Valley News -

By Jeff Pack

Gordon Lee Johnson releases new book, 'Bird Songs Don't Lie'


Last updated 12/27/2018 at 10:34pm

Gordon Lee Johnson

Gordon Lee Johnson recently released his new book, "Bird Songs Don't Lie: Writings from the Rez," with HeyDay Books.

Author and longtime columnist Gordon Lee Johnson is a Cahuilla Cupeno from the Pala Indian Reservation and recently published a new book, "Bird Songs Don't Lie: Writings from the Rez," with HeyDay Books.

"The book is a combination of prior Press-Enterprise columns, some essays I wrote for News from Native California and short stories written over the years," Johnson said. "(This is my) first real foray into fiction and actually an early kind of foray into fiction for HeyDay.

"So far, it's working out, the book's doing well," Johnson said.

The book is "set on the fictional San Ignacio reservation in Southern California, with characters like Plato Pena, the Stanford-bound geek who reads Kahlil Gibran during intertribal softball games; hard-boiled investigator Roddy Foo; and Etta, whose motto is 'early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise,' as they face down circumstances by turns ordinary and devastating," according to the book's summary.

"Bird Songs Don't Lie" explores the complex connections between past and present.

"It's pretty eclectic, actually," Johnson said. "And that's kind of intentional, the short stories were written over several years, so there's a lot of time elapsed between them while I was doing other projects. So, there's not really a cohesive thematic statement being tried for with these stories, it's just my way of looking at Indian life today. Native life today in my eyes."

When asked how Native life has changed over the years, Johnson acknowledged it was a big question.

"Oh man, that's a huge question," Johnson said. "That has been part of my incentive for writing. Writing of columns and now turning to fiction. Much of the columns I wrote was hoping to capture time.

"I was born in 1951 and I was kind of like astride in a time when there was the old Indian and the new Indian. I was kind of like the bridge between people who could only speak Indian, who were really entrenched in the cultural traditions, and now, modernity has taken hold," Johnson said.

The emergence of casinos on local reservations has provided tribal members with stability, and Johnson sees a shift in the Native American culture toward creativity.

"The money has produced a certain amount of leisure time, and leisure time means you have time to pursue other interests in society," he said. "Besides just working at a gas station, just trying to earn enough money for beans and bacon."

He said it has inspired a resurgence in Native Americans learning and participating in cultural traditions.

"There are more Indian people who are learning the old, bird singing is totally hitting a Renaissance," Johnson said. "A lot of kids are really doing great things with bird songs and learning the Peon songs and reviving that whole thing.

"When I was a little kid, there was no bird singers around. In those days, each reservation had maybe one team and there weren't that many teams involved. Now, man, it's huge," Johnson said. "That's all great stuff."

Johnson said he is currently enrolled in a MSA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, learning to write screenplays.

"I'm doing it primarily as a way to understand the mechanics of story," he said. "I was working on a mystery novel and I kept knocking my head against the wall because I couldn't make the story work. Things were not in place and I just felt I didn't have the right sense for what made a good story, what works and what doesn't work.

"So, I decided probably the best way to really understand story is through screenplays," he said.

Johnson said the movie world is opening up for Native Americans.

"There were very, very few Indian people involved in the movie industry," he said. "Now, that's opening up and even some tribes are event starting to fund moviemaking and that's all great."

Gordon Lee Johnson

"Bird Songs Don't Lie: Writings from the Rez" is available online and at major retailers.

Johnson is well-known as a newspaper journalist for more than 30 years. He served as an editor of The Californian newspaper, was a former columnist and feature writer for the Riverside Press-Enterprise and many other organizations.

"I'm not done writing, and I don't think a writer is ever done writing," he said. "I'm doing this screenplay thing and as I write three or four screenplays and getting a movie made is really hard, and even if I don't get them made, I will still adapt them into prose and write novellas based on the structure of the screenplay that I'm doing.

"I'll keep doing it until I can't do it anymore," he said.

Johnson is also the author of "Rez Dogs Eat Beans" and was a contributor to an anthology of Inland Empire writers, "Inlandia."

"Bird Songs Don't Lie: Writings from the Rez" is available for purchase at as well as many large retailers.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at [email protected]


Reader Comments

tomsuttle writes:

You can't read the work of Gordon Lee Johnson without becoming a fan.


Our Family of Publications Includes:

Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019