What makes a color our favorite? Was it the complicated, emotion-tinted hazel of mama's eyes? The rocketing enamel red of your best friend's wagon that seemed perfectly capable of zooming to the moon? The saturated living green of the insanely bitter crabapples that grew by grandma's door, which you only tasted once on a cousin's dare?
There are some rational, scientific and perfectly stupid theories that color preferences somehow echo our personalities. Maybe I shouldn't dismiss these ideas out of hand. How else to explain my Aunt Bertha's profoundly bizarre afghan-design choices but as outward expressions of her blend of sweetness, passivity and mule-headed chaos? Innocent bystanders could be forgiven for exclaiming in horror, "Who in God's name knitted these colors together?" Some of auntie's afghans continue to pulsate radioactively in a cardboard box in my garage.
If we picked our favorites solely based on what we see most when we're small, mine would be the dusty gray-green of sagebrush or else the color of the poor tortured brown soil that ineffectually nourishes it.
The reservation where I attended primary grades is a difficult place to love, and never more so than in early spring. As the cold and wind drone on under endless sunny skies, the lengthening daylight only serves to provide additional time to gaze around and wonder why in hell the grownups plopped you down in an American Siberia. Though its despicable climate has supposedly gentled a trifle in the decades since I left, I prefer to nurse my grudge.
And yet, would I be capable of savoring a color and all it represents if it had not been so rare, so angelic, so tenacious? If sapphires and emeralds were so common we mixed them with tar to construct asphalt highways, would we still treasure their beauty?
The early blue violet, Viola adunca, is a noble plant. Smarter than we are, in some ways, it has worked out through thousands of years of trial and error when it is safe to take a run at it, go for the gusto and start a new family. There's still snow in the shadows of the sagebrush when the violets are ablooming, gem-like in the ice-seared wastes. Like many native plants, it is pragmatically useful and nourishing, as suffused with vitamins as with beauty. (Here in our area, it is the sole source of food for endangered Oregon silverspot butterfly larvae.)
Are school children permitted to dance around maypoles anymore? In first grade on the rez, we did, and gathered tiny bouquets of fresh violets of variegated blue to spirit home and present to our moms. This color forms a substratum of my life, an essence that will persist after all else evaporates away. It will even infuse my dreams this May Eve, or Walpurgisnacht in the old tongue, when my Germanic ancestors celebrated the end of the reign of the winter witches.
For a place where the sun shines clear about 340 days a year, the Wind River Indian Reservation can feel awfully shrouded in shadows. Ancient disputes between the Shoshoni and Northern Arapaho tribes still slowly unravel like kabuki plays and clan names are crystallized destiny. Across a gulf of time and a thousand miles, it would haunt me even if girls my own daughter's age weren't dying there.
Ohetica Win "Elyxis" Gardner, age 13. Winter Rose Jenkins, age 14. Alexandrea WhitePlume, age 15. All dead of methadone overdose in June 2008. Ruled a homicide, cloaked in mystery. The FBI won't even confirm or deny that arrests were made, a thin plea bargain struck. Marisa Spoonhunter, age 13. Body dumped early this month near the mission where I was baptized. Her brother is charged with brutally assaulting her after finding her having sex with a stepcousin.
It makes me angry, even at myself, when assumptions are made about families I grew up with and when these toxic tragedies are tossed into the wind to be dispersed, swept away and forgotten, as unchangeable as the plot of a Faulkner novel. These are good families, good girls lost under the infinite sky. Nobody's life should end at age 13. It insults everything about life to consider such deaths in any sense inevitable.
"I love and I miss my daughter so much, but the world don't stop spinning," one of these girls' moms told an interviewer with the fatalism that everyone on the reservation needs to wear like an overcoat. "The sun's going to rise and the sun's going to set. And we're still here."
We picked violets together, these fine brown people and me. This soul-pure blue is the color I care about, binding us together in affection and respect. And the love of our daughters - we share that, too.
Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer.