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Don Perry interview, March 05, 1978: transcript






On March 5th, 1978, Karen Croteau interviewed Don Perry (b. 1928 in Clarksburg, West Virginia) about Paiute Indians and life on a reservation. Perry begins by mentioning his own Indian heritage with a Cherokee mother and his wife’s Paiute heritage. Perry focuses on his conversations with his wife’s grandmother, who lived on the Paiute reservation since birth, from who he learned about the reservations history. He particularly delves into the traditions of Indian burials, governing on the reservation, and the difference between an Indian reservation and an Indian colony. Additionally, he talks about recreation on the reservations, education of Paiute Indians, and how reservations have changed. Throughout the interview, Perry gives personal anecdotes about his life in connection to the Paiute people and his experiences with their traditions and belief systems. Perry ends by discussing governing politics of the Paiute reservation and the start of Las Vegas as a gambling town.

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Perry, Don Interview, 1978 March 05. OH-01471. [Transcript]. Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 1 An Interview with Don Perry An Oral History Conducted by Karen Croteau Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas Special Collections and Archives Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada, Las Vegas UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 2 © Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2020 UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 3 The Oral History Research Center (OHRC) was formally established by the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada System in September 2003 as an entity of the UNLV University Libraries’ Special Collections Division. The OHRC conducts oral interviews with individuals who are selected for their ability to provide first-hand observations on a variety of historical topics in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. The OHRC is also home to legacy oral history interviews conducted prior to its establishment including many conducted by UNLV History Professor Ralph Roske and his students. This legacy interview transcript received minimal editing, such as the elimination of fragments, false starts, and repetitions in order to enhance the reader's understanding of the material. All measures have been taken to preserve the style and language of the narrator. The interviewee/narrator was not involved in the editing process. UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 4 Abstract On March 5th, 1978, Karen Croteau interviewed Don Perry (b. 1928 in Clarksburg, West Virginia) about Paiute Indians and life on a reservation. Perry begins by mentioning his own Indian heritage with a Cherokee mother and his wife’s Paiute heritage. Perry focuses on his conversations with his wife’s grandmother, who lived on the Paiute reservation since birth, from who he learned about the reservations history. He particularly delves into the traditions of Indian burials, governing on the reservation, and the difference between an Indian reservation and an Indian colony. Additionally, he talks about recreation on the reservations, education of Paiute Indians, and how reservations have changed. Throughout the interview, Perry gives personal anecdotes about his life in connection to the Paiute people and his experiences with their traditions and belief systems. Perry ends by discussing governing politics of the Paiute reservation and the start of Las Vegas as a gambling town. UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 5 It is March 5th, 1978. The time is 1 p.m. The place, 6250 Washburn, Las Vegas, Nevada. The interviewer is Karen Croteau, 716 North Thirteenth Street, Las Vegas. The project is Local History Project Oral Interview, Life on the Paiute Reservation. Don, can you tell me your place and date of birth? I was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Left there when I was two years old. I was born 1928. Go ahead. Can you tell me a little bit about your family? Well my father was Welsh nationality, my mother was Cherokee Indian. Her and her one brother were orphans. Okay. Would you tell how you became affiliated with the Indian reservation? Yes, my wife’s grandmother is, she was one of the mainstays out here in the reservation. Her ancestry is Paiute Indian and Mexican. Well (unintelligible) Paiutes are out there and so close, and her relatives. We got out there and visit quite often, get to know the people and a little bit about their ways. And this how I came to be, you know, affiliated with some people. Do you visit them often? Well I haven’t lately, I’ve been too involved in doing my things around here. My wife’s been out there a few times with the kids. But I used to go out before and talk to my wife’s grandmother before she died. I was interested in her ancestry ’cause getting it from her is going