Gene travelled by van across the country to see the land of his people. Along his journey, he had the experience of meeting a southern white couple on a backcountry dirt road and an old black man in Sparta, Georgia who fought with First Nation men during the Korean War.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sparta-GA
How do we break up the biases we have about other people?
Can travel be a way to open or confirm our ideas about other people?
Where would you like to travel? How would you keep an open mind about the people you meet along the way?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Smooth Traveler: Avoiding Cross-Cultural Mistakes at Home and Abroad by Susan O’Halloran
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
First Nations/Native Americans
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban.
My name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan, the Raven, Freshwater Salmon clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m the child of a Wooshketann, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska.
I am Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino. I’m a Cherotlingipino. I’d like to tell the story about an adventure of mine when I was a young man. I bought a van and I was going to drive across the country. And see what that land where I came from, my Indian people, was like.
Many people were exploring Europe and going over there but there’s so much richness here just in our backyard. So I was driving through Louisiana, me and my girlfriend. And so we stopped one night on a side road, dirt road and it was dark out. We were gonna camp there for the night. As we are just gettin’ ready to camp, a truck pulls up. Pulls in front of us. Turned around. And the headlights are shining right into our van. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh! What the heck’s going on here?”
And the only thing that could run through my mind was just these things I hear that’s going on in the south in the back country in Deliverance. We were kind of freaked out and they pulled up right next to us. I rolled down my window. And they said, “How y’all doin’?”
“Oh, we’re doin’ good.”
“Now where are y’all from?”
I told ’em, “I’m originally from Alaska.”
“Who are you people?”
And I said,” Guy Yaaw (then speaks about his people in his native language).
And they looked at me and said, “Now what kind of foreign language is that?”
“Oh, that’s my Tlingit language. I’m a Native American from this country. That language I just spoke to you was from Alaska.
“Alaska! You guys from Alaska?”
I said, “Yes, I am!”
“Now what y’all doin’ way down here. Did you guys get lost?”
I said, “No, we’re just driving around seeing this country.” And we started to strike up a conversation.
And he asked me, “How do y’all say… fire?”
He said, “Now did you hear that… fire. Now right here you say… fire to say… fire. You know, you’re some interesting folks! Now we don’t get many people like you around here much often. You know what? We’re having a… a gathering here that’s coming up here in a couple of days. You sure are welcome to come if you’d like to come. You can meet my kin, my folks that’s back there in the swamps a little bit. You’ll be more than welcome!”
I said, “Ah, thank you for the invitation but I think we’re gonna move on and keep traveling. I think we’re gonna make our way up… around Georgia. See, I’m part Cherokee and my people come from that area.”
“Well, all I want to tell you is that stay away from Sparta, Georgia there. I’ve been to Sparta. A lot of black folk there, you know. You good people. I don’t want you to get in trouble now. Ah, it’s good to meet you.”
“It sounds good to me too. I’ll tell you what! A couple of days later, we are in Sparta, Georgia and we were hungry. So we went to go get a couple of sandwiches and across the street was a basketball court and playin’ basketball there – a bunch of youngsters playing ball and they’re all black. And we sat there to go watch them play basketball. So we’re sitting there eatin’ our sandwiches and they’re arguing back and forth because they need an extra player.
And so they looked at me. They came up to me and said, “Heh! You right there! You play ball?”
I go, “Who? Me?’
“Yeah, we’re talking to you. You play ball?”
I said, “Do I play ball?” Now, I tell you what! Indians love basketball! So I said, “Yeah, I play ball!”
And so we went out there. They brought me out there. We started playing hoops back and forth. And we were playing basketball all afternoon and then they asked me, “Excuse me. Where are you from?”
I said, “From Alaska.”
And they asked me, “Are you an Indian?”
I said, “Yeah, I am!”
“Can we touch you?”
“You want to touch me?” I said, “Sure.”
So they felt my skin and they felt my hair and they told me… they said, “Hey, wait here, wait here!” And so they ran off but they brought back all their family, their relatives – aunties, uncles, cousins. They wanted to meet us Native American people because they’ve only heard about us in movies, books, magazines, museums. They never met a real live native person before. They said, “We gotta take you…we got Uncle Leroy who’d love to meet you.”
And so we went to Uncle’s Leroy’s house and Uncle Leroy, when we walked in, he was like this skinny black man. I mean he was so black, he was like purple. Long white hair, long white beard and he had square glasses tinted blue. Yes, and he was skinny, about as skinny as a broom pole when he came shuffling up to us, looked at me, “My Indian brothers!” You see, Uncle Leroy was in the Korean War and in the Korean War, Uncle Leroy was this young black man and he was scared and there were bombs and guns goin’ off. And so he was runnin’ around. But at the same time he was runnin’ around, there are a couple of Indians in a foxhole and they’re smokin’ their tobacco, saying their prayer. “Oh, Creator, take care of us. I swear here on this here foreign land, watch over us and we promise we’ll live a good life. Send us a sign that you hear what we’re talkin’ about. You hear our prayers!” And they’re smoking their tobacco! And just as they’re praying, suddenly Uncle Leroy jumps into their foxhole and those two Indians look at this black man and they go, “Ah, the creator! Thank you for sending us this good luck charm of a black man. We promise we’ll take care of this young man here in a good way.” And so they did.
They kept that promise and they took care of Uncle Leroy. And they taught Uncle Leroy about spirit, honor, culture, tradition, prayer, brotherhood. And they took care of Uncle Leroy and Uncle Leroy felt that. He owed those Indian brothers of his. So I went to his house. He told us the stories of brotherhood, took care of us while we were in his home. So the next morning we jumped in the van and we headed off. And as we were driving off, I heard Uncle Leroy, “My Indian brothers!”
During WWII the Navajo Code Talkers created a code that was never broken. The Navaho were forced off their reservations into boarding schools where they were told not to speak their language or practice their culture. But when WWII started, the United States military reached out to the Navajo to help them create a code using their previously forbidden language.
Why did the U.S. switch its policy toward the Navajo’s native language?
The Navajo were not allowed to speak of their role in WWII until 1968. What effect do you think it had that those fighting alongside American Indians during the War were unaware of their critical contribution?
The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila
Code Talk: A Novel About the Navajo Marine of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban. My Tlingit name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan. The Raven, Fresh Water Sockeye clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m a child of a Wooshkeetaan, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska and I’m a Tlingit, Cherokee and Filipino. And I tell people I’m a Cherotlingipino. It’s good to be here.
Ah, you know our elders are precious. In fact, we often refer to them as our, our precious objects. I mean… but they’re more than that, our elders, and we hold them in reverence and honor. I had the opportunity to travel around the country with a man; his name is Andrew Osano from Cochiti Pueblo, USA.
Now Andrew was a medicine man or, you might say, Andrew was a holy man. But when you’re from the Pueblo or the reservation, things just move slower. And I was telling Andrew, “We’re going to New York.” I said, “Andrew, when we get to New York, everyone’s going to be moving really fast. And so you need to just move just a little bit faster than you’re used to.”
He goes, “Oh! OK, OK, OK!” And so when we’re flying into New York, he’s looking out the window and his perspective on it was, “Oh, look at that! New York City! All the buildings looked like headstones. Interesting, eh!”
So I’m walkin’ through New York with Andrew Osano and we go to the top of the Empire State Building. And it was a time when Hale-Bopp, the comet, was going through. And so Andrew, he takes those binoculars and instead of looking at New York City, he looks up into the sky, “The comet! Oh! Ah!” And he starts to say some prayers, singing a song and everybody around him starts looking at Andrew Osano, Cochiti Pueblo, USA, medicine man, holy man.
A few years later after that, I drove to Cochiti Pueblo to see Andrew and he goes, “Oh! Oh, Raven T! Oh, it’s good to see you. I need a ride. Ah! We go see my uncle.” And so we’re driving to another pueblo, to see his uncle. And as we’re going through certain areas, Andrew stops, closes his eyes sings and says prayers. “Spirits all along this road,” he says. So we pulled up to a small house. He goes, “My uncle lives here. My uncle, he is a Navajo Code Talker.”
