What I Mean


Simon Ortiz

Agee, I don't mean that Agee,
I mean Agee from home
He was just one of us, but a hero.
I mean not in a big way but real,
because he was one of us.

He was a young guy
who never got beyond nineteen.
We were the same age though in school
he was always behind
and the teachers were always on him
for not doing well.
Agee was always laughing and fooling around
and talking Indian
(you couldn't do that)
and making English sound like Indian
(you couldn't do that either)
English had to be English,
and Indian was just Indian -
the teachers so much as said that to us.

Agee quit school in junior high
and went to work in the mines.
He went to work because his family was poor
like all our families were poor.
He was one of the first guys from home
in the mines and probably the youngest.
After high school when I started working
for Kermac mill at Ambrosia Lake,
he was at Haystack working underground.

You know it's funny -
I mean this: teachers in school
were always on him
because he couldn't read
(or wouldn't)
or couldn't talk English
(or wouldn't)
but once when I was in Grandma's Cafe
in Milan where the guys I rode with
sometimes stopped to pick up bag lunches,
I was surprised.
Grandma's was usually crowded
with miners and millworkers
but not many of us Indians
ever went in there, and Agee was there.
And he was talking. I mean talking.

That may not sound like a big deal,
but this is what I mean:
We didn't talk much.
Some people say Indians are just like that,
shy and reserved and polite,
but that's mostly crap. Lots of times
we were just plain scared
and we kept our mouths shut.
I mean Grants and Milan and the mines
between Haystack and Ambrosia Lake,
all that area used to be Indian land -
Ácoma land - but it was surveyed
by the government and stolen
at the turn of the century
and there was plenty to say
but we didn't say it.
I mean being Indian wasn't the safest
thing to be in town
so we didn't say much, much less
be in Grandma's Cafe arguing
with white miners who made jokes
about squaws and called you chief.
I mean Agee was talking.

And he was reading too,
from the union contract
which was the issue of the argument.
That was right before the strike in 1961.
Most of us few Indian workers
didn't know much
about the mine unions and Agee
was one of the first members from home
and he was arguing for the strike.
As I said before, most of us
didn't say much of anything.
We were just glad for the jobs we had,
union or no union, but Agee,
when the workers went out on strike later,
spoke for us saying that Indians
were just like other workers
and he wasn't shy or reserved
saying that in English that sounded
Okie and Mexican and Indian.

Later on,
Agee went down to Silver City
when the workers went on strike there.
He was always doing that,
helping folks, especially old folks,
and it didn't matter who.
Well, down there, one night,
he was changing a tire
or pushing a stalled car or something,
he was struck accidentally -
that's what they told folks at home,
and maybe it was. And maybe too
it was because Agee was
just another worker,
just another Indian,
there was nothing else necessary
for them to tell us.

But what I mean is:
Although Agee never made it beyond young,
the mines were still there
and the workers were still fighting
and the old people still needed help
and the language of our struggle
just sounds and reads like an Indian,
Okie, Cajun, Black, Mexican hero story -
that's what we mean.
That's what we mean.

From Woven Stone by Simon Ortiz, Vol. 21, in Sun Tracks an American Indian Literary Series, University of Arizona Press.
© 1992 Simon Ortiz Buy Now

Books by Simon Ortiz

Woven Stone, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press. (Hardcover)
Men on the Moon : Collected Short Stories, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press. (Hardcover)
After and Before the Lightning , Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press. (Hardcover)
Speaking for the Generations : Native Writers on Writing, Simon Ortiz (Editor), Univ. Arizona Press.
From Sand Creek : Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press.
The People Shall Continue, Simon Ortiz, Children's Book Press. (Library Binding)
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