back a couple of centuries, so to speak. Getting it from the horse’s mouth because she was born in 1883 and has been on the reservation all this time. So if I learn any information is what, you know, took place, what transpired in all this span of time I’d ask her because she was in the position to know. So from her you’ve learned about, a lot about the development of the reservation? UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 6 Right, mm-hmm. She told me stories about different people and things, the way things used to be. How the reservation used to be at one time. And the way I saw it, it was in kind of a deplorable state because it was arid, dry, people weren’t growing anything. They had no store there, they had old buildings. And the tribal chief lived in what they called a tie house made of river ties, real strong. Since then, they’ve renovated it. Put in a road. The government gave them a self-help program funding, you know, to build each—each member builds a house for each family. And it’s a kind of thing where they don’t move in until they’re all built rather than say, “Well, my house is built, good for me,” and then, you know, “you build your house.” They all work together and they moved in. And they would eat what they could afford every month. So (unintelligible) maybe ten dollars a month, fifty dollars a month, that’s the way it is. Do you know when the reservation was started? When it was started? Well, I don’t know when it was started. I have no idea. I never did question my grandma about that. Can you tell me a little more about your grandmother? Yes. She married a man, he wasn’t a Paiute Indian, he was from the Chemehuevi tribe. He came down to the reservation from up north I believe, and his name was Charlie. They called him Charlie Chemehuevi and he was a cobbler. You know, he made shoes and he dressed impeccably, and he had a little store there, a grocery store-like. He, let’s see, he had (unintelligible). Two cars he had, one was a Maxwell and one was a Model T. I saw these vehicles on the side of the reservation because in the old tradition, you know, when an Indian died, they’d take his personal belongings with him. They’d take it to the very edge of the reservation and they’d burn their personal belongings. So I was out there one summer riding with my wife’s uncle when I had my dune buggy I spotted these bedposts and things, you know, UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 7 sitting up out there in the middle of nowhere. I said, “What’s that doing out there?” He said, “That belongs to Charlie.” I said, “Who’s Charlie?” He says, “My dad.” Hmm. “You mean you call your dad Charlie?” He said, “Yeah, everybody did.” So I said, “Well how come all this stuff out here? Doesn’t people come out and pick at it and take what they want?” He said, “Oh no, no. They don’t do that.” So I saw this lantern (unintelligible). It was a kerosene lantern that they did use for lighting because they had no plumbing, no running water, nothing like this here out there, no electric. Well I went over and picked it up and looked at it, it had been there, I think, since 1936 or so. It’s here, oh I guess, about maybe eight years ago, I picked it up and looked at it. The fire was so intense that it melted the glass from around the bottom part from the lamp. And you see the sand, you know, kind of green light, (unintelligible) return it right back to the sand in the glass and vice versa. So I asked him, “Hey, could I take this home? Show my wife what her grandfather’s lamp looked like.” And he says, “Oh no, Charlie would get mad.” I said, “Hey, what you talking about Charlie gonna get mad. This is modern times. He’s not a spook, he’s not gonna come down on you.” He said, “Well, yes go ahead. I don’t think Charlie would care.” Because the superstition still exists, I guess you call it the spirit world or whatever they call it. So I brought it home and showed the wife, and the wife’s aunt showed her the lantern too and she started crying because she remembered when she carried it as a little girl on the reservation. It was the only light they had. When they had to go to the john or something like that, they had to take the lantern or else it’d be dark. So apparently all the lights in the house went out when somebody had to go to the john. (Laughs). (Laughs) They took all the lighting with them. But they used to have orchards there. It’s hard to believe from what I saw because it’s so arid, dry looking. You wouldn’t think they grew UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 8 anything but sage bush, but grandmother showed me where the orchards were and approximately the size of how big they were. Showed me where the store used to be. The tribal building didn’t have the bell. Used to have a church bell on top of the tribal building, somebody come along and ripped it off I think. What were the early means of support on the reservation? Did they have farming or—? Well, no. They didn’t have any farming, they worked in various places. You