The Forgotten People
Unassimilated and unappreciated, the Kickapoo Indians of Eagle Pass struggle against the realities of the modern world––poverty, addiction, even laws against hunting their sacred deer––to stay in harmony with the spirits of the grandfathers.
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
THE KICKAPOO INDIANS LIVE IN A WORLD that barely resembles yours and mine. I began to understand this one day in April 1994 in the parking lot of a shopping center in Eagle Pass. Eric Fredlund, an anthropologist who had befriended the Kickapoo, was taking me to El Nacimiento, the Mexican preserve and adopted holy land of the small border tribe. He went inside a store to buy some sunglasses and cigarettes, leaving me in a Chevy Blazer with Joe Hernandez, our driver, guide, and translator. Joe’s Kickapoo name is Ta-Pe-A-ah, which he translates roughly as Woody Bramble of Blackberries, Spreading Outward From the Roots. He was 23 then, five feet ten with thick, broad shoulders, a laborer’s build. He wore boots, jeans, a cap, and sunshades that masked a large, shy face. There is a Lake Kickapoo in the part of Texas where I grew up, and just to break the silence, I asked Joe if he knew the place. He looked back over the seat and replied quietly, “No. We’re kind of allergic to lakes.”
I blinked and asked him what he meant. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I used to drive up to Del Rio a lot, to that big lake there, Amistad. But my dad told me he didn’t want me going up there. That lake, it makes big rains.”
I mused on that cryptic remark as we crossed the Rio Grande and drove south from Piedras Negras into the Coahuilan chaparral. Allergic to lakes? The Kickapoo came from the Great Lakes; they speak Algonquian and still tell stories of French explorers who found them around Lake Michigan in the early 1600’s. Their migration to the borderlands of Texas and Mexico—which made them citizens of two nations—is one of the most remarkable odysseys in North American history, and they undertook it to sustain a religion and a way of life that abound with supernatural beings and events.
Yet Texans know the Kickapoo—if they know them at all—only as a poverty-stricken people who for decades lived as squatters under the international bridge at Eagle Pass. (Since 1987 they have occupied a bleak 123-acre reservation on the outskirts of town.) They are seldom mentioned in a Texas frontier lore that is dominated by Comanche, Apache, and Cherokee; it is a common belief today that Texas has just two Indian tribes, the Alabama-Coushatta of the Big Thicket and the Tigua in El Paso. Yet the Kickapoo have played a lively role in Texas history, and their culture is arguably more intact than that of the better-known tribes. In anthropological circles, the Kickapoo have a reputation as the most unassimilated tribe in the contiguous United States. Along the border one sees them driv-ing pickups, wearing shades, listening to country or rap music, but even in those moments they perceive a spiritual world to which most of us are blind.
I had been reading a monograph Fredlund was drafting about his work with the Kickapoo. “One informant told me of an incident,” he wrote, “that occurred when he was traveling in the Midwest in a pickup truck with an elderly male relative. In the distance they saw a tornado heading in their direction at a high rate of speed. The man instructed him to stop the truck and get out quickly. The old man then said a prayer to the ‘grandfather’ who was the tornado. The funnel cloud rose off the ground and passed over their heads, returning to earth a half mile beyond where they stood, and resumed its path of destruction. The older man explained that there is no reason for a Kickapoo man to fear a tornado provided one is in harmony with the nature and the spirits of the grandfathers and knows how to get the latter’s attention.”
The troubles of contemporary Kickapoo are legion, but two in particular imperil their existence as a distinct culture. Deer hunting is a sacrament among the Kickapoo; in their religion a father cannot bestow a tribal name on an infant unless he can contribute to the rite four slain deer. The animals are scarce at their Mexican preserve and rare as polar bears on their U.S. reservation, eight miles downriver from Eagle Pass. Mexican law tries to accommodate their need, though game regulations and posting of private property there have recently grown more restrictive, but in Texas the dual constraints are unrelenting. Few Kickapoo earn more than $7000 a year, and even if they could afford a private hunting lease, babies are born year-round, not just during the state’s hunting season. They get caught poaching and are fined $500, to them an impos-sible sum, so they work it off on county road gangs. What else are they going to do? Let their children go nameless?
