Sunday, December 11, 2005

Basketball Warrior

The artifact in Bob Scriver's book, "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains" that I included in this story is the straight-up Blackfeet headdress. The people I kept thinking of were Russ Redner and Kenneth Loudhawk and particularly Kenneth's father at the time the two men were tried in Portland, OR, for transportinig dynamite in a Winnebago in Eastern Oregon. (Dennis Banks was also to be tried, but jumped bail to California where Governor Brown refused to extradite him.) The sheriff who had custody of the dynamite eventually became so nervous about it that he exploded the stuff. The case was lost for lack of the evidence, the explosives.

1943-1960 Historical Time-Line

Makes Cold Weather gives Blood Medicine Pipe to John Ewers. The Council files suit against Superintendent McBride and Forester A.D. Stephenson, defending B. Connolly. A certain amount of double-leasing seems to be going on. Different authorities make different deals with different people. The drought cattle, which were supposed to have been relief, have now somehow become a debt.
1944: National Congress of American Indians formed as Indian lobbying group. John Ewers is the builder and new curator at the Museum of the Plains Indian. Brian Connolly accuses George Pambrun of shady doings. D'arcy McNickle is a member of the government commission that investigates the whole complication. So is Felix Cohen who (as an assistant Secretary of the Interior) had helped to create the Tribal Council and didn't want to hurt it now. He was one of the most celebrated practitioners of Indian law in American and is employed by the tribe.
1945: The Tribal Council has gone into the red from 1942 to 1946.
1946: Warren O'Hara is the superintendent.
1949: Iliff McKay is the Tribal Treasurer. He was bonded, resigned, terminated his bond, and then was reinstated but without the bond. This meant the Council couldn't receive funds from the local accounts on deposit with the Superintendent Rex Kildow and precipitated an audit, which the bonding company insisted upon. The Council had loaned themselves $63,000. There was much other evidence of mismanagement. The Charter was not being enforced. Cohen advised the Council to put their money in a separate account of their own until he can work out difficulties. The superintendent suggets terminating supervision. He asks for the FBI. D'Arcy McNickle, Chief of the Tribal Relations Branch, urges the Indian Bureau to sort things out as the law requires.
1950: RELOCATION of Indians to cities. Indian slums form in Midwest and West Coast.
1951: The squabble goes on. Louis Plenty Treaty asks a senator if a petition of four or five hundred Blackfeet could abolish the Tribal Council. George Pambrun is the Chair.
1953: Law forbidding Indians to purchase liquor off-reservation is repealed. White whiskey towns had sprung up around dry reservations. Termination policy begins.
1954: Indian Health transferred from BIA to U.S. Public Health Service.
1960: JFKennedy extends federal housing assistance to reservations, increases commodities, kills heirship bill. (over 1960-63)


At the Am Vets Club on the rez -- most afternoons -- Ev Goes On Through and Jess St. John (pronounced “Sin Jin,” which caused Jess to be called “Slim Jim” though he certainly was not either) were steady customers, better entertainment than television. They were WWII veterans and told wild tales of fighting in France and Italy, but even if they got off those topics, they had many more stories to tell. As they reached what some would call “retirement age,” they were still full of piss and vinegar.

Ev had gotten out of college just in time to be ready for Indian preference hiring at the BIA and he’d been a paper-pusher up there in the Government Square ever since. No one was very sure what he did, exactly, but if you got into real trouble with the BIA, you went to Ev and he’d see what he could do. Most of the time he could help you out.

Jess was a totally different type. He’d returned to his father’s ranch and helped build it into a going operation. The brand was S Fish-hook, which is just fancy for SJ, their initials. There had been two brothers. One died in a car accident (yes, he was drunk) and Jess bought the other one out when he decided to move to the coast. Despite what seemed like a lot of weight and apparent inattention, he was an exceptionally vital and focused man, which is good in a rancher. If he said he was going to do something, he would.

When they got off the war stories, their favorite argument was about the proper way to manage the tribe’s oil resources. Jess thought the tribe should directly drill and develop while Ev thought it was smarter to let outsiders do the work and just manage the leases and contracts. Sometimes they came close to blows, but never all the way.

