"We bounced our way back down the hill, then turned onto a gravel road that skirted a dusty, amber wash. Houses were set back from the road about a half a mile apart. They all had the look of prefab postwar bungalows gone to seed. Doors hung by one hinge. Windows without screens were covered by blankets. The front yards were nothing more than spotty patches of dirt with kids' bicycles and old appliances lying randomly on the ground.
"Everything seemed to have just been left where it was dropped: there was no sense of order or indication of effort to keep things clean. One house had an old spool table sitting in front of it with a pile of oily car parts on it. Another had a large frame made out of telephone poles with an engine block hanging from it by a heavy logging chain. Beneath the engine a rusty beige Chevrolet with no front wheels sat on heavy timbers, its hood open as if the engine had just been extracted like a tooth.
"It was a world of half-efforts. I had been brought to a conclusion. The only sign of industriousness was the inevitable line of laundry flapping behind each house in the ceaseless prairie winds. The white sheets seemed like flags of defiance in a landscape of despair.
"I had always been mystified by the willingness of people to live in squalor, when only the simplest effort would have been required to make things clean. Eventually, I had come to shrug it off to the old sociological canard that it reflected a lack of self-esteem and a sense of hopelessness about life.
"But, in my heart, I knew that this was too facile, too middle-class in its presumptions. But it certainly was preferable to earlier explanations that people who lived like this were simply lazy and shiftless. I wanted to ask Dan. I was sure he'd have a point of view. But I hesitated: the question seemed to run to the heart of the contemporary Indian life.
"I needn't have worried, though. The old man saw me glancing around and came right to the point himself.
" 'Bothers you, doesn't it,' he said.
"We passed a house with a burnt-out station wagon lying on its side in the front yard.
" 'Yeah. I guess so,' I answered. 'I just don't understand it.'
" 'I've been waiting for you to ask. But I guess you figure I got forever.' He gave me a mock blow on the shoulder. 'I'm damn near eighty, Nerburn. You've got to work faster.'
"I grinned at his humor. 'Sorry, Dan. I'm on white man's time.
"He chuckled several times and pointed at another of the passing houses. The top of an old Plymouth protruded from a patch of weeds. 'What do you see when you look out there?'
" 'Do you really want to know?'
" 'I asked, didn't I?'
" 'I see lack of concern for the land that you claim to revere.'
" 'You mean, you see a bunch of shit, right?'
"His candor was liberating. 'Yes.'
" 'That's what all white people see. You drive through our reservations and say, "Look at all the junk cars and all the trash." What do you think we say when we drive through one of your cities?'
" 'I really don't know.'
" 'We say the same thing. Just because you have everything scrubbed down and in order doesn't mean anything. What is bigger trash, a junk car or a parking ramp? We can tow the junk car away. The parking ramp has to be torn down with bulldozers and wrecking cranes. The only reason you don't see it as trash is that you still use it when you don't need a building anymore, or it is too expensive to fix, then it is trash. To us it looks like trash all time." 'If Fatback lives in my car, is it trash? To you it is because it isn't being used the way you want it to be. If a car is new and shiny and goes down the road, then you say it isn't trash. If it is old and can't go, then it is trash. It really isn't any different on the earth whether it moves or not. You just think it is. When it comes time for the earth to take it back, it is going to be just as much trash as the car sitting in my yard.'
" 'Still, it wouldn't take anything to clean it up.'
" 'Maybe we're still using it. That was the Indian way. Use every part of the buffalo. Make ropes from its hair. Make drum sticks from its tail. Some of these people are making one car out of a lot of them. I'm making a dog house out of mine.'
"This was the closest I had ever come to a confrontation with Dan. Usually, I had just acceded to his point of view. This time I wanted to challenge him to see where it would lead.
" 'Junk cars aren't buffalo carcasses.'
" 'Same thing.'
" 'That's bullshit.'
" 'Bullshit!' he exploded. 'I'll tell you what is bullshit! White people's attitude toward possessions is bullshit!'
" 'Okay,' I said. 'Tell me.'
"He shifted himself in the truck seat so he was squinting right over at me. 'Owning things is what white people's lives are about. I watch TV, and every ad I see tells me something is "new." That means I should get it because what I have is old and this is new. That's no reason to get something, just because it's new. Your way teaches people to want, want, want. What you have is no good. What you don't have is new and better.
" 'From the first you are told, "This is mine, this is yours"; "Don't touch that, it doesn't belong to you." You are taught to keep away from things because of ownership, not because of respect. In the old days we never had locks on our doors. There was no stealing, but if someone was hungry, they could go in your house and get food. That was all. Why didn't people take things? Because of respect.