know, like out in Overton they did a lot of farming out there. They’re more or less farm hands, a lot of them work on the river (unintelligible). That’s kind of died away now because rivers aren’t as prominent as they used to be. Can you tell me a little bit about how the traditions and lifestyle of the people on the reservation has changed? Well the style has changed in the laws of traditions or loss, but they’re regaining them now through the help, you know, of people who studied the past histories of different tribes and things. It’s kind of a program to nudge them along and get them to pick up their old traditions again. Oh yes, one thing I remember, grandma was telling me that she could almost, not quite, but she’d been told by other people, you know, older than her when she was a little girl, that her father used to throw her on a saddle horn with a papoose carrier when he would do his plowing out there. He just put the thing over the saddle horn and what was a holder and just go ahead and plow. And how long she stayed out there, I guess it’d be all day or something like that (unintelligible) cause well they had to bathe and come home for lunch or whatever. As far as their conditions, I believe they’re known as the basket weavers or pottery weavers. I’ve been out there, you know, naturally been curious. I go on this one hill there, it was kind of chewed away when they dug a road on the side. Start digging around just for kicks and there was a piece of UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 9 pottery there, so I asked my wife’s uncle, I said, “Did you know this was here?” He said, “Yes, they’re throughout the hills here.” We don’t know where they are, but the Indians before they would get their pottery and stick them to the hillsides to cure it or something, I don’t know what. But they didn’t know where it was. See? So they’re losing their tradition cause being pottery makers or basket weavers (unintelligible) not intentionally but (unintelligible). As far as traditions now, you’re getting help from various groups to make the Indian, you know, artifacts and their moccasins and belts and purses and saddles and things of this nature. So they’re coming back, I think (unintelligible) about their old traditions, because you can’t lose your traditions. They’re kind of a mainstay of the past generations before. You spoke earlier about the early death, which was that they used to have—could you tell me a little bit more about that? Well, when they buried an Indian—all tribes have their own rituals, these here from what I’ve seen, it’s a normal burial but they have their wake and it’s an all-night wake. Then when they’re placed above the grave, well they line up, give their last respects. Of course, the casket is open. They give them a blanket or so as their comfort and warmth on their journey and give ’em a bag of pine nuts to sustain them on their journey wherever. And they get real close to their ear and yell in Indian talk in his ear, probably trying to get through to their spirit. Do they still do this now? Well, I imagine they do. I haven’t been out there lately for any burials or anything. I guess it depends on where they’re buried. If they’re not buried out there, they may have what they call a Christian burial in town, in a cemetery or something. But these are the old (unintelligible). You said before there was a difference between an Indian colony and an Indian reservation. Can you explain this? UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 10 Well the reservation is what the government allotted them for this land they were placed on. Pick up a place where it would be their territory and the government couldn’t infringe on it. It was theirs, they had their own laws (unintelligible). They created a disturbance or anything or anything that required law, you get a highway patrolman, sheriff or a city policeman, they couldn’t go to a reservation unless they were invited. (Unintelligible) come on because they were always welcome when there was a disturbance, you know. But they have their own policeman force and they do a real good job of it. In relating to an Indian colony, a colony isn’t the same as a reservation in the sense that the colony was donated like the one here in town. A wealthy woman had some property and she had feelings for the Indians so when she passed on she had donated her will this land to the Indians, part of the tribe at Moapa. And they govern themselves just like they do on a reservation and the government has no rights, no say-so over their colony. In all aspects it’s the same as a reservation in a sense, it was just donated to them. That’s the difference between a reservation and a colony, as I understand it. How many people are living on the reservation at this time? Well right now there’s about maybe fifteen families. How many children in each family, I don’t know. Some have four, some have two. It’s not a real big reservation in the sense when you think of the acres and hundreds and hundreds of acres, a