[originally published 12/4/2015 in the family WhileBusy blog]

[WARNING:  If you prefer sound bites and Facebook-type snippets,  read no further to avoid the wordiness and tedium of what follows.]

Yesterday I got involved in one of those discussions with Janet that can lead almost anywhere.

We all know that Janet is one of the most intellectually curious members of the family (heck, they all are!), and in this discussion, she suggested that I blog about more of my early experiences that are being revisited by way of my examination of my old black & white photo negative archives.

From about Fall 1972 through Spring 1974, I was involved with one of the most memorable projects of my Federal government years, in which I spent about a year living and working on an Arizona Indian reservation.

SIDEBAR #1: The reservation — the White Mountain Apache Reservation, sometimes referred to as the Fort Apache Reservation — is around four hours’ drive from Phoenix to the mid-eastern side of Arizona, not that far from New Mexico. The elevation where I lived, on a plateau arrived at through some gorgeous canyons and mountain roads, was probably between 6 – 7 thousand feet, and the reservation offices and facilities where I worked ranged from about 7 – 9 thousand feet in even more rugged terrain. Yes, there was snow in the winter.

This was my second brush with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Native Americans. (The first was a review, right after returning from VietNam, of anti-poverty legislation needs and outcomes at the Gila River Reservation south of Phoenix, home of Pima and Maricopa Apache tribes, but I commuted to that six-month or so work venue from Phoenix.) This later project not only was one of the three or four in my government career that could be said to have been significantly life-changing or view-altering — among them the 1967-68 VietNam study under Ted Kennedy — but was also the most complex that I had managed on my own.

The project was undertaken to develop a comprehensive picture of a more or less typical reservation and to compare and contrast that to third world nations, looking in depth at subjects like health, poverty, economic development, education, law enforcement and crime, etc. We established the GDP of the reservation, and tried to build information that could be directly compared to any other country, often using data and methodologies comparable to those used by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and national governments around the globe. (In the course of the project, I also developed a somewhat personal side project and proposal, informed by my experience with the reservation — ultimately rejected by my superiors in DC — to reorganize the US Department of Interior.)   The final report, of course, was destined for the US Congress.

I had a staff of auditors, a mathematician, an engineer, a psychologist, a statistician, a couple of (mainframe) computer guys and experts in other disciplines such as public health, plus had to hire and coordinate the efforts of two consulting firms. Also, the psychologist and I interviewed, hired and trained about 30 resident native Apaches to be interviewer/translators (the residents of the reservation represented about five or six Apache “nations”, each with their own language and dialects, with English often a second language, if spoken at all). Leading up to sustained on-site work at the reservation, I spent much time in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, planning and researching. From time to time, I returned to my L.A. homebase for a day or two or three, and likewise to DC. But the vast majority of the time was spent as a long-term visitor, living just on the fringe of the reservation in a cabin in the woods in the tiny alpine village of Pinetop. I sat in on Tribal Council meetings and came to be a fixture on the reservation.

Among the Apaches, I got to know some remarkable people who came back to the reservation to “make a difference”. These included a lawyer who lived in a traditional 1800s Apache dwelling, and a Harvard-educated PhD who started a consulting firm that was getting national attention. Most enjoyable of all were the Apache interviewer/translators we hired, mostly women, very open and welcoming into their homes. Tribal Council and tribal government people were a mixed story; some I got along with quite well, but others regarded my role with suspicion, more or less lumping me in with their distaste for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I came to learn that not only were the reservation citizens from differing Apache nations, but that clan-level loyalties and rivalries further complicated the situation, and I always had to raise my awareness to respect all such nuances.  And, naturally, some officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs tended to be adversarial, but manageable — especially knowing that we had subpoena power.

The community where I resided relied heavily on tourism, benefitting from the Apaches’ huge high-elevation Hawley Lake recreation area, a fledgling Tribal ski resort, and adjacency of national forests. Pinetop itself had probably no more than about 1,000 residents. In the summertime, fishing, camping, hiking brought swarms of tourists, mostly from overheated Tucson and Phoenix, but by winter the place was nearly deserted except for hard-core skiers on weekends. I came to know many of the locals during the off-season, when the evening recreation was limited to a couple of small cafes, a poolhall/bar and a newish ski-oriented restaurant. One of the best ways to spend time, for me anyway, was to visit friends in their own cabins where we played music, often live. For example, I knew a Tucson band of musicians and poets who lived in the leader’s mother’s summer cabin (there was one exclusive, gated community in the surrounding woods, consisting of cabins that were typically vacant during winter but available for steep discounted rentals — the governor of Arizona had a cabin there) where we gathered for impromptu jam sessions, welcoming all, whether musical or not. Another was the cabin that one of my guitar-playing staff members rented from an ASU music professor — I loved visiting him there because the cabin was equipped with an antique but functioning foot-powered organ and lots of Bach sheet music. And in my own cabin (my third cabin, and one I rented on a monthly basis) I bought a piano and installed it across the room from the wall-height stone fireplace — and could hear my LP records playing from my sleeping loft. So that winter I took a few lessons and tried to play piano and also learned to play pool from one of my rather mysterious staffers who had been a Special Forces person in Cambodia (couldn’t discuss this at the time) as well as turning out to be the guy no one would play against for money.  And my Apache housekeeper taught me to make her culture’s traditional fry bread in that cabin.

The local characters I got to know over that time tended to be quite colorful and numbered among them some that apparently were fugitives from justice, and were there under suspicious or at least mysterious circumstances. I never learned the real names of some, and in one case, “E.” wore a facial cast, allegedly from a broken nose and cheekbone, but for far longer than needed just to protect his identity. In addition to the musicians and poets, there was an ex-sex worker from San Francisco who became a friend when I met her in her re-started life as a social worker dealing with Apaches. One small group of people welcomed me into their circle apparently because they found that I was a fellow native Iowan; but I mostly kept my distance, as I found that they existed on low-level drug dealing, poaching and occasional shoplifting. A number of acquaintances were there on the run from failed relationships. Another friend was a ski-bum who lived in a converted school bus in the forest, but still drove an old Porsche 356 as his daily (when snow depth allowed) driver. All in all, it was a place well-suited to hiding out.

SIDEBAR #2: Speaking of hiding out, legendary Chief Geronimo, while not formally a member of the White Mountain Apaches as I understood it, was said to have sequestered himself at times in the mountains now encompassed by the reservation. I did climb up a rock wall into a cave where he allegedly hid for a time from the US military, although the authenticity of this claim was in controversy among tribal members I talked with.

So much for backstory and context.  From time to time, I will try to post photos of my Arizona Apache time, if I can find images that may be of some general interest. Unfortunately, most were of people I knew then, and probably aren’t particularly meaningful in this setting. But I took a lot of photographs over that year or so, so I should be able to find a few that would be publishable here. Let’s start with the cabin (this one also had a large rock fireplace) that I rented for a month or two early in the fall and winter of 1972 in the town of Pinetop.

More to come, probably, now and then …

NEXT: Part One