Bob Aikens looks intently at the man lying two stories above him. The man has his legs wrapped around a narrow steel beam, part of a nearly finished building frame, and is struggling with another beam that is hanging from a hoist. He is trying to ram a bull pin–a heavy, tapered steel tool–through a hole in the loose beam and into a hole in the beam he is lying on. Then, with the two holes aligned, he can slip a bolt through and fasten them together. The hanging beam weighs about 400 pounds. It is not easy to move. “Hurry up!” Aikens shouts at him. “We’ve got steel to set!” The man says nothing. Aikens seems slightly embarrassed and says quietly, “Actually, they’re doing real well for beginners.” Later he adds, “I holler at them, but that’s the way it will be on the outside.”
Aikens is one of two instructors in the National Ironworkers Training Program for American Indians, a 14-week course paid for by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and run by the national ironworkers union. Each year about 120 Native American Indians from all over the U.S. come to the school, in Broadview, to learn the basics of ironworking–welding, reading blueprints, wiring together the steel bars that are used to reinforce concrete, and connecting steel beams to form the frames of buildings. Those who complete the program are placed in apprenticeships with union locals around the country, where their training gives them a better chance than other apprentices of “making their book,” or becoming journeymen.
Ironworking is always temporary. Workers must constantly move to new building sites and may go for long periods without a job. It’s noisy and physically punishing work, and connecting steel beams, which most of the trainees will spend a good part of their first years doing, is dangerous. Given that, the pay is not extraordinarily high–$19.27 per hour is the prevailing union journeyman rate in Chicago, one of the highest-paid locals in the country. But it’s a big draw for the Indians, many of whom come from reservations where good jobs are rare and unemployment is high. According to the BIA, unemployment on the reservations ranges from 20 to 90 percent.
Yet the decision to come to the school is not always easy. Some of the students seem torn, wanting to hold on to a familiar way of life, in which they’re understood and accepted, and wanting part of the better material life that ironworking promises, which will mean moving far into the outside white world.
There’s a vague military precision in the way the school is run. Two absences and you’re out. The tools that the students are given must be locked into barrels or into the large tool cage every afternoon after class. Equipment is put back exactly where it came from, and all the floors are swept. After a break the students get up simultaneously, without a word, and head for their next class. “We used to just sit there, you know,” says Steve Summers, a 23-year-old Menominee. “But they’ve been raggin’ on us lately. ‘When you’re out there, you’re supposed to only take 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes are up. If you’re working out on construction, just get up on your own. You don’t have to wait for the boss to come out and tell you time to go back to work, boys.'” Summers laughs–he laughs easily and often. “So we’re straightening out now.”
Summers grew up, the youngest of 13 children, on a reservation in northern Wisconsin. His father had worked on and off the reservation as a logger, a mechanic, and a welder. Summers says he doesn’t know much about his tribal heritage. “As I grew up, my mom and them never had any traditions to follow. It was just like–as long as you’re Catholic, you’re all right,” he laughs. “I go to church once in a while, you know. That’s about it.”
He dropped out of high school when he was 17, spent a month getting his GED, and then hitchhiked around out west for six months with one of his brothers. He came back when he got homesick, and then took up logging–like his father, he says. He and his brother worked as a team, cutting up to 15 semi loads a week, when most teams cut 10. “We would work from 6:30 in the morning until about 9:30 at night,” he says. “This was during the summer. Sometimes we’d get out of the woods and it would be dark by the time we got out. We’d be so tired, we’d just go eat, take a shower, and slap into bed. Get up at four o’clock in the morning. We did that all summer. And in the winter, too.”
Most of that time they worked for $4.50 an hour. Asked why he worked so hard for so little, he says, “I don’t know,” shrugging his whole body. “Just for the heck of it, I guess. We liked being out there. We’d have made more if we asked for it by the load, but the guy was in debt. We helped him out–scratched his back, and he scratched ours.” The man gave Summers a motorcycle, and later sold him a truck cheap. “I only had it for one day,” Summers says, laughing. “I rolled it over. Drinking. I was racin’ around and rolled it over.”
He logged for nearly two years, and then decided it was too dangerous. “I had a couple of trees drop on the skidder that I was driving,” he says. “Bounced me around a bit, but that was about it. That happened to me a couple times, and I said, nah, nothing for me. Plus I almost dropped a tree on my brother.”
