Living cheap is hard enough, but it is harder still in small-town Utah when your Mormon welfare dries up completely.
Several years ago, one of the local leaders of the Mormon church tried to run our family out town because he didn’t want us to be teaching the language to other Indians. The Mormon religion teaches that whites (Nephites) are the original inhabitants of America, not Indians. The white Nephites were a peaceful and loving race who lived in this paradise called America. Only very recently Indians (Lamanites) moved to America from Israel. Indians brought along our sinful, loathsome and ungodly culture here to America. And then we murdered all the whites who lived in the Americas and completely wiped out the entire white Nephite race.
The Bishop wanted to save the Indian people from our sinful culture and believed the best way to kill Indian culture is for our language to die. When my family started offering free language classes to Indians, he viewed us as a major problem and wanted to run us out of town. My family and I were truly living in hostile territory back then. The Bishop started inquiring who we were renting from. Now a Bishop has enormous resources, especially in a region where almost everybody is Mormon, including the police and the guy who runs the social security office in town. The Bishop approached the local social security office and the town hospital but all he got was our post box address. The postal people didn’t know where we lived either and sent us a letter asking for our updated home address. We ignored that letter and USPS immediately shut down our post box. Then the Bishop approached the local tribe, and the tribe – most of them are Mormon – happily gave him our home address.
The police started harassing us almost immediately – once it was because somebody’s car got stolen and they said it was us. Another time someone sprayed graffiti on some church, so that must have been us too. A third time, a store in town was robbed. And so on. “We will get you guys one way or the other,” threatened an officer. But we were clean and none of us even had as much as a parking ticket. Finally, the Bishop had a chat with our property management company and they threw us out of our home on a technicality. Unfortunately for us, the Bishop had his way because nobody else in town was willing to rent us a home. I remembered the wisdom of an old Indian who had told me, “Don’t let strangers know your Indian name because if they know your name, they can put a curse on you.”
Back then was when our family became super privacy-conscious. We stopped giving institutions our real social security number and our real tribal affiliation, either of which can completely erode your privacy. I kicked away Windows, moved to security-enhanced Linux (which is free), encrypted everything using TrueCrypt (also free), and took numerous other precautions. Later, when the Snowden-NSA scandals broke and people were trying to hurriedly tighten their Facebook privacy settings, we were smiling. We had long learned that you cannot beat the system, but you can definitely derail their spying efforts by feeding the system with all kinds of misinformation. Our Mormon welfare had completely dried up and life became harder than before. Still in Utah, we had moved to a new small town, but this time we did not give our real address to the local tribe nor did we give them our true tribal affiliation. And by then we had been forced to become experts at living cheap.
By living cheap, I don’t mean eating ramen noodles that the so-called “starving students” suggest; the same students then go on expensive dates, rent movies, buy pricey textbooks, pay bar covers and drink the ridiculously-priced lattés each morning at campus coffee shops. No, living cheap is embarrassing. Really embarrassing. So embarrassing that no “starving student” will even venture there. For instance, I remember our neighbors eating watermelons but giving us the rinds and the seeds that people normally throw away. We would stir-fry the watermelon rinds and even pickle them. Fridays, we would go to the Farmer’s Market in town, wait there most of the morning until they would pack up and get ready to throw out the surplus squashes. Then we would beg them to give us the produce they were going to throw out; usually they refused but sometimes we got lucky. I remember being too poor to be able to afford a pair of gloves for three winters.
However, once a year, on December 31, we would splurge by buying a pizza. Choosing which pizza to buy would be an agonizing decision. I remember freezing outside a pizza store trying to compute the ?.r2 of three pizzas to find out which pizza was the best deal. Not an easy decision when you are doing the arithmetic in your head and also figuring in the subjective probability that the cashier might be willing to accept an expired coupon on one of the pizzas if I flirted with her.