Their other favorite argument was about any profit the tribe made: Jess thought it should be paid out in per capita for private enterprise and Ev thought it should be invested in tribal infrastructure, like roads for the reservation. Jess thought the government should pay for that stuff, but Ev said that gave the BIA too much say in what was done. These were full-blood versus half-blood arguments that ran through the whole tribe and especially the Tribal Council.

It was nearly suppertime when they heaved themselves out of their chairs -- not drunk, though Jess had had a couple of beers spread over the afternoon, and went out to Jess’ pickup to go fetch his son, Jess Jr., from the schoolhouse. Jess Jr. -- JayJay, they called him -- was a basketball star in the winter and a fancy dance contestant in the summer. He had Jess’ temperament and Ev’s build, which he got because Jess had married Ev’s sister.

In the empty schoolhouse, they could hear the ball bouncing -- whack, whack, whack -- and then the basket -- whoosh with hardly a bedoing sound from hitting the rim! The same pattern over and over and with them the smacking of big tennis shoes on the wooden floor. The two men stood for a moment listening for the pure pleasure of the familiar sound before quietly pulling open the door.

Jay-Jay was alone on the floor with lights only around the basket, bouncing off the highly polished floor. His long arms and legs moved as though he were dancing and his braids flew around his head. The ball dropped though the basket, bounced once, was dribbled a few times as Jay-Jay wheeled into a new position, then arced up and through the hoop again. Whoosh. His concentration was total.

“These are the best years of his life,” whispered Ev.

“When he goes into the service, they’ll make him cut them braids,” mourned Jess.

“I hear there’s a movement to make the basketball players cut their braids. I suppose they do hurt when they whip a guy across the face.”

“Aw, players oughta be tougher than that.” Neither man ever considered that Jay-Jay might resist being drafted. Vietnam had not registered with them. They were patriots who believed the leadership only had to lead the charge. “Anyway, he’s a pow-wow star in the summer -- how can he do that without his braids?”

Neither of them noticed, sitting high on the bleachers where it was dark, a second tall young man, a new transfer student from the Dakotas where he had been a star on one of the small Sioux rez teams. But when the coach of the Warriors approached him, he had said he didn’t want to play. No one understood why. He sure moved like a player.

One day finally the Sioux young man approached Jay-Jay. “Watched you practicing the other day. Pretty good player,” he said. The two hit it off and began to spend time together, but Jay-Jay’s mom didn’t like it and said so to Jess one morning after the school bus had left and she had poured them each a second cup of coffee.

“Why doesn’t he go out for the team?” she asked Jess.

“Dunno. Maybe he’s got an injury.”

“Injury in his attitude, I think. Who are his people? Why is he here?”

“I guess his mom moved back here and made him come along. She’s enrolled here.”

“He talks against whites. It’s a sure way to get into trouble. I want Jay-Jay to go to college, not waste time on fighting whites. You got to get along with them in college.”

“I’ll talk to him,” promised Jess, but he didn’t. He couldn’t think what to say. He wanted his son to get along with whites, but he wanted him to stand his ground and Jay-Jay was even more Indian than his father was -- Jess’ father had been white, but that meant Jay-Jay was a quarter-white. Nadine, ‘Deeny,’ was fullblood same as Ev.

The Sioux transfer was named Hot Hawk. His sister also transferred -- her name was Carlette and the more crude locals joked that she was the one who was really hot. Jay-Jay began to hang out with them at lunch and so on. Carlette didn’t say much but Hot had a lot to say and Jay-Jay listened: about how this was an Indian continent and if it hadn’t been for smallpox, it still would be. And about how they shouldn’t be called Indians anyway -- was this India? Hot admired the American Indian Movement and the outrageous things they did. Then came Wounded Knee II.

Deeny’s predictions came true. Over spring break Jay-Jay, Hot and Carlette hit the road in Hot’s old car, intending to visit the Hawk family in South Dakota -- or so they said. Jay-Jay left his folks a note. He knew they wouldn’t want him to go, but he felt that if he didn’t, he’d be missing out on life, turning away from something essential to being Indian.

Discovering that small town cafes across the prairie were not inclined to serve Indians, they bought ring baloney and Wonder bread. Hot began to buy beer instead of pop or the milk that Jay-Jay was used to. “Sissy!” jeered Hot. Money ran short and by the time they got to Dakota, they only had a few dollars. Carlette simply went into a supermarket and shop-lifted. “These people are just ripping us all off anyway. They add the cost of what we took onto the prices so they don’t lose anything.” But Jay-Jay was beginning to understand that these two were outside what his family would consider proper. “Oh, Jay-Jay,” said Carlette, “Don’t be an old stick-in-the-mud. Our people have always been hunter-gatherers. Think of it that way.”

