the true stories
Hu! This is a true story. As such, it doesn't really have a specific beginning, middle or end. Those things are better employed in carefully crafted fabrications, which also can be constructed to communicate a “moral” point across to the reader. Having made this distinction clear, I will say that in my opinion, reality doesn't have a beginning, middle or end and the morals drawn from a slice of life depend entirely on the observer and the framing of the narrative.
Visitors to my web-site and my friends already know that I am of mixed ancestry and part of this mix is Cherokee. It is blood passed down the female Texas side of my family. It is a strong part of my being and has spoken to me all my life. In Texas, from the nineteenth century until very recently, a native person had to exist underground. This is partially due to racial prejudice, but also because of the unique way in which what is now Texas came into being, as well as its geographic situation.
Prior to becoming a republic and later, a state of the union, Texas saw the migration of many displaced individuals. Red, brown,black and white. It was a lawless and often savage place. Many people who ventured to settle there suffered some violence and held subsequent grudges, which were passed onto their children. The victims and perpetrators came in all colours.
When the Cherokees of Texas were routed out of their holdings in the North-East part of the state at the Battle of the Neches, mixed-bloods who looked white enough kept a very low profile. Indian ancestry was still a source of pride, but not something to be broadcast openly. Much tradition was lost as a result. No festivals were kept and not too many stories were passed down.
Somehow, in every case I have known of, a relative did make a point to pass on at least the awareness of the blood to their child or grandchild, and then society quickly taught that young person to forget it as soon as possible for their own safety. This had some unexpected results, which I have observed firsthand and also come across on the Internet. I have come to know that when this kind of knowledge, IE (ancestral), is suppressed; it pushes all the harder to the surface of the individual's consciousness.
I made contact with a Texas cousin once, via the Internet who was from the same Cherokee blood as me. We had never met and never spoken prior to this occasion. The woman had not been raised to know she had Cherokee in her blood. It turned out that she made Native style handcrafts for her business. She told me she had “always felt, that spiritually she was an Indian.” She had adopted a Lakota Sioux world view when still a girl.
My cousin was quite taken aback when I told her of our actual ancestry. I explained to her that in Cherokee culture, the clan membership is passed down the female side and in her case it was her father who was her connection. I told her how I also felt “different” all my life from the culture I found myself trying to swim in.
So, what we have here is embedded, genetic “knowledge” that struggles to the surface over a person's lifetime and leaves it to the subject to interpret, research, verify and utilize. Not too neat and tidy, but infinitely rewarding in the long run. It is akin to learning that you have a special gift, without knowing what exactly that gift is or what exactly you can and should do with it. To top it off, you will get no recognition from aboriginal people and much derision from non-aboriginal people.
This is for many thousands of people, the Cherokee road. An ancestry that speaks loudly, if cryptically in all its sons and daughters, regardless of how thinned out their blood has become. It is maddeningly frustrating and because of the difficulties encountered, it is rewarding beyond words. The lessons come at odd intervals and many times it is only in retrospect they can be interpreted to their fullest. Along my way, I have only a small “medicine bag” to put my findings into, so I limit what I carry to only those items that “ring true.” Here then, is an example of what this preamble has been alluding to.
Growing up, I had little to go on as far as learning about Cherokee things. My grandmother was only available in the summers and at Christmas occasionally. Other than the fact of her ancestry, she had very little Cherokee “culture” to pass on. She did pass much on unwittingly, by way of her world view and her actions. Many of her behaviour patterns, I later came across in my literate pursuit of cherokiana. Such as the way she began and ended each story with a grunt, “Hu!” Turns out this behaviour was traditional and was duly noted down by scholarly observers. Her absolute fear of and intolerance to anything that smacked of the black arts. Selfish and parasitic magic practitioners were dealt with very harshly by this very spiritual people according to first hand material gathered by the ethnographer James Mooney from some of the last medicine men. Her habit of sending me off with a the first big bowl from a pot of gumbo to give to the first stranger I passed.
One unanswered question that had been burning in my heart after my grandmother crossed over, was, “What clan did we belong to?”
I wasn't aware of the clan system and how it worked until I came upon that information in my private studies on the subject. By the time I knew what to ask, she was gone. Inside, I asked to be shown in some way, some day. I only knew information of a general nature on this subject.
