We drove through the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border this past week, and I thought about the many times my husband and I took our sons to the rez to buy fireworks for the 4th of July. As a couple of rowdy, growing boys, my sons loved going to the reservation to get “real” fireworks.
Going to Duck Valley, the home of the Shoshone-Paiute tribe, was like crossing the border into another country—and in a way, reservations are other countries. As sovereign nations, tribes are answerable only to the federal (not state) government.
My family would watch out the car window searching the sagebrush plains, hoping to be the first one to spot a wickiup—a sure sign we’d entered reservation territory. Someone in the car would soon say, “There’s one.” Then we’d all look to see a conical-shaped structure made up of branches and sticks sitting in the backyard behind a house. Wickiups look similar to the tipis of the Plains Indians, and like tipis, their original purpose was to be a temporary camp dwelling.
I remember one of our first 4th of July trips to the reservation. Down the main drag of the little town of Owyhee, Nevada, the only town on the reservation, we saw a hand-painted fireworks sign that signaled with an arrow to make a turn. The fireworks stand sat in front of a run-down cinderblock apartment building. I saw a blanket used as a curtain over one window and a screen bent and hanging from another one. My sons jumped from the car as soon as we stopped, racing to the stand to see what kind of fireworks were for sale. The door to the apartment opened and a young man stepped out wearing a baggy pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
“How-gh! Yá’át’ééh!” he smiled toothily and held up his hand in greeting, Indian chief-style.
“Hello! We want to buy some fireworks,” my husband told him.
George (he introduced himself) asked us if there was any particular kind we were looking for. Before we could say a word, both my sons offered, “M-80’s. Bottle rockets. The good stuff.”
George was very genial and seemed more than happy to accommodate us. I asked him if he got a lot of firework customers way out here on the reservation.
“Oh sure. Quite a few. You’d be surprised. They’re like you, looking for the kind of fireworks they can’t buy where they live.”
Everyone wants more bang for their bucks on the 4th, but I had some hesitancy about buying “real” fireworks, something I’d vocally expressed many times to the rest of my family with little success. I’d heard enough stories about people losing fingers lighting M-80’s. Call me sentimental, but I had this wistful hope that my sons might grow up with all their digits intact.
“Anything special happening on the reservation?” I asked George conversationally.
“Yes! It’s time to make some money,” he grinned, taking my husband’s twenty dollar bill to make change.
“I meant to celebrate the um . . . well, Independence Day?”
Suddenly it hit me. I’d just realized the obvious and sad irony in celebrating America’s independence from Britain—by buying fireworks from people who’d sought their own independence from America.
But George didn’t seemed fazed by my question. “We got a big pow wow going on, food and dancing—probably do some handgames, some sticks and bones, you know?”
I didn’t know. But George patiently explained that handgames were an old Native American tradition. He said the games were like small-time gambling. Any age and any number of people could play. We talked a little more and when we finally left the rez, our backseat was full of fireworks contraband.
Our sons are grown now, and with the West increasingly a tinder box just waiting for the match, my husband and I have little interest buying anything with the word “fire” in it. As I write this blog though, I’m remembering George. I wonder if he went on to bigger and better things. He was so bright and charismatic. I hope he’s no longer selling “real” fireworks, but instead, has found a real job—or at least something that’s enabled him to move out of his shabby cinderblock apartment and into his own home, a home of course, with a wickiup in the back yard.
Image credit: Diana Hooley, Image credit: Diana Hooley, Image credit: wickiup