Waltrip's "Elmer Gage," 1964
An extremely rare interview with a homosexual Native American appeared in ONE Magazine in 1965. It is based on a recording made on December 26, 1964, by Bob Waltripi the subject is Elmer Gage, a thirty-five-year-old, six-foot Mohave, who lived on the Colorado River Reservation.
For unknown numbers of years the Mohave Indians have lived along the lower part of the Colorado River farming the rich bottomlands and managing to make a living from the river itself. Presently, their reservation lies along the river from Needles, California south to Yuma, Arizona.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs helps them in managing their lives, granting them land allotments which they can either farm or lease to the number of large produce companies that raise lettuce and melons along the river. Most of the Mohaves choose to lease out their land and attempt to live on the income this offers.
Elmer Gage is such an Indian. He lives on the Colorado River Indian Reservation along with his 83 year old aunt, whom he calls his grandmother. Both he and his aunt lease their land, and are able to live-not comfortably, perhaps-in a two room house, secluded in a maze of brush and trees.
In his small town, Elmer is almost universally known as a homosexual. The white townspeople consider him something of a village idiot. The Indian boys tease each other about sleeping with him, yet their teasing is somehow not ridicule of him. Among the Indians he is accepted with equanimity, and their laughter is as much at themselves as at him. His fellow tribesmen treat him as if he were an unattractive woman. They often talk about making love to him (in a crowd which includes him), yet it is understood that they don't really mean it. Men being men, however, more than a few of them actually do share his bed when they're sure none of the others will catch them at it.
Elmer supplements his land-lease income by making Indian artifacts which he sells to tourists through local variety stores, and through the Tribal Council-an organization of Indians who work together for their mutual benefit. In an era when most Indian art pieces have a "made in Japan" stamp on the back, Elmer is faced with bitter competition. It takes him hours to make a beaded belt, which he must sell at a ridiculously low price in order to sell it at all. Since he works slowly and with extreme care, it would be safe to assume that he is paid not more than fifty cents an hour for his labor. The injustice of this is immediately apparent when one considers that Elmer is recognized as being one of the last remaining makers of genuine Mohave Indian artifacts.
Mr. Gage is a thirty-five year old man, standing about six feet tall, with a happy, well-fed air about him. Though delicate of bearing, he has prodigious physical strength-the fruit of long hours of hard farm labor. He has the evenness of temper and the quick wit that is peculiar to Mohaves. He and a few others are Bird Dancers. Bird dancing (a charming dance with one man and three or four women which imitates the actions of birds) is a social dance that is performed for celebrations and various other gatherings. He has danced before statesmen, movie stars, and foreign dignitaries, yet his success has been relatively small. In plain, unpleasant truth: no one cares any more.
Elmer's "grandmother" is a magnificent old woman, who wears the ceremonial tattoo of the Mohaves, which has been abandoned for many years. This tattoo consists of five thin blue parallel lines running from the lower lip to the bottom of the chin. Her face is arresting in its unique beauty. Her hands move with a fascinating grace as she performs such mundane tasks as cooking and sewing. While talking, her elegant, expressive hands are continually in motion, punctuating phrases and adding a singular symmetry to her speech. Although her eyes are growing dim, she can still weave and sew, and is one of the very few Mohaves remaining who knows the reason behind many of the tribal ceremonies and stories. The following interview was recorded the day after Christmas, 1964. We three sat around the table in the Gage home while a half-coyote puppy frisked on the floor and "Constantine and the Cross" raged across the television screen. We ate pinal, which is a sort of stone-ground wheat cereal made by the Maricopa Indians-close relatives of the Mohaves.
Q: Elmer, how long have you been making art objects for sale to tourists, and what kind of things do you make?
E: Gee, I started a long time ago during school. About 1947. Selling things to the tribe. I make necklaces, bola ties (maybe I'll make you one for Christmas), beaded belts, complete cradle boards, Mohave ceremonial dolls. Also pottery. I make ceremonial costumes, like for the Bird Dancers. My own costumes. Beaded earrings. Headdresses. All kinds of stuff.