" 'You build fences around your yards and pay money for people to measure the ground to tell you if your neighbor's fence is one inch too close to your house. You give nothing away unless you can get something in return. Everything is economic.
" 'Your most powerful people don't even hide their thinking on this. If you ask for something, they don't ask whether you need it; they say, "What's in it for me?" '
" 'I'm afraid that's America, Dan,' I said.
"He hammered the air with his gnarled fist.
" 'I know it. And a lot of our people have started to act like that, too. Not all, but enough. This kills the old Indian way, where everything was shared. We believed that everything was a gift, and that a good man or woman shared these gifts. Next to bravery, generosity was the most important.
" 'Now we have been turned around. We think that good people should be rewarded, just like the white man thinks. Can't you see how much better it was when good people thought they should give, not that they should get?
" 'We didn't measure people by rich or poor. We didn't know how. When times were good everyone was rich. When times were bad everyone was poor. We measured people by how they shared.'
" 'I believe you,' I said. 'That's one of the things I admire so much about your way of life. But what does it have to do with junk cars?'
'' 'I'm trying to tell you,' the old man said. 'But you interrupt too much. Let me finish.'
"I settled back and concentrated on the road ahead. Dan sat silent for a moment to gather his thoughts. He was still irritable and angry. Then he began again:
" 'Listen. Look at us now. We have rich Indians that don't even know what to do with their money. They just get more and more and keep it. They will get a new car or a good rifle or something, but they don't go buy a new suit every week or a huge rich house. Look at this reservation. There are people here who have a lot more money than some of the other people. But they still live in a simple way, because the idea of possessions is so strange to them.'
" 'What it is, Nerburn, is that things are important when we need them. If we don't need them, they're not important. You think this is just some old-time philosophy about the way things used to be. But it's not. I've thought about this.'
"He pointed toward a brushy hillside we were passing.
" 'Look. Do you see that bike?'
"There was a black dirt bike lying on its side in the field. No kids seemed to be around anywhere.
" 'What does that look like to you?'
" 'It looks like a bike some kid lost. Or maybe he is off playing somewhere. I don't know.'
" 'White eyes, Nerburn. You've got white eyes. The boy probably left it there. This is what I mean. Watch our little children. They might get a bike and ride it, then just leave it somewhere, like that. You say they are irresponsible. They are just being like their ancestors who believed that you owned something only so long as you needed it. Then you passed it to someone else.
" 'Wenonah's little boy comes home from school and the teachers call and say he left his book somewhere or didn't bring a pencil. I try to tell them that he didn't need the book right then and that he will get another when he needs it, but they don't understand. They would have him get big bags and boxes and fill them with everything and never let anyone touch them. They want him to keep papers when they are finished and graded. They want him to keep everything.
" 'No wonder white people need such big houses. They aren't to live in, they are to store things in. I have been in some houses where the closets are as big as the rooms because the people want to store so many things. If all the buildings and all the rooms you use to store things were used for people, everyone in the world could have a place to live.'
" 'Buffalo carcasses and junk cars, Dan,' I prodded.
" 'You're getting me angry, Nerburn,' he said. 'I know what you're up to.' He leaned over close to me and lowered his voice. 'Okay. I'm going to tell you a secret. All of this all these cars and stuff makes me proud.'
" 'Yeah. It means we haven't lost our traditional ways.'
"The anger had faded from his face and been replaced with a placid smile. 'We have to live in this world. The Europeans killed all the animals and took all our land. We can't live our way anymore. We have to live your way. In our way, everything had its use then it went back into the earth. We had wooden bowls and cups, or things made of clay. We rode horses or walked. We made things out of the things of the earth. Then when we no longer needed it, we let it go back into the earth.
" 'Now things don't go back into the earth. Our kids leave pop cans around. We leave old cars around. In the old days these would be bone spoons and horn cups, and the old cars would be skeletons of horses or buffalo. We could burn them or leave them and they would go back to the earth. Now we can't.
" 'We are living the same way, but we are living with different things. We will learn your way, but, you see, you really don't understand any better. All you really care about is keeping things clean. You don't care how they really are, just so long as they are clean. You see a dirt path with a pop can next to it and you think that is worse than a big paved highway that is kept clean. You get madder at a forest with a trash bag in it than at a big shopping center that is all clean and swept.
" 'It all comes back to possessions. You want to have everything and you think that is fine as long as it is put in piles or in rooms or in boxes with labels. We don't have very much and we leave it when we don't want it or need it.' "