On the playgrounds of the Weeping Willow Elementary School, six Black Eagle Child Indian boys sat on a creaky motionless merry-go-round with their legs dangling over the bluish gray pebbles. Within the octagon-shaped ride, two empty places separated the two sets of third- and fourth-grade boys. Calmly and deliberately they addressed one another in a mixture of English and their tribal language.
The topic, it was somehow decided, was their father s occupations. It somehow seemed important to talk about employment, the vehicle of their clothes, food, and shelter. Included in the first responses were the names of distant Iowa cities, like Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Des Moines, and Iowa City. Even though they had all gone on a school field trip to Minneapolis a month previous on a train, none of them had been to these cities. Incomprehensibly, each father seemed to be a welder, a factory employee, or a construction worker in the cities. Money amounts were discussed.
Everything about the conversation was going well until the group asked Edgar Principal Bear what his father did for a living.
Sensing five sets of eyes on him, the light-brown, round-faced boy lifted his glasses to his flat, chubby nose with his finger and looked downward at his scuzzy brown shoes. He was reacting as if he hadn’t heard a word said.
“Edgar, ki na we na-ke i sha wi ya-ko se ma? Edgar, what does your father do?” the group asked again pointedly. “A kwi me ko-ke ko-i no we ya ni ni. You haven’t said anything.” Edgar s head involuntarily jerked upward and a tuft of black hair broke free from the oiled-down Elvis Presley hairdo, dangling upright in the breeze of an intense afternoon sun and curling.
The group, consisting of Pat Red Hat, Kensington Muscatine, Horatio Plain Brown Bear, Theodore Facepaint, and Hayward Muscatine, couldn’t understand why Edgar was unusually quiet. Typically he was talkative and jovial. Now he only made them curious.
The question startled Edgar, rendering him dry-mouthed.
Finally, after shrugging his shoulders and straightening his hair, Edgar offered that he didn’t know. It was obvious he was not comfortable. He fidgeted and kicked some pebbles to the center of the merry-go-round before continuing. “But my uncle works at Whit-more’s Sawmill in town. My mother works at the chicken factory, and my grandmother at the Why Cheer Laundry and Dry Cleaners. Tte na-ne tti se e ma-mi ke je wi wa–Whitmore’s Sawmill– o te we ne ki, Ne ki ya-wi na–chicken factory–mi ke je wi ya ka o ni-no ko me se ma-a i me ki–Why Cheer Laundry and Dry Cleaners.”
From the movements of the shadows cast in stark detail over the gravel, Edgar ascertained the boys had all looked at one another. He had dodged the subject of fathers. Again. There was a brief but strained pause in the conversation. They sat still and listened to the chain fasteners of the whipping flag and looked toward the empty swings. As they did this, Edgar tpok out a comb and fixed the curl. When they returned to him, he looked down at his brown scuzzy shoes. Again.
No one had noticed before but the warm breeze that pressed their shirts against their upper torsos outlined either their ribs or the tiny ridges of their backbones. Above them, at the end of a tall clinking metal pole, the American flag whipped loudly. In precise moments it undulated and ended up with a sharp snap. The chain fasteners tapped steadily against the pole. There was something about colored cloth that hung in the air, responding vigorously to the warm spring breeze. Nearby, lonely swings swung without riders. In the air, the smell of fresh dandelions and apple tree blossoms.
Today, for no apparent reason, a subtle change was taking place in their six young bodies. As a group they had decided to skip a game of softball. Was it maturity? They couldn’t even begin to know. Whatever the source or cause, they found certain comfort in taking a break from the norm to converse like adults.
After all, they had been together as students hopelessly immersed in school, yet they hardly knew anything about one another’s families. They had listened to each other read and do arithmetic badly. No one had the edge on grades. Not even the girls. They were all equally illiterate. Yet they were Black Eagle Child, held together and separated.
All at once, like the warm sensory breeze rippling over their tight shirts, a sense of maturing generated thoughts on the purpose of life itself through this discussion of their fathers’ employment in the daylight air.
