outwait outrun outwit


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My aunt and uncle think everyone needs a break from grieving, so we head to the casino for a late buffet lunch. First we take the freeway, then busy city lanes packed with casino workers and patrons, and finally a narrow road that winds along ravine-edges and a lake. At last we reach the casino, tucked away in the vertiginous, chaparral-shaggy hills of an Indian reservation.

The Kumeyaay people had once hunted, foraged, and farmed in the hills around what became my hometown, before they were compelled to live on missions and later on tiny, adequate reservations, ill-treated and deprived of self-autonomy. Now power, a kind of freedom, sounds like the chink of coins and chips as middle-aged gamblers stare into slot machines and shuffled decks after fueling on lavish buffets.

Always on the hunt for a good bargain, my Asian immigrant elders love casino buffets. For 30 squids you can get mussels in soy broth, oysters in the shell, crab legs, lobster (stuffed or not-stuffed), three creamy soups, steak, fried chicken, green beans and broccoli, pasta salads galore, oozy mac and cheese, little custard tarts, chocolate mousse, blueberry pie with all the cream you want, and so much more. Eat, implore Aunt and Uncle. Nearby a lone small Chinese man works away on the piles of food that glisten and steam around him, taking a bite from this plate or a spoonful of that soup with meditative diligence.

The drive home is pleasant, if a bit gassy. We joke about the perilous drop along the side of the road, and Auntie Meng tilts her head onto my shoulder in laughter. She is so small. Once they had terrified; once they were the most ferocious and intimidating figures of my childhood. However Dad was mild, even removed, in the midst of my family's passions, for which we children had been grateful.

Before university (and the internet), I heard and read very little about the local tribes. References to California's indigenous cultures appeared in tiny paragraphs in textbooks, or dusty displays of basketwork and the like in the Museum of Man, already consigned to a distant past leached of its violence and bloodshed. Curriculum at the time tended to celebrate or at least assume the triumph of settler colonialism; in its way, an exercise in manifest destiny. Now a local community college offers an associate degree in Kumeyaay Studies.

Time's arc, I say again, returns us to our origins, but in unexpected ways.


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