Today we go “adventuring” with Mary Ellicott Arnold and her life partner, Mabel Reed, in the wilds of the Klamath and Salmon River country in 1908 and 1909. They worked as “field matrons” for the Department of the Interior’s United States Indian Service, an experience they generously share with us in In the Land of the Grasshopper Song, first published in 1955, which should top your must-read list. Their job was to “civilize” the Indians—the point being to take a kinder, gentler approach than clearly barbaric military action. Thanks to Annie Bidwell, Mary Arnold’s Chico cousin, they had met the special agent for California Indians, and asked to be sent to the roughest, toughest territory. He obliged.
If you’re imagining clean, tidy cowgirls riding through unsullied wilderness, banish that thought. Fifty years after the area’s gold rush the land more closely resembled scabbed-over battlefields, one after another, with piles of bare rock—mine tailings—looming like mountains along streams and rivers, and the mountains themselves almost bare, from relentless timber harvest. (It takes a lot of lumber to build a new world, after having obliterated the old one.) What would it be like to be Karuk or Hupa or Yurok, trying to make your way in a world your parents wouldn’t recognize? That was the world Arnold and Reed rode into on narrow, muddy trails, following a voyage to Eureka and a harrowing overland journey and river crossings in the rain.
Fortunately for the Karuk people who would soon be friends—no, family—both Mary Arnold and Mabel Reed were fairly subversive. They were political activists, of a sort. In retrospect their larger job everywhere was encouraging people to reclaim their self-sufficiency. They were early supporters of cooperatives. And they wanted to know what mattered to the Karuk. As Andre Cramblit notes in his foreword to the new edition of Grasshopper Song, “Arnold and Reed did not know that their western sensibilities would be influenced, changed, and heavens forbid, improved by the very people they were sent to ‘civilize.’”
Speaking of civilized: What’s not to like about women who would name one of their riding mules Mr. Darcy? Pride and prejudice, indeed.
To avoid the negatives associated with being women, missionaries, and government agents, Arnold and Reed allowed themselves to be known as “schoolmarms.” And they did pass along skills and tidbits of knowledge, though the larger education was for them. Such as this observation:
“The only difficulty is that the more I tell of the history and traditions of the whites, the more I question whether they are fit subjects on which to instruct the Indians. The class was so shocked by what I told them of ancient Rome that I was very much discomforted. . . . After the quiet, peaceful life we lead here on the Rivers, with only an occasional panther and a few shootings and knifings at the Forks of Salmon, conventional history is really too bloody. It looks as though we should have to suppress a large part of it.”
Luckily for us, these two women did not suppress the remarkable history of their time on the Rivers.