I find joy in unexpected connections. Call them daisy chains, serendipities, Vulcan mindmelds or whatever, they offer momentary celebrations of life’s connectedness.
I had one of these random events while searching for the Indigenous name of a mountain in the Chopaka country, west of Osoyoos in southern BC. “Black Mountain” is it’s settler appelation, which is totally unsatisfactory since there are several other Black Mountains in British Columbia. It is also known as “Crying Peak” and “Kruger Mountain West,” but these are no more evocative than the Black Mountain name. This modest 1300 meter peak stands by itself, overlooking the Nighthawk border crossing and the adjacent Similkameen River Valley.
I went on the hunt for the mountain’s name in Nsyilxcen, the language of the Syilx people of this region, and that led me to a linguistic website based in eastern Washington. I didn’t find the mountain’s name, but in browsing through the website, I found some early photographs of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. This massive dam was built in the 1930’s, and displaced large numbers of Syilx as it flooded a massive expanse of the Columbia River Valley. As I scrolled through photos of the workmen, I was reminded that my father was one of those thousands of workmen during the Great Depression.
So I decided to follow that daisy chain, to see if I could find a picture of Dad, fresh out of highschool, as he worked as a laborer on the dam in 1935. Using “Gayton” and “Grand Coulee Dam” as internet search words, I scrolled through the first few Google pages without success, but at the bottom of each succeeding page was that enticing “next page” button. By page five or so, I knew I was getting further and further afield, but then suddenly the name Anna Hadwick Gayton popped up.
One of the attributes of an unusual surname, like mine, means there is some statistical chance you might be related. So I dove into that webpage, and soon discovered a family connection. I have always been weak on family lexicological terms, so I can best describe the connection this way: Anna Gayton (1899-1977) was the daughter of my paternal great-grandfather’s brother.
Digging further, I found that Anna grew up in southern California, and was the fourth woman in the US to obtain a Ph.D in Anthropology. The title of her 1928 dissertation was “The Narcotic Plant Datura in Aboriginal American Culture.” She did fieldwork with the Yokut and Western Mono Indians, curated Peruvian textiles and pottery, and studied the religious festivals of the Azorean Portuguese community in California. She was also the Chair of the American Folklore Society, back when folklore study was a recognized discipline. Her extensive list of research publications spans five decades.
I am humbled by this woman’s grit and determination, finding success in the male-dominated discipline of anthropology. I am also intrigued by the great breadth of her research interests. Could some of her fierce and wide-ranging genes have been passed down to me, but they simply haven’t expressed themselves yet? A comforting but illusory thought. I will settle for the momentary joy of unexpected connection.