The Native American Cultural Center is very pleased that author Gerald Haslam is our first featured online author. Winner of numerous awards, Haslam was Professor of English for 30 years at Sonoma State University, and graduated from San Francisco State University. He is currently an adjunct Professor at University of San Francisco, and a commentator for KQED.
Gerald W. Haslam was born in Bakersfield, raised in Oildale in California’s Great Central Valley.
Much of his writing, starting with a series of pieces for The Nation two decades ago, has sought to bring his native state’s image more into line with its reality. He has particularly celebrated California’s rural and small town areas, its poor and working class people of all colors, to explore the human condition. He wrote in the Introduction to Where Coyotes Howl and Wind Blows Free, “no matter what our color or sex, we have more uniting than separating us. What is most important is that we are all members of the human family.”
Haslam is able to inhabit a startling range of viewpoints to tell his poignant, witty, and biting stories. He extracts drama and significance from the seemingly commonplace, and provides insights into the lives of people rarely portrayed in the mythologies of California. The following two short stories give the reader a sample of his work.
The Native American Cultural Center encourages readers to check out his website at www.geraldhaslam.com.
Hawk’s Flight: An American Fable
From THAT CONSTANT COYOTE: California Stories
By GERALD HASLAM
Awake early, he had crept sleepily up the gully to relieve himself.
He was not yet old enough to stand guard, and on mornings like this he
was grateful to be sleeping inside beneath warm robes. There had been
no one visible when he started up the gully, so he hadn’t walked as far
from home as usual. Still he walked too far. Savages leapt upon him
before he could shout a warning and, in the instant before he was beaten
unconscious, he realized fully it was the attack they had for so long
He vaguely perceived that morning, yet through haze he heard shouts
and screams from his village, frenzied yips of savages, pops and cracks of
rifles. A child flashed up the gully past him with a mounted savage behind
her. In a moment there was a scream, then the horseman rode back down
the gully breathing hard. Painfully turning his head, he saw where the
girl lay, her crushed head in a pool of blood, her tiny features stunned
Struggling to rise, he glimpsed, before collapsing, men trying to defend
their familieshis own father perhapsand he caught the hot leer of one
savage’s eye. He knew he was done, that everyone was done, as he slipped
back into the void.
How many hours or days or weeks they dragged him, leather thong
round his neck, he could not say. He had stumbled and staggered barefoot
over rocky ground for endless miles. When he fell, they jerked him until
he was unconscious from choking, but always stopped to revive him just
in time to deny him merciful death. Yet he was dead, he had died with
his family back at the village.
They dragged him finally into their compound where villagers beat and
spat upon him. Children threw rocks at him, shouting in their incom-
prehensible tongue. He did not have to know their words to understand
what they said. He was taken before theii chief, a small, decorated man.
There was a good deal of loud talk, again incomprehensible, then he was
forced into a small wooden hut.
He needed water; he needed food; he needed rest. Lying painfully on
a grass-covered corner of the hut, sleep came to him finally in the heat
of the day. And he lived again in his dreams: Hawk flew wind away from
the savages toward the hills where his people lay; his mother and father
and sisters and brothers waved to him as he flew beyond them toward
Before the Spring, he knelt and asked what his people had done that
their homeland should be invaded by savages. But Sacred Spring did not
answer. Are we to submit? he asked, incredulous. Are we to not fight
back? The Spring gurgled, then belched forth red: blood flowed from
wounded Earth. But I am only one, he said, and not even a warrior.
Become a warrior, ordered Sacred Spring. I have no weapons, he said.
Then it came to him: he was Hawk and he had the wind.
He awoke to find a cup of water and a metal plate with a few pieces of
dried meat and hard bread on it. He wanted to bolt the food, but Hawk’s
battered face made chewing difficult, so he broke both meat and bread
into tiny pieces which he softened in his mouth, then swallowed. Just as
he finished his meal, he heard voices outside the hut, and gruff laughter.