Q: You mentioned ceremonial dolls. What exactly are they?
E: The Mohaves have a ceremony where they try to bring the dead back ..They make a doll and dress him in the dead man's clothes. They have a ceremony where they dance these dolls. Of course the dolls I make for tourists are just little ones-copies. But I can also make. The real ones. The life-sized ones.
Q: Where did you learn to make all these things?
Grandma: I taught him how to do these things when he was young. He was interested. Like the cradle boards for babies. You have to know they're different. For boys we have a narrow board to put them on, and for the girls it's a little more wider, like this (motioning with her hands), They always are happier when a boy baby's born. (Laughing.) I don't know why. But Elmer learned all these things-how to make things. And when something's going on he goes there and watches. That's how he learns.
Q: Can any of the other Mohaves make the things Elmer makes?
Grandma: Um-hum. Some of them could if they wanted to.
Q: Do they?
E: No. It seems like I'm the only one that's keeping these traditions alive.
Q: And after you're gone these things will just die?
Q: Doesn't anybody care? Any of the Mohaves?
E: No. Young people don't take any interest in these things. They just stand around the Oasis. (A local tavern.)
Q: It seems a shame that they don't take more interest.
E: (Shrugging) They're just getting modern. What can you do?
A pause here, while the television movie ended.
Q: Grandma, how did you get your tattoo, and what does it mean?
Grandma: (laughing) The Mohaves-which is pronounced Hahm-ah-kah-va in Indian language-say that you can't go to the happy hunting ground unless you have this tattoo. If you're not wearing one when you die they say you'll go into a kangaroo rat's hole and he'll lock you up there and you'll just stay there. There was a man in Needles, California when I was twenty-five and he wanted to tattoo me. He kept on pestering me and I finally let him, though I didn't want to. It hurt. That was in I906, when I was young. I was already a baptized Episcopalian, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to make sure. (a pause) Oh, they just say that about the rat's hole and everything. They don't know. Just like heaven and hell. They don't really know.
(We ate some more pinal for a while, and then Grandma retired, leaving Elmer and myself alone.)
Q: Does your grandmother know you're gay?
E: I don't know. She still talks about me getting married. But I tell her I have to stay with her and take care of her. I went into the service-the Army-in 1951, and left her by herself. But she couldn't take care of herself so I had to get a discharge and come back here to take care of her. She's so old. I hate to think of when she'll die.
Q: Do you think being gay has proven a disadvantage in any way?
E: I guess so. I can't say. We all have bad things in our life. I can't say if it's a disadvantage being gay because I've been this way so long. Who knows? It's a disadvantage being a lot of things. It's a disadvantage not having money ... a lot of things.
Q: Do you ever feel inferior because of your homosexuality?
E: All of us feel inferior for one reason or another.
Q: How do you feel about the people here? They seem to treat you rather cavalierly. How do you react to this kind of treatment?
E: You mean, how do I like being made fun of? I don't like it much. When they start to talk about me I just go along with it. I'm not crazy about it. But, for the most part, we all get along. They don't mean any harm by it.
Q: How did you learn about sex?
E: From other boys my age. Of course, it took me awhile to get it all straight in my mind. But we played around a lot and I enjoyed it. Now most of these kids are married and have children of their own.
Q: Do you regret not having children?
E: I don't know. I don't think so. They're kind of frightening, the little ones. They're always falling on their heads and everything. I probably wouldn't know how to raise a kid if I had one. I'd probably be a nervous wreck.
Q: What was the extent of your education?
E: Up to the tenth grade, then I got out.
E: They said I was old enough to get out and work. I wanted to go on, but the social worker wouldn't help me. Grandma had a stroke and couldn't work in the cotton anymore, so I quit school and took care of her.
Q: Tell me something about your private life, if you would. Do you have a steady lover?
E: No. I never have had. But I've been in love.
