With a long aluminum crook, a Coushatta girl pries open the mouth of Setah Hache-Taknah, the snapping turtle. We can see a speckled tongue the size of the girl’s fist lolling deep in the turtle’s head, gagging him as he strains against the crook with his jaws.
There is something unsettling about the girl, a distant, measured coyness that some of the more paranoid tourists in the group might read as contempt. As she speaks, she either looks down at the great four-domed carapace of the turtle or pans her eyes just over our heads, and seeds her talk with preposterous misinformation which seems a deliberate challenge to the audience.
“This is the biggest fish in the river,” she says, yanking the crook upwards. “He just lays on the bottom with his mouth open all day waiting for something to come along. Here at the reptile garden we feed him mice, and baby chicks and other insects like that.”
She then briskly frees the turtle’s jaws the way a geography teacher would roll up a wall map. The jaws shut with a hard, hollow pop, the sound of abandoned applause, and her Visual Aid sidles off into the water as the girl climbs out of the pit. The indifference that she and the turtle seem to have for one another is startling. Years, generations, centuries ago, she might have been aware of a power in the turtle that demanded her deference; she might have taken its name, watched its moods for omens, gone to seek its advice at the heart of the world from which her people once sprang.
But today things have taken a turn for the prosaic. The snapper has been annoyed, but it does not seem likely he will use his power to retaliate. At the next pit the girl has lassoed an alligator and is rendering it comatose by dispassionately rubbing its stomach.
She has gone the way of her people; but it is not easy to say exactly which way her people have gone. They are, of course, the Alabama and Coushatta Indians, these are their reptiles and this is their reservation—4400 acres of the Big Thicket located 90 miles northeast of Houston, midway between Livingston and Woodville on U.S. 190. Since the early 1800s they have managed to hold this territory while other Indian peoples in Texas have been dispersed or banished or exterminated. They have achieved this through an almost saintly diplomacy, reflected in a history that is frequently low-key but never colorless. For the past 400 years they have stayed out of the affairs of white civilization with a finesse and a forbearance that has allowed them in this decade to double back stealthily, locate that civilization at its most vulnerable point, and use it, for once, for their own prosperity. They have created a tourist trap.
For a journalist, it is a dangerous place. Surface ironies hang about like forbidden fruit: restrooms labeled “Squaws” and “Braves”; a souvenir shop that sells rubber spears and tom-toms “hand-crafted” by the Cherokees; an Indian PR man whose business card reads “fine family entertainment.” Clearly, the wisest course of action is for me to sit down here in front of this fast-food enterprise called The Inn of the Twelve Clans and calmly review my notes.
I have come here to Polk County with a fair amount of academic knowledge gleaned from reading books so obscure their jacket blurbs are provided by relatives of the author. These books tell the history of two tribes long removed from the mainstream of American Indian romance, but whose hegemony among the great confederacy of Muskogee nations that stretched across the South from the Atlantic to the Mississippi was once unchallenged.
When we first encounter the Alabama in 1541, they are shouting abuse at DeSoto from atop an intricate, chambered fort on the Tallahatchie River in what is now Mississippi. It has been built especially to repulse DeSoto’s army, which has recently pillaged a neighboring Coushatta town. The defense of the fort fails, as does a later Coushatta stand on the Tennessee River, and though DeSoto’s dead body is soon adrift in a canoe on the Father of Waters, the white man’s foot remains firmly in the door of the New World.
For a century and a half the two tribes disappear from our history. When we find them again they have wandered as far west as the Coosa River in Louisiana Territory, where they have made an important alliance with the French. But in 1763 the French are supplanted by the English and the Alabama and Coushatta are forced west again, wandering, in fact, for 40 years before reaching the promised land of East Texas. Though the two tribes are still distinct, they share a common language and a common homesickness, and it does not take them long to merge into one people.