The Cherokees organized their society into seven clans. Seven was the sacred number and figures prominently in all aspects of their culture. Kinship in the clans was passed down the female sides, as already noted. The exact names of the clans varied somewhat over the ever changing range that the tribe occupied due to their own migrations and later displacement by European immigrants to North America. A typical list would be the Paint, Long-hair, Wolf, Bird, Deer, Blue and Wild Potato.
A person had four significant clans in their life. The clans of their mother, father and of both grandfathers. A person was to marry only within the latter two clans. Inter-clan marriage was punishable by death in the old days.
During the early eighties I was working as a gas-fitter and living in North Vancouver. I was between marriages and starting to date my future second wife. Most of my contact with aboriginal people was with the Squamish Band of North Vancouver. Almost all of it was negative.
There was the time I strolled through the reserve off Marine Drive and saw a young fellow carving a massive totem. He was about my age, so I walked over and offered him a smoke and began to chat. All the while, the young man was getting steely glares from his neighbors for talking to me. When I got around to asking direct questions about the totem, he politely told me that he wasn't really supposed to be talking to me about Indian stuff.
Another time, in the now vanished St. Alice pub near the same reserve, I was sitting with a friend and two Squamish ladies. We were deep into our drafts when I asked one lady a simple question.
“Why is it that you guys all have Christian first names for last names? Like Joe, Billy, George etc.”
The woman let out a blood-curdling howl of intense psychological pain and before I knew what had happened, I found that she had managed to grab my hand and put my index finger in her mouth. She was in the process of biting it off. I was raised in Texas and Louisiana and I have been hard-wired not to hit women. Just cannot do it, if I wanted to. A real predicament! Everyone at my table was too freaked out to offer help. I looked around the smoky room and got eye contact with some men I had seen her come in with earlier.
These fellows turned out to be siblings and cousins and promptly formed a cordon around us. After agonizing seconds, they managed to disgorge my poor digit. It's still crooked as hell to this day. One of the little items that “rang true” that I carry always in my medicine bag.
Another time, I was walking through the streets of the same reserve, showing it to my third wife and first born son. My son was being carried in her arms and was wearing a pair of moose hide pants I had made him with matching moccasins. They had hand-stitching and handmade bead work adornments and were something to see. We needed to get to Marine Drive to make the bus, so we took a shortcut through someones property on a well worn trail.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the irate owner of said property came out to chase us off. This fellow was livid and followed close behind us like a demonic shepherd giving a running lecture on property rights that would have done a white lawyer justice. Not the Indian way, I thought to myself as we hurried along. I was relieved that he wasn't armed.
We closed the road just before it came to blows. As we waited to cross, a car approaching slowed up to gawk at my son's home made clothes. My third wife is a Filipina and I guess she could look like a native to the untrained eye. I suppose this driver thought they were seeing Hiawatha emerge from the bushes with her child. The angry man had already turned on his heel and stomped off.
Well, the driver slowed down so abruptly that six other vehicles behind him all collided. A true Cherokee meaningful event. Seven cars. Seven is the sacred number, remember? After seeing that no one was seriously hurt, we crossed the road. The man who had chased us returned to the roadside after hearing the horrible crunching noise of the mass accident.
I made eye contact with him and said, “Hu!”
Slowly, I have begun to unravel the motive forces behind this hostility. At the times of their occurrence, I remember being angry, disappointed, perplexed and frustrated. But this all happened before I researched the Residential School System that had been in place in Canada. Before I studied up on the history and culture of some of the local tribes here in British Columbia. If any readers find they are scratching their heads over what I write thus far, I invite you to read the material of Kevin Annett.
Because of these disappointing encounters, I was starting to focus on my Celtic, Teutonic and Scandinavian roots a bit more than was my norm. My days were filled with greasy pipes and cutting oil. The lead paste I used to seal the threaded joints got smeared all over my fingers and sure made my hand rolled smokes taste awful. My hands were permanently swollen from so many cuts and scraped knuckles. I drank regularly in those days and was always passing the reserve on the way to the St. Alice pub.
One such day, I saw a big yellow sign nailed onto a telephone pole at the reserve. I pulled my work truck over and got out. The sign foretold of a pow-wow that was to soon take place at a Catholic School gymnasium on the reserve. There would be native comedians, speakers and guests from all over the USA and Canada. After, they would serve a traditional Sqaumish dinner.
