Diane Rothenberg: From 'The Economic Memories of Harry Watt' (The setting & the text)

Harry Watt (right) with Ed Currey, circa 1970
Harry Watt (right) with Ed Currey, circa 1970

[To be published in 2015 as part of an expanded & revised edition of Diane Rothenberg’s Mothers of the Nation by Nine Point Publishing in Bridgton, Maine] 



We first met Harry Watt in December, 1967.  Stanley Diamond prepared a letter for us to carry along and telephoned ahead to introduce us.  Diamond was interested in the experiments in translation that my husband, Jerome Rothenberg, was doing and thought that a meeting with some of the singers of the Allegany Seneca, a group among whom Diamond had worked, might be conducive to further explorations in translation.  Harry Watt received us in his warm house on a very snowy evening and, because of his fond memories of Diamond, made an effort to acquaint us with the community. We went back several weeks later and the next summer rented a barely converted gas station just outside of the Steamburg relocation area.  During that summer, Jerry engaged in productive translation projects with several of the leading singers and songmakers, and our relations with many people intensified and expanded.  Toward the end of the summer we were honored by clan adoptions in the Longhouse, and Harry Watt became my uncle in the Blue Heron clan.  


We returned regularly to western New York in the following years to visit, to participate in ceremonies and to talk with friends.  Some of the best talk was with Harry Watt.  We would meet at his house, or around his sister’s table, or, in better weather, at the old house, several hundred yards away through the woods, where Harry Watt and his wife had their gardens and where he most liked to be. This was the house that he had preserved when the forced relocation in 1965 caused by the building of the Kinzua Dam required that everyone occupying a house within the flood plain move.  The misery of the time of removal was vividly felt, and the new houses generally resented.  Harry Watt’s old house was the almost singular representative of what had been a very recently transformed way of life and, as such, conveyed layers of meaning and emotion that we could hardly begin to appreciate.  It was located high on a bank overlooking the Allegheny River, with the gardens on one side and the woods all around, and Harry Watt would point to places when he talked about his childhood, about herbal knowledge, about encounters with animals.  He talked about his experiences at the local Indian school and his running away from it for a perceived injustice, about his experiences traveling around the country doing construction work, about the skills and men involved in his work, about his encounters with Indians in other parts of the country, about Indian sovereignty, and about his hopes and fears concerning a retention of Indian identity by those who were losing the Seneca language and ceremonial knowledge.  He talked about schemes for teaching the old ways, about his respect for those who were educated and knowledgeable in those ways, about his own sense of deprivation in having chosen paths which led him away from an early immersion in Seneca language and culture, onto his return in his later years with an eagerness and a sense of responsibility toward a goal of Seneca cultural preservation. Harry Watt’s dedication in these matters was essential to the smooth running of the Longhouse Religion and, most importantly, to the preparation for the annual cycle of Six Nations meetings which preserved and carried the message  of the prophet Handsome Lake throughout the intertribal circuit of believers. He was a model of a traditional Iroquois peace chief (although he did not have such a title): dignified, courteous, reasonable, personally available and generous, highly intelligent, and responsible to the collective.  For these, and many other reasons, strangers were sent to see Harry Watt, and he was accustomed to representing his community to visitors – journalists, scholars, students.  We witnessed many of these encounters and grew familiar with some of the regular turns the interviews would take, so that, over the years, we heard him discourse many times on some of the same subjects.  Two of his favorites were religious epistemology and working, and I began to feel that I could “hum along” when he introduced one of these topics, although I tried not to seem inattentive and not to interrupt. 


In June, 1972, we rented a house In Salamanca – on the Allegany Seneca reservation – for the beginning of a new project, this time the field work toward my dissertation.  We had no clear idea of how long we would stay, but the work was going well and there was no other we needed or wanted more to be, so we stayed for two years and left with great regret.  My own work turned more and more toward historical research and archives and away from a systematic accumulation and recording of fieldwork notes.  I regret now the tapering off of these detailed notes; when I reread them I hardly recognize my own voice, as if I were reading the experiences of some other person.  Our social interactions and participation were intense, but became less instrumental, and the “participant” activity quite assuaged my early 1970’s discomfort with the “observation” part of the anthropological enterprise. 