Wanting to continue the conversation, the group turned to another classmate, the one who sat to Edgar’s right, Theodore Facepaint. “Ted, what does yours do? Ki na wa na-ka tti-i tti te wa?” But Ted was just as dumbstruck. He could barely lift his head from the metal handlebar, and he blinked repeatedly as if intending to speak. His parched thin lips were curled inward, and quick audible gulps of air were taken. Under his thick black glasses was a slightly pale and pockmarked face with a wide, flat nose that looked broken. Under his long brown-tipped hair was a set of puffy, trembling eyes.
Ted, in a halting voice, explained that his father was a construction worker. He worked on buildings in Iowa City. There was a reference to “u . . . ni . . . ver . . . siti . . . ha . . . spi . . . toes.”
It was a warm, sunny 1960 spring afternoon, a recess period in which everyone else had gone to the other side of Weeping Willow, frolicking over the large grassy lawn in a much-needed game of softball. Teaching and learning was hard for both the Bureau of Tribal Affairs staff and students; hostilities had somehow ceased temporarily. There was a semblance of amicability.
No one would be chased after, scolded, roughed up, and sent inside. On this occasion, the yellow-jacket wasps were doing the chasing–with each other. They seemed to shoot through the blue sky openings in the high fluffy clouds that were unevenly smeared across the green wooded horizon. Upon seeing the boys, the wasps hovered for a moment between the gray tubular merry-go-round bars before buzzing toward the concrete haze around the school building.
Pat Red Hat, who was a portly, big-boned boy, sat with his sleeves rolled up past his forearms. His tattooed knuckles gripped the bar tightly as he stretched backward, basking his little face and hooked nose in the sun’s rays. Never one to be afraid to look directly at the sun, his eyes were halfway open. It had something to do with an ancient story about how mischievous children had once tied up the sun with cordage on its daily crossing. “Are you really afraid of children?” he would shout upward at the fiery sphere before throwing rocks at it. With his large exposed rump hanging over the wooden seat, Pat started singing songs from the annual tribal celebration, breaking the awkward stillness. The first was a pipe dance song that was made with a country and western singers name.
Ya-a ho John-ny Cash, Ya-a ho Johnny Cash.
Ya ho Johnny Cash, Ya ho Johnny Cash . . .
The second pipe dance song, he related, was the same except that it mocked a dancer’s oddly placed regalia pieces–the white Angora goat leggings.
A sa mi-a kwi tti i-ke bi se ka-ke mi . . . tti-ka ta ka na ni.
You are wearing your fu . . . ur-r-r leggings much too high.
While Pat was chanting away on his improvised lyrics, Horatio Plain Brown Bear shot his arms and legs out, holding them rigid when the verse stopped. As another verse was winding up, in the dance part where the drum was rumbled, Horatio began to gyrate as if in a rigorous pipe dance. At the part where the “fur” mention was overemphasized and elongated, Horatio, taking a few good sniffs to clear his perpetually runny nose, scooped up some rocks and placed them inside an empty milk carton. On the next verse, near the “fur” part, he shook the milk carton like a rattle.
Everyone had a good hearty laugh, but the song that alluded to “fur,” or hair, also made them nervous. All at once they realized there could be implications in acknowledging the songs message. They eyed one another quickly before looking away as if they were being blinded by the afternoon sun. It was an excuse to look stupid and act uninterested, the way they had taught one another to do in class: instant mutes, avoiding participation.
Of course, the threat of being deprived of recess for not participating made the strongest among them quiver like a nauseated rabbit. They all knew how to read, Pat had said, because the white teachers had drilled holes into their skulls and with a funnel poured in the liquid sustenance known as the English language, the real “alphabet soup.” In dejection they had all read from the musty-smelling textbooks aloud, enunciating and uttering words that were essentially meaningless. Magellan. Magna Carta. Michelangelo. Before, Pat related, we were like wild reptile babies that refused to eat during captivity, forcing Euro-American owners to ram potent doses of civilization down their throats with sticks in order that they might live. And twice a week they were stripped of their grimy clothes, herded to the bathroom showers like war prisoners, and lathered with bulk Lysol-smelling soap before Mr. Mateechna, the Indian janitor, scrubbed them down with a hard bristle brush.
They may well exhibit signs of knowing how to read vowels and syllables, the Weeping Willow staff commented at lunch, but words like skyscraper and museum are meainngless unless these places are introduced to them. Therefore, beginning in the 1950s, field trips were taken twice a year.