This got me excited. I had never been to real, authentic, honest-to-God pow-wow. I wrote down the particulars and went to get two tickets. To hell with 'em if they don't want me there, I thought. They'll have to refuse me the tickets and I'll yell “racial prejudice.” I crossed my crooked finger and went to the school.
The young lady there smiled like an October sunrise and sold me two tickets. I was going to take my girlfriend, a Chinese gal who later became my second wife. I figured the native people would be happy to see a multiracial couple take interest in their pow-wow. My girlfriend was interested but had some trepidation.
The afternoon of the pow-wow arrived and off we went. Parking was easy in those days, so we were all relaxed and found good seats. I looked around the room and confirmed that I was the only white and my girlfriend was the only Chinese in the room. I made a game of leaning over to whisper to her the tribe of each person who had taken the trouble to dress in their traditional garb for that evening. First I picked out a handsome man in a blue cowboy shirt and big concho belt with a red headscarf as a Navajo. He turned out to be the first comedian and introduced himself as a visiting Navajo from New Mexico.
I next noticed a man near the back who really grabbed my attention. He was dressed in traditional Cherokee garb. It is a little known fact that they wore a sort of turban as headgear. This man had the turban, wild turkey feathers, a coat like a djellaba and and deerskin pants. He looked just like a famous lithograph of Sequoyah, the Cherokee who invented the Cherokee Syllabary or Alphabet.
I duly told my girlfriend with absolute certainty that this was a Cherokee man. I had no idea as to who he was. A few more comics followed. Then the announcer told us to get ready for a special guest speaker. It turned out to be the Cherokee man and he turned out to be non other than Rolling Thunder!
I was so enthralled by being in the audience of such a man, I cannot consciously recall anything he said in his official address. Upon hearing his name announced, I knew who he was by reputation. I knew of him from books. He kept his talk rather short as it was hot and stuffy in the little gymnasium and the folks were plainly hungry.
Luncheon was served at a long row of tables with school chairs. Seating was a free for all. I guided my girl to a place just off the center of the table near the duck soup cauldron. Turned out Rolling Thunder sat right across from us and two seats to the left. He kept looking at me and also kept smiling at my girlfriend. I was bursting to ask him a million questions, but our conversation kept to simple talk of the table. We passed each other the food items and talked about duck soup. I didn't mention anything about my Cherokee blood.
All through lunch I could feel something mighty powerful like I used to feel on the Gulf Coast of Texas while watching one of those behemoth cumulonimbus clouds towering up in the blue until it would spit lighting and wind driven rain. I knew I had been blessed by the encounter, even without an autograph to memorialize the meeting and without any of my questions being asked vocally. Rolling Thunder did not work that way. It was all in his eyes.
Well, it wasn't long after that pow-wow, that I was on a gas job up on a street called Ranger Crescent in North Vancouver. I had installed a gas furnace and water heater in place of an oil burning rig. I worked alone on the piping and my boss had already come and installed the sheet metal part of the job earlier in the day. It was a beautiful slow sunset and starting to get chilly.
I went back and forth from the basement of the house to the company truck to load tools and equipment. Finally, I had everything snugged down and ready to roll home. I got on the radio and talked to the girl at dispatch. I told her I was taking the truck home due to the lateness of the hour. She relayed this to my boss who gave his consent.
It was an old postal vehicle, retrofitted for gas-fitters and tinsmiths. It was on its last legs but I had no car at the time and it was my chariot. It had those sliding front doors. Being so old, the latches were almost worn through and a good bump would usually cause them to fly open. This had become so annoying, I usually left them open as I drove and locked them as best I could when I stopped for the night.
As I was rolling a smoke for the road, it started to sprinkle a fine mountain mist and was just on the verge of being dark. I felt something looking at me. My neck hair went up. I looked quickly in the direction that the feeling had come from and there before me on the black asphalt driveway in the middle of suburbia was the biggest wolf I had ever seen!
The animal was a good 130 lbs, I reckoned. I used to have a Malamute who weighed in at 100 lbs, so I used this as a base for my estimate. It was entirely obsidian black from head to tail. No light patches anywhere on it. It had yellow eyes, the colour you see in an eagle's eye. It made no move and pierced me with those eyes.