When the siren sounded behind them, Hot said, “Well, here comes the cavalry. Let’s leave them Long Knives in the dust.” He hit the gas, even though he’d had a few beers and his control and reflexes weren’t the best. Carlette was screaming with laughter. To himself Jay-Jay wished he had a death song to sing. But it didn’t feel like going into battle -- more like ... but he didn’t have time to complete the thought before they were in the ditch, upside down. It was that sudden.

Carlette was under the car, crushed to death. Hot had gone through the windshield, cutting his throat. Jay-Jay’s foot was trapped under the front seat. He twisted and pulled, suddenly desperate to get away from the car, though he didn’t quite know why. Using all his strength, he tore loose. On his stomach, using elbows and one foot, he crab-scrambled out into the grass, conscious in spite of his pain that he was smelling sweetgrass.

Then the highway patrolman was there and since he was the only one moving, the officer dragged him even farther away from the car, which was a good thing because it exploded. Not as though the gas tank had caught fire, but exploded like TNT. “Oh my God,” said the patrolman. “If I’d known that was in the trunk, I never would have chased you alone.”

“If I’d known, I never would have gotten in the car,” said Jay-Jay, and passed out.

“Accident?” asked Jess on the phone, his voice going up so that Deeny got cold chills. “Trial?” She was already thinking what to pack in order to get to Jay-Jay.

“Has a doctor seen him? Is he in a hospital?” Then a long silence. Finally Jess hung up. “They might have to amputate his foot. We’d better get there fast. They won’t spend money on fancy medical care for an Indian.”

“Call Ev,” directed Deeny as she left for the bedroom and began pulling open drawers.

They didn’t get there quite soon enough. Jay-Jay’s foot was gone, along with his athletic scholarship and his fancy dancing. “At least he still has his braids,” said Deeny. “His beautiful braids.” She began to cry again, though she hadn’t thought there was anything more to cry about. Jess folded her up under his chin and shed his own tears on top of her head.

By the time the state of South Dakota called Jess to trial, they had figured it all out. Hot had gotten the dynamite somewhere in Idaho where there was mining and was transporting it to some guys in South Dakota who claimed they were AIM, though that remained to be established at the trial. It was lucky there wasn’t very much of the stuff.

In court when the bailiff said, “All rise,” and the judge strode in, he saw at the defendent’s table a thin young man with glossy braids as thick as his wrists, who stood on one foot with his crutches alongside. Ranged in the seats behind the boy -- alongside his father, mother and uncle -- were a lawyer in a fringed buckskin jacket and long white hair, a famous writer in a corduroy jacket and a Pendleton shirt, and an Indian journalist known for his pen sharp as an arrow. The judge wondered which ones were really concerned about the boy and which were showboating.

The prosecuting attorney was one of the local good ol’ boys. The defense attorney was from Texas, a woman in a power suit and an expensive haircut. She was of mixed blood, some Indian and probably some Negro, an affirmative action graduate of an exceptionally fine law school, now assigned to this pro bono case to polish the image of her prestige law firm. The cameras loved her, but she paid no attention to them. She was all business.

When the three adult Blackfeet had gone out for coffee with her, Ev took the lead in asking her questions but oddly he didn’t think of an important one until well along in the conversation. “Miss Child, somehow I recognize your face. Do you have ties to the Blackfeet?”

“My father.”

Ev’s face became intense. “Was his real name Surprising Child?”

“Yes. I dropped the ‘Surprising’ part -- it took too much explaining. Not that a lawyer is against surprises -- or explanations, for that matter.” Now Jess was paying attention.

“Hector Surprising Child?”

“What?” asked Deeny, seeing the men’s faces change.

“Hector Surprising Child was Old Nosy’s boy. This lady is the daughter of our old Army buddy, Heck!”

The lawyer was completely poised. “I thought there might be some connection, which is why I made a special plea to get the case.”

“Heck! Our old buddy Heck! How is he?”

Now she lost her poise. “My parents were killed in a car accident ten years ago. They never saw me graduate from law school.”

