by the devoted
father, Sublette was given up for death by all observers -- but somehow
The Gray daughters were never molested again by anyone.
And, following that, John Gray killed even more grizzly bears.
For all of its challenges -- and also much because of them -- this wild,
free and egalitarian life of those trappers and explorers of several races
who came to be called "Mountain Men," can only be seen as utopian
in whatever rough and ready sense. And, although it lasted for several
decades, it finally began to fade -- as beaver prices fluctuated ever
downward -- and then gradually it passed away.
For John Gray and many of his band, there was also another reason. Their
families were now growing rapidly. Some were much concerned about the
absence of Catholic priests and the lack of formal education
in the Intermountain world.
And so, with virtually all of his colleagues and their families -- a very
few remaining with the Flatheads -- John Gray left the Far West in the
Fall of 1835 and relocated at very small French Settlement on the banks of
the lower Missouri. That community soon became associated with Westport --
a key Oregon Trail stop
and a launching place toward the far off Rockies -- and those several small
communities in the immediate
area came to make up the basic beginning of Kansas City. In 1840, a
detailed parish map of Westport, drawn by a Jesuit priest and an extremely
gifted artist, Father Nicolas Point, indicates 26 resident Catholic
families -- including that of John Gray and other Natives.
But, for the Indian trapper families, nothing there really worked out. Some
drifted away -- back East. But most stayed -- especially with a few of
their offspring now beginning to marry local and regional Indians.
The relatively flat and humid lands of the lower Missouri were far from a
worthy and comfortable setting for those who had savored so deeply and so
long the old wild, free life in the dry air of the rugged Rockies, who had
summered in the great Teton country, and who had wintered in the Portneuf
region. And, for them, far too many people were coming through from the
East, wild game was dwindling, work was increasingly drudgery.
And there were no mountains. No lookout ridges, No canyon/valleys. No
Holes. No enduringly bright -- very bright -- blue sky.
They hunted the brush thick river bottoms and the hills just west of the
Missouri -- full of the tough strange black trees called Osage Orange.
But it was never the same.
Father Point, extremely empathetic and supportive, noted in his journal the
"drunkenness" and "wretched" nature of almost all of the adult Iroquois men
in the general Westport region.
And in the midst of this, a young woman -- daughter of Joseph Annance, the
St. Francis Abenaki of the family of Mohawk origin -- became pregnant with
the child of the oldest Gray son, Peter, with whom she'd had a quite
long-term relationship. The Annances were Anglican. She was sent East into
the White Mountains of New Hampshire to live with her uncle, the well-known
Dartmouth-educated Native guide, Lewis [Louis] Annance. When the child was
born, she was named Louise and called Lizzie and she grew up in the family
of Lewis Annance -- mostly in the wild Moosehead Lake country of Northern
Maine to which he soon migrated.
That child of Westport conception, who occasionally used the Annance name
and often that of Gray, was my great grandmother.
The Sun was now very low for John Gray and for most of the trapper Iroquois.
But, for him, there was one more moment where it shone very brightly and
very warmly and in full -- hovering just over the western horizon.
The Jesuits, encouraged by some of the Iroquois and also by Flathead
emissaries to the Church at St. Louis, were now preparing to establish
missions in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The arrival of the notable
missionary leader, Father Pierre Jean De Smet, Belgium-born and based at
St. Louis -- who was to become a major and life-long advocate for many of
the Western tribes -- signaled the beginning of a historic trek. Six
Jesuits, including Father Point -- a meticulous journalist and an
increasingly splendid artist -- left Westport for the Far West in a larger
party combined with other travelers, in mid-May, 1841.
And John Gray, accompanied by Marienne and one small grand-daughter, was the
primary hunter for the Great Odyssey -- which moved slowly and with
determination across the warm and humid prairies and out
onto the hot high plains. And then, with the dark sentry mountains of
Wyoming's East signaling, they entered the far-flung region of the Rocky
In what is now central Wyoming on July 5, John Gray carved his name, "J.
Gray" onto Independence Rock. So did twelve other members of their party so
inscribe -- including Father Point, who sketched the Rock and added those
names in an intricately printed column.
Somewhere along this great trip, Father Point did a very detailed sketch of
John Gray -- the only known portrait depiction ever made. It shows a
side-view of a pleasant, lean Native face, with strong cheekbones
and jaw and prominent eyes. Dark, somewhat curly hair, pushes out from
under a white, wide-brimmed Western-type hat. He wears a kerchief tie.
The Jesuit sketched Marienne as well: a side view of a seated, rather small
and sturdy woman wearing a fringed buckskin shirt. Her hair is long and
black, flowing from a full and very pleasant Native face.
In his journals, Father Point observed that John Gray "showed extraordinary
courage and dexterity, especially when, on one occasion, he dared to attack
five bears at once." The priest of the pen and paints did more than write
that sentence. Rather heroically himself, he sat under a nearby tree and in
an extraordinary sketch, depicted John Gray's simultaneous fight with the
five grouped grizzly bears -- all of which the great hunter killed in what
can only be viewed as a major climactic point -- in a life full of such
Later in the summer journey, in August, John Gray and Marienne and the small
grand-daughter made an extremely important personal side trip. Leaving the
main party, they traveled their own way westward
to the Portneuf River, stopping only briefly at the fairly new, small
trading center known as Fort Hall which had been established by the HBC in
1834 at that point on the Oregon Trail.
