A Child’s story
To say that my life has always centered around
my need to know about my Indian past would be a bit of an exaggeration.
Yet, it was always there as part of my life, to some degree or another.
The stages of my life greatly affected not just my feelings about my native
blood, but how those around me influenced those feelings.
The first major stage was my early childhood.
Until about age seven or eight, my grandfather talked openly to me about
his people and their ways. This was a wonderful period in my
life. My grandfather and I were the best of friends as he shared
his secrets with me.
The following is a narrative based on
a typical summer during this stage of my life. The events recalled
are actual and as close to how I remember them as I am able to record.
Although the exact dialogue is obviously re-created, it reflects what I
recall being said, at least in meaning, if not in actual words.
A Child's Story
Michelle woke up early, like she always did
in the summer. She climbed out of bed, jumped into her play clothes
and opened up the door of the little camping trailer which was home for
the summer months. She hurried outside to be greeted by her grandmother
and grandfather, or Mimere and Pipere as she knew them.
"You ready for breakfast?" Mimere asked. She
poured some pancake mix on the hot griddle and in no time at all Michelle
had a plate full of golden pancakes. She ate them quickly before
her brother Tommy got up. She knew if she were ready to go before
her brother woke up, Pipere would take her with him. Pipere would
not want to take Tommy, because he was too young, and Mimere would insist
that both children go, or neither one goes.
Luckily, both Michelle and Pipere finished
their breakfast before Tommy woke up.
"I'm going for my morning walk," Pipere said.
He stood up and stretched. "Coming with me, Kitten?" He motioned for Michelle
"Coming!" She hurried happily behind
They walked from the campground through the
deep woods that stood behind it. They stopped now and again to pick
small orange flowers that grew low to the ground. Pipere showed the
child how to crush the flowers and use the crushed petals as a balm to
keep away the mosquitoes that were rather heavy in the deep woods.
They walked through a dry, barren area that
appeared to the child like a slice of the Sahara desert right in the middle
of the forest. Pipere stopped and picked up some bluegreen moss that was
growing on the ground. "Look for some of this," he said. "It
does a lot of good things. We can even
use it to start a fire tonight."
Michelle picked moss and showed it to
Pipere. The moss she picked seemed flakier and more white than blue.
"No, this is not the right stuff."
Pipere took the moss from the child and placed it carefully back on the
rock where she got it from. "It is more blue and soft like velvet.
Pick the dry stuff, leave it alone if it feels like a sponge."
The child tried again, this time getting
a few dry bits of velvet-like, blue moss. "Here, Pipere. Is this
the right stuff?"
"You got it, Kitten!" Pipere smiled.
He took the moss and put it in his pocket. "Now go get some more."
"It's hot out here in the sun," the
child complained. "How much moss do we need?"
"Just enough," Pipere said. Pipere always
gave times and quantities in vague statements like, "just enough" or "until
we are done." This perplexed the child. What seemed even stranger
was that before too long, she came to understand exactly how much is "just
enough" or how long it would be "until we are done."
Once they had "just enough" moss,
they continued to walk. Pipere pointed out some other trees and bushes
as they walked. He said some were good for making medicine to stop
coughs and explained that every bug in the forest could be eaten.
"If you ever get lost in the forest," he said, "you would have a lot to
eat. Lots of bugs live in the forest."
The idea of eating bugs didn't
thrill Michelle. "Yuck, I wouldn't eat bugs."
"You would if you were hungry,"
Pipere said. "That is, if you didn't get enough berries in the summer time."
As he spoke, Pipere bent over and began to pick dark blue and purple berries
from the low lying wild blueberry bushes around his feet.
Michelle joined him and began
to pick the berries, too. "Pipere, there are so many berries.
How can anyone in the forest go hungry?" She picked a handful and
ate them happily. They tasted so good, better than any store bought
blueberry ever could.
"Today there are a lot of berries, but
what about tomorrow? What about in the winter when the bushes don't
have berries?" He filled a small bag he carried with him full of
the perfect little spheres. "What do you do if you want to eat berries
and it's the winter?"
"Go to the store and buy some?" the
"When I was a boy, there were no stores.