“Navajo Code Talker? Ah!”
“Come in, let’s visit.” We walked in and there’s a small Indian man there, wrinkled skin, dark. And I look into his eyes and they’re just deep, dark brown.
We share a little bit of coffee and I ask him, “Navajo Code Talker! What was it like?”
And he goes, “Oh! You see, I grew up out here, out here, taking care of the land, taking care of our animals, livin’ on the land. And then the government comes in and tells us we can’t speak our language, sing our songs, practice our culture. They took us to schools to teach us a new way.
And then World War II came along. And they called on our services. You see, they wanted us to fight and defend our country but they wanted us to use our language to create a code. Our language that was forbidden! Our language that they told us that we can no longer speak! They wanted us to create a code to help them win the war. Many of the Navajo people enlisted.
And they wanted us to go through basic training. You see, they didn’t think that we could make it through basic training. They thought that maybe we were too fragile. But once we got out there during basics… ah, we scored the highest on everything!”
“Well, this is simple,” we said, “because this is our life. We live out here.” So we went out there. And we developed a code through our language. Nobody broke that code! And for 20 years after the war was over, we were taught never to reveal what we did. And we kept that commitment.
I asked him, “When you came back, what did you do to heal?”
And he goes, “Ah! You know, not like nowadays. Those young men, they come back, they’re on a plane. They close the eyes. They wake up. They’re back in the city.
Back then, we had time to jump on a boat, a ship and we were together. A brotherhood to take care of each other, to talk, to hold each other, to cry. And then when I got back to our reservation, you see, amongst our people, we are not home yet. We are just spirits until we go through a ceremony and then… we become whole again. That’s what’s missin’ in this country nowadays is that ceremony.”
You see, we just sat and had coffee, ate some cookies and just shared stories. And it was an honor for me to sit there amongst a true hero of this country. For if it was not for the Navajo code, we may never have won that war. Huh…! Helps me appreciate who we are as a people. Navajo Code Talkers! Huh!
Gene tells of an afternoon he spent with Rachel, a Holocaust survivor, in Omaha, Nebraska. Rachel, an elderly woman, asks Gene, “Tell me about your people?” Gene tells her of the 1835 Indian Removal Act and how his Cherokee ancestors were forced to leave their homes and walk for 800 miles through the winter months; many died. Rachel replies, “Your people, my people – same.” Later, Gene goes to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and while being overcome with emotion, is comforted by an African American woman
What do you think of Rachel’s statement: “My revenge: I am going to live a happy life – no one can take that from me.” What might this type of revenge give her that other types of revenge would not?
How do we learn about and stay emotionally present to all the genocide in the past and in the world today? What gives us the strength to look at the worst in humankind?
What can stop “ugly history” from repeating itself? How can we support those who have been through the worst imaginable horrors and those who are willing to speak about and learn from it?
Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle
Holocaust Museum in Washington by Jeshajaho Weinberg
Education and Life Lessons
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban. My Tlingit name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan. The Raven, Fresh Water Sockeye clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m a child of a Wooshkeetaan, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu hoonah in Juneau, Alaska and I’m a Tlingit, Cherokee and Filopino. I’m a Cherotlingopino and it’s wonderful to be here to share stories with you. I’d like to share a story about an experience I had. Oftentimes, we have these moments in our lives that are just pivotal. They make a shift within your being, your spirit and out to your soul.
So I was traveling to an event, another storytelling event in Omaha, NE. You know, at first I didn’t want to go really to Omaha, NE. I’m from Juneau, Alaska – mountains, water! Omaha, NE? Flat, corn. But I was going there for a storytelling festival and I was being housed by a wonderful family so I got there. And the next morning, she asked me (our host), “Every Thursday we always take Rachel out to the market. Would you like to go?”
I said, “Sure, I’ll go.”
“Now I want to tell you this. Rachel is a survivor of Auschwitz, the holocaust.”
I thought to myself, “Wow!”
“Yes, I’d love to meet Rachel!” And so when we took a… pick up Rachel and Rachel is this elderly lady. She came, maybe, up to my shoulder. She had sunglasses on and she walked up to me. She didn’t say much, just looked at me. I opened the door for her and she hopped in and we sat in the back seat.
She said, “I want to go to the market to get apples. I want to make some pie. One of the only things I have left is the recipe from my momma – Apple Pie. They were bakers, you know!”
And so we went to the market to get apples and she was very meticulous about her apples. They couldn’t be too big or too small. She went through them. I carried the bag for her as she placed them in. She didn’t say a word to me. She looked at the apples, put ‘em in the bag. I closed ‘em and she just looked up at me. So on our way back out to the parking lot, we’re going to the car and next to the car was a Hummer. And as we were walking up to the car, Rachel stopped and she just started weeping. And I was going, “Are you okay?”
She goes, “Oh, no, no, no! Those cars! Those cars, they remind me of the cars, those trucks, the vehicles that they took the children to the camps away in! No, no, no! I can’t go over there! No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”
And so I waited on the sidewalk with Rachel as we pulled around and we picked her up. And we went to the house and she prepared the dough. And it was sitting there waiting to rise and Rachel came up to me. She goes, “You’re Indian, aren’t you?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Come, walk with me. Let’s go walk through the garden!” And so she grabbed me by the arm and we started strolling through the garden. And she says, “Now, tell me! Tell me about your people.”
And so I told her, I told her, “In 1835 was the Indian Removal Act and my Cherokee people were forced from their homes to walk on a trail 800 miles during winter. Women, children, elders! Many of ‘em died! Many of ‘em died! And they were put onto a land that was foreign to them. And throughout the Indian country, this was what was going on. They were taking the native people from their lands, the Indian people from their lands. And sometimes they put ‘em in cargo holds on trains and taking ‘em to other places. Many souls were lost.”
And Rachel, she just looked up and she goes, “Huhh! Your people, my people – same! Same!”
As we were walking through the garden, Rachel spotted this beautiful red tomato. And she goes, “Now get that tomato for me!” And I got that tomato and she goes, “Ah, now we need something to cut it!”
I said, “Oh, look at…! I’m going to take this tomato up to the house and I’m going to show it to one…”
And she goes, “No! This is just for you and me! You see, sometimes you have to keep something for yourself!” And so I sat there, and Rachel and I, we ate this red tomato… together… just me and her. That was the best tomato I have ever eaten in my life! She told me, she goes, “You know, me… my revenge… my revenge for what happened to my people, my family is I’m going to live a happy life! That… that cannot be taken away from me! Huh!
So couple days later I was in Washington D.C. and I went to, to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. And, and as I walked through the Holocaust Memorial Museum, I just walked through and I saw the images, the pictures, the cargo holds. But what really got me was the piles of clothes, the piles of eyeglasses and the piles of shoes, especially the children’s shoes!
And when I walked out of that museum, I stood on the sidewalk and I started to cry; I just started to weep. And there was an old black woman who stopped and she handed me a handkerchief and she grabbed my head! She just held me as I wept on the sidewalk!
I took that handkerchief, wiped off my face and when I opened my eyes and looked around, she was gone! I looked down the street, both ways. I looked behind me; she wasn’t in the museum! And I looked around. That’s when I know that we have angels around us all the time!
Many Africans and First Nations People bonded together during and after slavery in the Americas and in the Caribbean for protection, acceptance, friendship and love. As a result, many African descendants in these countries also share Native American ancestries. Mama Edie learns while watching old Westerns on TV with her grandmother, Nonnie Dear, a new perception of who the “good guys” or “bad guys” were.
Why does it matter that we learn to know and to love all of who and what we are? What often happens to people who don’t?
Does it really matter what we call ourselves? If so, why?
State two potentially lifelong benefits of knowing the history of your ancestors. Can you feel or experience any of these benefits at work in your life today? If so, which one(s)?
Circular Thought: An African Native American Traditional Understanding by Nomad Winterhawk
Medicine Cards by David Carson and Jamie Sams (A non-fiction book explaining the wisdom that First Nations people have gained by the observation of animals, insects and other creatures of the North American continent.)