There was one small, low window in the dark hovel and suddenly a stream
of urine sprayed through it. The laughter grew louder, some words were
shouted, then the voices grew faint. Hawk peered out the window and
saw three of the savage warriors striding away, their blue uniforms dark
as death over the bright earth of the compound.
It was nearly night when several blue warriors threw open the door of
his hut and pulled him out. Prodded to their chief again, Hawk felt
strengthened from the food and able to breathe and draw life from the
air. This time there were other human beings present, though they were
of a rival clan. As the pale chief spoke, one of the human beings said to
Hawk: “Now listen to this. I will tell you what their chief says.” The man
spoke poorly, but at least he could be understood. “The white chief says
you and your clan have hurt many of his warriors. He says you are dan-
gerous vermin. He says you must be an example. He says they will pull
your neck with a rope until you are dead. He says their god will protect
you.” The human being who was not of his clan could not resist a com-
ment of his own: “You and yours are lice,” he added.
Hawk turned to face the other human being. “At least we have not
become savages,” he spat, and the other human being was ashamed and
angry. He knew that Hawk, a boy not yet a warrior, had bested him. He
said something to a savage in the strange tongue, and the blue warrior
struck Hawk hard across the face. The other human being was even more
ashamed when Hawk did not flinch.
Back in the wooden hovel, the boy again curled on the grass to sleep.
His face hurt badly where the savage had struck him. He could neither
open nor close his mouth. His head pulsed with pain each time his heart
beat. He could not sleep and was sitting up when a very pale young savage
visited him, accompanied by blue warriors. The savage held two pieces
of wood tied together to represent the four sacred directions. The direction
stick told Hawk that the savage was a shaman. So Hawk listened respect-
fully to words he could not understand while the pale shaman gestured
and babbled. When the savage finally quieted, Hawk mumbled no, only
that. The pale savage seemed to understand, and departed. He had been
a weak shaman with no real power.
Hawk found himself feeling a strange kind of pity for these hopeless
creatures who possessed no magic at all, no union with Earth or Sky, only
the ability to hurt and kill. He could not even hate such creatures for they
were beneath hate. They were sad and dangerous like a broken rattlesnake
thrashing around wildly to kill whatever neared it because it could not
save itself. They had great skill at destruction, but he could sense no life
force in them.
Hawk flew wind again that night, flew high to the zenith where Old
Man of the Ancients resided; Old Man was growing impatient with the
savages. Hawk flew to the nadir and Earth Mother wept angrily over her
torn land and dead children. It was a bad dream because the savages killed
everything and everyone. And, in the instant before he awoke, the shat-
tered, bleeding face of the little girl he had seen in the gully flooded him.
It was a very bad dream, for he knew he must kill a savage.
They came for him early next morning, a mass of blue-shirted savages
who bound his arms with leather straps, then led him around a building
into a square where it seemed all the pale villagers were gathered around
a wooden platform. As he was thrust up the steps, he saw a rope– the
rope for pulling his neck– draped over a crossbeam. Hawk was placed
beneath the rope and the savages’ chief stood at the front of the platform
and spoke loudly to his people. At the same time, the wan shaman stood
directly before Hawk, muttering tensely and senselessly into his face, hold-
ing his sticks in one hand. Another savage knelt behind Hawk and began
to bind his legs. Hawk knew it was time, and he repeated to himself a
warrior’s song he had been learning as part of his training:
Let us see, is this real,
Let us see, is this real,
This life I am living
You Powers who dwell everywhere,
Let us see, is this real,
This life I am living
He leaned forward and bit the shaman’s pallid white nose, at the same
time kicking the man who sought to bind his legs. Then Hawk darted
across the platform and kicked the startled chief behind a knee and the
enemy leader collapsed directly in front of him. One more kick with all
his leg behind it and Hawk felt the pale chief’s head crumple. He had
killed the savages’ leader.