Yet, even on short excursions to the Tama County courthouse to look at World War I memorabilia donated by the Potato cousins, the Black Eagle Child version of Audie Murphy twice over, Pat Red Hat, was closely monitored. Besides being a singer who was forced since infancy to drum with adults, Pat was unusually body-oriented. ‘maybe I got this way from the old men,” he’d begin, before sharing wicked stories in Black Eagle Child with his diminutive classmates. This master held them spellbound with adult storytelling.
As Pat amused Horatio with his improvised pipe dance lyrics, the other boys, not wanting to acknowledge the songs allusion to intimate body hair, joined Edgar Bearchild as he stared downward.
* * *
For Edgar, there was an incredible sense of relief, and he welcomed Pat for being a timely distraction. The question about his father’s occupation was unnerving. He couldn’t even begin to guess what his father looked like, much less where he worked or if he even did. There was a slight chance he might have actually seen him the summer previous, walking at a brisk pacie down a brick street in cowboy boots, but he wasn’t sure. Pondering a father who was virtually nonexistent was a strain, but no. one would press the issue.
As Pat sang on, the boys sat like baby pheasants, frozen and listening. They could see Horatio’s shadow over the bluish gray pebbles. He was oblivious, and his antics were unabated. No one quite knew what to make of the silly dance business.
Did Horatio even know, or was it part of a gag?
The fact was, in 1960, rural midwestern Indian boys–or girls–were told absolutely nothing abput themselves, thanks to America’s mind-set back then. Therefore, the phrases that came forth from Pat Red Hat were strange things they didn’t recognize. Nevertheless, they acted as if they did for fear of embarrassment. The boys were wholly dependent upon Pat’s tremendous knowledge of human anatomy, knowing no one could possibly make up such bizarre but enlightening stuff. Pat was born and raised in a traditional family whose stories were infused with what most people might consider sexually explicit themes. Sexuality wasn’t anything novel and it wasn’t anything to be secretive about. At school, however, it was drastically different.
“Come on now, Pat Red Hat! Don’t fight us!” was a familiar teachers’ yell heard in the pale green sterile hallways of Weeping Willow Elementary. Everyone would know Pat was being physically restrained, and someone would actually attempt to stick a bar of lathered soap into Pat’s tightly clenched mouth. Washing his ‘dirty mouth” had little effect.
Once in third grade Pat was unduly punished for using the word “but” in the wrong context. It began with Pat being asked by the teacher to spell ‘mississippi” on the chalkboard. Properly trained to write in Black Eagle Child, Pat waddled up to the front of the classroom. There he turned around, looked at the shiny waxed floors, and said in broken English that he could spell it in “Indin.” Somewhere along the way the teacher thought she was being called a “big butt.” What Pat had meant to say was that he couldn’t spell what the teacher wanted but could instead spell ‘me tti Ne hi si, or Big or Great River” in “Indin.” The teacher went into a fit, with all the other teachers joining in, squawking like chickens about to lay eggs and pecking away at the closest students available. Eavesdropping from their classrooms, the other students were frightened by the sounds of holocaust as Pat was dragged into the bathroom. He went down to the floor with his arms wrapped around two heads, but his effort was useless. The students understood perfectly what he had tried, to say. From that day forth, based on their
observations of teachers’ examining each other’s rears, they learned “but” also meant a person’s rear. Add “big” before that, and there was trouble.
“Okay, me no sure!” Pat cried from the bathroom. “Okay? Big, big way! Know my way! Ow! Know only . . . spell my way only! Ow!”
It took five teachers to wrestle and tie him down with canvas straps. They stopped when Pat’s gums began to bleed and when one of them realized that Pat was right about the “big but,” that it was given as a preface to an apology for not knowing how to spell ‘mississippi” as requested. Embarrassed, the teachers marched back to the classrooms smelling like cheap bulk soap. Such commotion would be a predictable highlight of a day at Weeping Willow.