The second crisis, addiction, threatens to do what 350 years of hardship could not: extinguish the traditional Kickapoo way of life from the earth. Like many Native Americans, the Kickapoo seem incapable of moderate social drinking. Their elected council discourages alcohol consumption on both reservations, though of course that doesn’t solve the problem. But the intoxicant that terrifies the elders is common spray paint. About 450 people are legal members of the Texas Kickapoo tribe. At least 80, most of them adults, are addicted to paint fumes. Fredlund worked for a state drug abuse agency, and one of his duties was to write a grant proposal on the Kickapoo’s behalf to the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. His proposal had won a five-year $2.6 million grant that made Eric a celebrated figure among the Kickapoo.
As we drove by power plants and coal mines and the Sierra Madres came into view, Joe Hernandez told us of his own addiction when he was twelve and thirteen. Nothing mattered to him but the visions. He once saw his father looming as tall as a giant. He likened other hallucinations to the flickering, jerky effect of dancers under a strobe light, and there were sounds as well—he could hear his blood racing, his heart was a drum. “Every day, every day,” he said with a sigh. “You don’t want to do nothing else. Even now when I smell paint, I still want to do it. But I had to quit. I knew if I kept using paint, my father wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”
On the rough gravel road that leads to Naci-miento, solvent abuse seemed an aberration, something absurd and far away. The air was clear, and above the light green mesquite and huisache foliage, the Sierra Madres rose in subtly varied shades of cobalt blue. They spread in an arc around us, but the succeeding wedges looked almost straight, packed in a vertical plane. I had never seen mountains quite like them. Joe spoke happily of going into them on horseback hunts of several weeks’ duration and bringing back bear, turkey, and the deer that granted him the favor of naming his two small children. I remarked on a striking arrangement of peaks toward the west. Joe glanced at them and mystified me again. “We can’t go over there,” he said. “There’s lots of big cats.” Later I read in an anthropology book that large, wild cats carry a strong taboo among the Kickapoo. Joe’s explanation was “they make bad winds.”
Insults and Trash
T NACIMIENTO A KICKAPOO IN HIS eighties relates in droll fashion the seventeenth-century encounter that changed tribal life forever: “The first white people we met were French. We traded them deer hides, and they said, ‘Ah, these are very good hides.’ Then they asked us for a small place to sleep.”
For the next two hundred years the Kickapoo were constantly at war. They fought the French and simultaneously fought their tribal enemies, the Iroquois, who came at them from the east, and the Sioux, who attacked from the west. Then they made peace with the French and helped them fight the English. After the American Revolution, they fought the settlers and soldiers of the United States. As a warring people they once besieged Detroit, were ferocious allies of the Ottawa chief Pontiac, and were among the losers of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Exhausted, they signed a peace treaty in 1819 and consented to forced removal from their northern homeland to a reservation in southeast Missouri. But they didn’t like that place, and for most of the nineteenth century they resisted the swallowing giant called America by fleeing it southward. They left bands of themselves in Kansas and Oklahoma, but they were gypsies of the plains. They were unlike the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne they moved among. They greatly preferred deer to buffalo as prey, and though they valued horses as an improvement over walking, they never made horsemanship into a martial and material culture. Nor did they fear the fierce tribes of buffalo hunters. Near Nacogdoches, Spain (and later Mexico) set up the Kickapoo as a military buffer against “wild tribes.”
After Texas won its independence, though, all Indians were deemed hostile and unwelcome. Some Kickapoo moved north of the Red River, near the present-day Oklahoma town of McCloud, but those who were most resistant to acculturation found ref-uge in Mexico. Once more, Kickapoo were enlisted as protectors from the raids of Comanche and Mescalero Apache, and in gratitude Mexico gave them 17,000 acres at the foot of the Sierra Madres in 1852.
The antipathy between the Kickapoo and Texas continued to be mutual and brutal. In 1865, a troop of Texas Confederates attacked a Mexico-bound party of Kickapoo at Dove Creek, near pres-ent-day San Angelo, and got themselves roundly thrashed. Still, fifteen Kickapoo deaths in that battle triggered more fighting, until, in 1873, General Philip Sheridan sent cavalry captain Ranald Mackenzie into Mexico against the Kickapoo. After that bloodshed, more Kickapoo were coerced into Oklahoma residence; they agreed to go as long as the route bypassed Texas.
The Kickapoo who settled in Mexico might never again have intruded much on Texas if not for a calamitous drought that began in 1944 and lasted seven years. At Nacimiento they had no water except for barely trickling springs. Their wheat crops failed, their cattle starved, and the mountains nearby were largely hunted out. Though Mexico had been generous with loyalty and land, it offered neither jobs nor government assistance. So the Kickapoo became migrant farm workers—and the lowly and despised of Eagle Pass.