From all around him, blue savages fired their weapons, yet Hawk stood
straight and tall, making no attempt to flee or dodge. Bullets smashed into
his body, but they were too slow, for Hawk flew wind once more, high
over the frantic scene and away, over plains and deserts, over brooding
hills, over bleeding Sacred Spring. And Sacred Spring called to him as
he soared: “Ho Warrior!”
From THAT CONSTANT COYOTE: California Stories
By GERALD HASLAM
Wellsir, the way I heard it, Vanderhofen he walked directly into
that . . . that torrent, and he never give a try to swimming. The deputy
sheriff he’d just told him about the two girls, about not finding their bodies
I mean, and Vanderhofen he’d stood there for a minute, then wandered
real slow toward Coyote’s Cataract right below his cabin like he was look-
ing for his poor lost kids, then he was in the current before anyone realized
what he was doing. It was like the river just swallowed him, that deputy
told me. They never did find the body. They never found none of ’em.
The Kern River there, that danged cascade, it just chews folks up, batters
’em to pieces. A terrible thing.
So now he’s dead, and that big project of his is too. His cabin’s still
there across the river above what us locals like to call Nee-Chee-Say-Too,
that’s Indian for Coyote’s Cataract. The cable’s rusting and the suspension
car is locked on this side. No one but me’s used it since his relatives come
and cleaned out his and the kids’ personal effects. He never had a wife
that I saw or heard about. All that’s left of his work is what’s in these
papers of his, and they sure don’t amount to much.
“When the world was dry and all the things was so dry and thirsty,
Coyote begun fasting and dancing and singing until finally Earth
Father come to him and asked what he wanted. Coyote said, ‘The
people are dying of thirst, the plants are dying of thirst, the animals
are dying of thirst, the rocks are dying of thirst, we are all dying of
thirst.’ And Earth Father took pity and tore open the great mountains
and they bled the purest, coolest water to save the world. That is how
Mother River was bom and that is why Coyote loves her.”
Sally Joe, informant
(recorded by R.L.V., 5/18/22)
I still recollect that first time Vanderhofen ever come by here. He was
with a group from the Kern County Museum that stopped at my place
for coffee on their way on up the canyon. They was looking for Indian
stuff– you know, mortars, rock drawings, old campsites– so I give ’em a
few tips, exchanged a few snappy sayings with this one cute little number.
The rest, they looked like if you put ’em on the street the cops might
mark their legs with yellow chalk.
I come here from Kansas City over three years ago, running this juice
joint, and doing real good too I might add. If you can’t make money in
California, you can’t make money is what I always say. But, anyways,
those Hatlanders that come up here, well, they’re all something, and that
bunch wasn’t no exception: a bunch of squirrels.
This one guy, though, tall and big-shouldered, with puttees and wearing
a tie tucked into his flannel shirt, he never smiled, never joked, but he
did give me the eye when I was sweet talking that looker. The guy he was
real grim and impatient, all the time tapping his foot until the rest of ’em
finished their coffee, then he growled something and they all took right
Wellsir, two, maybe three weeks later, he was back. He didn’t even
order coffee like most would, but just asked, “Can you tell me where a
woman named Sally Joe lives?”
“That old Indian?”
“She’s a Tubatulabal.”
“A what? Old Sal’s a Indian.”
“We just call her Indian Sal up this way,” I pointed out. I didn’t cotton
to flatlanders coming up into the canyon and trying to tell me stuff. If
he’d been a little smaller I sure would’ve told him off, you can bet on it.
“Where does she live?” he asked tonelessly, those big shoulders at my
eye level, that tie tucked into his flannel shirt.
“About a mile up the canyon, you’ll see a dirt road from the right where
a little arroyo empties. Her cabin’s a half mile farther on up that road.”
“Thank you,” he replied without smiling, then he was gone.
“He’s a strange one,” I told Smitty, the guy that pumps gas for me.
“And a big one,” he added.
