the true stories
In my childhood I wished to find an eagle's feather. It is a powerful medicine. In many cultures and through much time, it has been so. I remember seeing a drawing in a book depicting a young Cherokee warrior laying in wait by an eagle's nest to snatch a feather from the big raptor when it landed. The eagle has been associated with the sun and with the heavens because it flies at the highest altitude of all but a very few other birds.
The keenness of it's powers of sight are legendary and are also borne out by science. A very special bird which had become extremely rare when I was a child. This fact served to underscore the uniqueness and value of this creature. Indians and eagles seemed to me to be heading down the same path. They were on a sky-road which wound through river valleys and over mountains, finally passing through the Land of Memory and into the Realm of Myth.
The Hollywood depiction of Reel Injuns, we are all by now familiar with. I saw through much of that propaganda while yet a child. A rare encounter with traditional aboriginal people helped me immensely to see properly. Once I was treated to a visit to the only reservation in the vast state of Texas. It was the Alabama-Coushatta reserve up around Henderson. My grandmother took me to watch some young women cook up some corn mush and I ate a bowl with my grandma. It tasted familiar and it tasted good. I watched an old woman making a pair of moccasins. It was like watching my grandma shell beans.
I spent the longest time sitting with a very old man who was making flint arrowheads with a piece of deer horn. I knew he was a special man, I could feel it. We spoke of many things and my grandmother left us two alone. The old man told me about rattlesnakes. My grandma got some sarsaparilla root in a baby-food jar when we left. Not far away was a high hill-top and we stopped on the way home to look out over the country. It was here she told me about us being Cherokee. In that moment, I started to realize why I was always drawn to things aboriginal and had felt somehow comfortable in that traditional camp. My perspective was gently shifted from watching them doing things primitive and foreign to visiting a relative.
With time I grew in knowledge enough to see that as far as Indians were concerned, all I had read was written by European descended ethnographers, adventurers, soldiers and statesmen. Only a portion of the available materia aborigina was comprised of knowledge gained at first-hand and even this was necessarily filtered through the biases of a foreign psyche. I eventually began to read books by native peoples in addition to books about them.
In the sixties and in the eighties, I noticed a shift in the treatment of Indians in literature. It was nothing new, for the noble savage had been romanticized many years before, particularly in Europe. Especially in England and France. This served to suck up a bunch of non-native people into pseudo-aboriginal and neo-native ways of being and religions that were concocted from remnants of many vanquished families of man. When dipped in the solvent of symbology and separated out into its constituents, it becomes plain to see what is a bit of Carl Jung plastered onto the Cabala.
A book, Hanta Yo took us through the fictitious sex lives of the Lakota Sioux and the movies had us Dancing with Wolves when we weren't shape-shifting into Wolfens. Today there are TV stations dedicated to the aboriginal community. The content I have seen is working its Fabian-style campaign of conquest by predictive-programming. Much like All In The Family did to prepare the Americans for their future and Til Death Do Us Part did to prepare the British. It is hoped by old boys in bow-ties that we will all get on the same page eventually.
My encounters with aboriginal peoples were very limited until I came to Canada and began to travel about. Many of those encounters were highly negative and some of those encounters were inexplicably wonderful. In time, my emotions were ready to know a deeper historical truth and I learned of the residential school school systems that had been used in Canada, USA and Australia and other places. This horrid revelation served a good purpose, however, in that it made sense of the negative encounters I had experienced.
Another set of mountains lay just beyond the tears of this realization. One peak was that of not being tempted to take on the guilt of the perpetrators because I share some of their blood. Another peak was not living in a Trail of Tears Museum; perpetuating the victimization for another generation nor confusing history with fate because I share some of the blood of those victims. Yet another peak was realizing that a new tribe had come to be, one that was mixed and thus distinct from what came before even though it was dispersed to the point of being amorphous. All this has begun to knit together like a broken bone over much time.
Once, I found an ad for a rental cabin on a British Columbian Gulf Island one summer when my children were small. A couple from Issaquah, Washington owned it and were renting it out for one quarter what everyone else was charging. I phoned them to ask why and after hearing their story, I booked it for a week. My two sons were still quite young and I knew they would love it.
We found it to be a simple cabin on a huge lot with pine and arbutus trees. The state of wear only added to its charm. We spent very little time in the cabin as we were on a small island that had at least a dozen bays to explore as well as several points. There was one small mountain, which we climbed. The main focus was to be fishing. Salt-water fishing. Something I knew and wanted to pass on to the boys.
