It all may have started on the banks of Toppenish Creek, Washington back on October 5th, 1855. An Indian agent was shot and killed while investigating the retaliatory murder of a gold miner who raped a Yakama woman and stole horses from their newly established treaty lands. Major Granville Hallers and his troops rode up from The Dalles, Oregon to the Granger area in Eastern Washington to suppress a feared Indian uprising. With money to be made in mining, White settlements were springing up across the area and enjoyed the protection of the U.S. Government. When the soldiers arrived on a ford overlooking the Creek however, they found themselves badly outnumbered by a group of Yakama warriors and retreated, only to come back later in greater force in what is known as the Yakama Indian War. By 1858, the Yakama had lost 90% of their land and were put onto the Yakima Indian Reservation of today.
As we know, history often back flips into vortices of re-creation. The only thing on the minds of Juan and Sarah of Toppenish, Washington when they stole away to the banks of Toppenish Creek in the Spring of 1967 however, was hormones. Juan, a handsome, 17 year old Mexican-American high school football player, and Sarah, 16 years old, strawberry-blond, blue-eyed and white as virgin snow. Wanting to play it safe, they rode a few miles out of town to have some fun. They had been explicitly told to stay apart, but it only added to the excitement of their afternoon.
Incidently, the word Toppenish is an English version of “Txapnis” which in the local Native Sahaptu language means “protruded” or “landslide”, txa – “accidently”, pni – “to launch”. and sa – (continuitve present tense). The Natives people named the area after a geological incident that changed the face of the land centuries ago to ‘stick out’. This might give the reader an idea of what happened that day, in the same exact area two worlds collided over a century previous. This time, an act of defiance by a white girl with a brown boy displaced the landscape of a family forever. I am its protrusion.
In the Census of 1970, Toppenish claimed a population of 5,744, mostly White with a smattering of Mexican migrant agricultural workers and a few Native Americans – surprisingly few, – or maybe not – since the town existed in the borders of the Yakima Reservation. It was a model of American small town life : a sugar beet factory, a slaughterhouse, burger joints, cheerleaders and high school football, white picket fences, Rotary and hunting clubs – all starting to stumble under the weight of social change.
Sarah was a feisty, rebellious teenager who grew up in a typical nuclear family. Her father Carl was an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Carol, her mother, was head of the Rotary Club, a knitter and seamstress of prolific renown and a woman of strict decorum. Both were of proud Norwegian/ Swedish heritage, owned and operated an appliance store and were active members of the Toppenish Lutheran Church. Sarah had one younger brother she was close with. He was sensitive and often spent time with his father on hunting trips, otherwise mostly kept out of the way. The parents raised their perfectly groomed children with discipline, expecting good grades and achievement in every endeavor.
Known by many as pillars of the community, Carl and Carol Johnson were often in the local paper shown holding awards or mentioned for their contributions to the culture of the town. Behind closed doors, Carl was an alcoholic with a rage problem, and Carol, secretly and actively having an affair with her brother-in law. Both were stoic, opinionated, hated Mexicans and blacks, and as was said to me by my great Aunt Mave when I asked about contacting who would be my grandparents, “Not nice people. You might want to stay far away from them.”.
A few months after the “accidental launch” on the riverbank, I came to be known to Sarah and her family as a big, huge problem. The family house turned into a war zone over Sarah’s pregnancy with fights that were legendary according to the neighbors of their block. Sarah’s best friend Cindy, who lives a few doors down, told me some 25 years later, she and others expected Carl to kill his family. Mother railed against daughter and husband, and vice versa.
While they loved their daughter, a ‘mixed half breed’ was an unforgiveable stain on their family. It was eventually decided that I was to be kept secret, and as soon as she was ‘showing’, Sarah would be sent to Seattle to the Florence Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers until I was born. Then I would be immediately adopted out. It was not at all possible to keep me as much as Sarah pleaded.
Once Juan found out Sarah was pregnant with his baby, and that I was to be given away, he went to visit Carl and Carol at their home. Juan Garcia’s family was large, devout Catholic and did not want blood to be separated. They would take me in with open arms and raise me without hesitation. When Juan knocked on the Johnson’s door to make the offer, he was met with Carl’s shotgun aimed at his face and the threat that Carl would murder his own family before ever giving me away to them, and/or if he ever saw Juan again.
Carl’s sister, Aunt Mave, said she would adopt me. They had 3 children about Sarah’s age, and 2 a little younger, one more would be more than welcome. They lived in Seattle and were resourced, and would raise me away from the Toppenish clan, working out the logistics of the family displacement later. For a moment, it was a possibility, but within a few weeks of the offer under consideration, Aunt Mave’s husband took a gun to his head and her family was faced with their own crisis.
Sarah did, however, go to Seattle and live with Mave for a short time before going into FCH. She was resolute that she was going to keep me and looked to Mave for support. After the reality of raising a baby was explained to her on no uncertain terms, including the difficulty of future dating for Sarah, she relented.
I was born a few months later in a hospital on Capitol Hill in Seattle, not white or brown but a blue baby, the cord wrapped around my neck with the necessity of resuscitation. Sarah, crying, asked to hold me. She was granted five minutes. Then I was taken away and disappeared.
It was the beginning of a landslide for Sarah and her family and the beginning of my life into parts unknown.