He spent the next couple of years moving around, staying with his sisters in Chicago and Texas and baby-sitting their children, fighting fires in California and Wisconsin for the BIA and the Department of Natural Resources, painting and doing construction, working as a carpenter and as a security guard, and frequently returning home to his folks. At one point his drinking got him in enough trouble that he decided to go through a detox program. Last summer he joined the Navy, only to be kicked out within six weeks for not having told them about traffic tickets he’d been given for speeding and drunk driving. “This seemed kind of weird to me,” he says. “They said I could have fought it, but it would have taken me about three months. I said, well, I tried it anyway.”
He had seen a brochure on the ironworking program in his reservation’s tribal offices when he was 20. He had wanted to join then, but the minimum age is 22. “They said come back in two years. And here I am,” he says. “I got kicked out of the Navy, and I said, well, I’ll give this a chance. That’s really why I joined the service–to start a new life, start over. So I figured, I’ll try this, too. Maybe I can at least accomplish this, you know? Start my life finally. Start movin’ on down the road. I’d been with my mom, staying home. It’s time to grow up, stop being the baby of the family.
“I really haven’t been doing anything for myself. Like I want a car. I had one and I wrecked it. Never appreciated nothin’. And in a few years I want to start building a house on my dad’s land. So I figured, why not get into the ironworking business? There’s money to be made in there. Maybe this is something I’ve been looking for, you know. I’ve tried just about everything else.”
He says his parents are pleased that he’s in the school. “They were proud when I got into the Navy. They weren’t disappointed when I got kicked out–just that, you know, they probably thought I was just going to come home, loaf around. My dad, he’s kind of iffy about it. He don’t know if I’m gonna–He’s got a bet going, saying that I wouldn’t make it through school. With my sister. I think it’s about $50 or something like that. I told my dad last time I was up there–for Thanksgiving–I said ‘Oh. Old man bettin’ against me, huh?’ He said ‘Yup. Somebody has to.’ I said, ‘Well you better pay her. You might as well pay her now.'”
Summers has done well in this winter’s class, and he likes the work. He is powerfully built and moves easily around the first floor of the program’s two-story steel frame. (The students of each class build it and tear it down repeatedly as they learn different ways to maneuver beams.) He once tried to move himself across the structure by swinging from one hand to the other from a cross beam, but was stopped when the wrench that hangs from his belt caught on a cable. One of the other trainees finally unhooked him. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t that high, so I just crossed. Next thing I know, they said ‘Watch it! Watch it!’ I was hanging there for quite a while. Then I tried to reach down, and oh, man, I can’t do it. I was just laughin’ and everything.”
He’s careful higher up. One afternoon he was working on one of the top beams of the frame structure. At the end of the day, he slowly lowered a block and tackle that the class had been using, then lowered the rope that had held it. Then he had to cross to the other side of the frame on the 35-foot stretch of six-inch-wide beams. The planks that usually covered the floor of the first story had been removed, so he was looking 20 feet down at asphalt. He hesitated for a long moment in a crouch at the end of the beam, staring down at the ground, then carefully put one foot behind the other and stood. He hesitated again, then raised his head and walked with intense grace to the end of the beam.
He knows a lot about welding from his father, and has done well in that. Learning to read blueprints was harder. “That stuff kind of throws me for a loop,” he says. “I’ll be sitting there, looking at the paper, and he’ll be asking me a question, and–I don’t know. I look and look and it’s right in front of my face, and I’ll finally have to ask Bob to show me. And I just cuss at that all day. At myself. I’d be mad at myself.” But usually he’s quick in the classroom–sometimes too quick. Bob Mitacek, who teaches welding, remarked one day that Summers was always the first one finished with his test–and usually the one with the most answers wrong. Summers laughs when reminded of that. “I did pretty good today, though. I was the first one finished with my test. I was going to take it up there, and then I thought, ‘I’ll just sit back and wait a while. I’ll go over a couple more questions.’ And so I rechecked it. Sure enough, I had four or five wrong. So I corrected them. I got the highest score out of both classes.”
He’d just as soon stick to welding, but he’ll probably have to do everything as an apprentice. “Like connecting steel–we probably won’t do that for maybe a year or two. We might not even get off the ground. Which I hope.”
I ask him what he’ll do if he has to go up high.