May 7, 1922: I have determined that the woman known as Sally Joe
(79 yrs) and the man known as Pasatiempo (84 yrs) are the last living
speakers of Tubatulabal– a Shoshonean language that was restricted
to Kern Canyon– Kroeber says it never had more than a thousand
speakers– They are in poor health– The other informants (Roscoe
Redbird 49 yrs, Robert Redbird 41 yrs, Julian Lopez 62 yrs) are no
more than quarter-bloods and although they recall some traditional
stories, their recollection of the language is slight and incomplete–
To date I believe I have been able to identify most Tubatulabal
phonemes and many morphemes as well– It is clearly a polysynthetic
language– It will never be heard again on this Earth after these two
informants die– I must work fast.
R. L. Vanderhofen, Ph.D.
Not more’n a week later, he come back and he had Indian Sal, another
old-timer called Pasatiempo, and those two little girls that looked a lot
like him in tow. One was, I’d say, maybe four years old, and the other
was about a year, year-and-a-half, younger– cute little muffins. Like I
said, I never seen a wife with him and he wasn’t the kind of guy you
questioned too close. Anyways, he walked right into my cafe with those
Indians and kids, sat in one of the booths, and bought ’em lunch– I’d
never had Indians inside before, never even thought about it, and they
probably never had either, I’ll bet. They never had any money ever.
You know, there’s those bleeding hearts that cry about the poor Indians
this and the poor Indians that, but until we got here, nobody wasn’t making
any money up this canyon at all. Those darn Indians was up here for
years before Americans come and never made a penny, just ate trout and
pine nuts is what I’m told. Why, in only three years I turned this place
into a gold mine.
Well, anyways, there was a lot of talking all through lunch, and I kept
noticing Vanderhofen– he might even’ve been one of those bleeding
hearts himself– taking notes in this book he carried and saying things to
the kids. It was real strange, he was. Robert Lafayette Vanderhofen was
the big man’s full name, Doctor Robert Lafayette Vanderhofen, but he
wasn’t any real doctor, the kind that can give medicine.
Wellsir, he pretty soon was up here all the time, bringing those two
old Indians into my place three or four times a week, always with those
little girls, too, and sometimes he’d have other Indians in tow– Robert
Redbird, Roscoe Redbird, and old Julian. I couldn’t for the life of me
figure what was going on, but he paid hard cash.
Then Vanderhofen he bought the Starrett cabin across the river close
to my cafe just above Coyote’s Cataract. It was a nice little place, the
cabin, on an old mining claim. To cross the river there you had to ride
that suspension car that Starrett he’d installed back when he thought he
was going to be in the chips: a real heavy cable anchored in rocks on both
sides with a little car dangling from it that you operated with a pulley.
Since it’s next to impossible to cross the river anywheres up here in Kern
Canyon except in real dry years, there wasn’t nobody going to bother him
when he was on the other side of it with his cable car pulled over there.
To me, it always seemed like a real lonely place.
“One time Coyote wanted Mother River to love him and he visited
her all the time and talked to her and begged her, but she was true
to Earth Father. So Coyote– he was white then like the moon– he
determined to trick her into loving him so he rolled himself in mud
and dirt until only his d—– belly was white, and he came to her
and said he was Earth Father, but when she let him touch her, some
of the mud and dirt washed off and she was very angry and almost
drowned him before he escaped. After he ran away he realized he
could not wash the mud stains from his back and his head, and that
is why he is still stained brown.”
(recorded by R.L.V., 4/21/22)
Wellsir, one day I run into Vanderhofen in the grocery store up at
Kernville and, seeing as we was neighbors, I just asked real casual why
he’d chose such a out-of-the-way location, there above Nee-Chee-Say-
Too. He measured me for a minute and I wished I hadn’t said nothing,
then he almost whispered, “My work requires privacy.” That was all. He
had those two little girls with him and they both give me the sweetest
little hellos, but a second later while I tried to make pleasant conversation
with their father, I heard or half-heard, really, them talking to each other
in some sort of strange mixture of lingos, English but all messed up by
something else. I couldn’t savvy ’em.