In a way they lived as they always had. They clung to their language, returned to Nacimiento for the spring holy season, celebrated ultrasecretive rites of spring renewal, then divided into kinship groups for the year’s economic production. But instead of hunting, the young and able-bodied weeded sugar beet fields in Montana and Wyo-ming, picked cherries in Utah, and harvested apples and onions in Colorado. Until they moved to their reservation in 1987, the staging ground for the annual treks was the long flood plain under the bridge at Eagle Pass, where they built wickiups, but not with the cattail reeds and finely detailed craft of their ceremonial houses at Nacimiento. As if to acknowledge their transience and diminished state, they cobbled the domed structures together with plywood and tarp. They had no water, bathrooms, or privacy. Pedestrians on the bridge hurled down insults and trash.
ABOUT TEN MILES OFF THE PAVED ROAD that winds from Big Bend into the Sierra Madres, Joe Hernandez steered his Blazer through a tiny wan village. The Kickapoo preserve lay across a tree-lined Rio Grande tributary called the Sabinas, which could only be crossed at a rocky ford. Nacimiento, which in Spanish means birthplace, was several hundred yards beyond the crossing. There were some houses of gray cinder block in the Kickapoo enclave, but the dominant architecture was their traditional loaf-shaped wickiups made of the cattail reeds. People were strolling, chatting in groups, sitting on straw cots under the shade of their summer porches—a scene of leisure. As the day wore on, I could understand why the Kickapoo hold such land holy. Under oak-forested mountains cut with dramatic rock cliffs, the village sat beside the clear-running stream we had forded. Its fountainhead emerged from a jumble of smooth white rocks amid thick and towering trees. Strolling through the bottom, I asked Joe if they had a name for their sacred stream. “No,” he said. “We just call it River.”
Like many in the tribe, Joe has had no formal schooling, yet he has learned to read and write a little and is fluent in three languages (he is least confident in En-glish). “I was always with my dad, learning the tradition,” he told me. “But then I found out about money. I know now I was supposed to be going to school.”
Nacimiento had no water pipes or sewage system, though running water was on the way and Mexican officials were encouraging the tribe to start selling water meters. A clock and a small refrigerator in the Hernandez family’s flat-roofed concrete house testified to the arrival of electricity earlier that year. Joe said that his dad was a boy when the lines and poles were first promised. The walls were decorated with family photos and a wanted poster of a woman accused of defrauding the Kickapoo. Joe showed us his family’s most prized material possession, an 1894 model lever-action .30-30 Winchester rifle. Outside we walked among gaunt horses and a mule. Joe affectionately rubbed the neck of a palomino gelding named Flaco, which means Skinny. He asked if I wanted to ride his hunting horse. I told him it would be a pleasure.
But we never got the tack out because Joe’s dad drove up in an old red Ford pickup. Eric had been trying to acquaint me with the mysteries of tribal kinship and told me to watch for the change in Joe’s manner when he was around his father. He grew quiet and seemed wary of looking at his dad closely and directly, even as they talked. Jose Hernandez had an immense head and thick gray hair. He spoke only Kickapoo and Spanish.
Jose was a member of the Traditional Council of elected leaders, and as we talked in Spanish with our forearms resting on the rails of his pickup, he said he worried most about the hunting. “We have no books,” he said. “Our customs are all in our heads.” All the negotiations and entreaties he described were directed at Mexican officials; I asked him if the tribe had tried to communicate with anyone public or private in Texas, where overpopulations of whitetail deer are a widespread problem. He looked skeptical and said he wouldn’t know how to begin. As we left, I told Jose that I hoped I saw him again. “Ojalá!” he replied. May God grant.
It seemed that my first exposure to the Kickapoo and their home in the Sierra Madres would end on that tranquil note—but it was not to be. The next morning, Eric and I emerged from our motel rooms in Múzquiz, a pleasant town on the main highway not far from Nacimiento, and found Joe waiting in the car. With him now was a strapping young man named Fernando, his friend since childhood. Fernando started drinking beer and soon passed out in the front seat. We left him there and went into a roadside cantina, where we bought soft drinks. Inside, some Mexican men in ranching attire greeted Joe warmly, inquired about his father, and invited us to join them at their table. One of the men was a former mayor of Múzquiz. When Joe brought up the problem with deer hunting, the man replied carefully, with a politician’s aplomb. “This is a matter of law, just like in the United States.” As we stood to leave, the man suggested gently to Joe that he might want to check on some Kickapoo who were up the road a way.