He gives his usual laugh. “Tie off. Get my rope out and tie off.”
And if he has to walk and can’t tie off?
“Probably just walk. They said just focus on a certain–Make an imaginary dot or something where you’re going to go.”
And if you trip?
“Then–accident! I’m hangin’ on, grabbin’ on to anything I can.”
The students repeat stories of men who walk like cats and one day happen to touch a hot electrical wire. Or men who slip on an oil spot and then tumble 50 feet. A myth still circulates in the media that Indians make the best high-steel walkers, but the truth is they fall as often as anyone.
After Summers graduates, his brother-in-law has a temporary job lined up for him at home until he gets assigned to a construction site. He says he doesn’t care where he’s sent, so long as it’s far from his reservation. “That way I get less temptations to go back up there,” he says.
“Women,” he laughs, and then looks serious. “No. It’s like, I go down to Texas and I don’t even miss it. When I’m down here, I’m like too close. I always want to go back home.” Later he says, “I hate the thought of going home. There’s nothing to do up there.” Except drink, he says. “My friends, they tell me to come on up, get my Indian relief check. I say ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to get away from.’
“Right away, as soon as I start making money, I’m going to start putting it away.” Once he’s a journeyman, a process that takes anywhere from one and a half to four years, he can “boom”–work anywhere in the country there’s a union job open. He wants to travel. “Sonny was telling us that in about six years they’re going to have something up in Alaska,” he says. “Gas line. I’ll be up there welding.”
Bob Aikens, who’s been in ironworking for 42 years, calls ironworkers the elite. They put up a building’s frame, and everyone else follows them, he says. The trainees seemed to quickly pick up his pride in the work, even though they’re still sometimes awkward and slow; Aikens pushes them to hurry because contractors are paid by the tons of steel they set in place, not by the hour. Shortly after the class started working on the outside structure, some of the trainees began shunning the ladder at the end, digging their boots into the sides of the steel columns and hauling themselves up with their hands. “When they get really good, they don’t need a ladder,” says Aikens. “A ladder’s an insult to these guys.”
One day, when the class is using the block and tackle to raise beams, Bill Lee (which is not his real name) stands on the ground, spinning his hand counterclockwise, motioning to a man standing by a winch that he should let the tackle down. Lee slashes his hand parallel to the ground to tell him when to stop. He neatly slips a choker cable around a beam, hangs the cable on the tackle, quickly hooks a rope through one of the bolt holes on the end of the beam–to steady it as it goes up–and then motions his classmate to raise it. Aikens prefers to let his students make and correct their mistakes; when the beam gets up to where it has to be shoved into place, Lee’s rope is in the way. One of the other students has to crawl over and unhook it. “You should have tied it around the beam,” Aikens yells.
Lee, who is 35, did most of his growing up with a white foster family on a farm inside his tribe’s reservation. He speaks softly and slowly, choosing his words carefully. The two worlds, he says, were not all that different, and yet they were. “The respect that we have. The continuity of the family, how close they are together. Indians are kind of–more spiritual, more aware of the world. And there’s some stuff that we do. The way we go hunting. The sweat lodge–you come out of there and you feel purified. Even the trees can talk. They tell you where the deer are at. That’s just the way you feel.” He pauses. “I kind of lost all of that when I went to the foster home. I could talk Indian before I could talk English. Then when I came out, I couldn’t talk it anymore.”
Lee says he started getting into trouble when he was still a boy. “I guess to get in trouble just came natural to me,” he says. “I didn’t mean to, but it just happened that way.” Yet he’s very bright. After he finished high school, he started vocational school, where he studied commercial art. After a while, he says, he started feeling limited by the program. “I like drawing, but you know commercial artists got to do it this way, this kind of lettering. It just didn’t seem to be what I wanted it to be.”
He transferred to a nearby college, where he studied sociology and math. “I used to know what a quadratic formula was,” he says, and laughs. “I loved math–work it out and come down to one answer. And then when I’d get it wrong, I’d go ‘How did I get that wrong? I mean how did I get that wrong?’ I’d go over it and over it and see where I made the mistake.” He hasn’t forgotten the essentials. “Bob [Aikens], he kept coming up with this answer. And I’d go up there and show him, and he said, nope, go back. I said ‘Bob, I keep coming up with this answer.’ He said ‘Aw, let me see now, let me check it out.'” Lee drums his fingers on an imaginary calculator. “‘See?’ I said, ‘Bob, you forgot that one step.’ ‘Oh yeah. Yeah,’ he says. ‘You’re right. How the heck could I be wrong?'”
