Book Review: Fire On the Plateau By Charles Wilkinson


by Charles Wilkinson
Island Press, 1999
Washington, DC
416 pages: $24.95 hardcover

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Any student of writing who reads Fire on the Plateau will know instantly that this is an audacious book. And anyone who has studied the American West will soon likewise sense that the book presents a view of the region that is both original and fair.

The audacity of Fire lies in author Charles Wilkinson's determination to weave strands of personal history into the larger fabric of the Colorado Plateau's social, legal, and geographic inheritance.

Dangers abound. Such an attempt can easily founder if the details fail to connect to larger themes, or it can degenerate into self-indulgence. With scarcely a misstep, Wilkinson meets these challenges and plants seeds early in the narrative that bear astonishing fruit toward the end.

Wilkinson came to the Southwest more or less fresh from law school. He begins the book with an account of his uneven progress toward learning the layered complexities of the region, and his well-told awakening helps the reader see the region afresh.

In time, Wilkinson became a trial lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund and litigated a number of key cases, especially in the area of civil rights. In Fire on the Plateau, he tells their stories, but never for the sake of the case alone. Instead, he uses each as a point of departure for going back in time and sketching the historical figures and events whose legacies come to bear in the courtroom. The law thus becomes a door to the past and to a larger understanding of the heritage of the region.

Early on, the historical digressions center on tales of 19th century conquest and aggression. The dispossession of the Uncompahgre Ute tribes of Colorado's western slope receives particular attention. The reader cannot help but agree with Wilkinson that, except for the arrogant ineptitude of Indian agent and missionary Nathan Meeker, tensions may not have run so high between the White settlers and the indigenous people Meeker sought to convert to Christianity. Consequently, the 1879 Meeker Massacre might never have occurred, and the Utes might still have a home in their homeland.

Older histories soon yield to more recent ones of discrimination and resource exploitation. We sense in these cases the convergence of multiple destinies - of tribes and tribal leaders, of Mormon pioneers and their descendents, of politicians, dam builders, mining corporations, and even, in the late innings, of the young lawyer Wilkinson and his colleagues. Through this interweaving of multiple fates, the meta-story of Fire on the Plateau becomes clear: that westering Anglo-Americans conquered the Colorado Plateau not once, but twice, and the second conquest may have been the most transforming one of all.

The first conquest was, of course, the 19th-century process of subjugation and settlement. The second, which Wilkinson calls "the Big Buildup," featured the frenzied postwar damming of rivers and the development of mines and power plants to serve the Southwest's urban centers and invite their manic expansion. As though in a novel, a central villain emerges. He is John Boyden, the brilliant, ambitious, and charismatic Mormon lawyer from Salt Lake City who represented Hopi, Ute, and Navajo interests through the most consequential years of the Big Buildup. Boyden, it turns out, concealed from his Indian clients his simultaneous representation of the Peabody Coal Company, which with Boyden's help opened a vast mine on Hopi and Navajo lands under terms injurious to the tribes.

Wilkinson sees the development of Peabody's Black Mesa Mine as the linchpin of the Big Buildup. Without its coal, the energy to pump the water of the Central Arizona Project across the Tonto Plateau to Phoenix and Tucson would have been lacking. Without the Central Arizona Project, the exploitation of the Colorado River would have been slowed, if not stalled, and the metastasis of Phoenix and other urban nodes possibly checked. Thus, the region's modern history pivots on Boyden's duplicitous representation of the Hopi, who granted the Black Mesa lease, and on his earlier role in reviving the Hopi Tribal Council (an imposed form of government with no roots in Hopi traditions) so that such leases might be signed.

Wilkinson probes Boyden's culpability from every angle, as he might in a courtroom; the guilt of the two-timing attorney is clear. Yet, Wilkinson also treats him with compassion, as he does every character he brings into his narrative. In one way or another, Boyden, who died in 1980, probably believed that he was acting in the tribe's best interest - indeed, he likely believed that he knew better than the tribe what that interest was. Boyden's sin, repeated in his representation of other tribes, was a sin of arrogance, not unlike that of Nathan Meeker's. And in both cases, the arrogance arose from observable historical roots, which Wilkinson endeavors to show us.

The upshot has less to do with Boyden than with the rest of us. We are no less actors in history than he was, and the histories in which we act span multiple scales and layers: they are personal, societal, and environmental. Wilkinson brings this theme to increasing definition as he weaves his own story into the warp and woof of the plateau's.

He at various times represented or counseled the same tribes as Boyden. He and his colleagues similarly nudged the course of events: an agreement here, a settlement there, schools built for Indian kids where none had existed before. They brought to their work as much ambition as Boyden did and an equivalent, if dissimilar, combination of values and personal history. Wilkinson speaks movingly of his own struggle to contend with an abusive father and to make peace with his father's memory years after the latter's suicide. The peace that comes to him he finds in the desert, drawing strength from the land and a landed heritage with which his adult life, both personal and professional, has intertwined.

This is not confessional literature, and there is no complaint of victimhood in anything Wilkinson writes. But like all good writing, Fire on the Plateau is deeply and personally felt, and as good and as revealing as Wilkinson is as a historian, it is Fire on the Plateau's personal dimension that ultimately makes the book seductive. Wilkinson's touch is not perfect - a few of his personal digressions hang on too long - but at crucial moments, as in the marvelous finale (no giveaways here: a hint would spoil it), Wilkinson's hand is deft and sure, the preparation perfect, and the result is something that lifts this remarkable book into a rare class.


Reviewed by William deBuys, a writer and conservationist based in Santa Fe. His third book, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California, was recently published by the University of New Mexico Press.

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