About a dozen men were passing the time and bottles of sugarcane liquor in a shaded bar ditch. As Fernando dozed on and Joe grinned at their jests—they took pleasure in reminding him of a Comanche in his bloodline—Eric and I took seats on the ground among them and discreetly tried to decline the quart bottle making the rounds. But it wasn’t easy: Refusing to drink with them was deemed a pejorative act. Finally I relented and took a swallow. The stuff was sweet and potent. The man next to me was not appeased. He had a dark, pitted face, and his eyes kept coming back to mine. “My name is Dave,” he said, with apparent reference to some past slight. “Don’t call me Chief.”
“Pleased to meet you, Dave.”
“Dave,” he emphasized. “Don’t ever call me Chief.”
Most of the men lived among the Oklahoma Kickapoo. They hold Nacimiento sacred too and often move back and forth between McCloud and Eagle Pass. “These are my uncles,” Joe explained, turning up the bottle for the first time.
I remembered that for the convenience of outsiders, Kickapoo lump a great number of male relatives into the term “uncle.” If an uncle asks you for a gift, you can’t refuse him. I recalled this with a sinking sensation when they asked Joe to drive back to Múzquiz and fetch them several more bottles of cane liquor. Fernando’s head fell back as Joe lurched away in the Blazer.
We were deep in a foreign country, and we were starting off the day in a ditch full of drunk Indians. A little old man they called Coni eased forward and went to sleep with his head on the shin of a younger fellow. As if in a slow-motion topple of dominoes, that man turned and slumped until his cheek was lying in the dirt. A string of drool leaked from his mouth and in time formed a small cone of mud. As my gaze fastened on this, another man sought to reassure us, or perhaps himself. “I just do this ever’ once in a while,” he said. “For the good times.”
Joe rolled up then, flung the door open, and strode toward us with two paper sacks filled with quart bottles. He turned the first one up and held it skyward for a long time. “I love these peoples,” he said and almost fell.
Eric finally convinced Joe that we had to go and coaxed the keys away from him. He navigated Múzquiz, but on the way down we hadn’t paid much attention to landmarks. There were no highway signs in the towns, and soon we were lost. I asked some kids on the road if they knew the way to Texas; they shrieked with laughter.
We parked in front of a store, trying to regain our composure. Fernando woke up with a jerk, shook his head, slapped his face, and took command of the situation. “I don’ wan’ you to think we drink like this all the time,” he said in a soft singsong accent. He took the wheel and set out for home at 80 miles per hour; Joe was aware enough to feel badly about what had happened. In apology he offered Eric the gift of his dog and dug in his wallet until he found its vaccination papers. Fernando firmly gripped the wheel and hardly spoke as trucks on the narrow highway soughed past. Eric looked at me with a wild grin. “They can really drive, can’t they!”
WHEN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ACCEPTED ERIC’S grant proposal for the addict-treatment program, his role was essentially over. But six months of fieldwork had affected him deeply; on days off he often came back to Eagle Pass to see the paint sniffers. Once, I went with him to a graduation ceremony, the tribe’s first. For people whose children seldom stay in school past the elementary grades, five completions of the state’s GED requirements were a signal event. The graduates wore caps and gowns, the families were all dressed up, and the Eagle Pass school superintendent delivered the commencement address. Eric’s friends asked him to make a speech too. He stood before them frozen, then performed an unwitting, dead-on imitation of TV’s Mr. Rogers. “Graduations,” he began, “are special.”
An hour later I followed him as, coattails flapping, he skidded down a slope into the netherworld of Kickapoo paint sniffers. They assembled under bridges, in a city park, along a railroad track, and next to a paved arroyo that winds through town. We found a woman seated barefoot on a piece of cardboard. She clasped his hand, asked him how he had been, and after a few minutes began to cry. “I ain’t got no shoes. My feet, they’re sick.” He gave her a couple of dollars and made her promise not to spend them on beer or paint. He found several pariahs digging through a dumpster outside a fried-chicken place downtown and bought them a hamburger. When they were high they would rant crazily, incoherently, and sometimes they got in knife fights in which the point was to leave a scar, not to maim or kill. Yet he never seemed to fear them.