Harry Watt frequently remarked that “people say I should write a book.”  I had heard that statement often enough to feel some impatience whenever I heard it again, but also to feel that maybe he really should tell the story of his life in writing and that I should help facilitate that ambition. While it also seemed to me that hearing a systematic account of life on the reservation at the turn of the twentieth century might be of use to my research, I was already more focused on the turn of the nineteenth century, so my own goals were of secondary concern in this project. I offered to come around with the tape recorder that I rarely used, to transcribe his dictation, and to collaborate with him on editing it for potential publication.  It seemed like a tidy project.


On November 16, 1972, I sat on the sofa in Harry Watt’s living room, hunkered down for some serious descriptions of his early life on the reservation.  He sat in his rocker, eyes slightly closed in an attitude of remembering and, to my distress, began, “When I was a boy, we really knew how to work.”  I had heard that many times before and I was sure that was not the way to start this project.  I tried to divert him, to suggest he talk about his grandparents, his memories of being a little child, events and people in his family.  He responded briefly to my inquiries, but seemed determined to continue talking, in what seemed to me a platitudinous way, about working.  The tape recorder ran on and he talked on, while I sat enveloped in a cloud of frustration. When he tired of talking, I turned the machine off, went home and transcribed what was on the tope, gave him a carbon of the transcription the next day, and never mentioned the autobiography again.  My copy was filed away, that other filing system in my head contained only a record of my frustration, amended slightly by my feeling of superior wisdom about what a real autobiography should be. 


About five years later, friends who were editing an issue of a conceptual-art magazine, proposed that contributors from various disciplines should consider the subject of memory from the perspective of their own work.  My experience with Harry Watt’s autobiography still rankled, and so I began an essay exploring the generalizing tendency of the elderly in relation to their own pasts and the related problem of using oral history as data.  After I had completed several paragraphs, I remembered that I had the transcript in my files and thought to search it out for relevant examples. 


Harry Watt’s words flew out at me as a reproach both for my incomprehension and for the opportunity I had missed.  The organizing principle of “work” was for him a primary value and a life metaphor.  It was through working that he defined himself and it was through the core of economic behavior that the rest of life was elaborated.  Because I did not open my ears and my mind, as the Seneca invocation directs one to do, I missed the opportunity to know more about it.  The transcript which exists represents in small measure an homage to the man who died in 1986 and is included here in full to convey both the spoken cadences of the oral delivery and the richness of ethnographic detail. 




When I got a little bigger I worked, I had things to do.  I always had things to do.  When I got back from school I always had something to do. I started even before I went to school.  I used to bring wood in.  I had a bunch of sticks and carried them in  I piled them higher on my arms when I got bigger. 


I carried wood and I carried water, helping my mother by bringing water. I carried water for her for washing and cooking.  My dad used to tell me,” Always watch the water pail.  If you see it empty, fill it up.” He said, “Always have it full.” 


I always worked.  For instance, milking cows; we had cows.  I went after cows.  And in the summer time, I had to go after cows.  In the winter they didn’t go out. 


But as I grew older, there was more work.  Many times when other kids would come along and ask me to go along with them, go fishing or go somewhere, “I can’t go, I’m too busy.”  There were times when the kids would help me do something to get it done so I could go with them.  Those kids didn’t have the farm like we had.  They didn’t have no stock, and they didn’t have to have chores.  They had to get wood; we all had to do that. We all knew how to cut wood, how to use an axe.  I knew how to use an axe by the time I went to school. 


They all burned wood and they had to go out to cut wood.  The wood near the houses was just brush and wouldn’t last more than a few days.  I went out to cut trees.  Maybe they would be so big I had to cut them three times to get them into the wagon.  I cut maybe seven, eight trees at that, and that is a good wagon load. 


I didn’t have a saw.  We didn’t have power saws in those days.  But there were hand saws that two men used together.  But I went after wood alone with just an axe.  I would hitch the horses to the wagon and used to go up the hill to cut wood.  I would be wasting wood by cutting it and letting it lay there and rot, so we would cut it and then I would get the logs clear down to the foot of the hill, and then get the horses and load it up.  It was work. I don’t think anyone works like that now, today.  One thing though, I had to learn to harness the horses and there was a time I couldn’t do it and when I wanted to use the horses, why the old man had to hitch them up. 