When we wanted berries in the winter, we had to make sure that we picked
enough of them in the summer and saved them for the winter."
"When you were an Indian kid?" she asked.
"Yes, when I was an Indian kid." He
"How did you save berries, Pipere? Don't
they go rotten?"
"You have to dry them so they are like raisins.
You need to lay them out to dry and you have to keep the birds away from
them." He filled his bag and began to walk away.
"Did I ever tell you that you can make dye
for clothes from blueberry skins?" He walked up a hill to another grove
of wild berry bushes. This bunch had thorns, and Pipere cautioned
the little girl to be careful not to get pricked.
"I love raspberries!" Michelle said as she ran headlong
into the bush. The thorns scratched her arm and she started to bleed.
"See, I told you to be careful," Pipere said.
He walked over to a small plant with pointed leaves. He broke off
a leaf. White sap dripped from the stem end. Pipere dabbed
the sap on the scratch. "All better?" he asked.
"Yes. All better," the child replied. "What plant
was that?" she asked.
Pipere told the child the plant’s name. As soon as he said it,
she forgot it.
"Remember," he added, "Never, never eat this plant.
Never eat it." He emphasized by waving the leaf in the little girls
"I won't," she said.
"This plant you can eat." Pipere picked a dark almond
shaped leaf from a little shiny plant that was growing on the forest floor.
He broke the leaf in two and put it in his mouth. He offered the
child the other half. She smelled it. It smelled wonderful;
just like the yummy chewing gum her grandmother gave her when she helped
clean the kitchen. She put the leaf in her mouth. It was minty
and sweet, despite the strange texture it had on her teeth.
After Pipere had picked "just enough" raspberries,
the walk continued to a nearby pond.
"Be very quiet when we go to the water," Pipere
cautioned. "If you are quiet, we might see a moose by the water's
edge and we can talk to him."
"But the leaves keep crunching. We can't sneak
up on anything." She pouted.
"Yes we can. Our people knew a way to walk
in the woods so no one would hear them." He bent down to look at
the little girl directly, face to face. "I will show you, but you have
to promise never to tell your grandmother."
"Why?" she asked innocently.
"Because your grandmother doesn't like me
to teach you about the Indians," he explained. "So you have to promise
you won't tell her that I talked about our people."
"Ok, Pipere. But if we can't talk about
them, how come you call them our people?"
Pipere cringed. He knew any answer he gave her would probably lead
to more questions. Pipere thought for a moment and said, "Being
Indian is a secret."
"Why?" the child persisted.
"Because it is. Now do you want to learn
how to walk quiet in the woods or not?"
"Oh, yes!" she said. "Please!"
"Alright then. Do what I do." Pipere carefully
put one foot out, toe first, into the leaves and twigs. Carefully, he parted
the larger of the sticks with complete silence. Then he cautiously
placed the ball of his foot down in the slightly cleared area. He
gently moved his foot from side to side, then in total silence, placed
his heal down onto the forest floor. Not one leaf dared to rustle.
Not one stick snapped.
Using the same method, he followed with his
other foot. After demonstrating several times slowly, he walked into
the woods at a quicker pace, barely making any sound at all.
"Now, do what I did," he instructed Michelle.
She took a deep breath and began to imitate
her grandfather’s steps. It took her several attempts to try and
clear the leaves before she put the ball of her foot down, but each and
every time the leaves rustled. Still, the child was undaunted. She tried
again and then stepped down. Snap!"
A twig on the forest floor gave way. The child tried again and
again, but her attempts at walking silently were far from successful.
Pipere gave her a harsh look as leaves
rustled beneath her feet. But as she approached, his scowl turned
to a smile and he said, "That was good. You keep practicing and soon
you will get it."
They walked to the water’s edge; Pipere
silent as midnight, Michelle quite a bit louder. When they got to
the water’s edge, Michelle pouted. "I must have scared away
the moose," she said sadly.
"The moose are not out this time of
day," Pipere said, if only to console the child.
When they got to the edge of the water,
Pipere picked some of the long grasses that were growing on the edge of
"What is that for?" Michelle asked.