It is in Texas that the Alabama and Coushatta genius first begins to assert itself. In a land contested by three races and scores of nations they remain continuously at peace. The art of their diplomacy is so advanced that their neutrality during the Texas Revolution is seen by the victorious Republic as an act of benevolence rather than indifference. They survive the administration of President Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, a man who considered Indians unsightly nuisances that should be ruthlessly removed. The Karankawas on the coast quickly become extinct. The Cherokees are coerced into a hopeless war and are routed from Texas. Eventually the Caddos, the Wichitas, the Lipan Apaches, the Tonkawas, finally even the Comanches, are driven out.
The Alabama-Coushatta do not escape harassment, but they remain in Texas. After several decades of intense pillaging and hostility by whites though, it looks like a lost cause. The Indians starve, their children die, and Abbo-Mikko, their supreme being, doesn’t seem much interested.
But in 1880 a chance encounter with a dying Presbyterian missionary sets their existence on an upward grade. They throw over Abbo-Mikko for Jesus Christ, gladly accept the medical and spiritual ministrations of the Presbyterians, take on white men’s names, and allow the old, unworkable ways and now irrelevant rituals to slip away forever. In 1927 a congressional appropriation provides money for the acquisition of another 3000 acres.
So here they are, and here where I sit is the ten-year-old “Tribal Enterprise,” the official name for this aboriginal Disneyland which you have no doubt seen advertised by a statewide network of billboards as “Texas’ Only Indian Reservation.”
As a stranger to this part of the country, I decide that it would be appropriate for me to take the Big Thicket Tour which is just now scheduled to begin. With a dozen other people I enter a vehicle billed as a “swamp buggy” but which in our culture would probably be referred to as a bus. A bus, admittedly, with open sides and a greenhouse roof.
Our driver is a stout, middle-aged Indian who wears a fringed silk shirt and thick-framed glasses like accountants wore in the Sixties. As far back as the middle of the bus, where I have taken a seat, there is a strong suggestion of Brylcreem.
“Welcome to the Big Thicket Tour,” he says into a microphone as we pull out into the forest primeval. “On this trip you’ll see many different kinds of trees. You might notice that some of these trees are very good sized.”
The passengers are polite and attentive, but they look around with a mild sort of alarm. This is not exactly the Sierra Club he’s got back here, and they don’t seem too excited at the prospect of just, you know, trees.
“Your first tree on the right is the white oak. White oak tree. Another oak tree here on the left. And the next tree on the right is a holly. Holly tree.”
A boy looks up imploringly at his mother. She shrugs helplessly and tells him to sit up and listen.
“Here’s a dogwood tree. When this tree blooms it’s just beautiful. If you’d been here in March you would have seen it.”
At no time during this tour do we seem to be farther than 100 yards from the parking lot, but the forest is so impenetrable it seems remote in its own right. And, though it consists of redeemed farmland covered mostly with a dense second-growth of loblolly pine, it is perfectly in possession of a history older than itself. Occasionally the bus will cross a creek bed above which the sudden absence of trees creates an inverse bower of sunlight. Otherwise it is a gorgeous, gloomy environment, one which in the near future I will begin to appreciate as a correlative for the people who have discovered their own second-growth heritage fervently bound to this forest that huddles down on them from all sides.
We pass a fat Indian chopping weeds on the side of the road with a scythe.
“Here on your right we have a big brave swinging a tomahawk,” our driver points out.
“The Indian,” Roland Poncho says, gazing abstractedly at the wall of his office, “never confronts a situation directly.”
We have been talking about why the Alabama-Coushatta are not involved in militant organizations like the American Indian Movement (AIM), but with that last statement my attention shifts abruptly to things nearer at hand. From Poncho’s window I can see the entire Tribal Enterprise, at least those parts of it which are not obscured by the fashionably rustic stockade, and I find myself wondering how all of that—that miniature train chugging into the forest, that expansive souvenir shop, that brand-new amphitheater—could be brought about by a people who never confront a situation directly.
Poncho looks at another point on the wall and begins to explain. He’s maybe 25, with a soft voice that seems perfectly in accord with his features. I confess I have never known an American Indian, and though Poncho is the most accessible member of that race I am destined to meet, it takes a while to get used to his mode of speech. He has a habit of stopping occasionally in midsentence, seeming to take stock of what he’s said, allowing a very faint, very private smile to spread over his face, and then continuing. The words which come out would be just standard palaver, of course, for a white PR man, but filtered through Poncho’s speech pattern they take on a hypnotic fullness.
