An Interview with Rinchen Tsognyi la (From Hemlock to Douglas Fir: A Migration Story of Tibetan Lumberjacks)

The show’s title, From Hemlock to Douglas Fir is taken from Rinchen Tsognyi la’s interview where he talks about having worked with wood his entire life: first hemlock, then douglas fir. Our resident artist at the Seattle Tibet Fest, Tenzin Lhamo Dorji chose this quote from his interview as the show’s title. Rinchen Tsognyi is the sweetest, kindest and one of the purest souls I’ve met. How he talks about traumatic events in his life with so much compassion and forgiveness is beyond my capacity of understanding.

**All photographs in color are by Don Messerschmidt and Sonam Nyatsatsang contributed the magazine article. **

Where in Tibet are you from and how long were you in India/ Nepal before you heard of this opportunity to come to Maine?

I am from a village called Namru. When I was about six-seven years old, my parents sent me to Nalanda monastery in Phenpo. It took us 15-20 days on a horseback to get to Phenpo.

Were you sent to the monastery because your family had a lot of children?

No, not really. We were only two of us. I had a sister. It was common practice in those days to send at least one of your kids to a monastery for a better life where they would get free education and good food. I was sent to Nalanda monastery to study under Chop-gey Rinpoche as a monk. I never got a chance to go back and visit my family because when word was out about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, I fled along with our group from the monastery with our Rinpoche. We went to Mustang together and eventually from there, to Dharamsala.

What year was this?

1964. I was about 16-17 years old when I came to Dharamsala. I wanted join school and study, but they said I was too tall and my feet were too big. At the time, older kids like me were trying to pass for younger than what we really were- since that was the only way to get into TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village). There was an age limit to get into school, I was obviously too old to start. One of the senior lamas with whom I came to India helped me find a job at TCV. I joined the shoe-making workshop. We were trained to make and mend shoes for the children attending TCV at the time. It wasn’t traditional Tibetan shoes, just regular shoes for kids to wear every day. I did that for about three years.

When did they start recruiting workers for the paper mill in Maine? How did you hear about it?

I could be wrong, but what I’ve heard is that someone from the Great Northern Paper company in Maine visited India and during his trip saw the Tibetan laborers building roads in India. He saw how hard the work was and perhaps immediately thought that they would work equally hard if hired to work as lumberjacks in Maine since that was very difficult work, too. He contacted the Office of Tibet in Delhi. They wanted to hire only six Tibetans in the beginning and would recruit additional 21 workers if they were satisfied with the work. I didn’t have any family back in India or Nepal. So I applied for the position as soon as I heard about it. I don’t know much about the others- but that’s how I was selected.

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An article published in the local magazine about the Tibetan lumberjacks.

Were you nervous about going to the United States and getting on a plane for the first time?

I honestly felt nothing. My life has been very unpredictable. I left my home to go to the monastery at such a young age, and then had to flee Tibet to Nepal and India. Whether it was India or the United States- it didn’t make any difference to me. Perhaps because I only had myself to take care of, I wasn’t very ambitious- and left everything to fate. But I don’t think we imagined living in the United States forever at that time. We thought after making a total of $10,000 together, we might head back to India.

Did the company sponsor all the legal paperwork, etc?

We didn’t understand much since we barely spoke English but I’m guessing our travel papers were all prepared and sponsored by the company that hired us. But that reminds me of this story. We had an interpreter who told us to say “yes” to whatever questions they’d asked us on the immigration forms. One of the answers was agreeing to join the military if asked to (or something along those lines). And so as instructed we said “yes”. This was around the Vietnam War. The US government was actively looking to draft men for military service. We were sent to Selective Services and had to pass a physical exam. But our employer was really upset for obvious reasons. He had spent all this time and money to bring us to Maine. So he went to talk to the office and persuaded them to take the six of us off the list. He told them that we didn’t speak any English and it might not be a good idea to send us because we wouldn’t know how to follow any of the instructions due to language barriers. So luckily we were not selected to go to Vietnam! (laughs)

How was your experience in Portage, Maine? 

It’s a very small town: we had a bar, a post office, one motel and that’s about it. One time, we had a visitor named Phuntsok Dhundupla from the Tibet Office in New York. I remember him saying that he wasn’t able to sleep at all because it was too quiet. At that time, there were about three Tibetans working at the Office of Tibet in NYC.

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The camp on-site where they spent their weekdays. Photographed by Don Messerschmidt

In the 1990s, when I was in middle school- we were taught about lumberjacks and I remember watching documentaries about it. But I never imagined Tibetans as lumberjacks.

Yes, since we were so few of us and we weren’t in Maine for too long- not many people heard of us. The first Tibetans who came to the United States, were either working for the Office of Tibet in New York or were from aristocratic families and were studying at universities with scholarships.

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I can’t even imagine how incredibly difficult the work must have been.