Tell the World! Storytelling Across Language Barriers by Margaret Read MacDonald
Education and Life Lessons
Family & Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes & Discrimination
Hello, my name is Edith McLoud Armstrong but most people simply call me Mama Edie. You know, when you are identified as someone other than from a European heritage, sometimes the way your people can be presented in history, can make you feel categorically small or flawed or ugly or useless and even invisible. And when you’re a child, your childhood perceptions when blended with images from your history as that has unfolded can actually haunt you and can leave you feeling mentally in bondage forever if you allow that to happen. And what becomes important is for us to then realize that there is some healing that needs to be done. I have had my healing to be done and I continue to do so.
I remember, though, one of my first recognitions of how people can perceive things differently (I mean, the same event! They can see the same event. They can all be there but they see it differently.) was with my grandmother, my paternal grandmother. Her name was Estella Hunt McLoud. And she was born around 1890 and her people were from the Seminole, Cherokee and Blackfoot tribes. And so she is, actually, our most familiar branch to those lineages. And she taught us many things. Now, her people were from Florida and she married my grandfather Quilla McCloud from Georgia somewhere between those borders. Now, although she did die when I was young, I do remember her and I cherish the relationship that we had.
I can remember her firmly set square jaw. I remember her thin lips as she talked. I remember her eyes, her large warm eyes, and, you know, it was almost as though she could look straight through you with those eyes. And, you know how, oftentimes, people talk about how mothers and grandmas have eyes in the backs of their heads. Well, my grandmother also had eyes in the back of her head. She saw everything.
We loved her very much. We called her Nonnie Dear. Now Nonnie Dear was kind of quiet even though she was firm but when she spoke, she ended up saying something that most people were going to long remember.
And she also did some things that were pretty memorable as well. I can remember a particular time when I had gone over… (I must have been about five years old or so, so this must have been… say about 1956) and I’d gone over to spend the night. I used to enjoy spending the night with my grandmother and we would watch television together for a while. But this one particular day, this was the first time I had ever had this experience with her. We were watching an old western on TV. Now keep in mind that these were the programs that depicted the U.S. Cavalry and also the invading frontiersmen as the good guys. And the Indians or the Native Americans who were fighting to keep their homes and their lives were depicted as the bad guys. Well, now, needless to say, Nonnie Dear didn’t care for that particular percept… perception or portrayal that she offered… that she saw there. And what she would do sometimes? Once the soldiers and the frontiersmen came charging in and they were shooting up everybody and they were setting fires to the village and you saw young children scattering, looking and calling for their parents, my grandmother Nonnie Dear would get so upset she would take off a house slipper and she’d throw it at the television set. And she’d say, “Leave ‘em alone! Leave ‘em alone, you dirty rascals! Leave ‘em alone!” I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and I’d thought it was a little strange. It was kind of funny and I wondered if maybe Nonnie Dear had been out in the sun a little bit too long. But as time passed, I came to understand what made her so angry. And those things started to make me angry too.
And, in fact, I can even remember when I was younger and I had gone to St. Elizabeth, the Catholic Elementary School in Chicago where I grew up. And also, later at St. Carthage. And while there, the nuns always seemed to have a ready arsenal of patriotic music to arm us with and to teach us. Well, one of the songs that they taught us was the one that repeatedly states, “This land is your land. This land is my land, from California to the New York Island. This land was made for you and me.” But as I got older and as I started to experience the responses from different people simply to my presence and as I began to see how the country really functioned and what was important and who was important and who was not, I wasn’t really so inspired to sing that song because I didn’t feel like this land was made for me. But actually the whole world is made for you and me, isn’t it.
I mean that it is intended for us to share it and to honor the humanity in all of us. But that’s, that’s not the way it happened here. That wasn’t the way it happened so I came to understand my grandmother’s anger.
And sometimes as I’m driving across beautiful rolling meadows in my car, when I look out in the distance across those hills, it’s as though I can almost see horses running free across land that at one point had no gates, no fences. People understood how to honor each other’s boundaries. And I can almost see the shadows of young children at play, running to and fro. I can see fathers talking with their sons and explaining to them what it means to be a man. I can see mothers talking with their daughters, teaching them how to weave blankets and how to braid hair. And how to cook and just laughing and giggling and having a good time being girls.
But I’m also haunted by the image of my ancestors who crossed too many trails of tears. I understand that even though I still feel the pain, I still feel the wounds of my African ancestors, of my Native American ancestors, somehow, through it all, I’ve come to appreciate and to embrace the totality (or as much of it that I know) that I happen to be.
Don’t know too much about our rather obscure relative, Bezhati, who was from Italy but who apparently really, really loved my great-great grandmother and bore many children.
But I think that the important thing is to continue this story on because I’m a part of this continuum. And, as such, I will continue to tell the story. And I’ll continue to try to heal my wounds. And I will continue to try to encourage my daughter Aiyana and anybody else – anybody else’s children, even grown folks, to try to heal those wounds that we hold inside and to try to see a little bit of God in each and every one in all of God’s creation.
And I think that this would be our greatest achievement. This would be our greatest gift that we can give back to those ancestors who loved us. We need to remember that we’ve got the strength to do it because we are the children of those who survived.
Susan O’Halloran attends a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through violence. Being at the Memorial sparks a high school memory for Susan of going to a youth conference in 1965 and meeting Cecil, an African American teenager, who became Sue’s friend. One evening, in 1967, Sue receives a phone call that changes everything.
Being at a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through gun violence sparks memories for Susan O’Halloran of people she has lost. At the end of the service, the congregation moves into the streets to plead for peace as everyone asks the continuing questions: Will the violent deaths of young lives end? When? And what is our part in ending violence?
What are the causes of violent deaths in America? People are always responsible for their own actions, but how does America’s legacy of segregation and discrimination play into violence?
Are you for more restrictions on guns? More policing? How would greater educational and job opportunities affect violence?
If you could be Mayor of a large U.S. city, what would you do to curb violence?
Do you believe as Sue says that “these are all our children”? Why would someone in one part of a town be concerned with what happens in another part? How are we connected to one another? How does violence affect even the more “peaceful” parts of town?
Sue remembers that she was directly touched by violence. What affect has a young person’s death had on you?
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornell West
Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention and Intervention by Kathryn Seifert, PhD
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran. Do you ever watch the news sometimes and you’re like, enough already! But then every so often, something happens, not things that are just happening to other people anymore. I want to share a story with you about a memorial service I went to in Chicago, November 2011. And a memory was triggered by that memorial, something that had happened long, long ago.
The first thing I noticed was the checkmarks. They had asked us to sign in with our name and then to check “yes” if we had lost a family member or close friend to violence. When I arrived, the memorial service had already begun. I made the long trek from my Evanston, Illinois home, down Lakeshore Dr, across the Dan Ryan Expressway, to the Southside of Chicago and the gothic style church of St. Sabinas. When I walked into that vestibule I heard an orchestra playing inside and I walked up to the sign-in book and I went to add my name. I couldn’t check the box. I was fortunate, my life hadn’t been touched by that kind of tragedy. But what I saw was hundreds of checkmarks already made. Each check said, “Yes, I’ve lost a loved one to violence.” Well, an usher came up to me, an African-American woman with a wide smile, wearing a black pillbox hat, a black suit, white gloves. She handed me a program, an unlit candle, and directed me to follow her. She walked me past rows of mourners and them she offered me a seat at the end of a pew. I was there. I was at the Urban Dolorosa memorial. Urban Dolorosa means “the city of sorrow,” and our city was deep in sorrow.
In those previous three school years, from September 2008 to August 2011, four thousand children had been shot in Chicago. Two hundred sixty-three kids were dead because of violence. Four thousand shot and 263 dead. Congregations of all faiths and other non-profits had gathered together to form Urban Dolorosa to say we had to stop the denial, the ignorance, the indifference, the hopelessness. They were calling for a comprehensive, coordinated plan to end the blood bath.