“It just took [pause] years of working and making mistakes and learning from mistakes and just plugging away at it.”
Specifically, it took a lot of state money, matching federal funds, Small Business Administration loans, a swarm of white consultants, and a strong desire on the part of the Indians to become a self-sufficient community.
Poncho says they hope to gross over a million dollars this year from tourism. Close to 100 of the 600 people on the reservation are employed in some capacity at the Tribal Enterprise. A rosy picture like that cannot help but veer the discussion back to AIM and general Indian discontent elsewhere.
“I don’t know,” Poncho says. “The people in AIM must come from a different background.” There is certainly more than a little sympathy in his attitude, but there is also a fundamental incomprehension. I am to become convinced during my stay on their reservation that the Alabama and Coushatta’s history of peace and accommodation is no accident.
Poncho is on his way to Oklahoma for a national Indian softball tournament, and has just enough time left to introduce me to Emmett Battise, the superintendent of the reservation and the Second Chief of the tribes. During the introduction Battise looks steadily at Poncho, never once turning his eyes in my direction. He wears a bolo tie and a sport shirt which I assume is only coincidentally the color of deerskin. Though at the moment I can’t read his face, it’s definitely a face worth reading: it seems to trap different emotions simultaneously the way a prism holds various colors of light. There is an awkward (for me) silence after the introduction. Battise still has not turned to look at his guest, and he seems to want nothing more than to close his eyes and float up to the ceiling. As for me, I’ve panicked, as any white man would. I insert my hand into the void between us, hoping it will be met. It is, with a comfortingly corporeal Indian handshake. Battise then smiles enigmatically and invites me into his office, where he sits behind a big desk and looks at me with a playful kind of expectancy.
By all rights I should have a lot of questions to ask him. He is, after all, in charge of the daily operations of the reservation. But I hold back for a while. I guess there is a certain amount of envy at work here: I want to behave like an Indian too. So I feign ethereality. I stealthily take in a few features of the room: a stuffed weasel, a double-bladed ax, a color portrait of the First Chief. But it is soon time to face the hard Anglo-Saxon truth. I therefore sit perched in this chair and attempt to extract some quotable quotes, some snazzy one-liners preferably, from this man in the bolo tie.
Accordingly we have a pleasant and stilted discussion about tribal affairs. I ask him my stock question about AIM: he gives me much the same answer Poncho did. I summon all my tactfulness and ask him about the effect those rubber tom-toms, say, have on the self-image of his people: he responds “indirectly.” He is not exactly friendly, but there is a palpable warmth and good humor wafting around the room, and I don’t think it is coming from me. Battise’s marvelous voice is a low-flying plane constantly endangered by a treacherous phonetic landscape. At its most buoyant, during its frequent Yes SIRRRRs, it sounds like the voice of Kingfish on Amos ’n’ Andy.
At the end of our brief discussion he agrees to introduce me at some indeterminate future date to Fulton Battise, his “double first cousin” and the First Chief of the tribes who is even now peering sternly down from his portrait. It occurs to me that without too great a change in the Chiefs ceremonial dress he could pass for the Grand Kazonker of some fraternal lodge. But I must remember my own warnings about surface irony.
At the Inn of the Twelve Clans a family salivates in front of a mysterious, unmanned barbecue buffet. Other customers, already in line at the fast-food window, glance at the newcomers to see if they will be able to puzzle out how to get served. No chance—they might as well be standing in front of the Rosetta Stone.
There is no question of the Indian girls in the fast-food line volunteering any information about the buffet, either. The tourists, having by now discovered a distinctly taciturn air about their hosts and feeling a little cowed by it, don’t bother to ask. One woman, however, comes up to the counter with a flawed cheeseburger that needs refurbishing. The girl at the cash register looks down at it as though she has never seen one before.
“Am I not making myself clear, or what?” the woman pleads. “See, this was supposed to have everything and the other one was supposed…” The girl nods at the cheeseburger and hands it back to the cook with a few words in the native tongue and then, simply by force of an absolutely vacant expression, imparts to the woman the knowledge that the matter will be rectified and sends her back to her seat.