Lee finished two semesters and had intended to register for the following term. “I waited in line to register. You know how that goes, standing there in line. So I just stepped out of line. ‘Maybe I’ll register later.’ I didn’t feel like standing in line, so I took off. Then I went out drinking. Then I went back home. And school just faded off.”
He went back to college off and on in the following years. He went on with sociology and math, then started voraciously reading books on Indian history. “I was kind of–not a rebel. I just didn’t really like the idea of white people being so dominant,” he says, and then smiles. “Well, you know how you are when you’re really young and going to set the world on fire. Nobody told me I was outnumbered. If they would have told me that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have tried so hard.”
He didn’t finish college. “Somehow I just messed up in some of my classes I didn’t like,” he says. “I wouldn’t go to them. Then I’d mess up the semester.” When he wasn’t in school, he worked a number of jobs, doing various kinds of construction, working in a bingo hall, and being a counselor for his tribe.
Before he came to the ironworkers school, he was living with his father, stepmother, and a younger brother who is slightly retarded. “I’d always be there to help,” he says, and his father liked having him around. “He was getting kind of old. He didn’t work too steady in his last few years. He was a heavy-duty mechanic–with the hydraulics. Construction. That’s why I like construction. I always wanted to be like my dad. And like my big brother. Works, works, works, works.” In October, just before Lee left for Chicago, his father died.
“I was kind of glad to come down here,” he says. “Everything up there kind of reminds me of my dad. They had a pretty big funeral. He knew a lot of people. A lot of people knew him. He’s buried now. The traditional way. The Indian way. He pauses. “There’s certain things you do. The way we mourn. Who takes care of it. We’re from the sky clan, so someone from the ground’s got to bury him.
“It must have been about a week after he died. [My brother] got up in the morning. He was sleeping on the top bunk. I said ‘How you doin’?’ He said ‘Me do good.’ He said ‘I told ’em at work my dad’s gone. He went up to God.’ They’re sending him to church and all that–he goes to church every Sunday.
“I just wanted him to be with me. Got up and gave him breakfast. Sat with him until he had to go. And then I decided I didn’t want to come down here.” But his stepmother insisted that he should go to school and that she could take care of his brother. “It’s about the best thing that probably happened to me,” he says.
One of the reasons that he came to the school, he says, was that he drank too much. I ask him whether he drinks less now that he’s here. “I don’t know,” he says. “When they get down on somebody, I think they’re usually talking to me.” Later he says, “I just fall into the wrong places all the time. My brother could come down here, and he could go to a health club and he’ll get in and make everything all set. I come, I go to the wrong bars, meet the wrong people, hang around the wrong places.”
Lee says at first he didn’t like the school’s director, Fran Shea. “He seemed to be too pushy. But I see what he means now. An Indian wants to work–I like the way he done it now, as I look back on it. The way he talks–just the bottom line. ‘If you want to work,’ he says, ‘I’ll give you work. But you’ve got to push your ass.’ I like that line. He’ll bend over backwards for you if he knows you’re good.”
He’s pleased with himself for having done so well on the major structural test, one part of which was to climb one of the 20-foot columns, cross to the other side of the structure on a beam, and then come back down the other side. “I didn’t have any trouble with that. I’ve always been in good shape,” he says, smiling. “Except lately. I’ve been kind of puttin’ on weight.”
He says he’s not afraid of being up high, as long as he’s up there to work. “If I was to go up there, cross it just to do it, then I’d be scared,” he says. “But when you’re up there and you have to connect some beams, that’s your job, that’s what you’ve been trained for. The main thing that they always stress is safety. You’ve always got to make sure you do your job. You don’t know who’s going to be trusting you, who comes behind you. It’s kind of a heavy burden to know somebody died because you didn’t do your job.”
The instructors do give constant warnings. The way a knot is tied can be critical. Never jump on a plank. A dropped tool can kill someone. Never wear pants with cuffs that can catch on something and pull you off a beam. “If you’re going to step on a cable,” says Aikens, “make sure it’s hooked up. Don’t trust anybody. Understand?” Aikens nearly fell 15 stories once because he assumed a brace he stepped on was welded when it had merely been set in place.