Q: With a straight guy?
Q: It's pretty awful, isn't it?
E: Yes, it's pretty awful.
Q: Do you find it a hindrance to be living in a small town rather than a city?
E: Yes, as far as having fun goes. But I feel kind of obligated here. I feel like I'm kind of responsible for it in some way. It's as if I were needed here-not only by Grandma but by other people too. I would feel kind of guilty leaving it, but at the same time I want to get away and have a life of my own. I want to go to California-maybe L.A.-but I can't because of Grandma. This is her house, and her hospital is nearby. So we have to stay here.
Q: Do you think you'll eventually find a steady lover and "settle down" as the saying goes?
E: Well, I'm pretty well settled down already. Only without the lover. I hope I'll find somebody. I want to find somebody. But I'm not really sure that I will. I'm not sure of anything. They say the most adventuresome hunt in the world is the hunt for a lover. I'll admit that it's taking me a damn long time to bring him to bay. But I still hope. It's hard to find anyone here because everyone knows everyone else's business. But some of the boys run around with me. We have a good time. Oh, I don't mean like sex all the time. I mean we have a good time like friends-singing Mohave songs and dancing Bird and stuff like that.
But it gets lonely living here with only Grandma. And I'm not getting any younger. I get depressed sometimes, thinking that life is passing me by. I wish there was something I could do to kind of break out of the rut. But I don't know what it is.
Q: Then you don't have any plans for the future?
E: I have dreams for the future. But it doesn't do much good to actually plan. I found that out a long time ago. I could plan to inherit a million dollars and marry a handsome movie star. But it wouldn't do much good, that kind of planning. The only things I plan are things like fixing the leak in the roof and making myself a new shirt. I guess everybody else is pretty much the same way.
Q: I guess they are at that. Do you consider yourself an average American?
E: Of course. There's nothing special about me. Oh, deep down inside we all think we're special, but we're not, actually. You know, most people don't know what Indians are like. They've seen so many television westerns they think we all still ride horses and run around half naked with headdresses and everything. The only time I dress in the traditional dress is for things like state fairs and lecture tours and things like that. It's all like a show. This picture of me (see inset) is just a kind of publicity picture. The Bird Dancers go on tours once in a while, dancing for audiences, and everyone thinks all Mohaves dress in bright costumes and hop around like birds. I was at a gas station in town one day and this guy from Pennsylvania pulled in and we started talking. He asked if this was really an Indian reservation, and I told him it was. Then he asked me if there were any wild Indians around. He didn't even know I was an Indian. I told him that all the Indians around here were tame as kittens.
Q: Do you regret it when people don't recognize you as an Indian?
E: Yes. I hate to see the Indian pass from the scene. Most Easterners mistake me for a Mexican. One time when I was on a visit to Disneyland this tourist came up to me and started talking Spanish. Now I speak English and I speak the Mohave language, but I can't understand Spanish, so I told him I wasn't a Mexican but a Mohave. He said "What's that?"
The Indian is gradually being absorbed into the white culture. Mixed marriages and things like that. Before too long there will be no more pure-blooded Indians left.
Q: I guess that's true. Well, you've told us a lot about yourself, but I'm running out of questions. Do you have any closing words for our readers?
E: God no. I don't know anything. Except that I would like to say that the American Indian is pretty much like the American anyone else. Indians dress like everyone else. They live in the same kinds of houses and work at the same jobs and drive the same kinds of cars. As for me, being gay has its disadvantages. But I don't think I would like to change. I guess I'm just on my own personal little warpath-not against whites but against heterosexuals who think everyone should be like them. I'm not always happy, but I'm always me. And they can like it or lump it. Life's too short to spend your time being something you don't want to be. Like the old saying, "To thine own self be true." I'm true to myself and my own nature. I think that's all anyone has a right to ask of me.
Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pp. 327-332.
- Bob Waltrip, "Elmer Gage: American Indian," ONE, no. 13 (March 1965), p. 6-10.