Since I’m on duty I order the only ethnic item on the menu, a tribal staple called fry bread, which in its ideal state has the consistency of a French doughnut.
The ceiling of the restaurant is hung with banners representing the twelve animal clans that were once significant tribal divisions and which still survive today. A person belongs to a clan through his or her mother, an echo of the matrilinealism which was once the genealogical backbone of the Alabama-Coushatta culture. Of the twelve clans, two will soon be extinct, since there are no surviving females to pass on membership.
The press kit which Poncho has provided for me comes complete with a free pass to all the attractions, and after idly indulging myself in a tour of the Living Indian Village and twice missing connections with the miniature train, I decide it’s time to get down to work. “Work” in this instance I have defined as Really Getting To Know An Indian.
For a few minutes I stalk a group of high-school-aged kids who are settled near the gate of the Reptile Garden, two girls and a boy who seem to be speaking perfectly voluble English and who surely will not mind if I insert myself into their conversation and gather up a few pithy statements.
And, of course, they don’t mind. I introduce myself, they smile cryptically to one another and look at me with the same kind of bemused curiosity they would afford a dancing bear.
None of those books prepared me for this. I had assumed that if there ever were a distinct Indian Mind it had long ago passed through the Great Osterizer of white consciousness. But, as with Poncho and Battise, there is something wonderfully sly about these kids,
something withdrawn and askance. When I decide to persevere and ask them a series of questions which all come out sounding like “Gee whiz, what’s it like to be an Indian?” they reflect thoughtfully, fidget a little, knit their brows, and… never answer.
I play this game for a while longer before I convulse in embarrassment. My last question is directed to the boy, an eighteen-year-old high school student named Sidney. Sidney, what do you think about AIM?
A full 30 seconds pass, during which Sidney seems gripped in concentration. I watch three corpulent women trying to squeeze into the same compartment of the miniature train, which is pulling out of the station and which I have missed once again. Finally Sidney seems ready to say something. There is a sort of tension, since it is not clear whether he will actually give voice to his answer or let it float out unspoken over the Reptile Garden.
“What,” he asks, “is AIM?”
And though it seems somehow inappropriate for me to fill him in I say, you know, Wounded Knee, Russell Means, all that.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Well, I don’t know what I think of that.”
From the three of them then comes a nearly subliminal giggle.
Dusk and the outdoor drama “Beyond the Sundown” are still a few hours away, time enough for me to drive another half mile deeper into the reservation and pitch my tent at the Lake Tombigbee campground. Lake Tombigbee is a small, man-made body of water so stunningly opaque that it resembles nothing so much as a giant sheet of brown wrapping paper. I choose a campsite near its shore and watch some of the campers swimming from a raft anchored nearby.
Lake Tombigbee is one of two big campgrounds on the reservation, and the master plan calls for them both to be expanded to accommodate increasing traffic. Today is a weekday, but a good two-thirds of the campsites are already occupied by families in recreational vehicles and trailers and tent campers. I set up my own small tent in the suburbs of this modulopolis and promptly break out into a furious sweat. The humidity is so ridiculously overpowering that I make a note to call the Sands Motel in Livingston the next day.
“Beyond the Sundown” takes place in a special amphitheater which may or may not be built into a pre-existing hillside, but which definitely slopes down to an outdoor stage permanently set with an idyllic Tahitian-looking village. There is a respectable crowd rendered sparse by the vastness of the seating area. Teenaged kids, Indian and Anglo, cruise up and down the aisles with programs. The white kids hawk them and the Indians wait to be approached. We are promised the improbable, a drama about neutrality, written by Kermit Hunter—a man who, according to the program, “has had more plays produced than any other American playwright.”
It is a cool, languid midsummer evening. A breeze has taken the edge off the humidity, and the pines and the audience rustle harmoniously. Eventually a point is reached in which the dwindling daylight is no longer distinguishable from the stage lights that have been imperceptibly brightening the stage, and the play begins. We hear a Reverent Narrator say, “Now is the time of twilight” and watch as Chief Anton of the Alabamas prays to Abbo-Mikko in a beautiful but only marginally authentic feathered alb.