Lee says he thinks he’ll stay in ironworking. “I want to work. Something steady,” he says, and then smiles. “Now I’ve got ahold of something I want. It’s like a friend of mine said, ‘I think I’m going to marry that steel, I’ll marry that iron. A woman can leave you anytime, but that steel, that iron, it’ll always be there.’
“This is probably the biggest commitment I’ve ever made in a long time. Something I’m going to stick with. I’ve always kind of like lived–I don’t want to go home and get some cheap reservation job, cleaning bathrooms, pushing a broom. You need an IQ of one to do that. They can teach a monkey to do that. I think this is what I expect of me. Oh, they’ve got bingo halls and all that. They make about six bucks an hour. Then security, they’re getting paid ten bucks an hour and all they do is just stand there. Stand there for ten bucks an hour. People can make that kind of money and be happy with it, but it seems like I’d be cheating somebody.”
A week later, only four weeks before graduation, he was kicked out of the school after he missed a second day. He says he was sick.
This winter’s class began in October, with 16 students in new jackets and overalls. By mid-January, the end of the term, the creases are set in their clothes. Their bolt bags, once white, are shades of gray, and their boots are scuffed. They talk about where they’re willing to work, because all of the 11 who are left are sure to graduate. Those who have done best in the school will be the first assigned to job sites. Two weeks before the program ends, Sonny Loneman has been assigned to a site in Champaign, Illinois, the only man to be placed so early.
Loneman, who is 33, is half Cheyenne-Arapaho and half Sauk-Fox. He is from Oklahoma, where most Indian land is held in scattered, homesteaded sites. Near Shawnee, the small city where he grew up, is Tinker Air Force Base, where his parents worked. “My mom is straight Southern Baptist, and my father is traditional ways,” he says. “He would go to church with my mom, but Mom would not go to his religious ceremonies–in the beginning. And then when I was old enough to start learning, he said this is your choice. On one hand he said this is your choice–white man’s world. But on the traditional side he said, you are my first son and you are supposed to take up these ways. He said, I’ll introduce you, and then from that point on it’s your choice whether you come or go.” Loneman laughs. “But it really wasn’t much of a choice.”
Loneman’s father became one of the highest-ranking elders in his tribe, and was one of the youngest to hold such a position. As a child, he had been sent to a BIA boarding school where he, like his wife, had been forbidden to speak his native language. He would steal away from school at night to be taught by the tribal elders, and would slip back into the school in the morning. “This is why he learned most of these things,” says Loneman. “This is why he became an elder at a young age. You see, he incorporated both worlds, and that’s what he wanted me to do.”
Loneman’s father became more committed to the tribe as he grew older. “He made a sacrifice to adhere to that certain way of living. He had to be a good man, a good person to all. He was what we call married to the tribe. He had a family, yes. But the people of the whole tribe came first. If somebody needed him–it may have been my birthday or something–and if he was needed to go talk to somebody, if he was called upon, he would have to go. That was one thing I didn’t understand growing up–why he was always going.”
Loneman’s father had been an MP during the Korean war; when he was home, he was very strict with his two children. “We lived in an all-wood house, wood floors. And we had to wax them every Saturday. We had our clothes folded in our dressers. Bed made up all the time. I used to have flattops when I was little,” he says, laughing. He also got occasional whippings.
His parents chose to pay for Loneman and his younger brother to go to public schools, so they would not get caught in the notorious BIA system. “I wanted to go to the boarding school because that’s where all my friends were,” he says. Instead he desegregated the local school. “I was the first nonwhite student to go there. The second year a Mexican family sent their daughter there. So it was me and this Spanish girl there, and we used to fight back to back–fight all these white kids, because they didn’t like us. I remember the racism in Oklahoma. I remember going into restaurants and not being served. I remember being jumped.” He stops and sighs. “It was never one on one. It had to be at least three or four. I never lost, though. I grew up with that, not understanding why. Going home and asking my parents ‘Why do I have to go do this? Why do I have to go to this school? Why can’t I just go where my friends are?’ He said ‘No. You must learn to compete. These are the people you’re going to compete with out in the world when you grow up. This is the system, and this is what you need to learn.’
“Dad was a Golden Glover,” Loneman says. “He never taught me to fight. He whipped me the first time I got in a fight.” So Loneman paid for karate lessons out of his paper-route money-behind his father’s back.