Their father the doctor, he never did say what he was working on and,
looking at those big shoulders and that grim face, I decided not to push
the issue, but I was curious because I’d every once in awhile see him
toting Sally Joe or Pasatiempo across the river in that cable car, them
looking real scared at Coyote’s Cataract that had all the Indians spooked,
or he’d bring them into my place of business, along with his two girls. In
fact, it seemed like those two Indians was always with the little girls. I’d’ve
been careful if it was me, I’ll tell you.
More and more when they’d come in, they was jabbering, even old
stone-face Vanderhofen some of the time, but mostly it was those two
little kids and the old Indians, Sal and Pasatiempo, chuckling and carrying
on like they was with their own grandchildren. They’d go on and on and
I never really caught what they said– I was afraid to get too close because
I didn’t want that Vanderhofen to think I was eavesdropping– but they
seemed like they was having a big time. And that Vanderhofen he was
scribbling notes, always scribbling notes.
Feb. 27, 1923: Sally Joe died suddenly but my plan has worked
beyond my wildest dreams– Both Betsy and Martha are now fluent
in Tubatulabal– We have saved a language as old as time– It hap-
pened far more quickly than I had imagined possible– My own ef-
forts to learn the language are slow and halting– It is a singularly
difficult tongue to master but somehow the children grasp it easily–
Thanks to my girls, we have defied history!
R. L. Vanderhofen, Ph.D.
Anyways, not long after old Indian Sal passed away, this young guy that
worked for the Kern County Museum he come up from Bakersfield to
visit the doctor, and he stopped at my place to ask for directions, so I give
him a cup of coffee on the house and quizzed him a little, and danged
if he didn’t come right out and tell me what was up. It seems that Van-
derhofen he was making a book of that Indian talk, such as it was.
Wellsir, I’d heard Indian Sal and old Pasatiempo once or twice over
the years myself when they was around my place and let me tell you they
never had no real language at all, just a lot of grunts. And that was
Vanderhofen’s big work. Me, I’d had him pegged for some kind of mad
scientist, making a bomb or something important, not just writing down
how a couple broke-down old Indians talked. A waste of danged time if
you was to ask me. It sure as hell takes all kinds . . .
“One time Coyote he couldn’t find no woman to, you know, stick
his p—– in, so he snuck up to Mother River where she was all soft
and slow and real pretty and he unrolled his big long p—– and,
you know, stuck it into her. Just when he got to pumping, the river
she clamped down and he couldn’t pull out and his p—– it started
jumping like a trapped snake and Coyote he was roaring and scratch-
ing and the river there she churned all up and churned all up until
finally, you know, she snapped his p—– off and that’s why he’s got
just a little red nub now, all sore. And the place where he did that
to her it’s that big cataract, you know, Ni’chisa’tuthat means
p—– of Coyote– still churning and you can still hear Coyote roar-
ing if you go there. And sometimes Indians would go there to fish
and not come back and nobody could ever find them. That’s because
Coyote’s p—–, you know, it lured them and got them. And that is
where all the Indians have gone. Coyote’s p—– is angry because
Mother River loves them, and it, you know, likes to trick those
Indians and take them.”
Roscoe Redbird, informant
(recorded by R.L.V., 3/1/23)
Wellsir, old Pasatiempo he had a stroke and when they found him at
his place they rushed him down to the county hospital in Bakersfield. I
heard that he was paralyzed and couldn’t talk no more at all. I don’t know
for sure because he never come back. Robert Redbird he told me that
Vanderhofen visited the old man down there real often. I wouldn’t know
that either because by then the doctor he’d stopped coming into my place
much, except once in a great while he’d bring those girls by for a Coke.
Mostly, though, they kept to themselves over there across the river just
above Nee-Chee-Say-Too with their cable car pulled to their own side.