As a group of lithe young warriors and squawettes begin scampering about the stage in deerskins I feel moved to check my program to confirm a nagging suspicion. Yes, there are dozens of speaking and dancing parts in this elaborate production, but they are all taken by non-Indian professionals. The Indians in the play are the glum and frequently overweight “villagers” who hover, chorus-like, at the edges of the action.
And so the irony descends of its own weight, and it is clear now that the Alabama and Coushatta have not come by their self-sufficiency without cost. When the action rises, the Indian members of the cast huddle together and whisper about what is happening at center stage. They have the intense underdog devotion that the hopelessly minor actor brings to his role, but they cannot compete with this play that swirls across the huge stage under its own power, sometimes scattering the extras, sometimes drawing them in, but always, no matter how wide the focus, rendering them voyeurs to their own history.
It is a slick production and it needs the kind of professionalism the reservation cannot realistically provide. The acting is effective, but the story calls for mannequins, for wise chiefs and hot-blooded braves and long-suffering, sexy maidens. The plot concerns the Alabama and Coushatta’s decision about what to do during the Texas Revolution of 1836, a revolution which they and the neighboring tribes can make or break by throwing their weight in the right place. It is certainly an issue worth thinking about, and the author works as much action into the decision-making process as his dramatic license will allow. The young warriors, of course, want to fight, and since Texas looks like an idea whose time has come they want to join up with Houston. Anton and Long King, the Alabama and Coushatta chiefs, sour and somber and wise, have more sympathy with the Mexicans, who unlike the Texans have always left them alone. But both chiefs would just as soon move away as get involved, an attitude so enlightened and dramatically inert that Hunter throws in a subplot about a young warrior, Tamatha, who runs off to become a martyr at San Jacinto. In the end the tribes remain neutral and the Texans are grateful. The narrator checks in once more: “Sam Houston kept his word. And down through the years Tamatha’s dream came true.”
Tamatha’s dream, incidentally, was that his people would one day learn how to live in the white man’s world.
At midnight the campground is quiet except for the frogs and the occasional barking of a dog wandering the periphery of the lake. Sam Houston, the only real friend the Indians ever had in Texas, reportedly once told the Alabama-Coushatta never to let the sun set with a white man still on their reservation. Sound advice, probably, and though the Indians seem to have abandoned it, a glance through the pines at all the moonlit mobile environments my people have set up methodically in the dictated spaces convinces me that we are not really on the reservation at all but on some secure, isolated landscape of our own. And it is apparent too that the tourist trap up the road is our monster, not theirs. It’s a machine we have taught them how to build, how to maintain, how to reap their livelihood from. But we have not been able to teach them affection for it.
I miss the train again. In front of the souvenir shop a white woman so obese that the flesh of her calves forms a fold over the tops of her bright yellow Mickey Mouse shoes is reading a poster advertising a musical group called the Galileans—“Anointed Gospel singing at its best.” This reminds me to call on Byron Price, the local Presbyterian pastor who lives in a parsonage just outside the reservation boundaries. He is a personable man with a flat mop of sandy hair and a body lanky enough to enable him to sprawl sideways across an easy chair and touch the floor on both sides.
“These have been a peaceful people for 200 years,” he says. “I suspect a lot of it has to do with the influence of those early missionaries. They had strong characters but didn’t force themselves on people. The fact that one of the missionaries was a doctor was what really spoke to the Indians at first. That was where their immediate need was.” Price concedes that there are still problems among the Indian community. Alcoholism, for one. But the tourist facility has helped provide employment for tribal members who five years ago would have had to find work in the sawmills in Woodville or Livingston.
“Sure,” he admits, “they’re commercializing their heritage. But you’re commercializing your education right now. These people are selling what they know. They’re trying to make a living.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m rationalizing. Sure I am. But I’m also trying to give them the same benefit of the doubt I’d give anybody else.”
