WHEN THE RED LEAVES FALL [Natives in the radical culture of Seattle]
hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Wed Sep 11 02:34:21 MDT 2002
I saw them just as soon as they came in from the lower door on the far other
side of the vast old Seattle Union Train Station
that Sunday afternoon in late October, down in what was left
of the increasingly Urban Renewed and Yuppie-Invaded old Skid Road district
below the totem poles on Yesler Way. Humanity numbered a few billion by that
fall of 1986 -- and many many years had come and gone -- but, joltingly and
with a sharp eerie chill, I knew immediately that it was Her. And there was
something familiar -- very familiar -- about the young and slender man of
30 who followed her, sometimes gently guiding.
They turned right, moving very slowly along the wall. An old Black shoe
shine man rose from his chair, smiling and shaking hands. Visiting briefly
with him, they then resumed what was obviously some sort of regular walk
She was a Native woman in an old dress and sweater, erect, walking with
stiff rigidity, short and halting steps. And even from the distance across
the great wide floor she looked to be old with her very grayish/whiteish
hair -- maybe even hitting her seventies. But I knew -- I knew very well --
that she wasn't much older than my 52 years. And the young guy following
her, though at first glance Black, was also as much Indian as African, and
obviously her son.
It had been a long, long time -- Another Age. But only an hour or so
before, she had been much on my mind -- very heavily so. To an Indian, there
are no coincidences in the Creation. But I still felt the eerie chills.
Based at that point in North Dakota, I had been in the Pacific Northwest --
mostly at Tacoma -- for a week, renewing those old Left contacts who still
remained. I was doing research on radical industrial unionism over several
great epochs. Now, in Seattle and killing a few hours before I headed
train-wise back to the Northern Plains, I'd been wandering around the old
Skid Road area in a mild drizzling rain. And, as I hoofed it along, I'd been
doing a great deal of Remembering in what had once been the wide open
land of hell-raising working-stiffs.
For a little while, as I had walked that afternoon on the many rainy streets
below Yesler Way, I was once again hardly 21, a big husky Indian kid, barely
out of the Army, not yet ready to go back home to Northern Arizona. It was
the very early Spring, 1955. And it was a gray and grim and awful time with
Red Scare in full swing. I was a fresh Red Card Wobbly, a member of the
old Industrial Workers of the World -- very recently signed up at the
ancient Seattle Wobbly Hall on Skid Road.
Many years after '55, in 1967-68, we had lived in Seattle -- myself and
Eldri and our little developing family.
We came there right after we'd left the Deep South -- to which I and Eldri
had gone in 1961 for six extremely turbulent years in the Civil Rights
At Seattle, we'd driven around the old Skid Road from time to time, looking
for my landmarks and memories while I noted the invasive changes even then
being wrought by urban renewal and the new human colonizers. As we
junketed, now and again down there, it was clear that much was gone from the
old scene, including the Wobblies. Some traditional buildings and other
geography still remained. But during that year, though only a little more
respectable and much involved in many solid social justice causes, I never
actually walked around the old Skid Road.
And now, in '86 and a long generation after even that, I did walk the turf
in the old rip-roaring district of long ago. The turbulent saloons were
gone, no Salvation soup kitchens remained, a rather drab Asian marketing
firm was in the building that had housed the I.W.W. hall of yore. A short
distance from that, I walked north up a very short hill to a small park.
And there, with tallish Washington-type trees all around me, I sat down in
the drizzling rain.
And I remembered when I last seen her, late one afternoon -- walking down
into that very park in the early Spring of '55 when the trees were still
very small. And very young
And so were we -- she and I. Very young indeed.
And now -- in the Native world of no coincidence -- here she was more than
an Age later in close-by Union Station. It was heavy emotionally to watch
them. Continuing their walk along the wall, they stopped and visited with
the man who sold magazines, and then, turning left along the next stretch of
wall, stopped briefly in front of the couple who hustled pre-fab sandwiches
and weak coffee. I noticed by this time that her son did almost all the
And by now, as they drew closer along that wall, her bronze features seemed
old, dried and sunken in a face with sharp canyon lines. Her hair was
obviously very gray white. And she was now moving very slowly.
When I had first seen her, not much older than I, the face was a Face
of Vibrant Fire and the Hair was Jet Black. I had come that evening into a
bar that for me was new -- Hank's Place -- and the curtained front window
had a large, partially-raised slightly glowing red sheet of cardboard with a
bright light under it. From inside, I could hear on a juke box a
Weavers' song -- one of my great favorites, Darlin' Corey.
I went inside. Although it was dim, I could see about 30 people, many of
whom seemed surprisingly well-dressed. But it was She who seized my eyes
She was vigorously wiping a bar table. And her eyes flashed Hot Light when
she saw me come in -- and that was very mutual.
She motioned over to a bar stool. I sat down. A burly rough-hewn Anglo in
his forties was sitting next to me. "This is Matt," she said. "From Great
Falls. Montana. Copper miner. Just come over from Butte."
"I'm from Northern Arizona," said I. I gave my full name. "Just a drifter.