Eric sat amid the squalor of cans and rotted mattresses, looked them in the eye, gained their confidence, and got them to talk to him. He kept dwelling on the horror that all Kickapoo, including the paint addicts, expressed over the fate of a 26-year-old woman who passed out from the fumes on the railroad tracks one night in 1992 and was cut in two by a locomotive. “According to the tradition of her people,” a poignant item in a small local paper put it, “her soul will remain at the point of her death because she was not in grace and harmony with nature. She had chosen to alter her state of mind with the use of the spirits of the can. Her soul will remain at that site, seventy-two feet north of El Indio Highway on the road of steel, until judgment day.”
Tribal elders and traditionalists hoped that Nacimiento was off-limits to such degradation. “Texas is where we work,” one of the elders had explained to Eric. “Nacimiento is where we go to live our lives as Kickapoo people.” But I found on my trip to Nacimiento that you don’t have to walk far into the brush to kick up one of the distinctive blue cans.
Lions and Tigers
SOLVENT ABUSE IS USUALLY ENCOUNTERED AMONG YOUTHS, and the clinical assumption has long been that if they keep it up, they either wind up dead or brain damaged. But some of the Kickapoo had been sniffing paint for more than a decade, and when they weren’t high, they could carry on a perfectly lucid and social conversation. The treatment program was being designed largely by the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research, affiliated with Colorado State University. It would rely heavily on medical testing, Kickapoo translators, an elderly spiritual leader named Alfonso, and eventually, trained and licensed Kickapoo counselors. Nobody promised a miracle cure. Toluene and other solvent compounds attach themselves to fatty tissues, of which the brain has many: Detoxification could take months. Withdrawal symptoms might range from irascible anxiety to suicidal despair. The therapists believed that a high relapse rate was preordained.
The treatment program called for a site removed from the Eagle Pass reservation, and tribal administrators—who are appointed by the federal government—finally settled on Quemado, a farm town of 426 residents seventeen miles north of Eagle Pass. A resident named Rod Bunsen had fallen on hard times and was scrambling to keep his spacious house and spread, described on a highway sign as a quarter-horse farm, out of bank foreclosure. Bunsen sold ninety acres and offered to lease the remaining property to the Kickapoo for the five-year term of the pilot project.
Neighbors in Quemado were outraged. Led by a Hispanic family named Moses, nearly three hundred residents signed a petition with a timeworn theme—not in my back yard. Lilia Moses, a diminutive math teacher in Eagle Pass, told me, “This is not about the Kickapoo. If you remove their name from the project we’d be just as opposed—because it’s a drug rehabilitation center. Why wasn’t the community consulted? We’re a twenty-minute drive from Eagle Pass, and the county can’t provide us adequate law enforcement or EMS protection now.”
Eight months into the five-year term of the grant, the project was stalled. “First we gotta pay property taxes,” sighed tribal administrator Julio Frausto, an Eagle Pass native and retired Air Force officer. “And we’re still up to our ears in tigers.” I thought it was a metaphor.
With few close neighbors, the Bunsen house sat on a rise surrounded by maize fields, the onetime horse show arena, and an irrigation ditch at the rear. At the edge of the front yard, a brook trickled attractively through a stand of blooming cannas. Peacocks strolled about with their air of lordly fops. Inside, I found a broad expanse of Saltillo tile, a heavy Mexican-style chandelier, a long bar and kitchen designed for entertaining, and a hot tub. But the greater attraction was out back: In pens and cages that did not look altogether escape-proof were African lions, Bengal tigers, a leopard, a black panther, a mountain lion, and several black bears. As back yards in Quemado go, evidently this was preferable to a band of Kickapoo paint sniffers. The heat-stricken animals lay panting while a work crew from the reservation prepared the place for occupancy. Livestock trailers parked around the place would soon be used for the animals’ departure, or so Julio Frausto had been assured. A black-maned male lion took exception to the shrill whine of a Weed Eater operated by an edgy young man named Roger. The lion stood up and voiced a grumble that sent Roger and me stepping smartly to the rear.