"This stuff?" Pipere snapped the
reeds in the air as if they were part of a giant grass whip. "This
is just about one of the most useful things you can have. You can
make rope from it. You can tie things together with it. You
can do a lot of things with it." Pipere handed the girl some of the
long strands. "Take this in your hand like this and sit down."
Michelle sat on a rock by the water
and held the grass between her palm and her thumb like her grandfather
"Then roll it on your leg like this.
When you get near the end, add a few more grasses in." He quickly rolled
the long reeds tightly on his thigh, then added another few blades of grass
as he came to the end and began to twist them into the first. "You keep
adding and adding until you have it as long as you want. When you
have some long strands made, you can even roll them together to make thicker
Michelle rolled the few original grasses
and did her best to roll the new strands in as she got to the end of the
first threads. They slipped out and unwound when she pulled on her newly
"Well, it takes practice, too. Besides,
this grass is still wet," Pipere said with amusement.
"We can bring some home to the campsite and
let it dry. Then I can practice," Michelle said as she gathered more
"No. We can't do that," Pipere said
"Why not?" the child whined.
"Because then your grandmother will know we
talked about it. Remember, this is our secret. If you want
to practice you have to go to the water alone and practice where no one
can see you."
"But no one will let me go to the water alone.
They say I'm too little," Michelle reminded.
"Well then, we will have to just practice
when we go for walks." Pipere rolled some more grass into rope and
began to tell Michelle a long story about how the grass came to be.
The child was amazed by the story. Then Pipere told her stories of
the different grasses and what each one does and how they came to do what
they do. He told her stories about animals who behaved a lot like
people. He told her stories about his life as a child in Canada with
the Indians. And when his stories were all done, he showed her how
he made his newly formed rope into an animal snare and how it could be
used to catch a rabbit or a squirrel. But he didn't use his
snare. Instead, he tossed the grass rope snare into the nearby bushes.
“Pipere,” Michelle asked, “what was
the name of our Indian people?”
“I think they would call you Kitten,”
he said. “And they would call your little brother Chicken Wings!”
He laughed so loudly, his laughter echoed across the lake.
“But what is the tribe name?” she asked
“You don’t need to know that,” Pipere
said, then announced it was time to get back to camp.
The walk back to camp wasn't as fun
as the walk into the woods. The conversation on the way back was
not happy at all.
"Okay, soon we will be back at the campground.
If anyone asked what we did you know what to tell them," Pipere said
to the child.
"Yes. I tell them we went for
a hike to the lake to fish." Michelle looked at her empty hands.
"But we didn't take the fishing poles this time."
"Never mind about that." Pipere thought
for a moment. "If someone asks, we can just tell them we got to the
lake and remembered that we forgot our poles, so we came home."
"Why not just tell them we went to the lake
to see if we could find the moose so we could talk to him, and when he
wasn't there, you showed me how to make rope from the grass?"
"No!" Pipere said sternly.
"Decent people don't talk to moose. And decent people buy rope at the hardware
"But Pipere?" Michelle stopped walking
and looked up at her grandfather. The old man continued to walk.
Michelle sighed, then ran after him. "Pipere. Why are Indians not decent
people? You used to be an Indian!"
Pipere stopped in his tracks and
looked down at the child. The pain in his eyes was easy to see, even
for the small girl. "Used to be," he said with emphasis. "When my
father became Catholic, we were not Indian anymore. We became Catholic.
If you are a Catholic and you go back to being an Indian, you're going
to burn in hell. You understand that?"
"But why? I think being Indian is good
if you are an Indian. Why can't you be an Indian and be a Catholic
Indian? Why would God be mad if you made rope from the pond grass
or talked to the moose?" she asked with the innocence of her age.
“If God made you an Indian, why would He be mad at you for it?”
"Because people don't like Indians!" Pipere
said with a voice so stern it made the child shake. "People think Indians
are less than dogs! They treat Indians worse than they do black people.
If you tell anyone you're an Indian they won't let you go to school.
Your friends won’t be allowed to play with you anymore and everyone will
think you’re always drunk and lazy!”
Michelle stepped back, her eyes rimmed
with tears. “But Pipere, how come?”