The four of them sat there, as though transfixed by some spell, until the waitress came around with her refill jug. She was very curious about this little group and came around a little too often. When the glamorous lawyer reached out to take the hands of the two older Indian men and asked, “May I call you my uncles?” she was impressed. She wished for uncles to say that to -- when she drifted off to sleep that night, she heard the lawyer’s soft, beautifully inflected voice saying, “May I call you my uncles?” She thought of the lawyer’s beaded earrings and wondered if she could find a pair like them.

When they got back to the courtroom, there was an ad hoc news conference going on in the hallway outside. The three big shots were holding forth while the reporters did their work. The prosecuting attorney went by quietly and took his seat. He knew when to keep a low profile.

In the end Jay-Jay was found guilty, sentenced to six months in jail with all but time served suspended. Most of the time he served had been in the hospital. Ev shook the hands of the three distinguished men -- lawyer, writer, journalist -- who had ensured a fair trial.

Deeny whispered to Jess, “How does Ev know those guys?”

“I dunno. He travels a lot to conferences. I guess he’s been on panels with them or something.”

When they got home to the ranch, Jay-Jay refused to go back to finish up the few months of his senior year that were left. He had no trouble passing the GED. That qualified him for a state college, but he didn’t want to enroll. He spent a lot of time learning to ride with one foot. When there was talk about a prothesis, he left the room. Hour after hour he lay on his bed in his room with his back to the world.

One day he heard car doors slam and his dad talking to some man out in the yard. He heard his dad come into the house, go to his parents’ bedroom, take something out of their big trunk and go back outside. Going to the window, he saw his dad hand over something in a bundled-up calico poke and accept a check in return. When the strange man drove off, his father stared at the check, stuffed it into the pocket of his cowboy shirt, and went off toward the barn.

Jay-Jay hopped into the kitchen. “Mom, what did Dad just sell to that guy?” She was peeling potatoes into a colander in the sink and didn’t want to answer. “MOM!”

Very quietly, she said, “His buckskin parade suit.”

“Why? Why would he do such a thing?”

“Lawyers cost a lot of money, even when most of their work is for free. There are always expenses.”

“He LOVED that suit! There was nothing more important to him than wearing that suit and riding a good horse in the Indian Days parade!”

“I know.”

“I’m not worth it.” He turned and thumped back to his room. When Deeny had thought long enough to know what she wanted to say, she found him with his back turned.

“Move over, I want to sit on your bed while I say things to you.” Grudgingly, he shifted and she settled.

“Jay-Jay, I made that buckskin suit for your father when we were first married.”

“I know.” The boy’s arms were wrapped around his middle and his voice was muffled.

“Jay-Jay, your father and I together made you together. I can bead another buckskin suit, but it’s too late to make another boy.”

“What about my heritage? You sold my Indian heritage.”

Deeny got up, sighing, went into the other bedroom and got into the trunk. She came back with a rawhide cylinder Jay-Jay hadn’t seen before, sat back down and began to work at the knots in the thongs that tied the bundle together. When she got the contents out and shaken to set the feathers free, she said softly, “Look.”

Grudgingly, Jay-Jay rolled partly over and looked. “What IS that?” He rolled the rest of the way over and sat up. “What the heck kind of funny looking warbonnet is that?”

“You’re used to Sioux warbonnets, but this is the real Blackfeet way to make one -- straight-up, like a stove pipe.”

“Why do people wear Sioux warbonnets -- why not Blackfeet?”

“This is a sacred headdress, Jay-Jay. It’s not for show. You can’t wear it until you’ve had the right transferred to you.”

“Who owns it? Who made it?”

“It comes from our family, way back. We are only the Keepers, not the owners. Your Uncle Ev knows the song. He can give you the right to wear it, but not until you’re grown up.”

The boy looked at the bonnet and carefully touched the eagle feathers. The feathers were attached to a quilled rawhide strip and from the strip also hung the small soft hides of both summer and winter weasels. At the temples were small round trade mirrors and round brass falconry bells. The tips of each feather had a tassel of horsehair. He thought while his mom sat beside him with her strong, graceful hands folded in her lap.

“Those old people lost everything, my boy. Their land, their families, the buffalo. But they never gave up.

Finally, he said, “I get it.” His smile was the first in a long time and it was genuine.

“You’ve only lost your foot, son. Not your brains or your heart.”

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