Brief book reviews - Fast Cars and Frybread: Reports from the Rez

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''Fast Cars and Frybread: Reports from the Rez'' by Gordon Johnson; Heyday/Baytree Books; 131 pages; $13.

Walk out of just about any California grocery or drugstore these days, and you're likely to be solicited to sign the latest proposed ballot referendum on Indian gaming.

Casino gambling has done more than anything in the past 200 years to raise public awareness about California Indians. It's also fostering a myopic perception of Indian tribes.

Gordon Johnson, a middle-aged member of the San Diego County's Pala Indian band, provides personal snapshots of the real world of Southern California Indians and reservation life "B.C." - before casinos.

"Fast Cars and Frybread" is a collection of 43 columns Johnson wrote for the Riverside Press-Enterprise from 1993 to 2000. Only a few even mention casinos; one of the final ones, from August 2000, opens with Pala constructing what would become its large gambling resort. Johnson's son wonders whether the reservation will ever be the same. "Not likely," the author replied.

Typical of this book is how even that column is more about "Indian steak" (Oscar Mayer bologna) and the classic rez-mobile:

"An Indian car was most properly a long, low, dented-up gas hog with a straightened clothes hanger for a radio antenna," he writes. "No self-respecting Indian car had all of its hubcaps. Seat covers might be an olive-drab Army blanket to keep seat springs from poking you in the rear. Hang a couple of feathers from the rearview mirror and pour in some Ray Lube oil so it didn't smoke too much, and you had a prize Indian car fit for the powwow highway."

The son of a white man and a Cahuilla-Cupeno woman, Johnson grew up mostly with his father in the Bay Area, spending summers and holiday vacations at Pala. He returned to the reservation in 1973 after college and has lived there since, marrying a Pala woman and raising his children and grandchildren there.

Some of his columns are recollections of his youth, like the one about walking to the reservation's tiny store with his dog to buy tortillas and finding his grandpa drunk again on the "old man's bench" out front.

Others were written in real time, like his description of a Sunday hike through the tall, crackling grass of Pala and seeing reminders everywhere of recent- and long-departed elders who were special.

Through them all, in direct and unembellished prose, Johnson offers simple portraits of 20th-century Indian life and people. Some are intrinsically native, such as one describing a sweat lodge prayer ritual. But most, even while highlighting nuances of tribal life, reveal Indians as real people. The book's final column has Johnson sharing step-by-step techniques for pit-roasting a Thanksgiving turkey.

It is in this way that the author offers the most valuable insights about modern-day American Indians. He doesn't shout his Indian-ness; rather, he subtly and realistically shows it as a thread woven through his life and those with whom he is connected.

And that's something worth understanding about the people behind the casinos.

- Chet Barfield

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