Two men drove up and unlocked one of the sheds—Rod Bunsen and his son, Rod Junior. The younger Bunsen had written a letter published in the Eagle Pass News-Guide that accused the neighbors of bigotry and racism: “The Anglos in Quemado want everyone to be white and Protestant, and the Hispanics dislike the possibility of Native American neighbors due to their (Hispanics) continual denial of their own ancestry.” Rod Senior said that if the lease was voided and he lost his homestead because of it, he would sue everyone who signed that petition. “Ah, these rednecks,” he said of his neighbors. “They haven’t liked anything I’ve done for twenty-two years.”
It Is Lost
ALL THROUGH THE SUMMER OF 1994 THE Kickapoo found themselves in battle with hostile Texans, though on more formally polite terms than a century ago. In June there was a face-to-face confrontation with the Quemado residents. Tribal administrators and defenders of the treatment program sat at a table facing the sullen crowd. Margie Salazar, Joe’s wife, read a statement. She is the assistant tribal administrator—the highest position any Kickapoo has attained in the management of their own affairs. Visibly nervous, she recounted the tribe’s history and asked for Quemado’s support. “We were a self-sufficient and proud people. We maintained our culture, our tradition, and language over the years. But in 1944 a drought set in over all of northern Mexico. To survive, we had to resort to migratory work. As a child, I remember traveling with my parents on long, difficult journeys. I worked in the fields, and we all chipped in to survive, but I knew there would be a better life. I worked very hard between trips to get my education and complete my GED. I did not want to keep working with my hands and never know the things that other citizens enjoy. You see, I am an American citizen too.” There was a polite round of applause, but then the residents had their say, and within minutes other Kickapoo women walked out of the hall, weeping. An Anglo man with reading glasses and a graying crew cut had a chair at the front. As the jeers and shouts from the crowd grew louder, he stood up, waved his arms, and loomed over the table. “I want to understand this young lady,” he said, pointing a sheaf of papers at Margie Salazar, “and the tradition of the Kickapoo tribe. But this community has pride also. And we’re the ones who have to protect this place. The ones who live here. And we don’t appreciate this business of you people—outsiders—using our taxpayer money, coming in here, without even consulting us, and telling us, ‘This is the way it’s gonna be! Whether you like it or not!’” The hearing adjourned without a resolution.
The other dispute between the Kickapoo and Texas is over gambling. Like the Tigua, whose reservation is near El Paso, the Kickapoo are trying to parlay their status into revenue from gaming. (The thrust of the argument is that by instituting a lottery, the state has already legalized gambling, opening the door for Indians under federal law.) The Kickapoo had contracted with a Nevada firm called Southwest Casinos, which had commissioned a set of architectural plans for a glassy edifice on the reservation at Eagle Pass that would look like an extraterrestrial shipwreck. If a full-scale casino could not be obtained through legislation or court action, the Kickapoo hoped to gain at least a bingo parlor. The Kickapoo met with state officials in Austin that September, and Joe’s father, Jose, made the drive with his son and daughter-in-law. He attended the meetings and ate the consultants’ barbecue, but he seemed to dislike the whole business. At the hotel, he didn’t want to talk about it.
Jose had heard enough of my Spanish not to put much stock in it, so he spoke Kickapoo and asked Margie to translate what he said into English. Algonquian is a plosive and consonantal language; the Kickapoo dialect is spoken slowly. While Joe sat on the bed, quiet and receding in the presence of his father, Jose reposed in an easy chair and reflected on the Kickapoo spiritual life. “God made the deer. God put them on the earth—not man. If you go hunting and see that a deer is someplace very difficult, at the top of a mountain, you will probably let it go. But a Kickapoo will do anything, go anywhere, climb the highest mountain to get the deer. Because to us, the deer is sacred. If you kill a deer, it has one life. But if a Kickapoo kills a deer, it has four lives. That is how God made the earth—so there will never be a shortage of game. There is a story of a Kickapoo man who lived as a deer for one year. That is the reason the deer and the Kickapoo know how each other think.”
He went on: “Our traditions cannot be written down. They’re told by fathers, passed down by sons and grandsons. A Kickapoo does not pray for himself alone. He prays for all people. And if Kickapoo are not allowed to practice their traditions, this will be borne out in wars, disease, natural disasters. Kickapoo always wanted peace. We would move on to avoid conflict and maintain the traditions. And that is how we arrived in Mexico.” Jose applied a Kickapoo slant to Mexican presidents and history. Benito Juárez, himself an Indian, asked the Kickapoo to help fight the Comanche and Apache, and they did. In return Juárez offered them money, but they turned that down in favor of Nacimiento, their treasured place, which was akin to an autonomous region. They could go armed like soldiers. In 1939 President Lázaro Cárdenas amended their agreement so that in perpetuity they could hunt in the Sierra Madres nine months out of the year and carry on the ritual naming of their children. But the wilderness had turned into ejidos, or “communal lands,” and ranchos whose owners did not respect the historical rights of the Kickapoo. Carlos Salinas, he said, just ignored them.
