Years ago, I visited the Grand Canyon with my family. On the road there, we passed dozens of little trinket stands advertised by signs that read, “Friendly Indians work here!”
Friendly Indians? How degrading. What ever happened to “warlike” or “fierce”? As a one-quarter Chickasaw, I felt so deeply insulted I wanted to go out and scalp somebody.
My husband pointed out that the Chickasaws never scalped anybody. He’s a paleface, though. What does he know?
I didn’t think much about the whole scalping issue till we were back in Oklahoma last week. I hadn’t been there in years, but it’s where I was born, my sister was born, my parents were born. Half my family had arrived in Oklahoma Territory for the great land rush; the other half had been there to greet them, probably royally pissed off about the whole thing. As usual, somebody had been speaking with a forked tongue.
But it’s haunting for me to be there and think of all our family members who have died, all the history — bad and good — that had been buried and forgotten there. One of my grandfathers, a fullblood Chickasaw, had been an alcoholic and racist who’d joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. I thought of him when the history of the Tulsa massacre of blacks finally came out, wondering what kind of role he might have played in that horror. He had died years before I was born, in what may have been a barroom brawl, and I never knew him. He was a good father, my own father told me once. At other times, he spoke of the humiliation of having a father who drank away his paychecks and left his children to face the bill collectors. In families, the stories that linger behind are never entirely clear.
My other set of grandparents had objected to my parents’ marriage since Daddy was part Indian. Mother had told them he was only one-eighth Indian, but they still felt it was a problem. As the years passed, my parents felt the same way. Indian blood was something to be ashamed of and lied about.
These days, it’s different, the same, worse, better in Oklahoma. People speak casually about their degree of Indian blood. “I’m 1/32nd Cherokee,” the young woman who worked at the counter in the Cherokee Casino Hotel told me. “He” — she motioned to another clerk — “is 1/128th.” As members of the tribe, they receive preference in employment at the casino. But they wouldn’t give me a discount, even though I was dying to haul out my Chickasaw card. Instead, my husband and I got an AARP discount. (What ever happened to AIM?)
The casinos dot the state and I assume they bring in revenues for the tribes. But there’s something kind of sad and tawdry about them. There’s nothing more depressing than watching a roomful of people staring into slot machines, gambling away their life’s savings. But maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way. Maybe they’re just purchasing a little hope and excitement, even if it’s temporary.
We got together with some of my cousins, all of them members of at least one of the Five Civilized Tribes. The Cherokees, my cousin Ronnie told me, give the better college benefits — so his kids are enrolled with that tribe. He was also kind of fond of the Cherokee Casino, since he’d won enough money there one night to buy a gigantic flat-screen TV. “Compliments of God and the Cherokee Nation,” Ronnie’s wife Donna said.
All of us, together, were descendants (or in-laws) of that Indian grandfather who hated blacks and drank himself to death. Strange to think something that good can come from something a past that terrible and shameful. But maybe it’s a very American story, rooted in some kind of deep disgrace and flourishing into something better.
Before we left to drive back to the Cherokee Casino, Ronnie took us into his backyard and showed us the latest beneficence of the Chickasaw Nation: a storm shelter. He had ordered it from the Chickasaws and it had been installed — all of it free — almost immediately.
“So, are you telling me,” I said, “that if a tornado comes through Oklahoma, only the Chickasaws will be left?”
Ronnie nodded. “And then we’ll finally get our land back,” he said.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)