Once when I was out fishing I saw him sitting near the cabin on a log
with those cute little muffins and it looked like he was reading something,
and so was they, as little as they was. He looked different that time, not
so stern, and the girls they was laughing. I waved and those two cuties
waved back. Vanderhofen nodded. It sure did seem like a lonely life to
May 6, 1923: Not only have Betsy and Martha learned the language,
they have now committed to memory the tales I recorded from Sally
Joe, Pasatiempo, Roscoe, Robert, and Julian– They are my loves
and my life– Why has no one else, not even Kroeber, thought to
record these God-given languages as I have– Children must be
taught a language by native speakers so that it will truly live and be
perpetuated; it is the only answer– With children the cultures can
be saved before they are entirely lost– Whole ways of seeing and
being may be saved– Another, nearly forgotten, California may be
R. L. Vanderhofen, Ph.D.
I don’t know what possessed those two little girls to try to ride the cable
car across the river on their own or how they got up strength enough to
pull themselves out as far as they did. It just don’t make sense and it’s so
danged sad. Anyways, this truck driver he happened to be going by uphill
on the road and he seen them fall into the river, almost like they was
jumping in he said, so he pulled into my place and I right away called
the sheriff, then me and Smitty and the driver we rushed over to the river,
but there really wasn’t nothing we could do, I knew, except hope to find
the bodies. Folks they fall in or try to swim here every year and if you
don’t get to ’em right now, they’re gone. Poor little muffins.
Where the hell was Vanderhofen, that’s what we all wanted to know.
He never left those kids alone. Never ever. We finally managed to get
over to the cabin to look for himme and Smitty had to snag that sus-
pension car and pull it over then ride it back over to the other side of the
river while the sheriff’s boys tried to find the bodies. Wellsir, we discovered
Julian Lopez asleep– you know how old guys nod off. I guess he was the
baby-sitter, but it didn’t matter no more, did it?
When I told what’d happened, old Julian he just collapsed. I figured
him for dead, but he wasn’t, so me and Smitty, we got him to that
suspension car and across the river so the ambulance boys that was there
could look at him. And the truth is, he’s never been the same since that
day. It’s like he died too. Anyways, that’s when Vanderhofen drove up.
He’d been down to Bakersfield visiting Pasatiempo at the county hospital.
I was already back at my place then so I never seen what happened next,
him walking into that cataract I mean, but they never found his body, we
never, because us locals kept looking for a good week. The river got ’em.
Wellsir, since there wasn’t no local relatives, I made a offer through a
lawyer on the old Starrett place and it was accepted. It was a real good
buy if I do say so myself, and I’m not noted for making bad ones. Van-
derhofen’s kin from back east they’d pretty much cleaned out all his valu-
ables, but I found this one box full of junk. There was a diary full of
crazy notes and all these papers, some with a kind of code on them,
squiggles and dashes and funny letters, plus a bunch of silly stories, just
kids’ stuff like this one:
“Here is what my grandmother told me: Many years ago there was
no world only empty sound and Mother River was sad. ‘I need chil-
dren and a world for them,’ she said, and she called to Earth Father
but he couldn’t understand her words because they were only empty
sound. So she prayed and prayed until she kept getting smaller and
tighter and her sound kept getting tighter and smaller until it was a
terrible hiss that shook the heavens and opened the earth, and finally
Earth Father understood and he said, ‘You will be my wife and we
will make a world and we will make our children.’ That is how she
made our language and how our language made our world.”
Julian Lopez, informant
(recorded by R. L. V., 6/9/23)
You see what I mean? Can you imagine a grown man, a so-called
doctor, spending all his time writing down that kind of stuff and not taking
good care of his kids, letting them fall into Nee-Chee-Say-Too? Not me,
I can tell you that much. Where I come from his kind wouldn’t be
And his work, his great work– hah! All that paper’ll do is start a fire
for me. It’s not worth a dime.