In my family there was three more boys older than me.  They went to school. I had one brother that went to Carlisle, the Indian school.  And then another brother that went to Hampton; that’s in Virginia.  And the oldest one, he graduated that Quaker school.  He graduated the eighth grade.  A lot of them graduated from that school from the eighth grade. 


But I, I didn’t I went to the Quaker school and then I got away from there.  I ran away from there, after about three years.  What happened to me, some time ago I met a Quaker.  He had my records, and he said, “Oh, it’s you, Harry watt.  You ran away from school.”  I said,  “Yes, I ran away from school; I didn’t like the idea.”  I said, “I had to work all day and after that I was hungry and I was punished for something I didn’t do and I was kept out until I was late.  I was late and they didn’t feed me.  And I was hungry and I didn’t like that.  So I said to myself and four other boys, we got ready and we took off. And I never went back.  I was sorry I didn’t go back.  Maybe I could have learned a little bit more.  But instead I went to work.”  I came home and I told them what had happened.  Well, my dad wasn’t too much about going to school and I suppose he thought if I went to work, why it would be that much less on his hands.  So I went to work.


I was fifteen years old when I went to work.  It was about this time of year, in the fall, when I ran away.  And just abut that time there was a man going around.  He was looking for me to go to work.  They were laying railroad tracks down to below our city.  Petroleum Center is the name of the little town.  They were laying railroad track there going down to Titusville. So I went over there looking for that man.  I found that man and he said, “Yeah.  How old are you?”  “Oh, nineteen.”  Yeah, I lied four, five years.  He looked at me.  “Yup. You big enough.  You be ready Monday morning when we start to go, your pay begins. 


Oh, I was all for it.  When we got there, you had to work.   It wasn’t too  hard work, but I worked hard.  My job was men’s work and that is everything.  I pick up rails and I had to learn how to drive spikes and I didn’t know how to work with my hands with tools and I had to learn. But it didn’t take too long.  I knew how to chop with an axe, and use a hammer, and that helped me a lot. 


We worked all winter and we lived in a camp.  I often thought of that. Just the other day I said, “There’s something I’m hungry for.  We used to have at the camp, we used to have a man cook.  He used to fry potatoes and bread crumbs and fish, canned fish.  He would empty that fish in a great skillet where the potatoes were cut up and add some bread crumbs and cover it and let it fry.  He had to turn it over.  And the bread got kind of brown, toasted like and everything is brown and the fish got all mixed with the other things. Oh, I used to like that.  I looked for that in the morning, for breakfast. You had to eat to work.  In a place like that you don’t get fat.  You eat all you can; you wear it out.  We come back for dinner.  But when we had to go out, they had lunches in bags.  They generally had a place, a shanty or two shanties, where we put our tools and they had a stove in there. 


There was about thirty men from here. We had about three hundred men.  I met a boy, he was a Mexican.  There was a big store and we used to all go there.  They had ice cream and all that and some of that candy.  But this guy, he was about my age.  He must have been, but I never asked him.  He kind of liked me and he would try to talk to me and he couldn’t because he couldn’t talk English.  There was a bridge close by there and we used to go to the bridge and just sit down and let our feet hang down.  And we’d talk.  We tried to learn each other’s language.  I talked English and I taught him what to say, the meaning of different things, the names of things in the store.  He ask me, “Como se llama?”  I got so I could understand too.  I could understand his language.  I used to know quite a bit, but since that time I lost interest of it and I didn’t see anybody I could talk to. But when I was talking to him, I could almost talk right along.  He learned finally. 


There were about one hundred Mexicans. And also Italians, pretty near a hundred of them too.  And about a hundred Indians.  Each group stayed apart and didn’t mix.  Oh, they had fights.  There was two killings down there.  The Mexicans had two or three and the Italians, they had some too.  They killed each other inside the groups.  In our group, there was two, killed in a fight.  One of them was the cook.  He was stabbed.  The other guy, he was beat up and I think the train run over him. 


I worked down there all winter and I got me some nice warm clothes, because I bought them myself.  I always wanted some clothes, some warm clothes.  I got my own money and when I got back I gave some to my mother. “Oh,” she said, “I’ll keep it for you.” 


