One of many areas I’ve gotten to know while working on my hiking book is Red Feather Lakes, northwest of Fort Collins. Here’s how a 1920s promotional brochure, put out by some Denver businessmen who were trying to develop a resort there, described it:
“…Regal mountain nature sweeping from lighted up patches by the silvery sheen of quaking aspen groves; broad, undulating meadows covered with gorgeous wild flowers, varying from the most delicately tinted to the most barbaric colored types; gigantic piles of multi-colored, castellated rocks in awesome formation; lovely, azure skies holding the mystery of the ages; rarified air of incredible clarity; babbling brooks that tumble their ways through hills and dales; golden sunshine, more glorious in Colorado than anywhere on earth, and in the distance, the empurpled mountains, their glistening, snow-capped peaks piercing the floating clouds…”
I read this and made a commitment to myself that, no matter how true it was, I would not write this kind of shit in my hiking book.
Maybe a few words will trickle in. I like “castellated rocks,” for example, and “empurpled mountains.” But dammit, I’m not going to ever say aspen quake! Even though they do. It’s a pseudo-technical term I learned recently, related to the fact that each aspen leaf is attached by a flat petiole that acts as a pivot for the blade, making it flutter in the slightest breeze so that the tree looks to be trembling. As of this past week these leaves were sprouting, so I haven’t yet seen them quake this year, and don’t have to search-and-replace the verb in my manuscript.
Of course I wanted to know why they were called the Red Feather Lakes. Of course, it wasn’t a short answer. Well actually it was, but it sent me off on tangents – as tends to happen.
This chain of reservoirs, built over a century ago, were first called the Mitchell Lakes. When developers were trying to promote a resort here in the 1920s, they wanted to replace this humdrum name with something more alluring. Then along came Princess Redfeather.
Tsianina (pronounced “Cha-nee-nah”) was born on a tribal allotment in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in the late 1800s. She grew up “free as the whistling wind,” as she put it, 100 miles as the red eagle flies from where my granny grew up. Tsianina was a spelling bee champion at the Indian Government School she was sent to, and also became its pianist, playing the march for the children as they entered the dining room. She found it easy to memorize anything. Her teacher and a benefactor wanted her to have better opportunities, so they organized for her move to Denver and study piano with a noted maestro.
Tsianina was in the habit of humming to herself sometimes as she played, and one day her teacher interrupted her and asked if she ever sang. Then he recommended her to a renowned Denver voice teacher who, after her third lesson, introduced her to Charles Wakefield Cadman.
Cadman had recently become famous. A music critic and reporter for the Pittsburgh Dispatch
, Cadman was at heart a talented composer and pianist and had been working on romanticized Indian music using authentic melodies. The paper sent him to interview Lillian Nordica, one of the biggest opera stars of the day, and he and Lillian struck up a friendship. Lillian asked to see some of his music, and she went on to sing “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” on her tour in 1909. She brought Cadman onstage as her accompanist on at least one occasion. Around this time Cadman’s health deterioriated with (common-at-the-time) pulmonary problems, and he moved to Albuquerque and then Denver -- common to do back then when you had pulmonary problems.
In Denver, Cadman and Tsianina formed a duo and became a big hit. They performed all over the country. “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” became Tsianina’s signature song, but equally popular were Cadman's compositions “At Dawning” and “The Canoe Song.” The pair remained a big draw all through the 1910s.
The same cannot be said for Lillian Nordica, whose voice and health were deteriorating but she went to Australia anyway in 1913 and performed complete Ring
cycles as Brunnhilde. Lillian almost missed her boat back from Sydney, but (unfortunately) she wired the captain and asked him to wait. Unfortunately the captain waited, and the boat hit a reef and got stuck for three days, and Lillian got hypothermia, and was hospitalized in Queensland, got a little better, better enough to rewrite her will and disinherit her third husband, and was then transferred to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) where she died of pneumonia a few months later.
Meanwhile Tsianina and Cadman were going strong. In the waning days of World War I, however, Tsianina paused her career when the opportunity came to entertain troops in Europe. Claims of patriotism aside, I can relate to what she did – she followed her travel bug! Tsianina hints at her mindset in her memoir, Where Trails Have Led Me
, writing about the confusion other Indians felt: young men who wondered “why they should fight for America after the way they had been treated by her.” She wondered it of herself too.
On nearing Liverpool her ship got torpedoed, didn’t sink, and she went on to have a blast in London for ten days and accomplish her goal of meeting an earl. Then it was on toward the front lines in France, in the days just before the armistice, where she contemplated America as being “on the defensive and therefore the lesser of the savage men…American history had recorded the Indian as savage because he was defending his home and loved ones, and here I was – helping defend the homeland which in turn had robbed us of our heritage. Amazing! I wondered if I had all my marbles!”
You can watch a YouTube clip of Tsianina entertaining soldiers in post-armistice Germany here
. The clip has no sound, but that doesn’t matter. Tsianina is absolutely radiant.