Now, I walked in there expecting I would hear community leaders rage about, you know, how decades of injustice and marginalizing whole communities, was a recipe for violence. I thought they would remind us that the very victims of the carnage are the people who are getting blamed. I thought I’d hear politicians who would make speeches about how unemployment, inferior education, and pouring resources into youth and community development, this would benefit all of us. But that’s not what I had walked into at all. No, instead, this memorial was a, kind of, sacred musical cane. A mix of opera and choral music, sung in English and Spanish with strains of the blues and African-American spirituals, punctuated by a poetic libretto with an art installation and candlelight and photographs projected images of those left behind. Tear stained faces wide in disbelief or pinched tight in pain. Pictures of people holding each other up – their grief too much to bear alone. My surprise of what this memorial was, quickly melted into a feeling that, yes, this was exactly right. This was how to remember children who would never grow up to be young men and young women.
I remember a poem I read in college, it stayed with me all these years, by the poet Bill Knott; just three simple lines.
The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead
And then youth performers walked the aisles and took photographs from people. Photographs of their slain loved ones. And they brought those photographs to the altar and began to build this tall sculpture of smiling children’s faces – a mound of grief growing before us. And then they scattered all about as the names were read. “Rahim Washington, Eva Henry, Jose Corona…” Each name pierced the air!
And those youth performers, one of them came right by me. A 16-year-old girl with a round face, a very solemn face, so close her hand was brushing my shoulder and she lit her candle and she leaned over and lit mine and then gestured with her head for me to light the candle, the man beside me. And all of a sudden, candlelight was swimming up and down the pews of St. Sabinas as more names were read. “Alanzo Jones, Kabauro Ottowani, Arianna Gibson…” It was as if I could hear a drumbeat underscoring every name, every life. And then, this teenager blew out her flame, and poof, poof, poof, all of the sanctuary, flames gone, blown out. And she handed me her extinguished candle and left. It took me a moment to look into the aisle beside me and see her shoes were still there. All up and down the aisles of St. Sabinas. No more teens, just their empty shoes. My heart collapsed, gave way to the sound of a beating drum, and the memory flooded in.
Nineteen sixty-five. The first time I saw him, he was playing the drums or I should say an upside-down waste basket. I had met Cecil 46 years before. We were both 15 years old and we were at the YCS regional conference. YCS. Young Christian Students. I had met, I had joined the local group at my school that year and I decided to go to the regional conference. It was held at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana just about an hour and a half outside of Chicago. Oh, it was a whole week at the end of summer. Seminars and speakers and panel discussions. It was such great fun. And most of all it meant friendships with kids from all over the city and neighboring states. And since things were completely segregated in the 1960s, that meant for most of us it would be our first interracial experience.
Now the night I met Cecil, we girls decided to sneak out of our dorm. We were going to sneak out of our dorm and go to the boys’ dorm after curfew. For someone like me who rarely broke the rules, this was high adventure. We dressed in dark turtlenecks and long pants. I could almost hear the theme music from the I Spy TV show. Wah wah wah wah. We actually crawled on our bellies, like, pulled ourselves with our elbows across this long empty field that separated us from the boys. And when we got to the boys’ dorm, those boys were in ecstasy… And not at all interested in us. Cecil, of slight build and wearing glasses and his friend tall, thin Joe, had instructed the other boys, who were white, and how to turn their metal wastebaskets into drums. And they’d given them the steady pulse that most of the boys could handle. And then Cecil and Joe, they played on top of their beat. Now Joe was like the master of ceremonies. He’d tipped back in his chair and drum between his legs and the call out to the boys and encourage them. “That’s right. You’re doing it. That’s right. That’s right.” Master of ceremonies.
Cecil was the serious one. He would cock his head to one side always an ear down to the drum. Monitoring if the intent and effect were one in the same. His rhythm seemed to come from the base of his spine, crawl up his back, push his arms from behind so fast that his hands would blur. These boys looked so blissed out, their faces seemed to say, “Yes. What you’re playing goes with what I’m playing, goes with what he’s playing. Yes, yes, yes. We’re in this together. Yes.”
Well, after that regional conference, at the end of the week. We had small group discussions throughout the week. Oh, Cecil was in my group so I saw him every day. And we talked about group leadership and school spirit and racial stereotyping. And sometimes after that seminar Cecil and I just weren’t done; we had to keep talking, piggybacking off of each other’s ideas. We walked the cinder running track back behind the classrooms.
Cecil’d say things like, “They should have a UN for kids!” And I go, “Yeah!” I’d agree. “Yeah! I wish we could meet kids from China and Africa and France!” Having just met kids from the other side of the city, the other side of the color line, we were ready to take on the world. And then by the end of that week was Friday night dance. Now in my neighborhood the thought of dancing with a boy who was black, it would have been unheard of. An impossibility, but by the end of the week, hey, Cecil was my pal. Of course, I would dance with Cecil.
And when Cecil came towards me. He was shorter than me. He looked tall and elegant. And he took my hand like it was a jewel. And he walked me out to an empty space on the dance floor and we began to slow dance. Now in my neighborhood, slow dancing meant the boys and girls would fall on each other and kind of move sideways, swaying like zombies. But with Cecil slow dancing meant walking coolly, purposefully, covering that dance floor three, four times with space between your bodies to twist and dip. Cecil would duck under my arm, he would twirl me in light circles. He would graze his hand across my waist as he circled me. I looked great just standing there.
Well, after that regional conference, I joined citywide YCS. And so did Cecil. We had meetings. We had more dances. We had picnics at the lakefront. We had press conferences to announce our newest initiatives but, most of all, what we did was plan study days, kind of like the regional conference. We bring kids together from all over the city and we would study, look at some kind of social justice issue. And once Cecil and I co-chaired a study day examining the black power movement. Ah, the day was exciting and contentious and scary and thrilling. We got people thinking and some people really upset and angry. And I just remember afterwards sharing a Coke with Cecil and the two of us sitting there saying, “We did it! We did it!” Though, I don’t think either of us quite knew what we had done.
I remember that last leadership meeting in 1967, we were juniors in high school. It was the last meeting that Cecil attended. One of our adult mentors suggested an icebreaker for the beginning of the meeting. He said, “Why don’t you go ‘round and everybody say how they want to be remembered. You tell us what you would want written on your gravestone.”
Well, Katie went first and she said, “I want my gravestone to say she was alive.” And I went next and I joked I want my gravestone to say she IS alive. And everybody started laughing. And then Cecil said. Cecil said. Cecil said, “What?” See, he’s after me and I thought this mixture of pride and self-consciousness because I made everybody laugh so I don’t remember what Cecil said. I mean he was the good listener not me. What did Cecil want on his gravestone. It became so important to remember.
The first thing we heard was that he’d been shot. I stayed on the phone with YCS friends long into the night. It was as if we held a phone vigil. Maybe we could pull him through. Cecil and Joe had been to a dance in their neighborhood that night and they were walking home and this other kid, older a little bit. They didn’t know him. Walked up to them and said, “Where are you from?” And Cecil, just as any good, Catholic, Chicago kid would, he answered, his parish, Sacred Heart. “BOOM!” Just like that. The kid took out a gun and shot him. Cecil’s chest lay open to the moonless sky. We didn’t know many details, we just heard that Joe didn’t know what to do. I mean stay with this friend or go run for help. There were no cell phones back then. And I just keep picturing Joe with Cecil, then running to get help and then like a film thrown into reverse, running back. And then, “No, no! We should get help.” And running, just not knowing what to do.
I’d never been to the wake of a young person, a teenager, somebody my age. When we got to the funeral home, women with hats and powdery cheeks and older women smelling of perfume were milling about. And I was in grief before I even walked into that main room because I realized that Cecil had grown up much as I did. Leaned into the body of mothers and aunties and grandmas. The soft flesh of women’s arms wrapped around him, falling asleep in the heat of their bodies. And I knew with surety that the dividing line, that color line, in our city separated me not only from my black friends but from the familiness of my black friends. And then I saw, uh, Joe and as high as his face could lift and a smile was how far it fell. His skin hung loose over his jaw. “Thanks for coming,” he said. Still the master of ceremonies, we YCS kids, white, black and brown walked to the casket together.
