Zachary Pierce is a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. At three weeks old, he was adopted by an English and German mother and an Irish father.
Zachary spent more than a decade on the streets of Corvallis but viewed COVID as an opportunity to reset. He used it as a filter that allowed him to keep what he wanted and discard the things that no longer helped him. He is now housed and ready to accomplish things that he once thought were impossible.
“The past year has been an opportunity to get to know myself. To confirm a lot of the positive attributes about myself, to back them up, to take COVID as an opportunity, and not really look at it as a negative impact on people. Just an individual choice to either jump ahead quicker, or go backwards or stay stagnant.
It really provided a means to accomplish things that I wanted to in the past that maybe I ruled out or thought weren’t possible. It was a bit of a reset button that’s still being hit at this point. It taught me to not take time for granted, or anything for that matter; family, friends, friendship. It confirmed a lot of who I was and kind of a lot of who other people were. It has been a real filter to keep what I wanted and—you know—discard things that I didn’t need anymore.
[Before COVID, I experienced] homelessness. Off and on for a good solid 10 years. A lot of the issues—same issues—the drinking, the starting to get cleaned up, start over and then running into the same crab pot. I felt like every time I was starting to get somewhere I was being pulled back in. And whether I was believing in what I perceived as good or bad, I think it all played a part. When I stopped listening and decided, well, I’m just going to kind of carve my own way out, kind of follow my heart. My ambitions and goals hadn’t really changed. I found that I could become just as successful by eliminating a lot of the voices. Things I was being told by people.
I didn’t just quit drinking or smoking. I stopped ingesting salts. For the most part, sugar. I started growing my own vegetables. Completely changed my diet and rather than spending every day searching for things that weren’t really fulfilling, I could spend an entire day foraging for food. Whether that was working in the garden or going out and getting it, preparing it, it was like a communion with the earth. There was a medicine there that I hadn’t experienced before. And it didn’t really involve anybody.
This is what I’d be doing anyways, as a human being out foraging, and having a relationship [with the earth.] This is my job. And then my health and everything kind of began to turn around on its own.
My mother told me, you can believe anything you want to Zachary. You can go to church, you can go to a Buddhist temple, you can go to powwows, but believe in whatever you want. She was English and German. My father Monty, he was Irish. I consider them my family. I didn’t know anything else. And I had a sister named Cammie.
You couldn’t put a name on to what my beliefs were. If I said anything like, well, we’re all connected, people would say, well that’s because you’re Indian. A lot of stereotypes were thrown at me. At some point I began what somebody thought was a Hindu belief system where everything did have a spirit. And again, it would go back to being Native American.
People talk about getting spiritual, going camping for the weekend, going back into nature to get away from the jungle. The very thing they created themselves. They couldn’t identify any of this as natural resource. Therefore the denying the spirits and everything, and they’re running away from it. At that point, I began to pray to everything around me. And I realized at that point I was never alone.
My mother had a master’s degree in education. She was brilliant. She was amazing. I’m named after two presidents, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce. After I got my diplomas she made sure that I continued. She showed up with a dictionary and a box of books in my apartment and threw on the ground and said, “This isn’t over.” I think what she wanted was to arm me for the future.
In Corvallis, everybody was bunched together in maybe three different park locations. And in the beginning [of COVID], people were scared, unknowing, confused. When I was panhandling or I was with groups of homeless people, just to kind of temper it down, calm it down, I’d say, “We’re all gonna make it.”
So not everybody made it, but it was a way to encourage people. Not just homeless people, but people passing by. People that were scared. In these camps, it was kind of like being sent to a big prison. It was a kind of like Escape from New York, or if you’ve seen New Jack City, it was like the Enterprise where they put everybody in the same location and not everybody was friends.
So individually everybody had their choice to either go up or down. For myself, I wanted to accomplish some things. And it was really hard, especially near the end. Wondering if I was going to get out of there alive. Like a lot of us are gonna make it, but am I going to get out of here?
My health was deteriorating. There was a lot of violence, theft, you name it. A lot of people migrated in from out of town and other towns that wouldn’t allow camping. So they’re jam packing people.
But I also saw that trickle down hit society too. They were unsure, and I thought, okay, well, if I’d see this as an opportunity and start to go up, um, I might have a chance at that reset I was talking about. Politically, educationally, career-wise, I mean, I really had a shot if I was to maintain a certain example. Even then as I was camping, I picked up the trash, recycled, things like that. I wasn’t being told to do that, but I was definitely trying to display. I even had gardens growing out there and people would stop and talk to me. I just tried to kind of put myself on display in a way, because now we were all public.
There’s so many facets to the issue of the homeless and the changing of the world. I think the resources—and there’s a plethora of them—are there. It’s just a matter of whether the person being offered these resources will take it or accepted the help. And a lot of cases, they’re not. And you know, I couldn’t answer for any one of them why, or why not.
These organizations that are offering to help, I don’t think they have anything to do with the city. I didn’t see one city counselor, one mayor, one county commissioner, downhill, anybody in the park or saying, Hey, I represent you, blah, blah, blah, what do you guys need? They just kind of all ran and disappeared and hid.