She came back from the war with, as she put it, an “entirely changed viewpoint…For the first time in my life I was learning that the world is what you make it.” She got back to work with Cadman, who noted to a friend that she was “mentally dominant,” and continued performing, as she put it, “confident, secure and unafraid.”
This was the year that an opera Tsianina had helped Cadman develop – “Shanewis,” based on Native American characters, stories, and themes – premiered at the New York Met. Tsianina was asked to perform the title role but she demurred, content to be a coach. At least once she stepped in and performed the role, most notably in 1926 for a capacity crowd at the Hollywood Bowl.
Around this time, Tsianina met the guys working to develop the Mitchell Lakes. She had long been a big celebrity in Denver, and often spent time here. The developers glommed onto her Indian motif, and worked to integrate her legendary Cherokee ancestor named Chief Redfeather into their business plan. According to oral history, in days of yore, Redfeather died in a battle against the Pawnees somewhere northwest of present-day Fort Collins. Tsianina made a publicized trip to the Mitchell Lakes in 1921, accompanied by Charles Lory, the head of what is now Colorado State University, to “look for Redfeather’s grave.” After that the lakes were given new monickers. Instead of being named after homesteaders they were called "Hiawatha," "Apache," "Shagwa," and so on. And remain so. And that’s how they became the Red Feather Lakes. You see how I can go off on tangents?
As for Tsianina, she retired from professional singing in 1935 and lived for 50 more years, passing away in 1985. She worked quite a bit on American Indian education, citizenship, and other causes, helping to found the Foundation for American Indian Education which today still exists as the AIEF.
I finished writing up my hike in the Red Feather Lakes, but I wasn’t done with Tsianina. I wanted to read her memoir, Where Trails Have Led Me
, which she published in 1968. It's out of print, but Amazon had a copy for $49.99. “Should I buy it?” I asked my consultant (my son). “No,” he said.
Then I remembered this thing called the library. And it turned out that Fort Collins had a copy of Where Trails Have Led Me
in its museum archives room! So this past Wednesday, a rainy afternoon, I went there and I sat and I read it.
Here’s how Tsianina starts her memoir:
“All mankind has a world, a world in which he lives and moves and is his being. It may be a world of his own choosing or it may be of someone else’s choosing – it may be a family’s choice. In the final analysis, the individual has a right to choose for himself what his world will be – choose his world…choose the way he wishes to live.”
I love that, and I offer my edits: “The individual has the responsibility
to choose for himself what his world will be, in fact, he’s doing it anyway.
Which brings me to my point. Did I have a point? I think I did.
I visited my friend Harriet on the morning of the afternoon I visited Tsianina in the museum archives.
Harriet will die soon, incidentally. Harriet and I talked about the things we loved, and about how we both had loved being stay-at-home parents. She told me she’d always been filled with passions and done what she loved doing. I told her I’d never done what I didn’t love, not for any real length of time anyway. Maybe a better way to put it would be that I’ve always loved what I’ve done. I can’t fathom living any other way.
On the way out, down in the kitchen, her husband Willie shook my hand and encouraged me to keep going with the hiking book. “It’s going to pay off!” he said.
I smiled and concealed my inward twitch. It was the same way when one of my fellow actors at the theater said, “I hope your hiking book makes you rich.” I know both she and Willie were speaking from their heart and had nothing but warm intentions for me, so I didn’t go off on them about how weird what they were saying sounded to me.
Hope I get rich? I am
rich: with the day I had yesterday. Early morning found me in a drizzle at Devil’s Head. The sun broke as I moved on to hike Stanley Rim, and continued to shine as I made an exquisite afternoon trek in Mueller State Park. Dusk found me discovering the Dome Rock State Wildlife Area, where I am compelled to go back on Monday. I can hardly wait to get back there and pick up where I left off.
It’s going to pay off? How about is
paying off. Paid off. Why do we always have to focus on going somewhere to get something and achieve some end goal? And in the process miss out on reveling in and deeply appreciating what IS?
Make money from a book – sure, why not? But let’s say my publisher emailed me tomorrow and said the deal was off. No way would I not complete this project. I’d finish it. Absolutely. And make a book, and sell it at-cost on CreateSpace, and make an e-book and price it at ninety nine cents. If through it someone else could experience 1/100th of what I have experienced in doing it, that would be icing on the cake. But as for payment – I’ve already been paid.
is payoff. Living is payoff. This
is the miracle. This is enough. The wealth is here and now. Breathing out. Breathing in.
On top of that, the spring in my step. How my body feels. How giddy and excited I get when I climb out of the car to begin a hike, even on a drizzly morning at Devil’s Head.
Or the jolt of energy I feel when I research what I’ve hiked and find “the story” in the hike. Every hike has a story. Every hike has a thousand stories. The rush, the thrill course through me, and I rub my hands together, and I dive into more research, follow the thread, stay up until 3 AM.
And meet people like Tsianina!
In other news, I have started blogging for Base Camp Guides. You can catch the first one here