A Delightful Lesbian Cabal

Mary Jo Estep was the last surviving Indian of the last Indian massacre in 1911. She was one of four children who survived the massacre. The other three died the following year of tuberculosis. Mary was about 18 months old when a posse in the Nevada hinterlands ambushed her mother and the remnants of her tribe and shot them while they were asleep. Her grandfather, Shoshone Mike (he was actually Bannock and his wife Jennie was Ute), had led the band across 300 miles of western desert after refusing to go to the reservation.

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The four children were put in jail after capture. Mary Jo is a baby held by her aunt here.

Raised by the family of the white superintendent of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, Mary knew little of this and did not remember it. When, in the 1970s, the Oregon writer Dayton O. Hyde wrote a book about her grandfather and the massacre, he found her and told her the story. Her reaction to the attention this brought was to discount it. “Most of my friends are non-Indians. I was raised in the white world.” “They know my mother was one of Shoshone Mike’s daughters. Her name was Snake and one thing I can’t stand is snakes,” she joked. About her grandfather she said: “I knew he had something to do with stealing things, but I never asked. I’m just not a curious person, I guess.” About the massacre she said: “I never think about it. I’ve got too many other things to think about.”

Mary Jo Estep graduated from Central Washington College with a degree in music and spent 40 years teaching school before retiring in 1974. At the age of 82 in 1992, Mary died in a nursing home because a nurse had given her the wrong medication and hospital staff determined that her non-resuscitate directive meant that they could not help her. The effects of the overdose could have been easily reversed. She took several hours to die and in that time her friends, who had come to pick her up for a party, surrounded her, but could not move the doctors to save her life.Office Lens 20160625-143648

“You look at what happened to her, and you could say that she died at the hands of the white man too,” said Louis Jarnecke, one of her friends.

I still have the newspaper article telling of her death, and the book written about her grandfather, The Last Free Man. What they don’t say is that Mary Jo Estep was a lesbian. She lived with her “long-time companion” Ruth Sweany for more than 50 years on Summitview Avenue in my hometown, Yakima, Washington.Office Lens 20160625-143905

I met Mary Jo and Ruth through my mother who had organized a seniors writing group in Yakima. My mom was interested in the history of our part of the world and she encouraged old people to tell and write their stories. She worked for the senior center there and for a time she produced a local TV program in which she interviewed old-timers and taped their histories. The women told me they were part of a group called “Living Historians,” and laughed saying, “At least we’re still living!”

I have a chapbook that includes the writing of all three: Mary Jo, Ruth and my mother Florence Martin. My brother Don and his press, Hard Rain Printing Collective, printed it in 1980. Mary’s only piece in the chapbook, The Man With the Hoe, chronicles an incident from her childhood of an old man who is lost and then found the next day by neighbors. Two of the published entries are by my mother. Ruth Sweany has four; three are poems, but the fourth is a prose piece that describes her life with Mary, particularly when their friend Mabel comes to visit on Fridays. I think the friend must be Mabel George, another writer published in the chapbook.Office Lens 20160625-152832

A photo in the archive Yakima Memory from the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper shows Mabel George (born January 8, 1899) at the piano, and another entry is titled Mabel George Children’s Songs from 78 records, 1947. So Mabel was a musician and songwriter.

Ruth’s story never mentions Mary, but clearly the “we” in the piece refers to Ruth and Mary as a couple. It’s about the fun they have when their friend Mable visits. They listen to music (a critique of modern loud disco music follows), they read poetry and plays to each other. They also write and produce plays, calling themselves “The Carload Players.” Ruth writes that they even produced a couple of plays before an audience. This makes me wonder if their papers were archived and whether I might find the scripts, but I’m not hopeful.

These women rejoiced in each other’s company. Ruth writes: “So our Fridays are always cheerful. Why not? We are doing things we enjoy, in a congenial group. After one of Mabel’s visits the world stops going to the dogs and the sunshine comes out a little brighter.”

My mother, Florence Martin, with the chapbook
My mother, Florence Martin, with the chapbook

I do hope my mother was part of this delightful lesbian cabal. Even still married to my father, she preferred the company of women. Reading Ruth’s story, I can see why.

http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/shoshone-mike-s-story-endures-after-century

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Losing Carla Jean

In the middle of the day on a Thursday, my bestie’s name showed up on my iPhone. I was so delighted to hear her voice, I didn’t get some clues. Carla didn’t usually call me on the phone—that’s so last decade. Texting was more typical. Also it was a time when she is usually working. I rarely tried to contact her at work, which is one reason we hadn’t talked or texted much. It seemed like she was always working. I didn’t stop to ask why she was calling me at such an unlikely time, or even how she was.