We talk a little about East Texas. “It’s a peculiar section of the country,” he says. “I grew up here. It’s very traditional, old-line. It in itself is much like the feeling you get from the Indians. You aren’t accepted until you’re trusted.”
And it takes a while to be trusted. The first step, I discover, is to give up taking notes. The next time I see Emmett Battise he seems a little friendlier, maybe pleased at the progress of my education. He tells me he’ll call the chief to set up a meeting.
“But if you take notes,” he warns, eyeing the notebook which, though inactive, is still threateningly visible in my shirt pocket, “he probably won’t talk to you.”
The Onalaska Dillerettes take the field for their warm-ups with a perceptible territorial propriety, even though for this game they are on foreign soil. They are husky, square-jawed women who seem to be on the average five or six years older than the home team, which consists of Indian girls in their middle teens, plus one white woman recruited for her pitching arm.
The Indian players wear red jerseys and blue shorts. Each has an unobstructed sweep of perfectly black hair hanging down to the small of her back. Before the game, during their own warm-up, they are gregarious and excited, playing to their boyfriends in the bleachers and to the old men in crew cuts and decades-old sport shirts who are bent toward the girls in earnest concentration.
There is a tendency among the home team to be a little careless with the ball. Every once in a while Emmett Battise, solemnly studying his coach’s clipboard, will have to dodge a wild throw from third, which on one occasion nearly goes on to bean one of the girls’ mothers.
The diamond is grassy and well kept, a small indication of the vital role the game of softball plays in the reservation community. There is a triple-header tonight, and already some of the members of the men’s teams have arrived and are hanging around the Coke stand in professional-looking uniforms that have “Chiefs” stitched prominently across the chest.
The Dillerettes come up to bat first, hitting a series of powerful line drives that end up securely in the third baseman’s glove.
When the first reservation batter comes up to the plate, an Indian behind me, who seems to be about twenty and is wearing a flat-brimmed Billy Jack hat, breaks into a steady chatter: “Heyyyyy, way to go, heyyyy good shot, heyyyyy watch it pow, watch it!”
But despite his efforts it’s three-up-three-down. I realize that I don’t know the name of the Indian team, and this ignorance seems a good pretext for me to turn around to this extroverted soul and maybe gradually lead him into the elusive Conversation that I have been so desperately seeking.
But when I ask him, in my most disinterested voice, he stiffens like a startled deer.
“Redbirds,” he says in a dead, frozen voice. “Basic Redbirds.”
“Basic Redbirds, yeah.”
So I turn around, friendless once more, and listen as his chatter cautiously rises to its former pitch.
After a few innings Onalaska has an eight-run lead, but the Basic Redbirds are beginning to retaliate. At the plate they are silent, almost reverent in the face of that fierce Dillerette infield that taunts them incessantly in the chilling, guttural voice of collective East Texas womanhood.
At the sidelines Battise silently scores every play on his clipboard while the Onalaska coach swings his arms and snaps his fingers.
Toward the end the Basic Redbirds have rallied, cutting severely into the Dillerette lead, but it is not good enough. The final score is 8-6.
The Indians retreat to their dugout and morosely begin to gather up their equipment, leaving it to the Dillerettes to cross the field to offer the customary handshakes.
But only one Basic Redbird comes out to meet them—the white pitcher. The rest merely wave the victors off.
“Boy, what sportsmanship!” a Dillerette sneers.
But the Redbirds are too preoccupied to hear the charge. They have regrouped in left field, where they sit quietly in the dusk waiting for Battise. The Onalaska team climbs into their cars, still complaining about sportsmanship, and drives off somewhere to drink beer.
“I don’t know what happened last night.” Emmett Battise says on our way to visit the Chief the next morning. “The last time we played Onalaska we beat them handily.”
There is a silence, a pleasant silence this time, as we drive deep into the reservation and turn off on a dirt road. We come to a wide clearing, a fantasy clearing surrounded by a fantasy forest. There is a prim wooden house and a man sitting on a bench in the front yard.
“Sit down, sit down,” the Chief says. “Tell me something.”
He makes room on the bench, which rests in the cool shadow of a big pin oak. The frumpy individual I thought I detected in the portrait in his cousin’s office turns out to be a man with kind, fanciful features and great gray-streaked eyebrows.