We stared at Cecil’s body of brackish dust. Part death, part Cecil, still. He looked like a jewel floating on the white, pleated linen below him. He looked so young, like a child. Way too young to be dead. I saw that dead people looked a lot like. White people may be a little more pasty, chalky, white. Black people may be more ashy gray. But both as far away as the deepest stone at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
The adults, they knew the manners of death. They held out holy cards to people. They, they prayed their Hail Marys and Our Fathers. But we kids were lucky, we were young, we didn’t have to say things like, “Oh, he looks good.” No, we just stood there silent…shattered. Maybe it was me, I don’t know, who broke first. I don’t know who fell on me and who I fell where my body began or where it ended. I just know the room melted away as we cradled each other in front of Cecil McClure’s casket.
It’s as if we just wanted to crawl into each other’s comfort. To hold each other as we felt the truth of it. Our friend is dead. Our friend dead. Our friend is dead. The truth beat against our hearts like a drum.
“Terence Hollands, Delvonta Porter, Devon Varner…” the reading, the memorial reading of the names continues. Four thousand children shot, 263 children dead. The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead. The same youth performers came out into the sanctuary again. My same teen, my sentinel, at my side, appeared and she gestured for me to stand up. And all over the sanctuary, the teens were leading us outside for a profession, procession, a procession through our neighborhood to reclaim our streets. To put an end to violence.
A musician, one of the violinists, led that procession. Playing a song, now a refrain, we had heard often in the service, so everybody began to sing. “Pour out your heart like water for the lives of our children. Let justice roll like an ever-flowing stream.” We turned a corner and television cameras appeared. It felt like an obstruction, kind of obscene. You know, we’ve been in the quiet of the sanctuary, then the quiet of the night and then, boom, these bright white lights. Like a self-conscious kind of spectacle. But also, you know, lending a kind of layer extra layer of importance to the ritual. I mean we did want people to know. To know so that maybe we could believe that the denial was over. People were coming together because it was in our power to change things.
When their procession was over, I hugged my teen goodbye. I thanked her. And I went to walk to the parking lot to get my car but I thought, “No, I’ll go in the church and a look. I’ll just see.” I went into the church and I found it. The sign-in book was still there. I found my name and I checked yes. Yes, I had lost a loved one to violence. Yes, I will work for peace. Have to commit to peace. For all the children still living, growing and dreaming in every neighborhood across this nation.
In 1804, Lewis & Clark crossed The Great Plains and dangerous Rocky Mountains to finally see the Pacific Ocean for the first time! One person who was part of this Corps of Discovery was an African American man named York. While York was not always credited with his part in the Western exploration, his contributions were a large part of Lewis and Clark’s success.
How did York’s experience of the Expedition vary from that of the other men?
How was York instrumental to the success of the Expedition?
What was Sacagawea’s impact on the success of the trip?
African American/Black History
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hello, my name is Bobby Norfolk and I’d like to do a piece from a one-person show called “Through the Eyes of York” based on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Hello, my name is York. That’s right. Just York. Y-O-R-K. Born in Virginia around the year 1771, they tell me.
Now somebody asked me, “Why did they name you York anyway?”
Huh, huh! Good question. I was born New York town, New York County, near the York River. Now y’all do the math. Now my mama, her name was Mama Rose. My daddy. Huh, his name was Old York.
And I had no idea when I was a kid back in Virginia, I was the property of William Clark. You know, I was his body servant, fancy name for the slaves that worked in the house instead of out in the field.
While I was racing with William Clark one day, I was a fast runner, y’all, boogity, boogity, boogity. Ha, ha, I beat him. He got mad. “Mmm, I’mon beat you!” Hit me! Bam! Whoa! I hit him back. Boom! The overseer saw it.
“Boy, you hit Mister Clark’s son!” Hit me with a whip! Pi-yah! Oww! I ran to my mama. “Mama Rose, Mama Rose! That man hit me with a whip.”
“That man ova der.”
What did you do?”
“York, we are owned by the Clark family. We are their property. You can’t knock that white boy down. You gon get us all killed; are you a fool? Now, if you hit him, you better not come back to this house. You don’t hit him back!”
“Yes, ma’am.” I had to sit down and think about that. Property? Owners? I knowed you can own cows, pigs, horses and chickens. How can you own another human being?
But I grew up. William Clark grew up. Then we became young men in our early thirties and a friend of William Clark named Thomas Jefferson. Oh, yeah! He lived up there in Virginia with another man named Meriwether Lewis. Well, Meriwether Lewis got this letter from Thomas Jefferson said he wanted us to explore this new territory altogether. And so, Master Clark took me.
So, we started off. May 14th, 1804 exploring the Louisiana Purchase territory. Science lesson.
We put our keelboats and pirogues in the water. Splash-ah! Going noff against the mighty current of the mighty Missouri River and so we put our poles into the river and we pushed the pole south. The boat, we goin’ noff! Oh, it was back breaking labor! Kkk-kuh! And that mud was so thick, it kept getting my stick stuck. They call the Missouri River “Big Muddy” just because of that river.
Then, y’all, we got up into Noff Dakota. It was wintertime, ooh! Seven or below zero. We stayed with the Mandan Indians. The Mandan Indians did not live in tepees; they lived in earth lodges made out of earth and wood. So, they started to interpret back and forth to spend, ah, winter of 1804-1805 and, all of a sudden, the Mandan chiefs saw me. Unggg! They started pulling at me. I said, “What? What’s that? What’s their problem?”
They had never seen an African-American person before. All the thousands of years that the plains people have lived on this continent, York was the first African-American person they had seen and they thought my skin color was paint. They thought I painted myself brown. The bravest warriors, the most powerful warriors, the most courageous warriors in all the Indian villages would paint themselves with brown paint so they thought I were real brave. They thought I had been dipped in chocolate (pp – set to dry) ’til the chiefs tried to rub off my paint. At the interpreter, “What are they doin’ rubbin’ off paint. Heh, heh, heh, heh! Tell them this is skin.”
They rub harder. Paint! I say “Oww! You gon start a fire in a minute. This is not paint!”
And they thought, at that point, I was a supernatural creature. They thought I was a shapeshifter sent down by the Great Spirit of a great mystery to visit and they called me Big Medicine, Big Medicine. They started following me around like I was supernatural. Big Medicine, he’s the one. Lewis and Clark said, “This is gettin’ otta hand! They think he’s the leada. York, York! York, York!”
“Yessir, what’s up?”
“Tone it down, tone it down, boy! You gittin’ too big for your britches!”
I couldn’t tone it down too much because the Indians knew if I would ever attack them, it would be the end of the Indian nations! Big Medicine would retaliate.
Well, one time, y’all, we wa goin’ over the Rocky Mountains and headed down into the colder regions and down into Montana and, all of a sudden, a big huge storm broke out and that storm was capsizin’ canoes. And we started swimmin’ back and forth and I saved all them supplies and I got some respect from them white boys after that. I was not just a body servant.
It’s about da time we finally got to Astoria, Oregon, we had to vote to say where we would spend our campsite in. I got to vote. Sa-cag-a-wea, which some of y’all call Sac-a-jaw-ea, she got to vote. First time that an Indian and an African-American person had voted in a government sanctioned election.
But we returned back to St. Louis, September 23rd, 1806. Only lost one man in that whole expedition, from appendicitis. The men, they got 320 acres of land, double pay – thousand dollars. I went to Mr. Clark. “Sir, mission accomplished. I may not get land or money. What about my freedom from slavery?”
He said, “York, I can’t give you your freedom. You still my slave!”
I said, “Sir. I beg to differ. I’ve worked with you for two years to get over the Rocky Mountains, go through the Indian Territory, get back to St. Louis. Give me my freedom, sir!”
“York, back up off me, boy! Can’t give you your freedom!”
I didn’t back off. I got insolent and sulky, according to him. He had overseers tie me up and whip me with 50 lashes across my back. I say, “Well, let me see my wife, sir. I haven’t seen her in two years. I’m the only man that was married in the Corps of Discovery.”
“How ‘bout y’all go see your wife down in Louisville, Kentucky. Mo… By the way, she gonna be sold off to another master in Natchez, Mississippi so you will never see her again anyway. Find yourself another white boy. And if you don’t come back to St. Louis in two weeks, I will send the slave catchers after ya and send you down to a severe master in New Orleans, Louisiana.
