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Memories Of An Old Priest Still Illuminate Our Time

The Rev. John Roberts was our family priest from 1883 until his death in 1949. In a cheering change of pace, we white people were something of an afterthought to him compared to the Shoshone and Arapaho Indians who were his enthusiastic focus.

    A Welshman, Roberts was 30 when he arrived on the Wind River Indian Reservation. This was a few years after President Ulysses S. Grant in effect “gave” the Shoshones to the Episcopal Church in an early version of modern-day faith-based initiatives designed to enlist religious denominations in aiding needy citizens.

    Father Roberts became friends with both Chief Washakie and his fellow old soldier, my great-great-grandfather Sgt. Ed Alton. Washakie’s legend still shines radiantly from that bedarkened time. In “Son of the Morning Star,” a masterpiece about Custer and the Little Big Horn, author Evan Connell paints this lush picture of a preliminary June 17, 1876 battle: “embarrassing scenes alternated with moments of intense beauty. Chief Washakie, the great Shoshone, rode naked to the waist, wearing a bonnet with so many feathers that they swept the earth.”

    Washakie’s son Jim was killed in 1885 in an argument with a white man over liquor, on what would the following year become my family’s homestead. We had no part in the shooting, but operated a saloon nearby. It was feared the Shoshones would go to war, but Washakie tamped it down, telling Roberts: “The white man did not kill my son. Whiskey killed him.”

    Roberts officiated at the wise old chief’s funeral on Feb. 22, 1900, and conducted my great-grandparents’ wedding a month later. He was around to meet my newborn grandmother a year after that. After they each lived long and well, Roberts and Grandma are buried near one another on a sun-drenched hill with a dazzling view of the high peaks.

    With innocent goofiness — a fancier term is “inventive syncretism” — the good father consciously endeavored to trace and cherish common threads in Indian beliefs and Christianity. He even went so far as to suggest a linkage between the Arapaho and Welsh languages.

    But making sometimes-farfetched connections is my stock in trade, too, and today I’m thinking of my mom, who felt such a strong affinity with the old priest that I was baptized at his St. Michael’s Mission — not actually named after the saint, but for an essential Arapaho Gospel translator, Michael White Hawk.

    I can still feel the sunshine on my eyelids as we drove to the mission for Christmas services, hard unfiltered light quickly punctuated by crisp black shadows as we passed a long windrow of naked poplars. Inside, the log pews were hellishly uncomfortable, but the spirit of celebration so intense and rich it felt like the room needed a teepee-like smoke hole from which it could spiral up to heaven.

    Mom grew up in Washakie’s hills and canyons, a petite polio-crippled girl who became free on horseback or when confidently wobbling alone along rocky trails on her uneven legs. Her mane of hair was the deep, pulsating red of a molten bonfire’s heart, not the thinner flickering orange of the fire’s outer edges. Her own heart was just as hot. She was privately funny and laugh-filled, but guarded herself against pity with a volcanic, warlike rage.

    Growing up in a vast mountain-shielded valley averaging maybe a foot of moisture a year — mostly in the form of powdery winter snow and sometimes-cataclysmic August thunderstorms — Mom’s motherliness was often expressed toward plants. All too frequently, they would be unwillingly disgorged from nursery pots, glance around in startled horror in the thin air, and commit the plant kingdom’s equivalent of suicide. She had more success transplanting native aspen and white-bark pines — a living legacy like the many willows her father placed to stabilize creek banks on our family ranches.

    When I was 15 and Mom and Dad were away somewhere, I decided to take their car downtown without permission on a frozen winter day. Still pathetically rotten at backing-up, I managed to snap one of her beloved trees off at the base in the middle of the yard. Thinking quickly, I taped the ends back together and swept over the tire tracks in the snow. The following spring, she expressed mild surprise that a formerly prospering tree had winter-killed. A couple weeks ago, I thought of owning up, but decided against confession. Thirty-seven years later, she would have still been pissed off.

    In the middle of night last Friday when her spirit finally departed back for the high mountains, my younger brother sleeping a continent away had a vivid dream of an utterly dead tree. He watered it and it transformed back into a passionately living thing, suddenly and joyously reborn.

    As I stroked her nearly bald head earlier that evening, I thought of continuity, the cycles of life, and of a young woman with flame-red hair. I hope it, too, is restored.

    Next summer, her ashes will join her mom and dad and Father Roberts, gathered close beneath the limitless mountain stars.

    Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter. An archive of his columns is available at