thousand acres. It’s not that huge, they’re a little closer than that. But they have their irrigation and supply of water. And they’re doing farming out there, raising wheat and got cabbage. They really improved quite a bit. See it’s made, like I said before, it’s made a complete cycle. When grandma was telling me about the orchards and the store and the things they did down (unintelligible). They had some agriculture then, then when I saw it’s in a, well, pretty sordid state because it was just plain old desert, UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 11 sandstone and (unintelligible). That’s making the complete cycle, I guess, going right back to where they’re producing things (unintelligible). Do other people have specific jobs in maintaining the reservation? Well, more or less they do, you know. They have different people who are, what, driving tractors and taking care of the cattle, things of this nature. Do the children help out a lot in these jobs? Oh, yes. The children have all the time. What kind of facilities do they have for recreation? What do the kids like to do? Well when I was there, they didn’t have an awful lot then. I’m talking about maybe four or five years ago. (Tape one ends) Shooting birds out there in the marshes by the reservoir. On a good hot day you go out there and you just jump in there, I guess, and cool off. Now when I tell you about this Quill, who was a notorious bad guy so to speak—. Mm-hmm. Well you really didn’t hear about it I don’t know if you were (unintelligible) or not, but they had a bit about him in the paper, on the Sunday paper. I was talking with grandma and my wife’s uncle about this bad guy they call Quill. He was a half breed Indian, half white and half Paiute. He was real tall Indian, tall and lanky, and (unintelligible) ugly. Had snaggleteeth, real long feet, gangly arms and legs. And he wasn’t accepted by the reservation, I suppose because of his appearance and not being, well, a full Indian. So I guess he just turned out to be a really (unintelligible) but not being accepted. He had a lot of people baffled as to how far he could travel in the heat of day without water, and nobody could do the same even if they had water. UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 12 But his secret was he would pace himself, take long strides. And if he started to perspire, he would stop, find a place where he could retain his body moisture. And he’d cool off and he could step some more, you know, just keep on going. And a lot of people in Las Vegas were scared of him. A lot of ’em were scared of him because he was such a mean individual. And his feet were so awkward, so long, he couldn’t get shoes. He probably didn’t have money to buy the shoes. So he would get these mailmen riding horseback to an express light and he’d kill them for the shoes. And toward the end there before he died, he was using innertubes—not innertubes but parts of tires for shoes. But the law was after him because he killed some of the mailmen postal riders. They had law in Arizona and Clark County right here looking for him. And the closest they could come to him was warm campfire because he was always gone when they got there. And he used to hideout down there on the other side of Boulder Dam (Hoover Dam), the Arizona side of the hills. They had a reward for him, but they never did catch him. I guess he knew he was pretty close to dying because he had a pretty life and didn’t have a good diet. But they found his bones, his body, (unintelligible) kind of mummified. He was in a cave on the other side of the dam down there. And when he’d go in the cave he’d seal it up as he went in so nobody could get in, and he lived on bats and lizards and things like this ’til he died. So they brought his body back and, you know, because they were happy that they finally this here bad Jose. And they tried to put him on display and they were trying to make a big deal, you know, commercialize on it. But the reservation out here was a little bit leery of him because my wife’s uncle told me one time he and some Indian boy they were out there swimming in the first (unintelligible) irrigation canal. They were all skinny dipping and this guy says there’s Quill and they turn around and look and here was Quill in all his ugliness (laughs). Mm-hmm. UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 13 And he didn’t do anything, he just happened to be there. And these kids were so scared of him that they took off running naked toward the reservation and toward the houses and yelling “Quill’s here.” The people boarded up their doors and windows and they got their rifles. So that’s how he was accepted there. The Indians (unintelligible). So I guess (unintelligible). Do you know if—? I just wanted to (unintelligible). Do you know of any other interesting Indian figures from the reservation? No, let’s see. Not off hand right now I don’t. But this was a story that stuck in my mind because a lot of people here—there’s a fella I work with here down at