Independent families came out with resources. Churches, fraternities, sororities, people drove in from Lebanon or other towns with truckloads of wood and just dropped it. Starbucks came down. Local, privately owned businesses would come down and deliver food. A young man brought his graduation cake down. There was no graduation this year. He didn’t have anybody to share it with. So he might’ve eaten a couple pieces off this massive cake [but] he brought it down and we all had his ceremonial cake with him.
[It was] touching, I really felt like the altruistic part of it was some way that I had wanted to be for a long time. That the term service work wasn’t bound or patented by the church or anything else, that you could perform service in so many ways. And I really tried to show that appreciation through picking up the trash or helping somebody do something, trying to diffuse a situation. You know—give. Like, these are human rights. Nobody owned them. It’s just what I was taught to do.
There’s more to it than being homeless or drugs. I mean, there is education, nutrition, abuse, environment, resources. So many things that affect the person out here that’s homeless. Everybody has a different recipe. So you can’t just pin one down on them and say, well, this is their label. Cause there’s the issues that some of these people face that I know nothing about. And there’s nobody really like me either. You know?
My friend Freddy always says, I trust me. I’m going to trust what my instincts tell me. The things I was told as I was raised and go from there. And that plays a paramount role in why everything kind of flipped the way it did. It’s been quite a learning experience this year and it’s not over.
I see a lot more anger coming up.
This is Mother Earth. We’re created and meant to sleep on her and forage on her and all the medicine in the world is here. And so what happened to the human race? You know, they’re running over there to get dinner at this restaurant real quick to get over here, blah, blah, blah. You know, if we, as human beings, talk about nature, animals and everything living thing out there having a job, everything has a specific job. Then what is our job? To destroy everything? I mean, everything—ecosystems, species, the water…This virulence, this anger is just destroying each other now.
I think inner peace silences a lot of this noise. This negative vibration going on. I can remain quiet. I really enjoy my own company sometimes. I just don’t think that this system was meant for this place. It’s no wonder people are on meds, blood pressure and anxiety and all this.
[The structure is inhumane.] Social expectations. You know, what plays into that? The corporations, religions, just so much influence is just messing people up. There’s just so much anger these days. I’ve had it. I’m not cured of it, but I can hear it when it comes.
I basically just can mentally stop, drop and roll. I put it out. I don’t react.
Recently, it was over a cell phone deal. They sold me a prepaid thing that wasn’t compatible with my phone, and then they wouldn’t refund the money. My sister got pissed and she wanted to call down and get some things handled and go to the store. And I realized the power of just doing nothing. I didn’t do anything for a couple of days. And when I simmered off, I realized, I could have created a whole lot more damage if I had reacted. And I have in the past, out of anger, said some things that weren’t cool or scared somebody. I can scare people with my mouth without doing anything. And I’ve never had a violent history, but I can do it if I want to.
That one little stress, like one grain of sand on a beach. How many stresses do we probably have in our head at one time? A whole beach full. Imagine how life would be, if you could just unload all that sand.
I can explain it to you, but I can’t experience it for you. I understand. I understand when they don’t, because they haven’t had the experience and when they do, they’re blown away because the experience is so profound. Then I think they’re capable of change. But until they have the experience, they don’t know. Get the city council to come down here and do some performance art and come live with us for a week and see what that’s like.
Just give them a Sharpie and a piece of cardboard and put them on a street corner and I’ll be sitting on the next corner of Washington, making sure they’re not getting no help. And we’ll see how the next 72 hours goes. They don’t know the bus system. They don’t know where these offices are or which bus to take. They don’t know when they get there, they’re going to be told to go somewhere else. They could spend all day trying to get a food stamp card or an ID or a food voucher. They’re just going to send you all over the place. They’d rather showcase each other in the city council meeting and then answer a few questions and go home.
Everybody’s going to sleep. Regardless of age, race, color, sexual identity, everybody’s been put to sleep. Everybody’s guilty. Everybody has a part. When you get out of a bad relationship, it’s not always one person’s fault. It’s both people’s fault. Everybody has a part. And I think that same rule applies to this.
I spent a number of years homeless on campus. I got to know a lot of the college students from freshmen to graduation. They always came by and said, “Did you call your mom today?” Because they knew. And they would hand me their cell phones and I called her and I said, “Mom, I love you. Goodnight.”
My mother always talks about perseverance. I never gave up. I never gave up on whatever my objectives were at the time. I never wanted to die. I’ve been saying, “We’re all gonna make it.” That could have been a way to ease my own fear. In fact, I’m certain it did.”
-Are there ways you learned to know yourself during the pandemic?
-What are the things that you no longer need and are ready to discard in your life?
-What are the things you have struggled to change?
-How do you feel connected to the earth?
-Talk about your spiritual beliefs and where they came from.
-When have you been given the opportunity to reset or restart?
-When have you witnessed the kindness of strangers? The strength of community?
-When have you trusted your instincts?
-What does Zachary mean when he says, “Everybody is going to sleep?”
-When have you persevered?