We were blessed to see otters, hawks, eagles, deer, squirrels, marmots, many kinds of reef fish and garter snakes. We gathered oysters and had a feast. We swam in bottle-green salt chuk among cod fry and hunted seashells until we were dizzy from the sun. Nights were unplugged and full of summer books, cool salt breezes and the promise of each new day. The point nearest to our cabin became a ritual place to visit to watch the sun go down. In the last light we would follow the trail back to our stove and beds.
The following summer we went again. This time we did all of the above plus we drove our rented car around the tiny island to check out every single bay. My boys were good at catching cod but most of the ones they caught were too small to keep. It became my mission to get some eating sized rock fish. I had never fished for them so I tried everything I knew how to do for ten days. On the last day of that trip, I was desperate and obsessed.
I rose very early and told my wife I would be on the point and would not come back til I caught a rock fish. Three or four hours later I heard my wife and the boys coming up the trail. I was in my aqua-socks, waist deep in the reef and empty handed. When my family was still several hundred yards away, it hit me.
The answer was simple. The waters here were so unpolluted they supported a huge variety of fish. Most abundant were cod fish. The entire coast of the island was swarming with them. I grabbed my youngest son's butterfly net and scooped several chubby specimens from a tide pool. I discarded my previous bait which had been dead cut-bait. I hooked a little cod through his nostrils and jaw, keeping him quite alive. I was using a hand-line that I had made from a piece of driftwood gathered from the first trip to this island. It had four coats of spar varnish, it fit my hand perfectly and floated if I dropped it. I could carry it in my back pocket. It was rigged with a tear-drop lead and a single hook about twelve inches up off a three-way swivel.
I could cast this rig with precision and I did so. There was a hollow in the reef about seven feet away from where I stood and I let her go in there. The weight carried the cod down fast and I began to roll up fairly fast to avoid snagging on the jagged reef rocks. After five or six turns round the wood and she was stuck fast. I jockeyed around the slippery rocks and pulled hard on the rig. It came away easy as pie but not in the same way as when the line has been parted. After a few turns, I saw it! A big bulgy-eyed rock fish rising like a u-boat and putting up no fuss. I unhooked it and flopped it in a deep tide pool. The cod was still alive and fine.
I had four fat beauties laid aside when my wife and sons scrambled out to the rocks I was on. I only used two bait fish and the whole process took about five minutes. They were all in the same hole I had been fishing for ten days. We cooked those up and had a feast. I learned that the rock fish had not recognized anything else I had thrown at them as being food. Only that which the Creator had already put there in abundance. If I would have put myself in the fishes position, I could have figured it out much earlier.
Several days before, we had tried fishing a different part of the island where a narrow passage separated us from the next small island. This water was deep and fast running with the tides. There were rocks to stand on and grasses growing a few meters in back of the rocks. It was prime garter snake territory. My eldest son had already caught one the day before. This day it was my turn.
After a good nibble on my bait and a tug to set the hook, I rolled up my line. I expected to see a greenling. Instead, a long fat slate coloured garter snake surfaced and went absolutely curly. It took my son and I many moments to unhook the indignant ribbon with teeth. We had both never seen or heard of anything like it. I checked with my biology professor friend in Texas and he had never heard of it either. A local adaptation to a plentiful food source, is what it was. We watched for an hour or so, as other snakes slithered across the hot rocks, plunged into the cold sea and swam back with their catch.
We returned a third time to the island. This time, the well was dry. We bought water to drink but I had to hike to the sea to haul buckets of water with which to flush the toilet. This got old fast. Even the otters seemed to mock me. I phoned the cabin owners in Washington and they put me in touch with a man who let us into a big luxury house for the remainder of our trip. The children were thrilled, now they had TV and could sleep in a loft!
We knew the island pretty well by now and something became clear to me as we hiked and drove around. The terrain had been changed drastically in the past one hundred years. I could tell that the trees were not original nor were all the open fields. This came into my mind when we drove past one particular point that was marked Off Limits. It was a preserve of the local band. There was no settlement on it but it had been left in its original condition from the beginning. If you weren't looking for the differences from your vantage on the road , you mayn't notice much.
I felt strongly drawn to it and after some consultation with and briefing of my family, we parked the rental some distance off, slipped the fence and plunged into another world. Leaving behind a parched land of dry grasses and stunted trees we entered a realm of man-high ferns and ancient cedars. It was cool and damp and little rivulets gurgled here and there through the brambles.
The trail was tiny but well worn with thousands of years of use. We could see the sea on both sides and in about ten minutes I saw my first “culturally modified tree”. It was a grand old cedar that bore the scars of carefully harvested bark. This was the stuff that ropes, fishing lines and whaling lines had been made from, as well as hats, bags, boxes, cloaks and shoes.
