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
From the Rez: James Luna's Hybridized Indian Performance Art
From the Rez: James Luna's Hybridized Indian Performance Art
James Luna, a Luiseño from the La Jolla Indian Reservation in north San Diego County, is a performance artist specializing in the unexpected. He considers it his mission to challenge boundaries.
The Literary Lair of T. Jefferson Parker
The Literary Lair of T. Jefferson Parker
In the mystery world, T. Jefferson Parker has established himself as a California golden boy. Many of his murderous plots unfold in Orange County, where the landscape is awash in blondes and bikinis.
MandoBasso Make Crazy Quilt Music
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Desert Folk: The Life and Songs of Joel Rafael
Desert Folk: The Life and Songs of Joel Rafael
Woody Guthrie, father of American folk music, is dead. Joel Rafael, 62, a folkie from Valley Center in north San Diego County, labors to keep his music alive.
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