I asked Jose what he thought would happen. He said the tribe was trying to arrange a meeting with the new president, Ernesto Zedillo. “We will tell him our story, perform a dance, and hope he responds to the story.” But he wasn’t sanguine about their prospects. “Es perdido,” he told me, wearily. It is lost.
Ceremony Is Prayer
MORE THAN A YEAR PASSED BEFORE I saw Joe again. Margie gave birth to their third child in January 1995. The little girl was properly named; Joe would only say that the deer were taken in Texas. Unable to find work as a roofer, a trade practiced by many Kickapoo, he went north as a field hand. In a pickup with Montana plates, he came home to a bitter summer. His dad was briefly hospitalized with heart pains, and in Nacimiento the drought was so severe that the grass died and the spring almost dried up. Hay was either non-existent or priced beyond the Kickapoo’s means. Most of the Hernandez family’s cattle survived, but the horses, in desperation, browsed a plant that the Kickapoo believe is poison. The only one of Joe’s five horses that survived was the favorite palomino gelding he called Flaco. Late in the summer I called the tribal office and was heartened when Margie said that Joe was in Laredo, going to some kind of school. He told her when he came home that he had checked into a treatment clinic to get help with his drinking. With leather, paint, and feathers, he made a sign that hangs in the tribal office. “Nekotenoe Nakoti Wodii,” it says in Kickapoo, One Day at a Time.
In November 1995 I returned to Eagle Pass to see Joe. He worked now for the public housing agency in town, and on the reservation I found him standing proudly beside the home that had replaced the cramped travel trailer I had seen on a previous visit. It was precisely half of a nicely painted frame house; from the peak of the roof, the rear wall dropped straight down. He had built it himself, and he figured he would pour the rest of the concrete slab when he had the money.
We set out the next day for Nacimiento in a cold gray rain. It was still falling at twilight when Joe forded the river and steered through a maze of bogs and harder ground. We were unloading our bedrolls and gear when a man in coveralls and a wool cap walked by with a flashlight and a jambox radio slung across his shoulder like a rifle. He and Joe spoke Kickapoo for a long while, and in time I recognized the man. His street name in Eagle Pass was Kisco, and he was one of the paint sniffers befriended by Eric Fredlund. His favorite hangout was an arroyo bridge right beside the police station.
Joe and I spread our sleeping bags that night on the ground inside the wickiup, which smelled like clean straw. We lay on our backs in the light of a kerosene lantern and watched water drip through the ceiling vent. We spoke of language—and my admiration that he could manage three. “Sometimes I get them mixed up,” he said. “And it’s not just that the words are different. My dad and I don’t speak nothing but Kickapoo, and there’s some things that Kickapoo don’t say. I can’t tell my dad I love him.”
I told him I had met Kisco in Eagle Pass. Joe said the man was his mother’s cousin and had just spent several months at the treatment center in Quemado, which had finally opened. Joe spoke with obvious respect for the man; in Nacimiento the paint sniffer and street pariah of Eagle Pass had the reputation of a great hunter. “We come to a hard mountain and ride all day to get to the top. He leads a pack horse and just walks right over it.”
Joe and I had become close and confiding friends, and we talked late into the night. “In your religion,” Joe asked me, “what’s the difference between prayer and ceremony?” I thought about it and said prayer is when you speak to God or address Him in your thoughts; ceremony to me implies an activity and place. Joe nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose for Kickapoo peoples, ceremony is the prayer. I remember hearing the sound of it early in the morning, almost every day. It has to be done a certain way, exactly. My generation is losing it because we haven’t had the chance to practice.” I asked him if he could perform the ceremony, if he had to. “I don’t know,” he said. “And, you know, it’s dangerous if you get it wrong.”