York returned back to St. Louis and it took five years for William Clark to give York his freedom. Somebody said his wife was in Nashville and he went looking for her in Tennessee instead of Natchez in Mississippi. Other historians claim that he died of cholera in the big cholera epidemic in St. Louis.
But I tell you what, long after York passed away, the former governor of Missouri Bob Holden made York Honorary Sergeant in the Missouri National Guard. Before William Clinton left the White House, he made York Honorary Sergeant in the United States Army. We have the U.S. Constitution and in it, we have amendments to correct our flaws. Better late than never for York to enter United States history. Through the Eyes of York.
At age 16, in 1855, Jane’s great-grandfather sailed from Long Island, N.Y. around the Horn to San Francisco where he was stranded! He took a job with Wells Fargo as a treasure agent in the Sacramento-Shasta Mining District…the home of the Shasta Indian Nation. In 1860 he rode the first leg east for the Pony Express. He was also a member of San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee, a group of 6000 men, committed to establishing “law and order.” How do we seek understanding of both the pride and the discomfort our ancestor’s stories?
How did the varieties of available transportation and the movement of people in the mid-1800s contribute to the ‘opening of the West’? Martin Luther King said, “The arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” How does that quote fit with the opening of the West? How has social media changed the way we learn about how people are being oppressed today?
If you were to create tableaux or pictures from this story, how might you picture the Shasta Nation? the miners? the Vigilance Committee? the U.S. Army? the Pony Express? How might you depict each group’s point of view and predicament?
Because Brinck is a member of Jane’s family, when she tells this story to her grandchildren, what should she tell them? Why?
A biography of Jane’s Great Grandfather: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbert_Adrian_Brinckerhoff
Website – About the Shasta Nation Territory: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shasta-Trinty_National_Forest and www.fs.usda.gov/stnf
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hello, I’m Jane Stenson. I’d like to tell you an excerpt from a story, “Another Way West.” It’s a story about my great-grandfather. His name, his long name was Elbert Adrian Brinkerhoff. Everybody called him Brink. He was really short. He was a very slight kid but really short. I mean, he was probably about my height, about 5’2” or 5’3”. And he loved horses. Well, actually, what he liked to do, was to race horses. He lived for school to be over at the end of the day. And then he would jump on his horse, he would race out to the general store, pick up the family’s mail, and race home.
In 1855, he graduated from a school where his father was Headmaster and he was all set to go to college. But what happened was that a letter came. And following that letter, came the author of the letter, a Captain Joseph Hamilton. And he is, his clipper ship was in New York Harbor but he was a war friend of Brink’s father. So, they invited him out to Long Island, to their house. And he began to talk about the clipper ship, about how beautiful it was, about the white sails on the ship, and how fast it was. It went faster than anything else that was out there. And about how much money you could make in the around the world cargo trade. So, the more he talked, the more interested Brink became. And when Captain Hamilton invited Brink to go along with him on this around the world cargo trade, and that he would teach bring all about how to make money in the cargo trade, it was very easy for Bring to defer college and decide to go around the world.
So, they left New York Harbor. They went south, ah, east, southeast all the way down and around the big bump in South America, and all the way down and around under Cape Horn, all the way up the west side of South America, Central America, up to San Francisco. And in San Francisco, when they offloaded all that cargo, Brink found out it was just ordinary things. Things, which in 1855, would be important to the people that were settling out there. Eggs, whiskey, cotton cloth. And things that were important to the miners like picks and shovels and boots. Soon as the cargo was offloaded, Captain Hamilton, now this was unexpected, but Captain Hamilton got a cargo all the way back to New York. Brink didn’t get to go around the world. In fact, he was stranded in San Francisco.
Well, he had skills; horses, he was educated, for the time, and he was amili… amiable. He was a good kid. So, he went, with his letter of introduction, to Wells Fargo and he got himself a job. He was a Treasury Agent. And it was a perfect job for him because it was all about riding his horse through his territory, which was San Francisco up to Sacramento, and then out beyond Sacramento into the Shasta mining district.
Well, he delivered the mail. Yeah. So, he put on his slouch hat and his bright, red shirt and he’d jump on his horse and he’d whack and he’d bang on the door of a claim. And somebody inside the claim of the gold mine would know that there was a letter. And then, in those days, if he was delivering the mail, it was the recipient of the letter who paid the bill. So, they would offer not cash because those miners didn’t have a lot of cash. What they had were vials of gold. He might get half an ounce of gold for delivering one letter. That’s probably about $300 in today’s, today’s money. Or, or he delivered newspapers that were five or six months old. And the miners will pay anywhere from 8 to $150 for those letters.
And then a letter would be there. Somebody would climb up the ladder from inside the claim and they would pay the pony man. Brink would hand over the letter and then he jumped back on his horse, three blasts on his horn, and a way he was down the trail, down the creek bed, wherever he was to go on to the next house. He liked that job.
And in fact, as Treasury Agent, he got to know where everything was. Where people lived in that, in that whole area between San Francisco and Sacramento and up into the Shasta area. He got to know which claims were mining gold, which claims were beginning to dry up and he got to know about the Shasta Indians. Where they lived, how they were moving, if they were moving, what they were doing, and that was part of his job. Part of his job was to keep track of those things for Wells Fargo.
Well, this was 1855, 1856 when he had this job. And when the Gold Rush had started in 1849, miners began to pour into California followed by the settlers. And those miners’ white tents sprang up all over the Shasta district, like some sort of non-native invasive species. And the miners, they were interested in the gold. They panned for the gold. They found gold inside of caves and they gouged inside the caves. And the fish went belly up and the land that the… the game on the land went scarce. Well, that was the Shasta Indians way of life. That was their food. And the Shasta Indians began to realize with more and more people coming in, that they were losing not just their food source, they were losing their entire way of life.
In, in 1849, as the gold rush started, there were 290 people in Sacramento. And just in 1856, when Brink got this job, there were 400,000 people in Sacramento. Four hundred thousand people interested in becoming rich. Rich with gold. Rich with owning land. And the Indian began to understand that he was losing. He was losing again and again. Some of the Indians began to raid. Some of the Indians began to massacre. There were problems. And the government, which was represented by the U.S. Army at that time, decided that they needed to protect the Indian. And that the Indian needed to be moved out of the Shasta District and on to a reservation.
They hired Treasury Agents to do that job. Brink was a member of the Vigilance Committee in San Francisco. That was a group of men, six thousand strong, who were committed to law and order in California. And that’s what they wanted to do. So, he took that job, that extra job, extra work for him, because he knew where the Shasta Indians were. He gathered them. He collected them. And he marched them to Nomlaki, which was a piece of land where nobody wanted to settle. It was poor. Nothing grew there. It was bad land. But he marched those Indians, with friends, with other people, to that military reservation that was quickly and poorly constructed. I don’t know how he felt about what he did because in his journal he simply documented that he had participated in that…march.
I do know that he liked his job as a Treasury Agent because he wrote about it. And he wrote about the people that he met and he, and how he likes delivering the mail and keeping track of all the things that were going on. He wrote about how beautiful the land was in the Shasta nation. About the hunting and the fishing that he did on his days off. But about his participation for the few days of the, the Indian march to Nomlaki, he simply documented that he had participated in that.
Well, I have to tell you that he went back to his regular job after that. And he was honored by Wells Fargo for the good job that he did as a Treasury Agent. They asked him if he would be interested in riding the first leg of the Pony Express East. Well, he said yes. And so, he carried, in 1860, he carried his mail pouch of 56 letters from San Francisco up to Sacramento, and then he handed the mail pouch off to the Overland rider, who would take all those letters to um, to the east coast. At that time, the people who wrote the letters were the ones who paid $5 for each letter going east.
Well, I have to say, in thinking about my great-grandfather Brink, the family stories that have come down to us, are all about his participation in the Pony Express and what an adventure it was and how romantic it was. And how great it was that he got to do that and I believe that.