“Just because!” he said firmly. “So
you don’t tell anyone. You hear me? Anyone! If you do, they
will take you away and put you in a school for Indian kids were they will
beat you and make you eat trash they can’t feed to pigs!”
The vision of such a place filled the
child’s mind. Often her grandfather talked about the terrible ways Indians
were treated. He talked at length about how “they” let Indian children
starve to death rather than even let them eat the scraps “they” tossed
to their dogs. He told stories of how “they” chased Indians out of
stores when the Indians wanted to go shopping, and how “they” made Indians
pay more than twice as much for anything the Indains bought. He told
her how “they” would not let the Indian’s have jobs no matter how hard
the Indians worked. He said that no matter if an Indian never drank
a drop, “they” would call him a drunk.
She had no idea who “they” were, but suspected,
based on the way her grandfather talked, that “they” were everywhere, watching.
“I promise,” she finally said to Pipere. “I
won’t tell anyone we are Indians.”
“Good,” Pipere said. For the remainder of
the walk to the campground he did not say another word.
When they arrived at the campsite, Pipere
handed the child the bag of berries they had collected. She ran to
her grandmother and gave her the bag. “Here Mimere, can I eat them
now?” she asked, not mentioning how many she ate in the woods.
Mimere took the berries, rinsed them with
water, put them in a bowl and called Tommy out to help eat the berries.
Michelle and her brother began to fill their
mouths with berries, and Mimere went off to tend to some other chore.
Pipere also walked away to do some chore.
“Tommy, guess what?” Michelle said to her
brother between mouthfuls of the berries.
“What?” he asked.
“Pipere showed me how to make rope from that
long grass that grows at the sides of ponds,” she bragged.
“That’s not fair!” Tommy yelled. “You always
get to do the fun stuff.”
“What are you fighting about?” Mimere called
over. “If you don’t share the berries I’ll take them away.”
“Yes, Mimere,” Michelle said.
She turned her attention back to her
little brother. “You can’t tell anyone. Remember. It’s an Indian
“But it’s not fair!” Tommy whined.
“Pipere always tells you everything. He never takes me out in the
woods. It’s not fair!” he shouted again.
“What is going on?” Mimere came
over to see what the commotion was.
“Nothing,” Michelle said. She
hoped her brother would follow suit. He didn’t.
“It’s not fair!” he complained. “Pipere
took Michelle into the woods and told her how the Indian’s make rope and
stuff like that. He never takes me.”
“I see,” Mimere said. Her face
took on a furious look. “Fred!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.
Pipere appeared to come from nowhere.
“What? What’s the matter?” He rushed to the table to see what was wrong.
Mimere turned to her husband.
The fury was easy to see in her eyes. “You! You!” she fumbled
her first few words in her anger. “You stupid old man!” she finally
managed to shout.
“What?” Pipere slouched his shoulders as if
he didn’t know why she was angry.
“Your grandson here is mad because you didn’t
tell him how to be an i.n.d.i.a.n.” She spelled the word as if saying it
would curse her.
“Oh, come on,” he moaned, “it was just a little
fun. That’s all. I only showed her some plants. Nothing
terrible. Just kids stuff.”
Mimere slammed her hand down on the picnic
table that stood in front of our little camper. “You know I
forbid you to talk to the kids about that nonsense! You’re going
to fill their heads with that terrible stupid stuff!” She motioned for
the children to go into the camper. Once they were inside, she continued
talking in a more quiet manner in hopes that the children wouldn’t hear
“What are you doing? You know better
than to talk to the children about your being Indian! You want them to
get thrown out of Sunday school?” Mimere scolded her husband.
Pipere sat at the table, head hung low.
The sorrow he was feeling was clear on his face. Inside the camper,
Michelle felt like crying as she watched her grandmother yell at her grandfather.
Guilt filled her when she realized that if she hadn’t bragged to her brother,
then her Pipere wouldn’t be in trouble now. She thought to herself
that Pipere looked like he was about to break into tears. She began
to cry, herself.
Outside of the camper, Mimere continued to
batter her husband with endless words about the shame and pain he was exposing
the children to. She continued on about how she would die of embarrassment
if any of the children ever told someone she knows that their grandfather
was an Indian.
