Charles Lummis was born in Lynn, Mass., in 1859. His mother died when he was two. He claimed to have a vivid memory of her on her deathbed, a moment that he recalled years later in a poem called “Page One.” Taught at home by his schoolmaster father, Lummis was brilliant in academic pursuits, excelling in arcane subjects such as Latin, Greek and rhetoric. He enrolled at Harvard where he had a restless career and ultimately dropped out during the last semester of his senior year. During the summers he worked as a printer at a resort in New Hampshire. It was there that he published Birch Bark Poems, a tiny volume printed on wafer-thin sheets of birch bark, which won acclaim from Life magazine and some of the nation’s leading poets. One of the best poems in the book, “My Cigarette,” touched on two of his lifelong obsessions: tobacco and doting women.
Tramp Across the Continent
In 1884, working on a newspaper in his wife’s hometown in Ohio, Lummis was offered a job on a new paper out west, the Los Angeles Times. He decided that it would be fun to walk all the way to California, writing about his adventures in a series of weekly dispatches to newspapers. Donning an unusual outfit featuring knickerbockers and a duck coat, he set out from Cincinnati in September and reached Los Angeles 3,507 miles and 143 days later. He suffered a broken arm en route, and nearly perished in deep snows in New Mexico. But he fell in love with the Southwest and its Spanish-American and Native American inhabitants.
Reporter for the Los Angeles Times
The morning after Lummis completed his tramp, he started work at the Times. There was no shortage of interesting stories to cover in booming Los Angeles. But the highlight of Lummis’s career at the paper was the couple of months he spent at Fort Bowie in Arizona covering Gen. George Crook’s campaign to capture Geronimo. Back in Los Angeles, the work pace under hard-driving publisher Harrison Gray Otis was murderous. That suited Lummis’s workaholic personality — until he suffered an apparent stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side.
New Life in New Mexico
Lummis began to recuperate from his paralysis in the small town of San Mateo, New Mexico, at the hacienda of the Chaves clan, one of the oldest families in America. His regimen consisted of breaking wild horses and riding all day over the plains holding his rifle in his one good hand, shooting jack rabbits. In San Mateo, he launched his career as a prolific freelance writer, covering everything from a Penitente crucifixion ritual to Navajo rugs and Pueblo dances. One article, about how corrupt bosses in San Mateo had committed a string of murders, led to threats on his life. Eventually, Lummis had to move and chose a new home in the Pueblo Indian village of Isleta on the Rio Grande River.
Among the Indians of Isleta
Still partially paralyzed, Lummis was regarded with some suspicion by the Pueblos, but he slowly won them over with his gregarious nature and generosity and settled happily into a new life in Isleta. The bosses he had offended were another matter. They sent a hitman to Isleta who succeeded in filling Lummis with buckshot but failed to kill him. While in Isleta, Lummis divorced his first wife and married the sister-in-law of an English trader who lived in the pueblo. In a peculiar arrangement that would spawn rumors for years to come, Lummis sent his wife-to-be, Eva Douglas, to live with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Dorothea, in Los Angeles until the divorce went through. Lummis finished his years in Isleta by plunging into a furious fight with the U.S. government’s Indian education bureacracy, which insisted on taking Indian children away from their parents for years at a time. Lummis won the fight, succeeding in liberating 36 Isleta children from the Albuquerque Indian School.
Back to Los Angeles via Peru
Lummis spent 10 months in 1893-94 in Peru, ostensibly to serve as an assistant to his crotchety friend from New Mexico, the famous archaelogist Adolph Bandelier. But gloomy Bandelier, who suffered a series of terrible mishaps in Peru, was in no mood to tolerate his exuberant sidekick and sent Lummis home early. Lummis ended up back in Los Angeles with his wife and a year-old baby girl, Turbese, broke and out of work. At the end of 1894, he accepted a job that ended up to be perfect for him, as editor of a regional magazine called Land of Sunshine.
The magazine, renamed Out West in 1901, published work by famous and near-famous authors including John Muir and Jack London, and also published works by as-of-yet undiscovered talents such as Mary Austin and Sharlot Hall. In his 11 years as full-time editor, Lummis wrote more than 500 pieces for the magazine himself, including a widely read monthly column of commentary called In the Lion’s Den. During his years as editor, Lummis built a remarkable home out of stone and dubbed it El Alisal, launched a crusade to restore California’s crumbling Spanish missions and started a new Indian rights group called the Sequoya League.
Indian Rights Activist
Lummis used his personal relationship with President Theodore Roosevelt to force his old nemesis, the U.S. Indian policy bureaucracy, to change some of its ways. In the face of Indian Bureau opposition, he found a new home for a small band of Indians evicted from their village alongside a hot spring near Palm Springs. He helped reverse a ridiculous policy that led some U.S. Indian agents to forcibly cut the hair of Indian men on their reservations. But in one battle, Lummis overstepped his bounds and ended up wearing out his welcome at the White House.
In 1904, Lummis left the magazine to take an unlikely new job as head librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. The salary of $300 a month was almost, but not quite, enough to comfortably keep up with the bills to maintain Lummis’s frenetic pace of socializing at El Alisal, where he held parties called “noises” for local artists, writers, movers and shakers and visiting dignitaries. The parties often included a Spanish dinner and Spanish dancing as well as music by Lummis’ resident Andalusian troubadour.
Trials and Tribulations
Drinking, womanizing, getting by on too little sleep and other forms of reckless personal behavior eventually caught up with Lummis. He faced a succession of tribulations. El Alisal’s resident troubadour killed a teenager from Isleta in a fight over a garden hose. Lummis lost his job at the library for insisting on doing most of his library work at home instead of in the office. Eve divorced him, accusing him of having had affairs with somewhere between 20 and 50 other women. He went blind, or so he claimed, from “jungle fever” contracted on a dig in Guatemala. His output of books, 10 of them during the 1890s alone, came to a complete hault. By 1918, Lummis didn’t even know where his next meal would come from.
The Final Years
In the 1920s, Lummis found a new lease on life. He began writing again, though not as prolifically or as skillfully as in his younger days. A dynamic young Indian rights activist named John Collier also helped give Lummis a new sense of purpose in life. Lummis was able to give Collier invaluable assistance in several big new Indian rights battles. Lummis died in 1928 and four years later, Collier became commissioner of Indian affairs.