Do we talk about his role as a member of the Vigilance Committee and his role in dislocating the Indians from their, from their nation, from their land? No. I had to look that information up. It was not information that was handed down in the family stories. Now, at the time that he did that, he was 18 years old. And he was probably not as wise then as he became later on in his life. That he moved 300 people from their land to a reservation is not praiseworthy by any standard. Yet it’s part of a lot of white family histories in this country.
Dr. Martin Luther King said that, “The arc of moral history is long. But that it bends toward truth.”
Stories about our ancestors help us understand who we are. Encountering troubling revelations about her forebears and their Indian neighbors in colonial New England, Jo asks what it means to tell – and live with – her whole, complex history.
Distant Relations: How My Ancestors Colonized North America by Victoria Freeman
Journals of Major Robert Rogers (1769) repr. in The Annotated and Illustrated Journals of Major Robert Rogers, ed. Timothy J. Todish and Gary Zaboly. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mt. Press Ltd., 2002.
www.nedoba.org (information concerning Wabanaki People of interior New England)
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Jo Radner and this is an excerpt from a long story called “Braving the Middle Ground.” When I was a child, I wanted to be an Indian. I practiced being silent in the woods of western Maine.
I knew there’d been Indians there ’cause my Uncle Bob found arrowheads in his cow pasture but somehow they had disappeared. And now we were there. My grandmother told me that my English ancestors had founded several towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and Maine. I was proud. I thought we’d been here since 1635. But then when I studied history, I realized what it meant to found all those towns. My ancestors had been among the first people to take the Indians’ land, to cut down the forests, to fence the fields, to feel entitled to destroy the way of life of native people.
And then when they studied my own family history later on, I found more things I didn’t want to know. Some of my ancestors had been members of Rogers’ Rangers, the special forces of the 18th century British army trained to use Indian woodcraft against the Indians. Indian killers! I’d heard about their famous 1759 raid on the Abenaki mission village of St. Francis in Quebec.
The heroic story! A select troop slogged 150 miles through untracked wilderness. Nine days wading in icy waters in a spruce bog to carry off a dawn raid that destroyed the village of St. Francis, from which the French and Indians had launched so many raids on New England.
And then my Abenaki friends told me the not so heroic stories. Most of the people that Rogers’ Rangers killed in St. Francis were women and children. One ranger was walking past an Indian baby lying on the ground. Major Rogers told him to kill it. “I can’t!” he said.
And Rogers snarled, “Next will be lice!” and crushed the child’s head! My ancestors were Rogers’ Rangers. I was relieved when I discovered that my most direct Ranger ancestors John and Stephen Farrington had been too young to go on that raid. The story of John Farrington, my great-great-great-grand uncle haunts me.
When he was a 10 year old boy, tall and strong working in a field, a party of Abenakis burst out of the woods, captured him and carried him off quickly toward Canada. When they stopped on the way, they dressed John in Abenaki clothing. They painted his body and then to finish the ritual, one of the young Indians took a finger full of red paint and told John to stick out his tongue so he could paint a stripe on it.
John obeyed. But when the Indian put his finger in his mouth, John bit it and he wouldn’t let go. And the Abenakis were startled and then they burst out laughing. They said, “He’ll be a good Indian!”
And they took him to St. Francis. He was adopted by an Indian family. They treated him kindly; he grew up playing games and hunting with the Indian boys.
He lived for eight years as an Abenaki. In that time, he married a daughter of a chieftain. I don’t know anything about his wife. I know nothing about children. But I do know that he wanted to leave; he tried twice! The first time, his own wife apprehended him as he was walking out of the village dressed as an Indian woman selling baskets.
The second time he was in Quebec City (which had fallen to the English) serving as interpreter to a party of Abernakis. And then he jumped into the middle of a troop of English soldiers and said he wanted to go back to New England. They argued; a merchant ransomed him. He stayed for eight months in Quebec working off his ransom. Went back to New Hampshire and joined the Rangers. He never fully lost contact. Family memoirs say that for the years, Abenakis from St. Francis came to visit him in New England. But he changed from Indian husband to Indian fighter. And I think that it was because of the stories that he heard when he was a young child in his own English family.
You know, it’s all in who gets to tell the stories and what stories they choose to tell. John’s ancestors had been treated kindly by Indians but his family didn’t tell those stories. The stories he heard were about how savages had murdered his great grandfather, had abducted his great aunt, had slaughtered four of her first six children. And when he was a toddler, his mother had held him up to see the massacred bodies of his uncle’s! A family memoir says, “It would seem only natural that in later years, John became a terror to the Indians far and near.” Only natural?
There is an Abernaki legend about a cannibal monster with an icy heart who comes to devour a small family but the mother of the family welcomes him as if he is her father. She washes him and dresses him. She and her husband tell him family stories. They treat him like a beloved relative and the monster sits surly for three days.
And then… he drinks a kettle of boiling grease. It melts his icy heart. It purges all the evil he’s done and after that, he lives with the family and takes care of them. I wish my family had been able to live kindly and peaceably. I wish history had taken a different turn. John Farrington was an Indian fighter all his life. But in some sense he was still an Abenaki. His son Samuel wrote that in his last years, John’s early Indian life came back to him and he would take his blanket out into the woods without shelter and lie quietly for the night.
Do I still want to be an Indian? No. I want to learn to live well with my whole history, to recognize the monstrosities and the kindnesses that lie behind me. To make family of all kinds, to melt my own icy heart!
The “Indian Experiment” in education, the government boarding schools, is unknown to many Americans, yet affects us all. Following forty years of study of these stories, Dovie knew she had to share what she’d learned that would be essential to her daughter, and all of us. She weaves history, biography, autobiography and personal reflection in this story that she never “wanted” to tell. But there are some stories that need to be told…
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:
Had you heard about the Indian Boarding schools? Why has this part of American history been largely hidden?
What political and economic factors caused the U.S. Government to wage genocide against the First Nations?
How does witnessing and speaking about tragedies such as this help heal the spirit? What made it possible for Dovie’s Grandfather to start speaking out? How and when do you tell young people about the oppression of their group by others?
What factors in First Nation cultures supported families in surviving the unthinkable and continuing to thrive?
Hi, my name’s Dovie Thomason and I’d like to tell you an excerpt from a larger story called “The Spirit Survives.”
In 1966, I went away to college on a minority academic scholarship. Ironically, my free ride to this posh private school was paid by a railroad dynasty. They got wealthy breaking their treaty with my tribe the Lakotas. And so I went to this school and somehow persuaded them to let me major in American Indian Studies. This major did not exist in the United States, as yet, so it was an independent study.
I was in the library one day. It was a massive library but it had only one book about Indians written by Indians. I remember this volume just fell off the shelf into my hand. It opened, on its own, to a page called School Days of an Indian Girl. The author’s name was Gertrude Bonnin. I didn’t know her name. I turned to the notes and some anthropologist had written, “One of the most important women ever in American history!”
“I don’t know her name,” I thought to myself! An Indian woman, one of the most important women in American history! I started to read that chapter. There I was, the only Indian girl in this posh college reading about this girl in 1884!
She wanted to go to college; she wanted to go to school and, ultimately, college. She’d heard about school from the big-hatted, big-hearted men, the Quaker missionaries on her Nakota reservation. Little Gertie Simmons wanted to go to school. She went to her mother; her mother did not want her to go. Her son had gone to school! He’d gone to school when the Indian agents came and threatened her, telling her they would withhold her rations unless she signed her mark on a document she could not read. She’d signed and lost her son! She wasn’t gonna lose her baby girl!
But little Gertie was strong willed and relentless! After a time, her mother sighed, I can imagine, and signed that document and little Gertie got on a train. She wasn’t eight years old; it was not even six years after the defeat of Custer. But this little one got on a train and took off!
She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t know it was hundreds of miles from her home. She didn’t know it would be years before she’d ever return! She just wanted to go to this place. This Quaker man had told her of a place where the apples were like rosy clouds in the sky.
They rode that train for days and when they got there, there was no one! There were no apples and so that child, she curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets at night. They weren’t ready for these children that were arriving and these children had never spent a night without their relatives. She curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets when another girl came up to her and said (whispering), “Tomorrow they’re gonna cut our hair!”