The Women’s Dances
KICKAPOO BELIEVE THAT WE ARE LIVING in the last of four worlds. The first three were destroyed by air, rot, and water; this one will be consumed by fire. But their faith seems largely free of apocalyptic fret and doom. As long as they observe the tradition and conduct their lives honorably, at peace with nature, they will have an eternal reward somewhere in the western sky. In early spring the helper spirits of nature convey two signals—the second thunderstorm of the season and the leafing out of a certain kind of tree. The tribe’s spiritual leader summons the people, and at Nacimiento the holy season begins. For several weeks Nacimiento is closed to anyone who is not Kickapoo. Near the end of the season, a few friends of the tribe are invited to join them. Last April I received such a call.
I arrived near sundown at a clearing among the wickiups and cinder block houses. Joe urged me to get something to eat—fried chicken, beans, bread, and venison—but it wasn’t a time for talk. It was the night of the women’s dances.
Wearing brightly colored frocks sewn with pennants, the women formed a row, pressed closely against each other. They were aligned by age, from the lead dancer, who must have been in her nineties, down to the little girls, some of whom were wearing modernity’s running shoes with blinking reflectors under tradition’s long skirts. As male elders in ordinary attire sang to the accompaniment of a drumbeat, the women performed a shuffling dance around a fire, above which four cast-iron pots hung from a pole. It went on like that for hours. I had no idea what I was witnessing. Nor, had I known, would I have fully understood the spiritual significance, at least not like the Kickapoo. The sky was moonless over the Sierra Madres: flares of meteorites, and the first time I had seen a comet. The music was monotonous, mesmerizing. At the end of each dance the tribal elders raised a shrill cry: Ki ki ki ki ki.
Horses Know Things
A MONTH LATER, BACK IN TEXAS, THE residents of Quemado got their way. What finally shut down the treatment center was budget pressure in Washington. Roberto de la Garza, an Eagle Pass resident who succeeded an ailing Julio Frausto as tribal administrator, enlisted Eric Fredlund as a consultant to salvage the program. The state came up with enough money to keep it going, on the condition that the center move to the reservation in Eagle Pass. Not far away from the two portable buildings on the reservation that houses the treatment center is the bingo parlor and a plain modular building called the Lucky Eagle where there are only slot machines and blackjack tables. The local crowds have not generated much revenue for the tribe, and the issue of whether the operation violates state gaming laws has yet to be resolved.
Last summer Eric Fredlund became the director of the treatment center. Joe Hernandez works on the staff and is training to be a counselor. “It’s no silver bullet,” Eric told me. “I still have friends living under those bridges. People relapse, then try again. But solvent-exposed births have decreased sixty percent. And the arrest rate in Eagle Pass is down forty percent.”
The modern world is neither arranged nor disposed to accommodate the Kickapoo way of life. Perhaps the only haven left to them is high in the Sierra Madres. Many times Joe and I have talked about my going with him on a horseback ride into the high country. As a gesture of friendship and hospitality, he kept asking me if I wanted to ride Flaco, his treasured hunting companion, but I think he also wanted to gauge my experience and skill in the saddle. Once, we even entered the tack shed, but we never mounted up. Instead, we climbed a hill and sat on a rock ledge over the river, while Joe pointed out cliffs and contours that marked the deer hunters’ way into the higher elevations. He described sudden snowstorms, fearing that he was lost in the forest, and the time a friend’s horse fell off a cliff to its death and almost took his friend along. He said that I could go along on the next ride, perhaps on Flaco, but the more stories Joe told, the more that sounded like a young man’s adventure. I explained that in my culture and family, the next week was Thanksgiving. The ride would have to wait.
He gave an embarrassed and respectful nod and said he had forgotten. But he would go anyway. For the next several days I thought of him up in those mountains, practicing his religion, doing what he loved. I called Margie at the tribal office and asked her to have him tell me the whole story as soon as he got back. Maybe I would ride into the mountains after all.
When he called, he said four Kickapoo had gone for five days and brought back four deer. It was cold but beautiful up there. They saw a lot of deer and quite a few bear tracks. The deer he killed, he said, was a small buck. It ran from him, and he ran after it; then the deer stopped and looked back, about one hundred yards away.
Then there was a long pause. “But you know Flaco? Skinny? When we got home, Flaco died. I didn’t ride him too hard, and he didn’t act sick at all. But the minute we got to Nacimiento, he started shaking and couldn’t breathe. He just died.”
When he told me that, I had to sit down. What more misfortune could happen to these people?
“My dad told me not to feel too bad,” Joe said philosophically. “He told me, ‘You know, sometimes horses know things, see things that are about to happen. And sometimes horses choose to die, to keep something bad from happening to you.’”