But, Loneman says, “he taught me to be very independent. He taught me to be a hard worker. He taught me to be honest. He taught me that if I needed to get from one place to another and if I didn’t have a car–walk. You know? To be self-sufficient. Take care of the little ones. Take care of women. Sometimes you have to turn the other cheek and walk away from a fight. So when I was 13 I said, ‘Well, I’m man enough to go in the world and make it on my own.’ So I split.”
The final argument had been over the length of Loneman’s hair. He’d grown it long, and his father said that because he hadn’t grown it for traditional reasons, he had to cut it. “I packed my bags and hit the front door. He said ‘He’ll be back in a couple of days.’ It took them six months to find me. I walked out to the highway, stood there about 15 minutes, and got a ride to Idaho. This traveling salesman picked me up and took me all the way.”
Loneman was tall and heavy for his age, and he quickly found a job stacking 100-pound sacks of potatoes in railroad cars. “I’d already worked before as a church custodian, paperboy. I’d sweep and mop the bars, a small grocery store. I did odd jobs, mowed lawns. It seems like I always worked. I had to because my folks, they said ‘Well, if you want certain things, you’re going to have to earn it.'”
He had left home with only about $12, so he slept in the fields until his first payday. “This guy knew that I was underage, so he paid me straight cash. And he said, ‘Anybody comes looking for you, I want you out the back door and keep goin’.'” Loneman made $250 a week. “I bought a ’57 Chevy,” he laughs, “two-tone, diamond tucked and rolled, four on the floor–Here I was, a little 13-year-old kid. And that’s when they caught me. I was out on a Sunday drive–I had a girlfriend by then. Back in those days they used to have those little road stops, where they’d check people’s licenses and the horn and lights and all that. They used to have these on Sundays, and they’d pick a spot where you couldn’t see them till the last minute. And I came over this hill, and there they were.” He spun around and took off, but in southern Idaho there’s nowhere to hide. The police cornered him and eventually put him on a bus back home. He refused to tell where he’d gotten the money to buy the car or who had sold it to him, so they confiscated it.
Things went better between him and his father, but by the time he was 16, Sonny wanted to enlist in the Navy. When he was 17, after his junior year in high school, he presented his parents with enlistment papers. “I said either you sign and let me go with your blessing, or I’ll run away and I’ll falsify papers and I’ll get in.” His mother, from whom Loneman says he gets his best qualities, didn’t want to sign. He told her he was afraid to stay home. “The racial thing was really starting to get bad in Oklahoma. Just a lot of things going on. Guys used to try to jump me all the time and stuff. I was fighting more and more. And then I started carrying switchblades, brass knuckles–because there were too many of them. I couldn’t fight them all. In movies you can, but not in real life. And I told Mom, if I don’t get out of here I’m going to hurt somebody, or somebody’s going to hurt me.” She signed. Six weeks later he was headed for Vietnam.
“I saw the very end,” he says. “We saw some of the worst fighting because that was when the North Vietnamese knew that the end was coming. And at that time we didn’t know–supposedly–who was going to win, and so the fighting got kind of fierce.” The Navy turned him into a cook and a “surface-war specialist”; he sat in the front of the small boats that landed Marines and gave them fire cover. “I was terrified every time we had to go out, but I couldn’t imagine being these guys–jumpin’ off the boat and then chargin’ these other people? Unh-uh. I never saw any–See, I don’t know if I have any positive kills or anything. I never saw anybody. All I ever did was, I just swept. Ground cover. We’d just tear up everything in front of them.
“What our troops over there were ordered to do was unthinkable,” he says. “We were supposed to be a humanitarian country, yet we stepped all over that notion.”
He felt a bullet go through his hair once, but that was the closest he came to getting hit. “It seemed like something always protected me. My boat never got hit. We came close–a lot of times the shells seemed like they just missed us. But I never got hit and neither did anybody from my crew. I never lost any of my friends. My Navy friends.” He did lose Marine friends.