I remember the food being very good or else, we’d probably not have survived. Winters were harsh and the work was extremely hard. We were paid based on our production. So if you missed work, there was no pay. There was a place we rented to stay over the weekends. That was our main expense. Other than that, we also had to take good care of our own chain-saws. If it broke during work, we had to pay from our own pocket to get it fixed.

But it sounds like we were luckier than the batch of people who worked before us. We heard that only a few years before we joined, the lumberjacks would have to go hunt their own meat for meals. So one of them would be assigned to hunt a deer. If he failed, they’d be no meat for dinner. It wasn’t that bad when we were there, at least we didn’t have to hunt for our own food. We got cooked meals.

Did you live at the site?

Yes. We lived in trailers. There were about 35 people in our camp. Other than the six of us, the rest were French Canadians. It was harder especially in the winters. We’d have snow up to our thighs- but still had to carry on with the work. We would cut the trees and pile the logs on the frozen lake. During summers, when the lake melts, it would takes the logs away to their destination through the river. We cut mostly hemlock trees for the paper mill.

When we first started working here, I remember we had to drag the logs in the snow and load them on horse drawn carriages. The horses wouldn’t listen to us since they only understood French (laughs).

Fortunately for us, we had very good camaraderie not just amongst the six of us but with the whole team. Most of the lumberjacks in our camp were French- Canadians so they spoke French. We spoke Tibetan and the supervisors spoke English. But somehow we all managed to communicate with each other. Since we didn’t have our families here, every weekend we had someone inviting us for lunch or dinner. They were very kind to us. They showed us the way around. Portage was a very small town- we were the only non-whites. We were called “the six boys”. But considering that this was 1960s America, we never felt unwelcomed. We always had people stop by and bring us either drinks or food.

How long did you stay in Maine?

We stayed for three years. The work was very hard but the experience was very positive. One of our daughters went back to Portage along with her friend to see the place where we worked. She asked around to see if she could find any of our colleagues or families that lived in Portage around the time we were there. Finally, they found a lady that remembered all of us. She showed them where we worked and mentioned that though we didn’t speak English, we were very good dancers (laughs).

How did you end up in Oregon?

When we were in Maine, we had a visitor called Don Messerschmidt who wanted to interview us. He was studying Anthropology and had visited Nepal and India and met Tibetan Refugees there. When he heard about us in Maine, he wanted to meet with us for his research. We all became good friends. After leaving Maine, I worked at a hospital in New jersey. Don got us work at a saw-mill company in the Oregon Coast. So we moved to Oregon and I stayed with the company for ten years.

After that, I worked at a Wood Treating Company in Vancouver, WA for twenty one years- till my retirement. So I’ve been working with wood all my life: first Hemlock, then Douglas Fir trees.

What year did you marry?

I married in 1971. I went to India and travelled to Benaras and Orissa with my wife’s family. After having spent ten years in the United States, I had become so sensitive. I remember the food made me extremely sick.

What about Tibet? Did you get a chance to go back and visit your family?

I did go back to Tibet in 1984. I wanted to visit my family in Namru. It was a little over a day by car from Lhasa. On our way there, our driver had made a stop so we could get something to eat. But when I was walking out of the car I fell down. Perhaps it was because of the high altitude. I got dizzy, lost my balance and fell hard on my face. It was pretty bad- I had apparently fractured my jaw. Looking at my injury, the owner of the restaurant was very concerned. Everyone was telling me how bad it was- I didn’t realize it myself. They called their local doctor and in about an hour or so, the doctor arrived and gave me a shot to avoid infection. It was a huge injection! That made me very nervous.

I had to meet my sister with my fractured jaw! But there’s another funny story. So our driver suggested that he would get me noodle soup since I couldn’t eat any solids with my jaw wired shut. He went to get noodle soup from a neighbor. He probably talked about me and my family with her and it turned out that she was my relative. She made sure to take me to her house. It was clear I wasn’t in a good shape to travel to Namru, so we decided to call my sister and meet me in Nagchuka.

Even though my fall was really bad. I guess the doctor and nurses were pretty good at what they did, because when I got back to the US, my doctor said I was taken good care of in Nagchuka.

How was your sister doing in Namru?

They had a very hard life. I learned about my family through her and my relatives. Both my parents died in the labor camp. My father was working in the mines. The Chinese at the time were starting to mine minerals in Tibet. I don’t know what minerals were being mined in Namru but most of the locals were made to work there. The mines was the main cause of death for most Tibetans that died in our village. They were given very little or no food and made to work extended hours. Whatever it is that they were mining, was very toxic. And obviously they had no protection gear whatsoever. The earth would spew some liquid that caused all their skin to tear open. Huge quantities of them would be loaded away on trucks. I don’t know about now but all the laborers working the mine were people from my village and the ones from labor camps close by. I haven’t seen it for myself but these were accounts I heard of when I visited my family in Tibet.

Are you still in touch with your sister?

She has now passed away. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw her.

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