>From there, they had to ride only a very few poignant miles to the hidden
valley of Winter Camp of the warm winter Sun, the super high ridge of
Lookout, and the oft-shadowy secluded canyon/valley of Gray Hole so full of
wild game in the winters. It was all there -- along with the charred wood
remnants of their old camp fires, The sky was dark blue and the winds were
They stayed there for a few days. Then they returned, slowly, to the lower
Missouri and Westport.
There was never another trip to that very special and beautiful piece of the
Earth. Did they ever expect to return -- some day, some way? Maybe for good?
They had to have hoped in that direction. Hoped very hard.
We do know that John and Marienne Gray and at least several members of their
immediate family regretted -- many, many times over -- the move from the
Rocky Mountains into the comparatively flat Missouri river lands of the
In 1843, a red-haired Shoshone woman, long regarded as an enemy of his
family, knifed and killed John Gray at Westport. A year later, the Missouri
flooded everything, destroying the Gray home and many others. Marienne Gray
stubbornly moved up on a high bluff above their original location and, with
several of their immediate family members in the area -- including Peter --
remained there for many years. She and two daughters made and sold
fashionable dresses to well-to-do Anglo women.
But then, gradually, children continued to marry, Some stayed around.
Others moved to the Four Directions. Accompanied by a daughter, Marienne
Gray eventually moved well south of the developing Kansas City to Fort
Scott, Kansas. She died there of cholera in 1862.
Many of these things are things we have always known. Some are things we've
learned. All of these things are precious to us -- as are the special lands
Flagstaff, Arizona, the high pine mountain community bordering the vast
Navajo reservation on the immediate west, is my home town. I grew up
there -- very much among the Navajo -- with my Native father from the Far
Northeast and an Anglo mother from a very old Western frontier family. From
my earliest years, I trapped and hunted -- and later, long before the legal
age of 18, was fighting forest fires summer after summer. A passionate
commitment from my earliest childhood years onward -- killing a huge bear
and thus coming of age -- was fulfilled in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness.
For all of my adult life, I have been a radical social justice organizer --
often teaching in conjunction with that -- all over the United States. And
my wife, Eldri, from Minnesota has consistently been with me in
all these struggles and always will be. But wherever our wandering trail
has taken us, "as many years have come and gone," our hearts have always
been in the mountains of the West.
And then there was that day in mid-May, 1997, when Eldri and I stood and
looked at the massive floodwaters of the Red River of the North. Those,
born of a dozen blizzards and having engulfed virtually all of Grand Forks,
North Dakota that mid-April -- forcing the evacuation of over 50,000
people -- had stopped only three hundred yards east of our
way-out-on-the-edge home. I had never trusted the Red River. Never.
We had lived in that bleak, flat country of extreme climates for sixteen
turbulently activist years. I had taught Indian Studies at the University
of North Dakota and had been involved in continually
militant and social justice work throughout the entire region. My classes
had been huge, my organizing eminently effective, and we had made many
friends indeed -- and some extremely venomous enemies. If much of our
sojourn in that setting had been pleasant, some of the experiences --
especially those in and around some University faculty and administration
circles -- had been the most vicious that we'd ever encountered.
When the Great Flood of '97 came, we knew it was Our Sign. It was time to
go -- back to the Mountain West. And we knew precisely to what very special
And so we came to the Pocatello, Idaho setting on the Portneuf River in the
Summer of 1997: myself and Eldri; our youngest daughter, Josie; and my
oldest daughter, Maria, and her two children -- Thomas and Samantha.
Rescued by me just before the Red River struck with its fury, Maria and her
little group had lost everything. Our families now joined, we brought our
cats, my one-half bobcat, our rabbit, and the turtle on the long westward
trek out of the hot Western plains and into the cool Montana mountains and
down into Southeastern Idaho.
And, at just the right spot -- 'way far up on the western frontier of
Pocatello, right on the very edge -- the fine house we needed was for sale
and at an extremely reasonable price. It had been, it seemed to us, waiting
patiently just for our arrival.
We bought it immediately. It's less than an hour's steep up-hill walk
through rough country to the two very special valleys and the protective
ridge of my ancestors: Winter Camp, Lookout, Gray Hole. We walk right out
of the door of our home -- and up -- and we do this all the time.
Not surprisingly, no sooner did we arrive than it became quite clear that my
reputation as a "known agitator" had preceded me. Surveillance of many kinds
by various "lawmen" and harassment by racist elements began. It continues.
Yet, with only an exception or two, our immediate neighbors -- people who've
gotten to know us on a personal basis and who come from various
ethnicities -- are friendly and fine.
And we are much more than survivors. We are the Flint People, Tough,
fighting, resilient. The Hudson's Bay situation then, the same system now.
Solidarity and sacrifice, courage and leadership are as critical today
as they were in those old-time struggles in the Rockies -- as they have been
all through the blood-dimmed history of humanity's River of No Return.
We all -- all of us -- have many priceless things, some so very ancient
indeed, that can never be taken away. And very high among them for us here
are those extraordinary places, now so close, where the coyotes
howl and the lions and the bobcats prowl. The strength from there is deep,
timeless, enduring -- and very, very sharp.
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] Micmac / St. Francis Abenaki / St. Regis Mohawk
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