The Chief is such an infectiously benign man and his front yard is such an outrageously peaceful place that I begin to feel a little drowsy. He’s wearing a blue sport shirt and a pair of rubber-soled moccasins like the kind I once made from a kit in Boy Scouts. We talk a little about the Old Ways which, though he’s 63, had been lost long before his birth; about his father, Miconico, who was interpreter on the 1928 trip to Washington to receive the 3000-acre addition to the reservation; about the way a certain type of oak tree will always lean toward water.
He nudges me and points at a dark shape soaring above the pines.
“Know what that is?”
“It’s a chicken hawk. Know what he’s after?”
The Chief nods.
He picks up a locust shell and looks at it inquisitively, turning it over and over in his fingers.
“What do you call these things?”
“Locusts,” I venture.
“Locusts. You know, somebody once told me that if you have a dog that won’t bark up a tree, you take these, grind them up in his food, and he’ll start barking again. Never tried it myself, though.”
A photographer wants to take some pictures, and the Chief obligingly disappears into his house and comes out in full ceremonial dress, which consists of a thigh-length red garment, an upstanding headdress, and the same khaki pants he had on before. On his chest he wears the government medal presented to Chief Sunke on the Washington trip, the tribe’s only heirloom.
The ancestral significance of the Chiefs clothing has been lost and reinvented, but this does not prevent him from appearing at home in it. These are the clothes he wears when he travels to high schools to address the students on the history of his tribe, when he receives Chamber of Commerce awards, or welcomes important guests to the reservation.
When the photographer is through taking pictures the Chief goes into his house, changes his clothes again, and comes back out. “Come and eat lunch,” he says. “The next time I see you you might be on the moon.”
His house is jammed with mementos and knickknacks. From the ceiling of the living room hangs a rack on which his wife is finishing a quilt. On the walls in bulbous frames are color sepia prints of his grandmother and of his daughter, who is now grown and teaching school in New Mexico. There are testimonials from civic groups, medals from a Russian diplomat, and an inspired collection of general kitsch.
His wife scuttles back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, bringing in plates of fry bread, hot dogs, green beans, a mysterious substance no one, not even the Chief, can identify, and a big blackberry cobbler. The Chief utters a subaudible grace and, with his wife cooking another batch of fry bread in the kitchen, we begin to eat.
“His wife is the best fry bread cook in the tribe,” Emmett Battise says.
“We don’t let her know that, though,” the Chief chuckles.
We talk about the Apollo-Soyuz space flight and about chili, for it seems the Chief was the winner of the 1971 Chilympiad.
“I wouldn’t give out my recipe to the newspapers so I never won again,” he says without bitterness. “Wick Fowler beat me the next year.”
His wife fixes us some fry bread to go and shyly disregards our thanks. When we walk outside again the low-lying forest is as cool as though it were in the Rockies. The Chief escorts us to our car, sits down on his bench again, and calls after us: “The next time I see you you’ll probably be on the moon.”
“Here we have the snake lecture,” the girl says, picking up a Texas indigo snake from its glass cage. “I’ll bring him around so you can pet him.”
The audience repels in disgust.
“It’s all right,” the girl says. “He’s used to being handled.”
We are seated before her in a semicircle. She begins at one end and comes to each of us, the snake’s head coiled up her forearm. Several women pinch up their faces, shake their heads, and wave the creature away. The kids touch it with one finger, as though it might carry an electrical charge. The men, showing off for their wives, stroke it nonchalantly with the backs of their hands.
“Now you keep that thing’s head away from me,” says a woman near the end of the semicircle who has decided that she is going to touch the snake. She reaches out tentatively and finds that the skin of the reptile is not wet and slimy after all, but is as cold and dry as beadwork, no more unpleasant to the touch than an ear of corn. The snake shifts and, for a moment, the hands of the girl and the woman almost touch along its body. The air is distinctly charged when the girl returns the reptile to its cage. I don’t know if the power really comes from the snake or not, but we can feel it lingering, over the girl, over all of us here who have gone the way of our people.