the base there and he’s a local guy here, he was riding a horse one time when he was a kid and they told him that Quill was loose in town. And he wasn’t loose, it was just that he was in town. And this kid, this guy, he was a kid then, but he was scared (unintelligible) so he got on the horse and he about beat the horse to death to get home just because he heard the word Quill. So that there was a bad omen to me. Quill, however they pronounce it. So he was just a bad part of the past history, a renegade. Getting back to the children on the reservation. What do they—how are their school systems working? Do they go to school on the reservation or regular schools? Is there a school on the reservation now? Mrs. Ramona Perry: No. I know—. They go to somewhere, I think somewhere around Overton. (Unintelligible). Yes, Overton is the closest school. I laugh when my wife’s relatives will tell me remember (unintelligible). (Laughs) Yes. UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 14 He says he was down there playing in the mud on the banks just, you know, playing in a mud hole and he says suddenly here comes these people, they take ’em out of that mud hole, they put him in clean clothes, put him on the bus, and they drive him to an Indian school. He says all he learned quite a bit he got educated, but he says you know he kind of missed playing in that old mud hole. (Laughs) I don’t know whether he enjoyed it or was offended, but he didn’t think it was right the way they just come down and says, “come on, you’re going to go to school” and take him off the reservation to a different place. The children have to go the school then? Yes. So they were determining that all children should have their chance at education knowing that the kids didn’t want to leave, so they went out and got ’em. Had ’em all slicked up and away they went. Oh, yes. I’d like to mention a fact about the alkali pyramids and the evil spirit Nanoops. I was out there one time with one of the Indians and went through the ravine, looked up and I saw these strange things, they looked like solid vases sitting on the hillside. And I says, “Paul, what are those?” He says, “Oh, those are alkali pyramids.” I said, “What do you mean? Did somebody make them?” He said, “No, that’s (unintelligible) nature did.” They looked just like vases, they’re kind of like a tear drop shape and they stick in the ground. And how they were formed, I don’t know, I guess it’s the wind and erosion, what not. Well I was laying down, so I crawled up there, kind of like (unintelligible). And this Indian friend, pretty upset, and I says, “What’s the matter?” He says, “Those darn kids come up here and playing around and knock ’em down. What they’re doing is destroying the natural nature (unintelligible).” So I went up there and figured well I’ll just pick it up, stick it back in the ground then. When I got a hold of it, this thing must have weighed about eighty pounds. It stood about maybe four feet high. I set it down and it UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 15 sunk in the ground (unintelligible). Although it was loose soil there. So I got looking around and this fella says, “Look it there, there’s old Nanoops.” I said, “What’s that? Who is it” He says, “That right there.” I say, “You mean a dust devil?” He says, “Yes, the Indians call it Nanoops. The younger ones call it Nanoopy and that makes me mad.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, Nanoopy is a person, a thing. You know, it’s a definite thing. Nanoopy. That’s just the young bucks who say that. Now the older Indians call it as it should be, they call it Nanoops.” I said, “Okay, now what is Nanoops?” He said, “Well you watch it, how it goes down to the canyon here and goes around to different areas. That there is what the Indians call the Evil One Spirit. You know, the (unintelligible), so to speak.” Cause when they were fighting the cavalry, you know, fighting against the white man and the cavalry (unintelligible). They run through these canyons, ravine, try to get away from ’em, the cavalry. Well here come the Nanoops right behind ’em and showed the cowboy where they were. And this was their belief. And further up on the plateau there I saw where they had the wigwams. I think it was three of them, three big wigwams. You can still see where it was ditched up from the use, you know, the normal traffic inside of a wigwam. Couldn’t have ditched out from the sandstone, you know, cause it (unintelligible). You can still see where the poles were for the wigwams. And they had a pretty commanding view of the area so they must have had that as their original area when they first moved to the reservation. Do they have a lot of spirits in their religious beliefs? I don’t know. If they do, they wouldn’t tell you. Although, you know, everybody has (unintelligible) superstitions. That may be more so than ours, I don’t know. I guess if you catch them off guard—well, like Nanoops and Charlie Chemehuevi’s lantern. Things like that—it’s still there. I