Gordon Johnson
Gordon 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
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.
Consuelo Flores Brings the Dead to Life
Consuelo Flores Brings the Dead to Life
An expert on Day of the Dead history, Consuelo Flores builds altars to the deceased every year. But she contends that the tradition is about life, not death.
Reservation Punk: Raymond Lafferty's Search for Home
Reservation Punk: Raymond Lafferty's Search for Home
Kumeyaay Indian artist Raymond Lafferty's art is in many ways a search for home. Bucking conventions all his life, he often felt alienated as an Indian trying to figure out where he belonged with his own people.
Art on the Asphault: Cecelia Ramos Linayao's Street Sketches
Art on the Asphault: Cecelia Ramos Linayao's Street Sketches
Cecelia Ramos Linayao is a street artist heading up a small team working on the featured panel commemorating the 10th Anniversary of ArtSplash in San Diego.
Gerald Clarke Jr.: The Contemporary Indian Experience Through Art
Gerald Clarke Jr.: The Contemporary Indian Experience Through Art
Gerald Clarke Jr. refuses to be defined like an artifact on a museum shelf by his Indian heritage. He seeks to let the past inform the present, but not restrict it.
Inside 'The Merc'
Inside 'The Merc'
Inside The Merc in Temecula, there's no sense of time, only time signatures. Within the old brick walls and open-beam ceiling, time and place are figments -- it's music that matters.
Gifts from Apollo: The Bronze Work of Max DeMoss
Gifts from Apollo: The Bronze Work of Max DeMoss
Like his Greek forebears, Max DeMoss Jr., now himself 65 years old, is an artist who specializes in forging bronze into classic works of art. Some of them small and intricate, some huge and monolithic. 
Peter Sprague: An Extraordinaire From the Land of Extraordinary Guitarists
Peter Sprague: An Extraordinaire From the Land of Extraordinary Guitarists
In Southern California, Sprague is a guitarist extraordinaire. He's played on some 200 albums and produced over 100 in his home studio, called SpragueLand, in Encinitas.
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