Finally, after what seemed to Michelle to
be hours of endless words, Mimere said in a sharp vicious voice, “I better
never have to tell you again, Fred. You keep your no good mouth shut
about your dirty Indian blood! Bunch of no good drunks the whole
lot of those damn Indians!”
Pipere got to his feet and quietly walked
back to what he was doing. Mimere called the children from the camper
and told them to go play in a nearby playground.
Tommy ran to the playground, but Michelle
lagged behind. She looked at her grandfather, now so crestfallen,
looking so much older than she had ever seen him look before. She
wanted to go up to him and tell him she was sorry for telling the secret,
but she knew he would not talk to her about it. That was his way.
He didn’t talk about what made him upset. He didn’t talk about his
feelings. She knew this, so she just looked for a moment longer then
went to join her brother at the playground.
As Tommy ran and played around her, Michelle
sat quietly on the hard wooden swing and looked back at her Pipere.
He sat by the firepit, breaking small pieces of wood into even smaller
pieces of wood. There was no fire going. He reached into his
pocket and took out the handful of bluegreen moss she had helped him collect
that morning. He looked at the moss and mumbled something.
She didn’t have any idea what, because he was too far away for her to hear.
“Maybe he’s going to make a fire with it,”
she said quietly to herself, remembering what he said in the woods about
it being useful for making fire. She leaned forward on her swing
as if trying to get a better look.
Pipere looked up then down at the moss one
more time, then tossed it into the woods with an angry, abrupt motion.
Then, in the same angry abrupt way, he got up and walked off into the woods
towards the campground bathroom.
“Pipere! Can I come!” Michelle shouted
and ran after her beloved grandfather. He didn’t turn. Perhaps he didn’t
hear her. “Pipere, can I come with you!” she called again.
He looked back, then paused to let the child
catch up. “Sure Kitten,” he said. “But I’m only going to the
“That’s ok. I have to go, too,” the
child lied with a smile. She was just happy to be with her grandfather.
Pipere laughed and they walked together into
the woods toward the little cement building that housed the men’s and ladies’
bathrooms. They only paused once so Pipere could point out a certain tree
and how to use its leaves if you get a bee sting.
What’s an Indian
Growing up with my grandfather held a lot of
mixed messages. On one hand, he would show me the most amazing things he
remembered from his boyhood with his people and tell me long stories about
amazing creatures and animals who lived on the big island he said America
was part of. He also told me some strange stories that not only amazed
me, but frightened me at times about monsters and mysterious beings who
had amazing powers.
On the other hand, he would tell me never
to speak to anyone of what he told me and by the time I was nine or ten
years old, he did a full reversal on me and stopped talking about our people
At that point, when I asked our about
his people, even the most simple or innocent of questions was met with
short, curt answers denying he ever said anything or that he was even an
During that time, he told me stories
about his family coming from England, France, Ireland and even Mexico!
When I dared to point out the inconsistencies in his tales, he would just
tell me I was being too nosy and to leave him alone.
But once in a while, when the mood was
right, my grandfather would talk to me about his Indian roots and stories
about what it was like growing up.
Whenever he told his stories, he was
always careful to make sure no other adults were around. He knew
that if any adult in our family heard him talking about the subject, he
would be told in no uncertain terms to shut his mouth and not fill our
heads with things that would only get us in trouble.
Some of my grandfather’s stories about
his growing up were rather amazing and they helped shape my idea of what
his people must have been like. Yet, the way he behaved, the obvious shame
he had and his endless warnings to never tell anyone we had indian blood
in us sent such a confusing message.
Then, if only to mess up my already
confused opinion, there was the media. It was the sixties.
A time of change and free love for some, but for me — a child of less than
ten years old — it was endless TV shows. Many of them were reruns of things
like “Howdy Dowdy”, “Buffalo Bob” and other cowboy shows. On the
weekends, my father would take over our TV set to watch endless hours of
old John Wayne movies where the blood thirsty savages killed the innocent
people of the west who were just trying to make a living.