Within his first six months in Vietnam, Loneman’s mother had two nervous breakdowns. He was pulled out of Vietnam and never returned to combat duty. He finished four years in the Navy, went home for a few months, and then reenlisted for four more years, at least in part to keep traveling. His last post was in Hawaii, and after he got out of the service he stayed there, winding up, somewhat inadvertently, as a cook for the state prison. He was sick of cooking, so he worked as a bouncer on the side. He’s not particularly big, but he says he used to feel sorry for anyone who gave him trouble in the bar. “I’d have all this built up inside me, and if they gave me trouble, I just let them have it. I’d warn them. I’d give a man three chances, but I’d tell them there’s no fourth with me.” He says he hated it when he hurt someone. “People used to freak out because if I did really get in a bad fight with somebody and hurt somebody, about 15 minutes after the fight was over, I’d cry. It’d just tear me up.”
He was jumped one day in the prison kitchen by an inmate who stabbed him in the eye. He immediately went blind, though he managed to pin the man to the floor. His eyes had to be bandaged for two months. He figures he was set up. The prison had been under investigation and a number of people were suspected of smuggling contraband and taking bribes. He had been asked many times to bring illegal goods in, but had always refused. Shortly before several key people were indicted, he was tipped off that he was going to be subpoenaed. He knew that if he turned state’s evidence he was dead. He packed everything he could carry and flew to Alaska on a ticket that two women sent him out of gratitude. They had been stranded earlier in Hawaii, and Loneman had paid their fare home. Everything that he left in Hawaii, including his big Harley-Davidson, was later stolen.
For the next couple of years Loneman worked around Alaska in a fish-processing plant, as a bouncer, and as a cook and later first mate on a commercial fishing boat. Whenever he could, he also volunteered to teach children in local Indian centers. When he ran short of money he moved down to Seattle, where he worked as a painter, and then finally headed back to Oklahoma. He then went to a diesel-mechanics’ school in Missouri, but couldn’t afford to set himself up in tools. From there he went to a truck-driving school. Hie graduated seventh of a large class, he says, but found out when he started applying for jobs that he’d been blackballed because he had complained about a racist remark that one of his instructors had made. He still owes the school $2,000, and has found a small revenge in paying his debt off at the rate of one dollar a month.
By this time he was broke, but he was taken in by a woman who trained quarter horses in Dade County, Missouri, who traded him room and board for work. “I didn’t know this, but I guess that was one of the most redneck counties in Missouri. And I was the only nonwhite living there. They didn’t bother me. Everybody watched me, all my movements. And nobody was friendly for a long time. But what impressed them was that I worked. Every morning I’d get up and ride perimeter–it was 380 acres–to make sure none of the fences was down.” The arrangement ended when a horse kicked him in the knee. He had no insurance and had to sell his pickup to pay for an operation that left him on crutches for three months.
“I’ve been hurt,” he says. “Lost my sight. Knee operation. I got stabbed three times. I got my nose shattered. I got my head split open. But I’ve still got all my fingers, I’ve still got all my senses. I might not own much, but everything I own I earned. Most of these years I’ve just traveled with two bags of clothes.” Then he laughs. “But I’ve got a lot of stories, and I’ve got a lot of friends. I’m welcomed anywhere that I’ve been and I’m always welcome back. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been shown a lot of things.” Yet when friends back home tell him that they wish they’d done what he has, he points to a larger cost. “They say ‘Well I wish I was there. I wish this. I wish that.’ I say, yeah, you say that, but you haven’t lived in my shoes either. You’ve got a lot of things that I don’t have and may never have. You’ve got a wife, and I don’t. You’ve got children, and I don’t. I know I may have a lot of stories, but it was good and bad out there.”
Loneman has never been willing to stay home very long, though his mother wishes he would. “There’s nothing down there for me as far as work, happiness,” he says. “It’s still–I don’t know. My friends that were doing the same old things that I was doing at 16–that are still around–are still doing the same thing. A lot of them are stuck in their lives. Where they’re at right now–they’re not going any further than that.
“Of the eight guys I grew up with there’s only three of us alive. One’s in prison. My one buddy straightened out, and he’s got a family now, a house. He drives a truck.” He pauses. “The others died fighting. This is from Indians. Indians against Indians.”
At one point Loneman connected steel for three and a half months. “I wanted union, though,” he says. “Nonunion you can forget. I wanted long term, plus stable. Nonunion–I worked, but as long as they could hold me back at the wages they were paying me, they were going to do it.” He tried to get into apprenticeship programs on his own in Alaska, Washington, and Missouri, but was turned away from each place when he said that he didn’t know anyone in the local. He finally heard about the Broadview program when he went back to Oklahoma. Just before he came here, he spent the last money he had splitting, with his adopted brother, the cost of a new Cadillac for his mother.
