CSUMB welcomes Southern California writer as part of Native American Heritage Month

November 16, 2023

By Mark Muckenfuss

Native American author Gordon Johnson spent more than an hour reading his essays on reservation life and answering questions about writing on Wednesday evening, Nov. 15, at the Alumni and Visitors Center. His appearance was one of a series of events marking Native American Heritage Month. 

“A storyteller’s job is to make someone feel something,” Johnson told a crowd of about 50 people. “I want people to feel what it means to be Indian.”

Humanities and Communication Professor Ernie Stromberg, who organized the event, said bringing in Native American writers is just one of the elements the campus tries to offer each year during a month of heritage-themed events. 

Johnson, a member of the Pala tribe, read a series of often humorous, sometimes philosophical pieces from his books — he has authored three volumes of essays and short stories, including “Rez Dogs Eat Beans” — all depicting various aspects of life on a Southern California reservation. He also discussed his years as a newspaper reporter and columnist and his efforts to support Native American writers.

The pieces Johnson read ranged from a tale of two reclusive, but notable brothers to an exposition on reservation cuisine to a long, heartfelt reflection on love, reservation style. 

There were potent images within the lines he read: “a German shepherd skinny as a razor blade with teeth just as sharp;” “spring bursts electric onto the reservation;” and “young guns wear slingshot T-shirts on the basketball court.” The scent of eucalyptus becomes a “love potion.” And a young bride attempts to make tortillas, “her inexperienced fingers trying to hear what her DNA is telling her.”

Johnson said his writing is primarily aimed at Native American people, “but I would let non-Indian people eavesdrop. I’m mostly trying to capture a real experience, trying to allow people to live some of the life I’ve experienced.”