I heard people in these movies saying
things like, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” I watched as the
God fearing hero rounded up and shot the Indian men who obviously had IQs
below room temperature because they couldn’t talk in more than one syllable
words and only knew how to kill and make war.
I began to think, “No wonder people
hate Indians. All Indians do is kill people.”
Then I thought about my grandfather.
How loving he was. I could never imagine my grandfather hurting a soul.
How could my grandfather be an Indian?
I began to understand why my grandfather was
afraid that people would treat him differently if they knew he was an Indian
— but little did I know how different that would be. I had no concept
of the true prejudice and hatred my grandfather and his family had to face.
I once asked my mother — who is my grandfather’s
daughter — why everyone was telling me that no one likes Indians.
She answered, “Because Indians don’t believe in God.”
How could that be? I was Indian, at
least partly, and I believed in God. My mother was half Indian and she
believed in God. My grandfather was all Indian and he believed in God.
I asked my Father the same question.
My father said, “People don’t know Indians. That’s why they don’t like
them. If you get to know people who are different, you find out you
have a lot to like about each other.”
This really confused me. My father was from
a long line of French Canadians. He had no Indian blood at all in
him. He didn’t seem afraid of the topic, nor did he seem to dislike
Indians. Why was my father, the representative of the non-native
side of my family, the only one who had anything good to say?
I tried to believe what my father said.
The reason people don’t like Indians is because they don’t know them.
But it was hard. In addition to my own families seemingly prejudice
views, as I grew older, I became more and more aware of how the media portrayed
I started to become afraid that if I did tell
people I was of Indian blood, they wouldn’t want to get to know me and
see how alike we were, as my father had explained. But rather, they
would think I was like the television Indians who killed the nice pioneers
in the movies. What if my friends decided that I was bad? What if
my grandfather was right when he told me that if my friends found out I
was an Indian, they wouldn’t want to play with me anymore? What if
I could never go to school? What if my family was thrown out of their
house and out of the city? What if I was shot by some cowboy?
You might think these thoughts were silly,
but I assure you, these are the types of issues I had to deal with as a
Being an Indian was the family shame. It was hard for a child to understand
why. These silly ideas were my attempt at understanding why the family
was ashamed and afraid of anyone knowing about my grandfather’s roots.
What added to the difficulty was that despite
the negative stereotypes I was being bombarded with, and the terrible warnings
issued by my grandfather every time I dared to speak of it, I wanted more
than anything else to know about who these people were who could make rope
from grass and heal cuts with sap from a leaf. I wanted to know more,
because I could feel them inside my heart. Sometimes the feeling
and need was so strong it hurt too much to even think about.
I lived in a world of strong mixed messages
that were in direct conflict with my inner need. I dreamt the most
vivid reoccurring dream through my childhood that today I link directly
to this conflict of my inner self and my surrounding environment.
The dream was always the same. I dreamt it well over fifty times,
perhaps more, from the age of about 8 to 12 years old. It was at
times a nightly dream.
It always starts that I am standing in my
backyard. I am alone. I am approached by a white dog, which I greet
and pat happily. Then I notice a white horse standing in the
yard. I walk up to the horse and it motions for me to get on its
back. I climb on the animal and it rears up on its hind legs. As
it does, it grows so large that I can see over the roof of my house.
Then it jumps into the sky and I can see over the houses in the neighborhood.
It flies to the forest where it lands and I get off where I am greeted
by many people. Some have very little clothes on, but most have white animal
skins on. They are very happy to see me and I feel like I am home.
For the first few moments when I wake from this dream, I feel so far away
from home and alone.
I knew that the people in that dream were
my grandfather’s tribe. I also knew that somehow they were calling
to me. But why?
Dreams of strange and marvelous white animals
have been a constant in my life since I can recall. Perhaps they
were planted there by my grandfather’s wonderful stories. Today,
I have no memory of his actual stories of the animals, but I still have
the dreams from time to time.
So, who where these people? What were
Indians? Were they good or bad? Did they have to be either?
My grandmother was married to one. Maybe she would know.
I got my nerve up and asked my grandmother
about her opinion of Indians. It was not flattering in the least.
So I asked why she married an Indian man if she disliked Indians so much.