After I came back from there I had cows and I had young stock and I had a horse.  I kept the cows on my father’s land; didn’t have to [ay him for it, but he used the milk.  My first calf was given to me.  My grandmother on my mother’s side gave me one when I was about eight years old.  When I first went to school I had a horse, a little horse.  I used to ride.  The horse got bad after a while, but he lived quite a while.  I consider myself a good rider.  For a long time I didn’t have a saddle, so I rode bareback.  Finally I got an old saddle I bought myself.  My father and mother, they saved their money and they worked hard.  My father, he never went out to work for day’s wages.  He’s working on the farm and what money he got, he went to work for others for a day or so at a time.  But he had milk and from the milk he had an income.  I remember when he had about thirty cows.  We all milked.  My mother used to milk, my sisters, my brother, myself.  At first I had one cow I used to milk.  That one cow, my sisters started in to milk that cow; my brothers started in to milk that cow.  It was easy.  After a while when you grab the teats, the hand gets strong from milking cows all the time.  It’s a lot of exercise.  We used to have some hard milkers. 


I had some cows.  Oh, she was a good cow.  I sold that cow and I got horses for it. I sold that cow and two yearlings and I got big horses out of that.  They weighed thirty-two hundred pounds, about sixteen hundred pounds apiece.  So they were pretty big horses.  I worked them horses.  I wanted them because if I had big horses I could do this and that.  If I had big horses I could go and skin logs, go and haul lumber; I could go and haul wood.  So the old man said, “You get yourself horses and a harness, and I’ll buy the wagon.”  So one day I went shopping for horses.  I bought this heavy pair of horses, made a trade.  I got a good price on this cow because it was good.  I told the man how much she give and he didn’t quite believe it. So I said, ”You come down in the evening and I’ll show you.”  She used to milk two milk pans full of milk in one milking.  I sold the cow to a guy named Underwood.  He was a farmer and he was a dealer too.  You have to watch how you dealed with them guys.  I got a good deal.  I told him that one the heifers was coming in and it didn’t come so he told me, “You got me.”  So I said, “It’ll still come.” 


In those days I stayed home for a while after I came back from working and did a lot of things then.  That was the year they started to pick up the track.  There used to be a railroad track down to the park and when they got through with it and there was no more lumber, they tore up the tracks.  And I worker there.  And that was work.  We used to pick up the rails and put it on the railroad car. After you got one up there, you give it a good push into the car.  I used to get so tired; I slept at noon.  There was an old man there I knew well, and wherever he said I should go I went there and I said, “Wake me up about quarter to one.”  Then I’d go to sleep.  I’d wake up, hurry up and eat, get through and get back to work.  To get to work I had to walk several miles. I wasn’t the only one who had to walk.  Every day walk down there, work ten hours, walk back.  When I got back, eat, sit around a little bit, then go to bed.  That job lasted all summer and they shut down after it started to snow.


After that I worked on the railroad.  I worked there quite a few years.  I can’t describe exactly railroad work.  Railroad work is a certain kind of work.  When you work on the railroad you don’t do that on the farm.  Railroad work is its own work.  It’s railroad work.  We laid the rails, and then we spiked them.  Gauged them, then spiked them.  Sometimes we had to put down plates on the ties, and sometimes we put them every other tie.  And there was times we had to put them on every tie, that’s around a curve mostly.  It’s all heavy work.  Sometimes we laid new tracks, sometimes maintenance.  Sometimes maybe a broken rail. They get that rail out and put a new piece in there.  Or else when just a piece off the end is broke off, then they cut it off, and fit one in there.  I’ve done that.  I’ve stood on the railroad tracks and just pound, swing that pounder all day long.  The first day you get awful tired, just don’t want to get up the next day.  It hurts, hurts to move.  My back hurt. But two, three days, maybe four days, you feel better.  Finally it’s gone.  In the morning you wake up, and why, you feel just as good.  You might feel a little tighter. 


I worked uptown as a carpenter’s helper and mason and I poured concrete and worked around concrete.  And I did plastering.  And that’s hard work.  The first day I thought my neck was broke.  Sometimes when I get through with a job, by the next day I’d have another job.  I’d heard about them by going around and different men would say, “There’s a job over there.”  I’d keep that in mind and when I’d get a chance I’d run over there and, “Sure, some to work tomorrow.”  They were building houses quite a bit in Salamanca in 1917, 1918. 