“This ironworking,” he says, “I’m really into this. I told these guys when they first came, I said, I’m shootin’ for top dog. I’m the one you guys are going to be chasin’. I told them this might be my last opportunity to get into something that I can make a good living at and maybe retire early. If I plan it right. I told them I want to boom–go where the money’s at, for the big jobs, go for the dangerous job.” He says that while the other trainees often sat around on break, he studied or worked on his welding projects. They teased him for it, but he didn’t stop, and he did graduate first in the class.
He plans to get his journeyman’s card in a year and a half–half the normal time. “If I get out there and start working structural, I might have a couple years of connecting, maybe, left. It’s usually younger guys. At 33, you’re starting to push it for connecting. Physically, these younger guys are more wiry. They can move around up there faster.” Yet the skills he learned on other jobs will give him an edge in other ways. When another trainee gave up after trying several times to throw a line over a hook that was ten feet above his head, Loneman caught the hook with one deft curl of the rope.
“I want to go back to Hawaii for three more years to work,” he says. “There’s enough work there–I know they’re building up the island. I know I won’t get rich there, but I just want to be back there for three more years, earning good money. And about six years from now they’re going to build a gas line next to the [Alaskan] pipeline. I want to boom out on that.”
He sounds sure when he details his plans so far into the future. But his father, whom he hadn’t seen in two years, was killed in a car crash in August. With his death, expectations changed. Some members of Loneman’s large extended family assumed he would take over his father’s work with the tribe. “I was telling my mom they’re putting a lot of pressure on me now. They said ‘It’s up to you now. You’ve got to carry on.’
“I’m responsible for all his things, all his traditional things,” he says. “So everything now is back home with my mom. I’ll leave it there with her until I get somewhere where it’s my home. Then it’s my responsibility to take these things and protect them. And take them out every once in a while, fan them out, burn cedar and stuff. We believe that there are spirits in here with all these things, because all of them were made by people who put good thoughts into them to show respect to my father.” There is also his father’s ceremonial fireplace, which is now being tended by Sonny’s adopted brother; he had expected Sonny would take care of it. “Now I’m supposed to be responsible for it. And see, my brother didn’t like it because he expected me to just throw my plans out the window and come down there. He could subsidize me to do this full-time, and that’s what he wants me to do. And I told him I don’t want the responsibility. I told him I haven’t even gotten married yet. I said I haven’t found where I want to live or what I want to do yet. I’m still searching.”
“In order to live a strict traditional life back in Oklahoma you’d be very poor, because there are just no good jobs,” he says. “Oh, there are a few good jobs. Like my dad, when he worked for Tinker–and my mom. They made all-right money. We weren’t rich–we still don’t own a home.”
His father had taught him some of the tribal traditions, but not those that would lead Sonny to the responsibilities his father wanted him to carry. “We believe that once you start the teachings and stuff, it’s like a 20-year cycle that you go through before you’re considered an elder,” Loneman says. “I haven’t started yet. I didn’t want the responsibility of it. See that’s where I have to juggle my life. I don’t see that I can. That’s always been the thing too when I traveled when I was in the service. It was half running away from responsibility and half wanting to see the world before–The Indian way is, if my father or my grandfather ever told me, ‘Come home. Take up the ways,’ I would have to pack up my bags and go home. Tradition says I have no choice. I’m the oldest son. So that is my responsibility to my father and to my people.”
I ask him if he’ll go now if he’s asked.
“If I’m called to, I will,” he says slowly. “I can’t really answer that until I’m really asked it. Personally I wouldn’t really want to because I don’t think I would–I would go back and talk to the council and I would plead my case. I would then tell them, look, this is not what I really want to do. If I’m forced into it, my heart won’t be in it. But I don’t know what they would say. Tradition does not allow for personal feelings. Tradition calls for personal sacrifice.
“By the time I was in seventh grade I was pretty well mature because I had to walk this line in this life,” he says, drawing an imaginary line in front of one of his hands, “and also walk this line in this world and compete in this world.” He draws a second line in front of his other hand. “Yet at that time I didn’t know where I was in here.” He motions to the space between his two hands. “And I’m still fighting that. Where will I find a happy medium? I don’t know.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.