The miner grinned, stuck out his big hand. "Well, me too," he said. "I'm
Matt Rough." He spelled his last name. We shook hands.
"You're new here," she said.
"I guess so," I replied. "You're Indian?"
She smiled all over, "Sure am. Blackfeet. Montana."
"I'm Wabanaki and Mohawk," I told her. "Micmac, St. Francis Abenaki, St
"Now that's a mouthful," she grinned. "I could sure tell you're Indian," she
said. "Just as soon as you walked in."
She moved off to carry drinks to the tables. Matt Rough and I shot the
breeze briefly about the Big City. The heavy bartender came over and
smiled. His eyes were steel-cold and his mouth looked like a jagged gash in
a rough rock wall. He poured me a drink -- "on us."
Then she came back toward the bar. But instead of going behind it, she sat
down by me -- very close indeed. Now I felt pure excitement.
She put her head close to mine, looked deeply into my eyes. And she asked,
"What do you think of John Foster Dulles?"
The tree began to fall. I felt dazed. Finally, I said, "I don't like him
She smiled approvingly. For a few minutes, we talked about the Secretary of
State. I still felt dazed. Then she asked, "Where are you politically?"
I told her. "I'm an I.W.W." Matt Rough looked at me, sharply. I reached
in my pocket and held up my Dark Red Card -- the little Wobbly membership
There was, momentarily, a glint in her eyes. Then the earnestness returned.
She looked at me carefully. "That's good," she replied. "But, and she
paused, then went on. "But it's not enough. We need to put something else
behind that, something stronger than it's ever had by itself."
The tree crashed, hard. "You're a Bolshevik, aren't you?" I asked. "A
She said nothing, still looking intently at me. Matt Rough, staring straight
ahead over the bar itself, was nursing his drink.
I stood up sharply. "I don't think much of that at all," I said. "I'm a
Her face was suddenly icy. And her eyes were narrowed and the glint was
back. "The Wobblies don't huddle in a darkened bar," I finished tersely.
Then she jumped up and yelled, "Why Goddamn you!"
The lights went on. Quickly I surveyed the faces at the bar and at the
table. Matt Rough was still staring silently and dead ahead. But elsewhere
I saw storm clouds.
Step by step, I began to back out, very slowly, turning my head from side to
side. Then something -- suddenly -- and it may have been a flash of psychic
intuition or the expression on the faces of the people at the tables, led me
to look quickly over my shoulder to the bar. The bartender, his gash of a
mouth tightly closed and his face glowing the grimness of determination,
was swinging a huge leather-covered sap at me. I ducked away and it grazed
Then I was out on the sidewalk. The illuminated red poster looked at me.
And someone banged the door shut very hard behind me. I hung around in
for a minute or two. But no one came out.
The next morning, I mentioned the incident to the regulars at the Wobbly
Hall. They all looked up immediately from cards and cribbage, books and
coffee and soup.
And they were all extremely interested. Old O.N. Peterson, a former
lumberjack, dressed in an ancient and very proper black suit, headed the
Local. "Mostly Communists at that place," he said.."Pretty tough outfit."
Looking at me sternly like a grandfather, he finished, "A few are OK --
don't go back to try to settle any scores."
I assured him I would not. Late that afternoon, I walked north to the
little park and sat down. The early Spring sun was warm. Then, suddenly, I
saw Her -- coming into the park from the other end, walking in my direction.
She saw me and our eyes locked -- hard. She stopped with a jerk. There was
fear in her face and she moved, almost stumbling, sharply off to the side --
and then out of the park. And Beyond.
And then I felt a very deep, poignant sadness.
A few days later, on a Sunday afternoon, O.N. Peterson, like most Wobblies a
stickler for super-precise financial accuracy, appointed a periodic ad-hoc
committee to spend an hour or so going over the financial books for the past
month. He named me, Andrew Hatch [whose trail had started in New Mexico
ages ago and who was a veteran of several historic IWW lumber struggles],
colorful migratory "snow bird" hard-rock miner named Stevens who I later
knew down in Arizona. We went over the dues payments, name by name, line by
line -- and then, suddenly, I saw the name of Matt Rough. He from Great
Falls, he of Hank's Place, And an obvious friend of Her.
I almost said something. The Wobblies wanted no Communists. But I said
nothing. Politics and possible political differences aside, I was an Indian
and a Westerner. Whatever Rough was, it was Rough's business. So I let it
The I.W.W. had inherited the large radical library maintained for years by
the Pacific Northwest Labor School -- which had accumulated books since the
Thirties. Attacked from the earliest stages of the Red Scare onward by the
Washington State Un-American Activities Committee and then by HUAC and other
Federal witch-hunting outfits, the School -- formally listed as "subversive"
by the U.S, Attorney General -- finally went under. A general council of
the spokespersons for those regional radical organizations still extant
eventually agreed consensus-wise that the I.W.W. would be the recipient of
the School's library -- with the understanding that the Wobblies would check
things out to all.
