When we were children in the 1950s and 60s, adults would often ask us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I don’t recall any adults asking me what I’d been doing lately or how I was feeling. Nor do I recall believing these inquiring adults really wanted to know what I wanted to become. Their question was a ritual greeting, and my answer was the ritual reply.
When I was four and adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said cowboy, which I pronounced gowboy, according to my mother. Then when I was seven, I was given a small hardback book entitled American Indians, which turned out to be a very pro-Indian, anti-Gowboy tome. I read the book countless times and decided there could be nothing better than being an American Indian.
To become an American Indian, I stopped wearing shoes and shirts and long pants except when I went to school, and I made several wooden spears, which I became adept at throwing far and accurately. And for the next few years, I spent most of my non-school hours roaming the not-yet-built-upon land around our house—oak-studded hills, abandoned grape vineyards, piney woods. Most summer nights, I made a camp in the olive grove adjacent to our house and slept out under the stars. I was accompanied on many of my adventures by my dog Cozy, an unmistakably American Indian dog, and we spent the long summer days exploring our territory, tracking game, and avoiding contact with white people.
When my friends came to play with me, I tried to interest them in being American Indians too, but found no takers. Some of my pals were keen on fighting the Japanese and the Germans, so we did that, and some wanted to war against American Indians, which I refused to do, but none of my friends wanted to be American Indians, even after I shared with them my favorite parts of that foundational treatise American Indians. I was baffled by my friends’ unwillingness to convert, for I saw no downside to being an American Indian.
I know very well that the American Indian I became is not an actual indio, not a Navajo or a Pomo or a Lakota. But I did become my own kind of American Indian and was profoundly shaped by those years in which I roamed the California hills with my dog and my spear, learning the ways of Nature and avoiding the confines of the white man’s suburbia.
Many a day I would settle down in the woods and sit stone still for so long that deer and rabbits and lizards and quail would become unaware of me, or cease to fear me, as I watched them going about their lives in the wilds, their complex and fascinating lives.