I lit my smoke and just stood stock still and stared back. I felt raw power coming from it, but not bad power. It was almost scary, but in the way that lightning is scary, not evil. The first few seconds were taken up by my brain letting off all the preprogrammed bullshit connotations and references to big, black wolves that I had ever been exposed to or had assimilated from popular culture while growing up.
I was thinking what a rare beautiful sight it was to see. I figured that the beast would bolt at any moment. I was taking pictures with my mind to be remembered for a long time after. The animal didn't budge. I was getting wet from the rain. I stubbed my smoke and climbed inside the cab, reluctant to leave this chance of a lifetime encounter.
I cranked over the engine and figured the noise would surely send the wolf flying for the hills. He stood right there as if planted. I started to back the truck down the long sloped driveway. When I shifted into forward gear, there was the wolf, right beside the truck on the passenger side, two feet away. I started the truck forwards, real slow. The wolf ran along beside. I went faster, the wolf easily kept up. I turned multiple corners getting down to the main street that would move me towards my destination near Lonsdale and the Upper Levels Highway. I knew this would lose him.
Didn't. There he was at the stop light right beside the truck. I was worried now for his safety, this close into civilization and increased traffic.
I spoke to him, “Might as well get in.”
He promptly jumped into the open passenger side doorway and sat regally on the greasy floor of the battered truck. I can't remember what I said to him on the way to my house, but he was nice and calm. I felt like he was a visiting relative, I hadn't met before.
When we got to my rented house, I opened the front door and he raced inside. There in the electric light and surrounded by walls, the animal looked even bigger. I found an empty plastic bucket and filled it with water. I went down the basement stairs and set the water down. I told the wolf he could stay overnight if he wanted and that I would open up in the morning if he wanted out. All this time the wolf never howled, growled ,or made any sound.
I never tried to touch it. If I stood for too long looking at its eyes, I would get unfocused and start feeling terrified. I went upstairs to eat and ponder over the whole thing. A few minutes later, I heard a horrible scream. I ran down the wooden stairs. It was my house mate, a Dane who inhabited a room in the basement. I guess he had been scared out of his wits when he snapped on the light after coming in through he basement entrance. He was scared and angry. I couldn't really blame him. We talked about wolves, while the largest one we'd both ever seen watched us intently.
My friend refused to have the thing in the same space with him, so I took the water upstairs. The massive black son of the forest padded up the stairs and laid itself down by the water. I went about my routine and was soon off to bed and ready for an early start of a working day.
When I rose, I first went to check on my guest. I rubbed my eyes, because I half expected for him to not be real when I woke up. It had seemed like a dream even while it was happening the night before. He was awake and pacing back and forth. I gave him some bacon from my meal and he crunched it up and licked his teeth. He slurped up some water.
I knew I had to keep my promise and with the feeling of saying goodbye to a friend, I opened the door to the back yard. The wolf ran out silent as silk and swift as smoke. I last saw him leaping the wooden fence and heading north. Not very many blocks away was the bush. I knew he'd make it.
Life went on and on. Much later I was walking my oldest son home to his grandmother's house and pushing my youngest son in a stroller. One boy was about five and the other about one. It was October and though it was only around six pm the night was dark and fogbound. We were walking west from Fraser Street in Vancouver to Knight Street and I was using all the back alleys. I was thinking about the supper I would have waiting when I returned and my son was helping to push the baby stroller.
Nearly halfway to our goal, I felt something looking at us. It was a familiar feeling. The hair on my neck went up, like it was in an electric field. I looked to the direction of the feeling and there under the buttery glow of a street lamp, next to some garbage cans, stood a massive black wolf. It stood motionless and stared with intense yellow eyes. I looked back and didn't mention it to my sons, who hadn't noticed it in the shadows.
“I spoke softly, “Meet my two sons, Daniel and Miguelito.”
My son asked who I was talking to. I told him I was just thinking out loud about an old friend.
When I came home on the return trek, I looked up and down the alley for any sign of the wolf. Not a trace in this dark night and fog. I wondered if I would see it any more in this lifetime. I wondered why I saw it in the first place. I wondered what it could mean. More questions. It is the way and I chose it just as it chose me.
About two blocks from home a big grin pulled at the corners of my mouth. I laughed out load in the gloom. It had finally dawned on me. Now I knew which clan I belonged to! Hu!
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.