“Why would they cut my hair?” said Gertie. Now she was frightened. They cut hair when your families died. They cut hair for grieving. They cut hair if you’re a coward. “There’s no reason for them to cut my hair. They will not cut my hair.”
And the girl said, “You’ll see! They are strong.”
Little Gertie was strong willed and she decided to resist. When they came for her the next morning, she was hiding but they found her. They dragged her screaming out from under the furniture. They tied her into a chair and she felt the cold steel of those scissors as they cut her braids. She heard the heavy thump of her hair hitting the floor. That night she cried herself to sleep. Alone, until that same girl came and comforted her using words in our language, words a mother would use with a baby. And then she said (quietly), “Don’t speak these words where they can hear you. They’ll hurt you! They’re strong; you can’t fight them!”
But little Gertie was one to resist. She was a smart child; she’d wanted to go to school. And so the… though she saw children getting sick, some going home where they infected their families, some moving off campus so if anything happened they wouldn’t be part of the death statistics for the school, little Gertie, she tried to study! She wanted to be there. She wanted to learn and she had a gift for listening and repeating what she learned. She had a musical gift – a voice made for song! She found a Quaker sponsor.
She did well in school. And that Quaker sponsor watched her and in the school, Gertie got exposed to other ideas. She did well in that school. Some of the children didn’t do so well. They got nightmares, night sweats, sleep walking; they woke ready to fight. They had trachoma and tuberculosis, smallpox – but it was the loneliness, the homesickness!
After a time, Gertie finished with the school. She decided she’d go home and visit her mother. But when she got home, she found this was not a place she belonged any more.
“My mother has never read a book!” she wrote. “My mother has never been inside a schoolhouse. How could she comfort a girl who can read and write? I no longer belong here. I am not a wild Indian or a tame one.”
And so she turned her back on her mother. She turned her back on the reservation and she went east. Going east, she found another sponsor; she went away to college. She started the debate team. She won awards, she told stories and recitations for presidents. She got a scholarship, another sponsor. She was to go to the New England Conservatory for Music. She was supposed to perform at the Paris Exposition.
But while she was summering in New York, she heard of the death of her fiancé. Now when she heard of this, suddenly Gertrude Simmons ceased to exist.
She renamed herself “Zitkala Ša” Redbird! She took the pins out of her hair and let long braids fall. She put off her Victorian clothes and started to wear buckskin. She started to organize for a vote and citizenship for Indian people. She started to organize for an education that wouldn’t mean the extinction of a culture. She believed a race of people – rich cultures – could not be seen as a problem that the government needed to fix with an experiment. She lost her sponsor but she started publishing. She published a book called “American Indian Stories” in 1901.
That was the book that fell into my hand. That was the book that changed my life for the last 40 years. You see, I think I was looking for a long-lost Lakota grandmother and I found her in the pages of the stories this woman wrote. Collected stories from old people that she met and survived the Indian wars and her own memories of this debilitating experience in the government schools. To tell you the truth, when I tell a story, I don’t know if it’s mine, my grandma’s or Zitkala Ša’s. Her life is woven with mine. We keep running into each other. She’s been my constant companion for so long. You see, it’s people who’s names you may not even know. Those are the people who are history. That’s what history is. That’s one of the things that Gertrude Bonnin “Zitkala Ša” told me!
Hi, my name is Dovie Thomason. And this is a piece of a longer story called “The Spirit Survives.”
I was standing in a graveyard with my daughter on Labor Day weekend a number of years ago. She was just almost 13 and wondered about my choice of end of summer vacation locations. Other people were with us. We weren’t alone. There was a movement of many people going through headstones. Soft voices, gifts being placed on identical markers. We were in Carlisle, Pennsylvania near where we live, at the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. We were there as a part of a group of people who had come to put up a historical marker. Most of group descendants of the survivors of the school who had pressured the state of Pennsylvania to acknowledge the need for a historical marker in this place. You see, it’s a military base. It has always been a military base. It was won during the French and Indian Wars. It’s where Custer and his cavalry trained before riding west. And in 1918, it again became a military base and is to this day. Mostly residential barracks for military families. But for a brief time in 1879, it opened its doors as the first government residential school for Indian children. It was not voluntary. These children were considered hostages for the good behavior of their parents who were still at war with Custer and the cavalry. And now with all these graves, people would drive past and assume it was military graves. What they didn’t know was it did mark a battlefield but the victims were children. These were the graves of Indian children and no one knew. We wanted to shed light on this dark chapter of American history. We thought that the thing that had been concealed – it was time to bring it into clear view.
Now, my daughter knew some of this. Her grandpa had gone to government school, not this one, one of the later ones modeled after this one. But she didn’t know much about Carlisle. You see, there are some stories you don’t want to tell your children but those are the stories you probably need to tell them. Grandpa used to talk about the schools but in those times, well, years past when my daughter was not yet a teen, Grandma would stop him. “It upsets him,” she would say. “It does no good to talk about it. That was back then. That was long ago. It does no good. It upsets him.” There are some stories you don’t want to tell your children. Well, it did upset Grandpa and he didn’t tell them in front of Grandma. He told them to me and I shared them with my daughter. I didn’t want to tell my daughter. There are some stories you don’t want to tell your daughter but I knew it was a story I had to tell her.
Grandpa was taken when he was 4 to the schools. For 12 years he was there. He had been taken from his grandfather and for 12 years he never saw him. He was taken with other children. Little ones who only spoke their native language – the Oneida language. He was taken with those boys and the only time they could speak the language was when they snuck off out of sight. When they were supposed to be working in the fields. The children worked in the fields, they raised chickens… for the chickens and the eggs. Grandpa would always say, “Chickens and eggs! Never ate chickens and eggs. We ate mush every meal! The mush hole, that’s what I call that!” He’s still angry when he says those words, remembering the beatings he would get for calling it that when he was a child. “They just took the chickens and eggs for the government when they visited so they could see that the children were getting civilized and making progress! The mush hole!” They were little children. They were hungry. They were eating the scraps the staff threw out the windows for the birds. Grandpa does get upset when he tells these stories.
The children would take potatoes from the field and they’d stuff ’em in their clothes. Grandpa never could understand how something he had planted, something he had harvested wasn’t his and that if he took it, he was stealing. He could be beaten for that. But they were hungry, these children and they would heat them behind the boilers until they were roasted and eat them at night. So many stories he told me. So many stories he now tells his granddaughter. But on this day, on this day he was gonna tell a story that I never expected.
As I was standing there thinking about he had told me, my daughter waved at me. “Grandpa’s trying to get your attention.” We had a ceremony to go to. Hundreds of descendants there to unveil this marker. As we walked over, her Grandpa came up to me and said, “I wanna talk.”
I said, “Well, oh, really! Well, ok, dad, you know, it is a pretty big crowd. You’re gonna have to use a microphone. Um. But you just get up there… and you just get up there and you tell your story!”
And he said, “I ain’t telling no story. You tell the story. I just need to talk.” And he got up there and he talked. He wasn’t the only one. Old men, old women, they got up there and each one of them and they talked. They talked of hard times and good times. They told funny stories, sad stories, heartbreaking stories, careers in the military, Indian service, lifetime friends, marriages made, suicides. Disease. Brokenness, what they are now calling post-traumatic stress. They all told their stories and there were lots of tears. Grandpa spoke. He was so brave. Those people he was talking to, hundreds of them, they weren’t strangers anymore once they told their stories. He’s still talk’n. He’s part of those who’ve taken part of the class action suit against the Government of Canada, provincial government to the Church of England. He’s one of those people who came together when the prime minister, in 2008, issued that apology to native peoples, the peoples of the First Nation, for the treatment of children in the schools. That’s all he ever wanted. He didn’t want reparations. He didn’t want a check. He wanted someone to say what happened to those children was wrong. He wanted the decency and the respect of an apology.
And so, he’s talking still. He just worked on a memorial at the school where he went. They’re not shy about talking anymore. And my daughter, her senior project was interviewing them and people on the reserve about what happened there. And when she finished that paper and handed it into our history teacher her senior year of high school, her history teacher didn’t know a thing about what my daughter wrote her and thanked her for teaching her something she didn’t know about America.