Gordon Lee Johnson
Gordon Lee Johnson

I’m Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian and live on the Pala Indian Reservation. Good or bad, I’ve had a desultory approach to education. I studied philosophy, literature and film at UC Santa Cruz, journalism at UC Berkeley, communications at UC San Diego. I studied creative writing at Vermont College and got a master of fine arts in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles.

For much of my life I’ve earned my living with my fingers on a keyboard. I worked at small Indian newspapers, the Associated Press in Los Angeles, I was a reporter for a small weekly in Fallbrook, editor of The Californian, a daily newspaper covering Southwest Riverside County, a feature writer and columnist for The Press-Enterprise, a 200,000 circulation newspaper serving the Inland Empire.

I have two books: Rez Dog Eat Beans and Fast Cars and Frybread, and I have poetry and short stories published in various periodicals.

I have four children and eight grandchildren who live nearby. My grandchildren ask for pickles from my icebox.


LOCATION: Pala Indian Reservation, north San Diego County

INSPIRATION: I’m inspired by beauty. Navajos say: “Walk in Beauty.” I think they got it right. Beauty comes in many guises: a well-turned sentence in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats, an Edward Weston study of light on a bell pepper, a fiery blues lick by Michael Bloomfield, the alignment of stars on a clear, cold night. Beauty is the clothesline I hang my days and nights on.

FAVORITE PLACE TO GET AWAY IN MY AREA: The ocean is my go-to place. Indians from this area have traditionally been beachgoers. In the summers they camped on the shore and near lagoons, and spearfished for dinner, and paddled dugout canoes in quieter waters, and rode waves on wooden planks like bodyboarders. Wave sounds resonate with my sense of wonder.

ARTIST/CREATIVE YOU’D WANT TO HAVE LUNCH WITH: N. Scott Momaday ranks high on the list. While doing his doctoral dissertation on Emily Dickinson, he worked on House Made of Dawn, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. His prose is sculpted from poetry, and it remains a book of staggering beauty. In life, he balances academia and creativity in a way that I’ve long admired. I’ve heard him read, an Indian in a tweed sports coat, and he struck me as a knowing man, quietly assured of his place in the universe.

MOST OVER-HYPED ARTIST: It’s all such a matter of taste, but if forced I’d say David Foster Wallace. I know, I know, many worship him. But when I read his stuff, I get the effect of someone trying too hard. His irreverent tone grates. Again it’s a matter of taste.

PERFECT SOUNDTRACK FOR WRITING: Vince Guarldi and Bola Sete live at the El Matador. Vince Guaraldi’s piano evokes fog three martinis into a San Francisco night. Bola Sete’s guitar is the grind of Brazilian hips, the sweat of Woman intoxicated by wantonness. Together they are the right mix of the rational and the instinctual that combine for the sublime.

WHY I LOVE WHERE I LIVE: I live where generations of my family have lived. I live on land that my mother gave me, that her father gave her, that his father gave him, and so on. There is a sense of history here, and history is a layer of soul. The downside is there are some crazy-ass Indians on this rez, so you have to hang tough to survive.

SO WHO THE HELL AM I?: I’m a 60-year-old guy in denim, a man without aspirations of grandeur, who is on the path of self-actualization. Word by word, I’m trying to write myself into my full potential. I’m a blend of Native Religion and Taoism, and a hundred thousand other influences, that both confuse and bedazzle me. I wake up in the morning thankful to be alive (unless I have a hangover), and work my days to contribute to the common good. When they throw dirt on me, I want to look down on my corpse, knowing that I have seen much of life and that I loved and was loved by others.

Recent Articles
Eileen Doktorski: The Art of Redemption
Eileen Doktorski: The Art of Redemption
Sculptor Eileen Doktorski believes in the healing properties of art. Often dark, her sprawling installations comment on domestic violence and wastefulness.
The Spirit of North Shore
The Spirit of North Shore
Residents of the resource-starved North Shore community on the Salton Sea hope a new plan for renewal and social practice art will promise a more sustainable future.
Ricardo Breceda: Sorcerer of Sheet Metal
Ricardo Breceda: Sorcerer of Sheet Metal
Ricardo Breceda is a legend in Borrego Springs for his sea monster creation and other metal sculptor creatures.
Reza Sepahdari's Prayers for Peace
Reza Sepahdari's Prayers for Peace
Iranian-born Reza Sepahdari makes art in Temecula's wine country. He believes in the role of the artist as a messenger of peace.
Dime Stories: Temecula's 3 Minute Tales
Dime Stories: Temecula's 3 Minute Tales
Dime Stories filled a need for an open-mike venue in Temecula, a place where writers could get their words heard by an audience.
On the Air with Indian Time Radio
On the Air with Indian Time Radio
For over 20 years, KUCR Indian Time Radio has been a point of pride in the Indian community, cementing their own place within Southern California's pop culture sphere.
About Natives, By Natives: Indian Country Playwrights
About Natives, By Natives: Indian Country Playwrights
Native Voices at the Autry puts the spotlight on American Indian playwrights, helping them transition their culturally-inspired works into full-scale productions.
Embracing the Blues with Jimmy King
Embracing the Blues with Jimmy King
For Joshua Tree-based musician Jimmy King, the blues is a mission to find meaning, a discovery of what matters, and an embrace of what's real.
Tracy Lee Nelson: Skate Rat with a Rez Kid Heart
Tracy Lee Nelson: Skate Rat with a Rez Kid Heart
Tracy Lee Nelson is a skateboard artist, combining form and function in skateboard design that resonates with Indian themes.
Retreating to the Writerly Life at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony
Retreating to the Writerly Life at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony
After a devastating fire in 2004, the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony is being resurrected by community efforts in a secluded natural setting in Temecula.
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