We were alone in the flesh but I could feel we were not alone on another level. Eventually we came to a small shelving beach that formed a semi-circle of polished rocks and broken stones. The land side was only twenty feet from the water and the water here was deep. It was also near a marine pass between ours and the next island. There was a large rock outcrop that was partly dry at this hour of the tide and I began to fish with my boys.
I caught a greenling right away and put it in a tide pool on the rock. We saw a few killer whales blowing through the pass and the sound of their breath coupled with their swift passage through the water lent a very special ambiance to this wonder-filled day. There was an eagle fishing around and occasionally roosting on a tree on the neighboring island with its catches. The boys quit fishing and started to explore.
I felt someone new and soon I verified this with my eyes. It was an aboriginal woman. I backed away from the pool where my fish was and continued to cast. My wife was monitoring the stranger's movements and watching the boys who were busy absorbing all the sights and sounds. We all were expecting to get a tongue lashing at best and maybe a worse eviction. The warning signs we had seen flashed through my mind. They had been very clear about not trespassing.
The woman slowly approached. But the closer she got the less anxiety I felt. My attitude at this time was that the earth was made by the Creator and any person respectful of that creation, of the belongings of others and of their hunting territories was free to roam where they would. No Indians ever owned the land and drew lines around it. Rather, they occupied it and their “ownership” was a small circle that moved around with their persons. Kind of like the safe distance that any undomesticated creature keeps from other creatures.
Eventually the lady came to the beach and we began to talk. She told us that we were lucky that the young men of the tribe hadn't found us first and I didn't doubt it. I told here that we meant no disrespect to her tribe, her band nor to the place itself. I told her I could clearly see and feel it was a special place but that I had not read up on it and did not know the story of the place.
I told her my background and then I told her the story of the Cherokees as a whole and also the story of the Texas Band of Cherokees. I told her my wife was a Malay from a place fifteen thousand miles away that had many small islands and many different tribes. They had been put through the European fire around the same time as North America by the same kind of people and using much the same tactics. In Texas there were no reserves nor schools for Indians, there was instead a Colt revolver.
The young woman and I both cried during the telling and when my stories were done I told her we would leave if she wished us to. She told us we could stay and we could keep the fish I'd caught. I didn't know she had spotted it and I hadn't mentioned it. My wife and the woman began to speak together and we were treated to the story of the beach.
It turns out that this beach was the traditional place for that band to teach their young to swim, to fish and to handle boats. Young men had launched whale-boats from here for longer than anyone knew. There were camps here in the summer for socializing and eating the fruits of the sea. This was also where neighboring bands made raids for the purpose of capturing some young women for wives, so the people wouldn't become weak from inbreeding.
The rocks here were perfect for tool making and for thousands of years, fish weights had been drilled and points of all kinds had been chipped on this very beach. The surrounding woods served as a battlefield for these inter-tribal skirmishes and some of the spent weapons remained where they fell to be covered with time. This was the place that the young people were brought to to find their first eagle feather. Our new friend was going to be hunting for arrow and spear points that day.
We thanked her for the story of the place and for welcoming us to be there that day. I asked her if I could look for my first eagle feather. I had been wanting to find it since I was very small. She told me very solemnly that I may but that it was tradition everywhere among aboriginals on this continent to give away the first such feather that one finds. They were extremely powerful objects and not to be taken lightly.
I promised and set off into the ferns to search. My wife began to poke around the crumbling bank of the beach on the land side. The lady kicked around the rocky part of the beach and picked up fragments of worked rocks to examine. I had gone about fifty feet away from the shore up a hill and it was dark inside the woods. I cast my gaze about me and all I saw was mossy logs and lichen-encrusted boulders.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I started to notice fish skeletons here and there. They were huge and they crumbled to dust if you touched them. They were under the ferns. Suddenly I made the connection. The eagle I had seen fishing kept bringing its catch to the trees on the other island. He was eating them in the woods. That is how the plants got fertilizer.
About this time a shaft of strong yellow sunlight shone down through the canopy when a puffy white cloud moved away from blocking it. I was standing about three feet from where the light created a golden puddle on a dense mattress of fir needles and cedar mulch. There in the middle of the light was an eagle's feather. I looked at it and then I looked up between the trees to the sky. I spoke my thanks. On the way back to the beach I found three more eagle's feathers.
I gave the first feather to the woman. She smiled and said that she had looked for three days as a girl before finding hers. She then continued searching around the beach. My wife came up to me and opened her hand. She had found two intact points while I had been gathering the feathers. The leaf-shaped spear point had lain thousands of years on that tiny beach and the arrow had been for several hundreds of years, its partner.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.