Which reminds me – living cheap sometimes throws up unexpected advantages. I could not afford tuition at the low-tiered local college, and wasn’t eligible for student loans either because I refused to give out my social security number. So I went on privacy-protecting search engines like Ixquick and learned that classes at a certain top school’s Continuing Education program were actually much cheaper. Eventually I ended up being admitted to that elite university. Once on their campus, I disregarded the advice of three professors and two advisors and enrolled for three dreaded math classes without the necessary prerequisites in my very first semester. Learning all the math I could in my very first semester was a deliberate strategy so I could tutor math to other students and thereby find a way to pay for my tuition and living expenses in that expensive city. I remember my PreCalculus professor, one of the nicest professors at the university, telling me it is impossible to pass his PreCalculus course without a graphing calculator. But I could not afford to buy a graphing calculator. So I did all my homework problems using a free online calculator and then borrowed a graphing calculator for the midterms and final. And got an A in that class, as well as the other math classes. Wherever we lived, we always slept on the floor. I suspect that even if I win a lottery and become a millionaire in the future, I will still be sleeping on the floor because it feels so natural now; it’s good for the back too.
Living cheap can also be healthy. Like the illegal marijuana growers who grow drugs in the forests, our family has secret growing places in the canyons where we plant vegetables that grow like weeds and need no watering. Just hiking up to those spots to occasionally water or harvest those veggies can keep you healthy. When gas prices soared high, we started walking or running everywhere. The only truck we had in the family became unusable, so we all became more fit. I also lost a great deal of my body weight because I was simply eating less. My blood pressure dropped to normal as did my sugar levels. We cannot afford the movies or to go bowling, so our recreational activities keep us healthy too. For fun, we hike mountains, make a fire in the woods, follow animal tracks in the snow or play under the waterfalls – all of which keeps us healthy and fit. Or we walk peoples’ dogs and get paid for it too.
Living cheap keeps our family close. We don’t have any furniture at home, so the only people who care to visit us are relatives and other down-to-earth Indians who don’t judge us for living without furniture. Getting cheap used furniture meant going down to Deseret Industries (the Mormon equivalent of the Salvation Army) which was several miles away. But the bigger problem is that the furniture donated to Deseret Industries could have belonged to dead people; in our tradition, we burn items belonging to the dead and don’t use them ourselves. So we make do without furniture, and honestly, we don’t even mind it. For most of Indian history, Indian people lived without furniture anyway. All our activities are structured around our family. As an example, we make Indian art while making light fun of each other, telling jokes and stories, and then we sell things we make at powwows and other events.
Living cheap can be environmentally beneficial. I see guys in my town who keep their massive
SUVs running while they wait for their wives to shop at the grocery store. We never had the luxury of wasting gas that way. We don’t buy trash bags like other people but instead rely on the brown bags they pack our groceries in. Most people keep their air conditioners running the entire day. We don’t have an air conditioner at home, so we open all the windows at night. The desert air cools down the entire house and keeps it cool for most of the day.
Finally, living cheap also gives my family an opportunity to reiterate Indian sovereignty. By sovereignty, I don’t mean the limited sovereignty grudgingly given to Indian nations by the colonial government. Rather, I mean the inherent sovereignty of Indian people. Like the sovereignty of the buffalo, who never asked for permission from the feds to roam the plains. Or, like the sovereignty of the eagle who soars in the sky without seeking permission or federal recognition. That is the sovereignty all indigenous people automatically have. As an example, we live near a few national parks and visit them several times a month. But we never pay the entry fees; we refuse to pay entry fees on what is rightfully our land. We know different routes into the national parks that tourists don’t know about. Or, when we sneak past the Forest Officers, go down to the secluded river where the willows grow and cut them at the right time of the year. This is what Indians have done for generations. We sit down as a family by the river and make cradleboards from these willows. Then we sell them to expectant Native families.
Jon Antelope lives in Indian Country in Mormon Utah. He and his family make and sell cradleboards to fellow Indians.