1999

The elders and museum director did not contact me after the university center mailed them the grant money. Though I left emails with the director, no reply came for weeks. My superiors were naturally concerned that they had just thrown away $5,000 without any idea what might become of it. I was responsible. I contacted David. He suggested I continue to wait and reminded my about “Indian time.” I tried to be patient but even I wondered if that is just a way to put off whites who intrude on tribal business. Yet David had been straight forward with me, and so I waited.

Two months later, Marion emailed that the elders and the museum had established a garden and built a beautiful mesquite wood ramada and a gourd trellis with the grant funding, and could I come down for the dedication?

Could I! My boss was pleased. “Take a lot of photos for our annual report,” he said and moved on to more pressing matters. I truly wondered whether he realized how monumental that small grant and its resulting garden were to the overall mission of our center. To a man who dealt with millions of dollars and restoration projects requiring earth-moving machines, I guess it seemed simple enough. But, I knew the trust that undergirded that little garden and looked forward to what the people might do with it.

~~~

The garden was a long rectangle in the back of the museum behind a row of rose bushes. The ramada sat at the end closest to the museum’s back wall. It included seating with bowl-like depressions to make the hard wood seats more comfortable for elders. A small shed held the garden shovels, hoes, racks, and spades, some child sized. It was beautiful. Apparently, several tribal members built the ramada in the traditional manner.

“Today we dedicate this wonderful garden to our children,” Marion said as she stood before a couple dozen elders and officials from the nation. Bill Sherwood with the EPA office was also there. I was given permission to take pictures before I published any. My boss would never have agreed to that but I did. I figured it was another way to keep the trust building going.

After a brief ceremony, we gathered in the museum for refreshments. Marion took me aside to ask whether I could stay over to have dinner with her and then meet with the elders in the morning. I agreed and was curious what it might be about. I hoped it was to discuss the programs for children which I hoped would ensue.

David was funny when I related the morning’s events, which he was unable to attend.

“Oh, she’s got you in her clutches now!” he said with a smile from ear-to-ear.

“What do you mean?” I asked, clueless.

“Having dinner with Marion? She going to lay something big in your path as a challenge to test your commitment . . . just wait, you’ll see.”

~~~

Marion picked me up at the motel at 6 and we drove to The Garden, an outdoor café complete with a fountain. She explained it was locals’ little oasis, kept secret, and away from the hordes of snow birds who never left tips and complained about everything. Tall palms cast shade was well as the awnings and table umbrellas, and with the setting sun it was very comfortable. Of course, after David’s outburst I was on guard. We ordered cold Tecaté beers with lime. Marion started right in telling me the story of her life. She was not a full-blooded member of the People. Her father was from a California tribe. She had attended Sherman Indian Boarding school during her high school years. Marion briefly described them as difficult and demoralizing years. But she met her future husband there. She worked and earned a college degree over time, raised two boys and then divorced. About ten years prior to our meeting, she’d applied for her current position and moved to Yuma with her sons. One was working after earning an MBA, and the other son was troubled, into drugs and alcohol, and no longer living with Marion.

Why she shared her life’s story with me I was not sure. It was puzzling and unexpected. I shared my own journey, then, to reciprocate. We finished our meal, and ordered coffee and dessert.

Marion said, “I would like your center to consider another grant to help us build the language portion of the program. We need to research, write and prepare a lexicon of the language of the garden. By this I mean we would prepare a short history of the agriculture of our people and how the river’s floods supported it.”

I considered this for a few minutes. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me and would assure that the environmental education portion would become part of the tribal histories.

“What funding are you using now for the language recovery project?” I asked. “I know my directors will ask.”

“We have a $5,000 grant from the Arizona Arts Association and another grant of $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities for publication of the resulting lexicon and usage manuals.”

That was very impressive for such a tiny nation. It showed great work on Marion’s part to obtain these prestigious grants.

“So, what exactly would our grant support, and how much are you thinking about for that work?”

“I think $2-3,000 would do it. What I envision is a book for children and youth, simply produced – probably soft bound and stapled, almost like a workbook.”

“What if the university press produces it for you? It would not cost anything for the museum.”

I could tell by the shadow that came over her face that that would not be acceptable.

“That puts the work outside of our nation, especially with the university which has notoriously stolen our language, history, and art!” She grew more agitated as she finished the sentence.

“I see. I just know our center will suggest that.”

Silence came between us as we finished our food and she signed for the meal. I thanked her for her hospitality and we walked to her car in silence.

On the way home, she said, “It may be hard for you to understand. We have no reason to trust you or your center, or anyone that is not a part of our nation. Too much theft has occurred in fact is just repeated every time we try to work with outsiders.”

That stung. I did not respond.

We arrived at my motel. I turned to Marion before getting out and said, “I’ll try to get the small grant for that purpose.”

She nodded, I closed the door, and she left, rather swiftly. Later I realized we had a serious set-back.