When my mom, Bernice Pember, was growing up she was asked out by a handsome young man. Her double date took place at the dump. Here she’s with my uncle, Donald Rabideaux, on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior. This photo was taken in the early ’80s.
Initially I was a little embarrassed by my family’s dump stories — landfills to the more refined. I thought we were the only family with this strange affinity for the dump. As I grew up and met Indian people from other tribes, they would inevitably share some sort of story about the local dump serving as a source of household items and/or entertainment. My other Ojibwe friend says of the dump from his childhood, “It was like a rummage sale except everything was free.”
We are, of course, talking about the open landfills of old, in which all sorts of wonderful stuff was dumped into a giant hole before burning. A terrible practice environmentally, the dumps of my childhood have mostly been replaced by the less interesting sanitary landfill.
Ah, but before the junk burned — and sometimes while it burned — the dump could be depended upon by the poor to provide household goods and entertainment. With our long history of living pretty close to the margin, Native people, early on, created a highly developed sense of dark humor about life and its unpredictable events that dampen the spirit. Therefore, we embrace our landfill stories. We roar with laughter recalling the importance of the dump in our lives. We laugh and we soar high above the dump, so high it doesn’t really touch us.
I begin with my mother’s dump story, which according to a friend, accounts for my visceral affinity for landfills. As a pretty young teenager on a reservation in northern Wisconsin, she was asked out on a date by a much sought-after and handsome young man. The other girls were clearly jealous as she dressed carefully for the outing, putting on her precious silk stockings. She had a job cleaning house for a white lady in town and had purchased a real pair of silk stockings with her earnings. The boy arrived and they crowded into an old car with friends and headed out toward”¦ the dump! Once at the dump, the boys began shooting at rats that were nosing through the garbage, all to much laughter and fanfare. The girls stood idly by in a small group. With a start, my mother realized that this was the date destination. In typical deadpan form, she later observed, “Well, I think I WAS a bit overdressed.”
I recently asked an Iowa Indian friend if he had any dump stories; he responded, “Oh, you mean, the Indian furniture store!” Rueben’s family moved often and at each new home, his father would announce, “We need some furniture kids, let’s go to the dump!”
My friend Mark recalls the dump of his youth as a multi-service entertainment center for himself and his eight siblings. It was a place filled with boxes of old letters, mostly in perfect little old lady handwriting and wrapped in faded ribbons. These were quickly discarded, but the juicy ones were read aloud on idle summer afternoons to the sniggering delight of the boys. His brother, Gerard, always carried the old radios home and plugged them in, never flagging in his hope of finding a working unit. At best, they were silent, at worst they sparked and blew all the fuses in the house, causing his father to bellow at them, “You guys are no damn good!”
Other friends recall outings where the dump was a family’s fun destination. On slow evenings, parents loaded kids into the car and drove out to watch bears wade through the garbage. The family would sit in the car, like they were facing a suburban drive-in screen, laughing and eating snacks.
Native people are born to “making do” with what life offers us. We did so long before non-Indians arrived in America. We go to the dump when we need to and we go without shame. We go with humor and a genuine spirit of discovery.