And the I.W.W. -- formally listed as "subversive" as well by the United
States A.G. but for damn sure keeping on keeping on -- brought in the very
large library indeed. To the letter, they faithfully carried out the
all-around radical consensus agreement. And I did a great deal of reading
in that super-congenial setting with the photos of the old Wobbly martyrs
on the wall above. And, when I wasn't reading, I was
listening to stories -- class war stories, old and new -- and learning much
that I've always treasured to this very moment.
Only a day or so after I'd seen Matt Rough's name on the membership
dues-record, a young Black man entered the Wobbly Hall to check out books.
In his mid-twenties, he was slender with a sharply quiet intensity
pleasantness, The I.W.W. was always totally egalitarian in all
respects -- and had been all the way through from
its hatch in 1905. The young Black man was greeted cordially, given coffee.
When he'd checked out a stack of books and left, O.N. Peterson commented to
me, "He's a Commie. But he's young Seems good."
And Andrew Hatch added, "He always brings the books back."
Not long after that, I left Seattle with my I.W.W. card and the lessons I'd
learned -- and went eastward into the Rockies for more adventures before
heading back to Northern Arizona. I always remembered all of the old
Wobblies at Seattle -- and kept in touch with them by letter over many, many
years until almost all were gone. By 1967-68, none of the old-timers
remained. And Hank's Place had been leveled for some sort of non-descript
and slick-looking business building.
But I always remembered Her. And sometimes I thought of Matt Rough as
well -- and the young Black man. I knew the Communist Party was totally
egalitarian. It was a tough and brutal and racist time. Hard as Hell for
Indian people. However she'd gotten to Seattle from the Montana mountains,
the Communists had obviously given her home and purpose. And the young
Black guy -- whoever he was -- had found a refuge there as well. Matt
Rough? Well, I figured -- and always have -- that he went back to Montana
And now, many many Ages ahead in the Fall of '86, here she was, with her
son -- in Union Station. And this only an hour or so after I'd hunched in
the rain in the little park surrounded by the tall trees which had been so
small more than thirty-one years before. And remembered her with such
I continued to feel eerie twinges.
The two had now turned left once again and were coming along directly toward
me. And now I saw so absolutely clearly the burned out eyes and the ragged
the gray white hair. They were moving very, very slowly and her son was
regularly and gently nudging her forward. When they came almost abreast of
me, no more than a dozen feet away, she looked straight into my face.
And I at her. And under the many, many tearing decades, I saw, in a deep
down illuminating flash, the beautifully vibrant face as I had first seen
her -- quickly
wiping a bar table at Hank's on that long ago Spring evening. And then the
ravages covered it all again.
>From my own extended family -- and from far, far beyond -- I knew the
corrosion and tragedy of alcoholism.
Our eyes -- hers almost twin caves -- lingered for an instant. What broken
pieces of Dreams and Visions with all their cutting edges lived far far down
There was no recognition from those dark caverns.
But she was still Indian. A brightly beaded barrette held her hair back.
And when I looked at her son, I saw clearly the young Black man who had
come to the I.W.W. hall to check out the books.
And it all came together then, in Union Station, Seattle -- at what had
become her tribal grounds. On what was left of Old Skid Road.
The young man was looking at me, knew I was Indian. Nodding, I smiled at him
and he at me. Then they went on, very slowly, for the short Station
remainder of their walk routine. Reaching the door through which they'd
come, they left.
And She was gone. Forever.
Some months before all of this, I'd mentioned the long-ago Hank's Place
confrontation -- two young Indians with competing radical brands of
Save-the-World -- to a historian friend of mine who published much on the
I.W.W. He suggested I write it up and get it into print. And, when I
returned to North Dakota, I did just that. In due course, the piece was
published in a rather surprisingly august journal along with an excellent
sketch of Skid Road during its High Time.
But that Account ended in the park -- with myself sitting in the rain under
the now-tall trees and thinking deeply of her and of another Time.
My essay did not go into Union Station. I simply could not bring myself to
to her. Certainly not at that point. Not then.
Over the many decades after our meeting at Hank's Place, I had often
wondered whatever had become of this beautiful and fiery Torch. The
Communist Party went through wrenching factionalism beginning only a year
after our meeting. That built to tremendous internal intensity in '57 --
when many indeed left it forever.
She, like I, was Indian and therefore most likely to place loyalty to
friends over any ideological intricacies. And did she ever go back Home -- I
had frequently wondered -- back to the Blackfeet country? Or had she stayed
Now I knew. And the truth was super heavy.
So when I wrote the initial piece about the two of us and Hank's Place and
Wobblies and Communists, I stopped the ending short. Let those
professorial readers, I figured -- all of them -- speculate as I had for
more than 31 years on the possible scenarios of her personal and political
future: the Sun and the Clouds. And let them, as I had for so very, very
time, remember the extremely young and the extremely beautiful -- and the
extremely committed -- Native person in that early Spring evening during
hideously grim time in 1955.
Let those initial readers remember Her -- as I still try to.
But until now, no one will remember the dried Red leaf, blowing along the
tortured Earth, blowing toward the inevitable Winter.
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
www.hunterbear.org (strawberry socialism)
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