The following is the story she told me:
She said she was not what you would call a
really young girl when she met my grandfather. She saw that he was
a hard working man and she thought, based on his last name, that he was
Irish. His family name was Shaughnessy. Though she spoke only French
and he spoke little French they got along well and decided they would be
a good match for each other.
My grandmother didn’t speak of love very often.
I always figured it was because she had hardened her manners and outward
show of affections due to the hardships of raising a family during the
depression. It was not surprising to me that she didn’t mention love
as one of the criteria by which she and my grandfather got together.
Love was a word she never said very often, but rather something she put
into all the cooking and knitting she did for the family.
She talked about how when they first got married,
my grandfather took a job out of town and she only saw him one weekend
a month. She said her brother complained to her that her husband was always
out of town. Her brother suggested that if he could get her husband into
his fraternal lodge, the fellows there could help him find a much better
job that was closer to home. So it was decided, and her brother nominated
my grandfather for membership in his fraternal lodge.
“You should have seen your grandfather when
I told him,” she explained to me. “You would think I was asking him
to take up with the devil himself!”
She said he began to make excuses for not
joining the lodge. He even tried to say his religion forbid it.
But she pointed out it was a lodge that the Catholics did not disapprove
of. Besides, it was already done. Her brother had already put
in the nomination and there was going to be an interview coming in the
next few weeks.
She explained that after a few weeks, her brother
came back to her and told her that my grandfather had been turned down.
“Black balled” was the termed she used.
She wanted to know why, because he was never even
interviewed. Her brother told her to sit down. Then he said,
“Marlene, you married an Indian.”
My grandmother’s eyes opened wide as she told
me about how shocked she was. She recounted with a tone that still carried
the taste of her initial shock, how she told her brother to stop lying
and stop talking like that about her husband. She said she didn’t believe
him. It was too terrible to believe.
As she told me this, my heart broke inside.
How could being an Indian be so terrible? I dare say she would have
seemed less shocked if she were told he had only six months to live.
She said that when my grandfather got home,
she told him what her brother said and pleaded with him to tell her it
was just a vicious lie.
My grandfather told her it was not a lie.
She made him promise never to tell anyone about it ever, and she made her
brother do the same.
Her eyes seemed far away in the memory for
a moment, then she looked at me with all seriousness and said, “If I had
known he was an Indian, I would have never married him.”
“What?” I was now the shocked party. “Wasn’t
he still a good worker and provider? Didn’t you still make a good
match? Don’t you love him?” I asked.
“Of course, of course,” she said. “I
love him.” She paused.
“Well, if you love someone it shouldn’t make
a difference, should it?” I persisted.
“Maybe times are different now. But back then
it made a difference. If people found out he was an Indian, me and
my kids would be trash in everyone’s eyes. How could I let that happen?”
She looked at me. “You would be trash, too, if anyone knew.”
I didn’t know quite what to say. After
a few awkward moments my grandmother changed the subject and I was relieved.
We never spoke of it again.
When I was ten, the family decided to take
a trip to Canada for two weeks. My mother and father, grandmother and grandfather,
as well as my brothers and sister all packed into our station wagon — little
camper in tow — and we started off. We planned to drive up to Montreal,
then across to Quebec, taking our time and staying at campgrounds near
tourist spots along the way. We ended up taking a very unexpected
Somewhere along the way, my grandfather announced, “Turn right, here!”
and we were off.
He directed my father to drive down highways,
city streets and eventually to a home at the end of a long dirt road.
The home, he declared with certainty, once belonged to his mother’s sister.
It could still be the home of family.
He entered the house, and sure enough the
daughter of his aunt still lived there. Her own daughter lived there with
her children as well.
Despite the fact that we just dropped in out
of nowhere, we were asked to set up our trailer and warmly welcomed to
visit for as long as we wished.
I was thrilled beyond belief! Could
these people be the Indians? They lived in a house. They didn’t
have a teepee like they showed on television. For that matter, they
had a color television. That was something my cousins back home didn’t
even have yet. They didn’t talk in one syllable words and were really
nice to welcome us out of nowhere. They were not savages.