When Edgar Bearchild finally lifted his head from the gray merry-go-round bars, he looked directly at Horatio Plain Brown Bear. Light-complexioned and clownish, Horatio implored Hayward and Kensington Muscatine, who sat on either side of him, to engage in the same pipe dance mimicry. All attention to that point had been directed to Pat, who did the singing, and Horatio, who did the dancing. And now the Muscarines were desirous of the same attention. They joined in, shaking their imaginary pipes and gourd-rattles in a frenzy–only to become part of the joke. Pat had inserted their clan-given names in the song and they didn’t even know.
“And look at these monkeys, looking like they’re scratching their privates instead of dancing,” said Horatio. With a sneering grin, he pointed to their stiff curled hands over their slouched bodies.
Realizing how weird they must have looked, Hayward and Kensington stopped their frenetic gyrations. Although the Muscatines shared the same last name, they weren’t really related. Physically, they were exact opposites: Hayward was tall and lanky for his age and good at basketball; Kensington was short and oriental-looking and good-for-nothing. When Hayward laughed he brought the back of one hand to cover his mouth and leaned backward on one bent leg like a girl; when Kensington laughed his oriental-looking eyes bulged out of his wide, well-developed forehead, and his gaping pink mouth could be seen with stunning clarity. Especially around younger female classmates.
Somewhere two to three generations back, they sometimes said, they must have been related. For whatever reason, the Muscatines hung around Horatio like servants, taking abuse. Horatio constantly persuaded them to do stupid things, like planning a group depantsing of a female student or humping one another for kicks. Today they were duped into performing a dance that alluded to the dreaded arrival of pubescence.
Humiliated by what they had just done, the Muscatines hunched their shoulders, dropped their jaws, and pretended to laugh at themselves. Along with Horatio Plain Brown Bear they sat on the octagon-shaped ride, facing the south, toward the midafternoon sun and the school; the other three boys–with Edgar sitting between Ted Facepaint and Pat Red Hat–were facing the northern hills of the Black Eagle Child Settlement.
When the singing, drumming, rattling, and laughing settled down, the sounds of a whipping flag and clinking chains returned. With his little face still bent backward toward the sun, Pat, with nostrils flaring in his hooked nose, asked what everyone was doing after school. The Muscatines were thus spared further humiliation.
“In case you’re not doing anything, would you like to go see those hills above Liquid Lake? People say some kind of spaceships are landing there.”
“Oh yeah, I heard my grandfather talk about it,” said Horatio, after he chucked the milk carton to the weeds. ‘didn’t they have a feast for them last year?”
“That’s right!” answered Edgar, surprising the group. They all looked at him as he turned around and pointed his left arm to the southwest. “I think they took food and offerings to the last ridge over there. You can barely see it, though. My grandmother went. She said tiny people were seen walking through the underbrush, coming from . . . over there. Look. That way.”
The boys all looked toward the precipice of pine trees on O’Ryan’s Hill. Edgar asked if anyone thought they could find the spaceships. The Muscatines looked around, hoping someone would carry the discussion further.
“Of course we can,” replied Pat assuredly, as he gently rocked the playground ride with his bulky weight. “We just have to wait until nightfall. I guess that’s when the lights in the sky begin moving. Some spaceships are supposed to be the size of quarters, with black smoke trailing behind and sounding like ten trains.”
“What I hear,” interjected Horatio, after wiping his nose on the cuff of his shirt, “was that these spaceships are the Supernaturals who have come to check on us, to see how we are doing.”
“But-ta . . . but-ta . . . what-ta if-f-f they’re not?” asked Theodore through an intermittent breath of inhaled and exhaled words. “What-ta .. . if-f . . . they’re fr-from ou-outer space? Or-or fr-from the stars? My-my aunt Louise . . . Stabs Back . . . sa-says th-they’re . . . th-the . . . they br-brought us Star Me-Medicine.”
“What are you talking about, Ted?” inquired Pat. ‘star-Medicine? On whose back? What-ta what-ta do you mean?”
Quick to imitate, Horatio followed with another question. “And-da and-da who-who a-are you staying with since your fa-fa-father is working in Iowa City?” On the side the Muscatines covered their mouths, and their beady eyes gleamed as they giggled.