Me and my bestie
Me and my bestie

Her news chilled me; she had just been diagnosed with stage IV metastasized breast cancer.

My reaction, then and for the next weeks, was “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

“I’m coming over now,” I said. Carla lived a few blocks away.

“I need help,” Carla said when I got there.

“Anything,” I said, grateful there was something I could do to help my sick friend.

“I need you to get up on the roof with me to check whether the roofers who worked on the house next door damaged my roof.” This was so very Carla. She wouldn’t be able to rest until she made sure her roof was sound.

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She was a cowgirl at heart. In front of her 1860s house she was always working on.

I was once a construction worker, and spent years remodeling my own home (with Carla’s frequent help), and I’ve no aversion to climbing up on roofs. But at age 66, it’s not something I do often anymore. Carla was ten years my junior. We held the ladder for each other, inspected the roof. No damage had been done. Then Carla needed to rest. I think we both knew that that was the last time she would climb onto her roof. It would be the last time for a lot of things. We had met for a beer at the Wild Side West just a week earlier. That would be our last beer at the Wild Side. She had helped me solve a plumbing problem the month before. There would be no more plumbing in Carla’s future.

Now, just over two months later, I’ve changed the tense to past. My bestie Carla died this morning.

Carla was a fabulous finish carpenter, a stickler of a building inspector, a fierce disability rights activist and a super competent department head. She was at the top of her game as the director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office on Disability. I do intend to eulogize Carla Johnson at length, but for now I’m just grieving the loss of my dear friend. Rest in Power Carla Jean.

Women Build Nations Sensational, Huge

Reporting on the Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago on May Day weekend: Two words: sensational and huge!

Mural at CWIT headquarters in Chicago
Mural at CWIT headquarters in Chicago

My old friend electrician Cynthia Long (IBEW Local 3 NYC) just texted me asking for news about the conference. Although it wasn’t her intention to guilt trip me, I felt bad for not having reported back to tradeswomen friends who couldn’t attend. Here are some highlights:

The climax for me was performing on stage for this gigantic audience of tradeswomen. My wife Holly and I wrote a song called Sister in the Brotherhood, and she accompanied me on the guitar. I was terribly page 4nervous, but we didn’t blow it and that audience of rowdy construction workers liked us! Friends were kind enough to video our performance, and I will eventually figure out how to post the video on this site. (I’m old and tech challenged. It will happen). This week Donna Levitt brought me a copy of Organized Labor, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council’s newspaper. There was our picture on page 4! We feel like rock stars and the glow hasn’t yet worn off.

The conference was hosted by Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). A high point before the conference even began: CWIT’s fabu party at their headquarters and training center. I was delighted to connect up with old activists from way back and also meet young tradeswomen and CWIT trainees, many acting as greeters and volunteers.

Along with historian Brigid O’Farrell and sprinkler fitter Ella Jones, I gave a workshop called “Tradeswomen History: Learning From the Past to Change the Future.” We were able to include testimony from several “tradeswomen matriarchs” who are helping us learn from the past.

Old timers Ronnie Sandler, Paula Smith, Lisa Diehl, Lauren Sugerman, Molly Martin, Dale McCormick
Old timers Ronnie Sandler, Paula Smith, Lisa Diehl, Lauren Sugerman, Molly Martin, Dale McCormick
Some organizers of the 1989 second national conference, Chicago
Some organizers of the 1989 second national conference, Chicago. I’m still looking over Lauren’s shoulder.

As it turned out we had a mini-reunion of some of us old tradeswomen activists from the 1970s and 80s. Carpenter Lisa Diehl, who’d been an organizer of Kansas City Tradeswomen, traveled from her home in West Virginia. She entertained us with stories of feminist actions from the bra burning banner hoisting days. Ronnie Sandler, carpenter and job training wiz, came from New Hampshire. Dale McCormick, the first female in the country to turn out as a carpenter who went on to win a place in the Maine state legislature and become state treasurer, represented Maine. We reunited with Paula Smith and Lauren Sugerman, two organizers from Chicago we’d worked with to put on the 1989 second national tradeswomen conference there. And some of the early tradeswomen organizers from Chicago were in attendance too, sporting t-shirts and sweatshirts from the 1970s.

This was the 15th Women Build conference and the 6th we have renamed Women Build Nations, including women from all over North America and other countries. It was the first in this series of conferences to take place outside of California and it brought in hundreds of women from the Midwest and other parts of the U.S. who’d never participated in the past conferences. Fifteen hundred tradeswomen of all crafts, allies and union brothers attended—the biggest tradeswomen conference ever!