guess we all have some. UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 16 You said your wife was half Cherokee. Could you tell me a little bit about her life here? No, she’s half Paiute (laughs). (Laughs) Oh, I’m sorry. (Laughs) No, my wife was born here and she had a handicap. So she—being that she was deaf they had no facilities to teach deaf people in school here, so she was in Ogden, Utah where the deaf school was. She tells me the original gambling casino here in Las Vegas was the El Rancho Vegas. That’s what started the gambling here. This guy took a gamble on whether he would make it and, well, you see what it is today. The El Rancho Vegas, it burnt down in 1956 I believe it was [1960]. It was burned in this fire. It was so intense that it melted all the silver dollars the guys had on the gambling tables and they were throwing silver dollars in the swimming pools, things like this. But it was a landmark and right now all that’s there is a vacant lot on Sahara and on the Strip over there. That’s where the original gambling casino was. And my wife lived on, let’s see, I think—she was born on D Street in West Las Vegas and that was, well, predominantly white. She saw some activity going across the desert out there, quite a ways out in the middle of the desert, and she was curious of what was going on. So she walked over there, took quite a while for her to walk over there. And here they are building this here building, she didn’t know what it was and wondering why they were building out in the middle of the desert out of nowhere. And come to find out later when they were done with the building that was the El Rancho Vegas. Now it’s right smack dab in the heart of town. And no longer exists because it burned down. But that’s what started Las Vegas as a gambling town, that old casino. Interesting. Getting back to the reservation, you spoke a little bit about the justice that they have within themselves on the reservation. Can you tell me a little more about that? UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 17 Well I say they have their own type of justice and it’s just as good as ours. Maybe a little better. One fella out there that they say he killed his wife. How they knew this I don’t know, but he was permitted to live on the reservation. They could have thrown him off if they so desired but they made the stipulation he could live there until he dies and then that would be the end of his, you know, kinfolk or whatever. But as part of living there, he could do any of the activities they did, but he had no voice in the council meetings. His vote meant nothing, he couldn’t vote. So that was their form of punishment, I guess. Kind of passive but, you know, effective. How were these council members elected? Were they elected by the people or—? By the people. By the people themselves. They used to call ’em Indian chiefs, now they call them tribal chief or councilman or whatever, but they used to be, you know, the chief. What were their main jobs? Like what did they take care of? Well they take care of the finances and the governing of the reservation in general. All aspects of the same authority as a chief did before, only they didn’t have to prove themselves by arm wrestling and running and things of this nature. They still have the same authority. Once they’re elected, do they stay on the council or do they change? They change every now and then, but if the guy doing a good job, then they’ll just keep voting him in again and again and again and again. A lot of people don’t want the job because there is a lot of responsibilities in decisions. You know the saying you can’t make everybody happy even if you do make the right choice. You’re always going to have a little bit of bickering. And animosity is around everywhere I guess. Like I said, we heard a couple of (unintelligible) argue and one says, “Yes, you’re just one of those smart aleck town Indian. A city Indian.” And he’d come back with his retort, saying “Yes, you’re nothing but a reservation Indian.” So the UNLV University Libraries Don Perry 18 animosity is there between the reservation and the colony, at least between these two young bucks. In reference to that, did the Indians go into the city much or do they pretty much stay on the reservation? They come in town, see their doctors. See they’re still, well what you call it, wards of the government. They still attend to their medical needs and see that they’re taken care of. And they come in town and do shopping because their shopping out there is very limited (unintelligible) supply things here that—well they’re so used to it that a fifty, fifty-five mile trip is just one of those across the street things when they go out (unintelligible). Thank you very much for the interview, Don. It was very interesting, I enjoyed it a lot. Well I hope it was helpful a little bit. This is things that I have seen in my contact with the people and their ways. Thank you, again. The narrator of this interview has been Mister Donald Perry. (Tape ends)