Theodore’s eyes began to shift at the mockery, and then he suddenly clammed up. When the recess bell was manually rung, Horatio got up and proposed a camp-out at Liquid Lake over the weekend, to which Hayward and Kensington quickly agreed. They looked at each other and smiled. As everyone started to get up, stretching arms and legs, the Muscatine duo volunteered in an excited tone to bring “the weenies.” The rest of the group, led by Pat, took that as innuendo, saying “Wee-h!” with a basslike emphasis. The short but pronounced verbal utterance was a turnaround, the reference to “weenies’ being taken as a literal delivery of their privates.
At further expense of the Muscatines, the group’s giggling accelerated as they entered the school building. Once inside, Pat and Horatio said to the teachers aloud, “Hey! The Muscatines are bringing weenies to the camp-out!”
“That’s good,” said the teachers who stood in front of their classroom doors. “I’m sure they’ll taste scrumptious over the fire,” they said. ‘mmmm–mm-mmm, yum-yum,” said one of them, rubbing her belly and rolling her wet tongue over the top lipstick-covered lip.
“Wee-h!” cried the group in an exaggerated manly intonation before breaking into a more pronounced laugh. Upon hearing this and without knowing what the joke was about, other tribal students began squealing uncontrollably as they stood in the water line. “The Muscatines, they’re bringing weenies!”
When the teachers indicated the Muscatines might have to “bring lots of them, in boxes,” the entire school erupted into throes of maniacal giggling. When Mr. Mateechna, the janitor, was summoned by the teachers to figure out what was so funny, he simply told the students in question to stop talking.
“Quit talking! Quit talking nasty! Bo na na ke to ne mo kol Bo ni-wa ne ska-a to to ne mo kol” the janitor warned. “You are going to get these others blamed. They will wash everyone’s mouth with soap. Ki me tti ta wi a ba ke i-ma a ki-ko ta ka ki. Ke ki me si ke i-ki ko ka be to ne o ko ki-si bya i ka ni.”
Mr. Mateechna tried unsuccessfully to stop the addictive giggling. It only increased. More so when Horatio shared a story of a previous camp-out in which Hayward Muscatine threw an uncooked weenie in the fire because he wanted to go home. As the weenie was being described in broken English, picking up “bits of dirt” and ash on its roll to the fire, the janitor’s stoicism broke. His yellow, chewing tobacco-stained teeth were bared as he emitted a hearty chuckle.
“Oh? The weenie got grubby?” asked one of the teachers.
The boys, pumped up to a frenzy, all pointed at the red-faced Hayward and screamed, out his new name, “Grubby!”
If not for the spectacular weather, Pat would have gone home with bruised gums. The janitor covered up for the boys by saying the word “weenie” just sounded funny. To the teachers he explained, “You’d have to be Indian to understand. The word, if it ended with “na,” would mean him or her: wi na.” Satisfied with Mr. Mateechna’s explanation, the teachers stood in front of their blackboards and proclaimed their adoration for “weenies’ by saying, “Wi na and all of us like weenies! Right?”
And that really did it: the foundations of the aged school shook from the stomping feet of its students. Which wasn’t good because the building had been condemned for years. But Pat, who was an expert at making sexual innuendo all-inclusive, made everyone near him aware of such stuff. In particular, Horatio. Any word spoken was an invitation for lewd associations or imaginary predicaments. Horatio made a spark into a roaring flame. If you were conveying a story of how big an object was or how delicious lunch dessert was, it became something else in an instant with a low vocal exhalation. “Wee-h!” In spite of its unoriginal obviousness, the Bureau of Tribal Affairs teaching staff never caught on. In their suspicions, they simply became frustrated, and a federal psychiatrist was summoned to Weeping Willow when mouth-washing failed.
After the doctor offered his evaluation to the staff, a perpetually embittered teacher, Mrs. O’Toole, came into the classroom, shaking her red-painted fingernail angrily and saying, ‘dirty. Dirty. Dirty Red Hat!” From that day forward, like Hayward with his new name “Grubby,” Pat was known as Pat ‘dirty” Red Hat. Credited with defaming an Indian student’s family name, Mrs. O’Toole was eventually forced to resign from Weeping Willow.
The federal psychiatrist had been one of a kind. After researching the myths of the Black Eagle Child tribe, he had simply determined that sexual-related themes were introduced early on to tribal youth, and nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.