We met my grandfather’s aunt. She was more
than 100 years old at the time. She was sitting by a small cabin
behind the main house. She explained that she preferred to live in the
cabin. She was smoking a corn cob pipe, and when she saw us
coming, she came running towards us with more speed than I imagined anyone
that old could have mustered.
Even though she had not seen my grandfather
since he was twelve years old, she went up to him, said something in words
I didn’t understand, hugged him and called him by his first name.
She remembered him despite the fact that more than 50 years had passed!
I was amazed at how limber this woman was
at her age, and how sharp her memory was. This was one really sharp
lady. She was so overjoyed at seeing my grandfather again, she did
a dance around him. I had to giggle because she looked so funny;
such an old woman dancing like a little girl.
She looked at me and in a heavily accented
voice, she said, “You’re a little kittycat, you rascal, aren’t you?”
She greeted all of us, then she and my grandfather
went back to her cabin to talk. The children, myself included, were made
to go play out in the yard, which we did.
Later that night, my grandmother had
the job of putting me and my brothers to bed while my parents were out
visiting with my grandfather’s family. Just before my grandmother
put out the light, she warned in a joking tone, “Better sleep with your
hat on so you don’t get scalped in your sleep.”
My brother Tommy cringed. My older brother
Jim just laughed, but I remembered thinking she was wrong. These
people wouldn’t hurt us. They were the most welcoming people I had ever
We stayed with them for a day or so more.
Before we left, my sister and a girl her age who lived there exchanged
addresses with the intention of writing to each other. They never
We drove away, never to see them again.
My grandfather directed us through the maze of side streets back to the
highway and we continued on with our trip. The only momentos we have
of our visit are a handful of photographs of the children. My grandfather’s
aunt, her daughter and son-in-law didn’t want to be photographed.
No one remembers any of their names,
my sister lost the address long ago. The only hint of who they are
is a scribble on the back of one of the photos that says, “The Hamiltons”.
So deep was my grandfather’s plan to
cover his true family roots, that in order to visit them, he took us on
a blind trip through the back roads of Canada as if it were only days,
not years, since the last time he was there; but today he will not tell
anyone where the house is, not even a street name so we can write them.
He says over time he has forgotten.
I came back from that trip more confused
than ever about what an Indian was. I was upset that during that
trip I never learned the name of the tribe the people we met came from.
But I did learn that the television Indian
wasn’t real. They were not some evil creatures who killed white people
on sight. They were wonderful people who welcomed a nephew who had been
away for more than fifty years, along with his whole family, into their
home without even knowing that they were coming. I know if a long
lost relative, gone for more than fifty years, ever showed up at my mother’s
house unannounced, they would probably not be welcomed to stay.
For a short while, after our return from Canada,
my grandfather was a bit more open about his Native relations. He
told me stories about his life with his people and about some of the mischief
he got into. Still, he was steadfast in his refusal to tell me which
tribe he came from.
When I pushed him, he would tell me the words
that would ring like a curse in my ears. He would say, “We turned
our backs on them. What makes you think they will welcome you?”
I tried to point out how welcomed we
were at his aunt’s house. He insisted this was because we were family.
He said that even though the tribe had cousins and aunts in it, they were
different. They were not his mother’s sister. The fact that his mother’s
sister was the head of that family we visited made it different.
He explained, as if it was supposed to make total sense to me, “She
was my mother’s sister. That is why we were welcome. If they
were my mother’s brother’s family then they would just as soon spit on
I asked why, but was only told the same thing
over again. My grandfather insisted that if I knew what tribe his
family was from and went to talk to them, they would just spit on me.
I was from a family of splitters.
Only months after returning from Canada, my
grandfather decided it was time to return to his silence. Perhaps
my grandmother had made him stop. I don’t know for sure.
It was many years before my grandfather would
speak of the Indians again. That is, other than to deny he ever had
any connection to them.
I walked into my adult years still wondering who the Indians were.
I knew they were not savages. I knew they were not all drunkards.
I knew they were not stupid. I knew that they were more than anything
I could ever see on television. But who were they and why were they in
I wondered for a long time if I would
ever find my grandfather’s people — my people — and if I did, would I be