The old bridge went down in Quaker Bridge in 1917/  That year we had a cold, cold winter.  We had zero weather for about two weeks continually.  One day it was about 35 below.  I had a Model A Ford, a roadster, and the starter couldn’t turn over.  I had to crank, tup, tup, tup.  It got started, warmed up and I went down the road.  The people, some had cars, and they were cranking.  The ice was four, five, six feet thick, and when it came down the river it hit the bridge.  It hit that bridge and the bridge lay on the ice and it carried it to an island down below, down to the point of that island and that’s where it stopped. They got most  of that iron.  The bridge was built around 1878.  The same company built the new one.  The old one was wide enough for automobiles, but the iron that laid in there weren’t bolted down and even the boards were not tied down. So when the cars came, the boards would loosen and slide one way and the other and finally they had to fasten them down.  And the floor beams began to slide off one way and the other and drop off.  With the new bridge we put up, it was all concrete floor so it was solid.  So that was my first bridge job.  I worked with it until it got through.  We finished it about the last of August 1920. 


I worked the last day on that, and the next day I had a job over at the Quaker School.  I painted the roof.  They had a tin roof and they wanted that painted before it got too cold.  I went and got a partner for myself and we painted the roof for about two weeks.  There was a lot of roof there. 


My father told me I should go into farming, but it’s that payday.  The railroad, they paid every two weeks, and the farmers they paid once a month.  Only a few jobs paid once a week.  There used to be a tannery in Salamanca and they paid every week. 


In those days, after I came back from the railroad, I had horses.  And I got a course from a school for horse trainers.  I wrote for instruction and I studied and finally I graduated.  I was a horseman, I could train horses, break horses to work.  One time I had nine horses. I bought some, I traded some.  In those days there were quite a few horse traders.  I got into that a bit.  I had two teams.  My Dad used to use them but he had his own too.  He always had his own. 


Then I raised young stock.  I raised bulls.  One time I had four of them and they got to be a good size, about two years old.  There was one of them that you just couldn’t hold him in a fence.  I was feeding them for meat and I sold them.  I had to feed them at night and in the morning before I went to work. 


In those days I used to watch the first automobiles came around, when I was eight years old.  We used to see a truck come by.  We used to hear that coming way down the road.  Maybe two cylinders—chug chug, chug chug.  And then we’d go down to the road and watch that thing go by.  It had high wheels, same size front and back.  And the motor was cross ways and it had a crank and a heavy chain in there.  It made me think, standing there watching that car go by and I’d think, “Someday I’m going to have one of those.  Someday I’m going to learn exactly how that thing runs.”  And I stand there and I’d think that, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do that.”  Everybody’d say, “Harry Watt can fix that.”  I used to have that in mind.  Finally I bought a car when I was about seventeen years old.  When I was working on the bridge I got pretty good pay.  On this bridge here I got about 60 cents an hour while the others were getting about 30 cents, 35 cents.  Then when I worked for American Bridge Company made $1.00 an hour.  The railroads were paying around 30 cents, that was good pay.  I remember before I went to work, my brother was going to work on the highway, working for a contractor.  It was good wages, $2.00 a day. 


I was about the only one around here to go into iron work.  Later on they did.   Before the 1930’s there were some from the other reservations who were iron workers.  They were down there putting up a new bridge, just this side of where the Kinzua Dam is now, a railroad Bridge.  About four Indians worked there and that’s about all the iron workers there were in them days. I would be the only Indian that worked on iron in some places. 


[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 1992. Diane Rothenberg's own book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, was published by Pierre Joris's Ta’wil Books in the same year, & a newly revised & expanded edition is scheduled from Nine Point Publishing in 2015.  Of this & other of her essays, David Antin writes: “To each of these essays Diane Rothenberg brings a tough minded rationality and precision of regard that assumes for the ‘others’ who are the subjects of the essays a similar rationality in the pursuit of their interests as they perceive them.  Setting the actors in the specific economic, social and political situations in which their actions are embedded, she shows us with great clarity and perhaps a certain implicit black humor how intelligently they have all played their previously bad hands.” The final section of the Harry Watt essay (“the commentary”) can be found here on Poems and Poetics.]