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[whitespace] Like a Weed

By Chuck Kensler

My father told me this story. He called it "Like a Weed."

I ran with the wind along Cheyenne River bottomland. It blew straight, made quick turns, darted into my face, and sometimes quietly hid. Then from somewhere it came like a gymnast, twisting and flipping, here and there, faster and faster through Mother Earth and Father Universe‚ to places I didn't know. It cleansed all that it touched. Its gentle laugh showed me the way home. And my mother or father would say, "Little Emery, you're growing tall--like a weed."

One windless day, I put my sling-shot, an eagle-bone whistle, and a knot of hair from my horse Brownie into a flour sack. Mother gave me a small family photograph. She had penciled the numbers 1917 on the back. A white man in a black car with a Bureau of Indian Affairs shield on the door took me away. My mother and father cried. Mother Earth and Father Universe cried too. I was scared, and I cried for my seven years along the bottomland.

Haskell was a stomach-twisting, heart-tearing government boarding school for Indians in Kansas. We arrived with proud-taught looks, decorated clothes, buckskin leggings, and beaded moccasins. Some of us had face paints, braided hair, and a twist of sweet grass. We stood as white hands hacked off our hair. It piled on the floor along with other black piles of lost pride. My mother-made moccasins were burned. I hoped ants would hide the red, green, and yellow beads in their sandy hills. We left with sad eyes and chopped hair‚ clothes we'd grow into, shoes too big, neckties, and high-stiff collars strangling our necks. Still, we held on to some Indian-ness--we would have tears but never cry out loud.

Some of our feet were too small to wade through the white swampland. Some of us got sucked in and disappeared. Some died of disease or because they lost the will to live. Two brothers ran away in the winter cold. They were headed for Choteau Creek but were found frozen to death a few days later. Their journey back home was too short.

Haskell is where Indians were pulled apart and put back together as white people. Anyway, that's what the government thought. We still remembered our language, so we could hear the earth speak with words and listen to the silent spaces between the words. And we were taught English and how to say the same thing a hundred different ways and not even use our hands. Along with our white-washed skins, we kept our Indian eyes to see the white way too.

Haskell was run with student labor. For each hour of vocational training provided, we returned three hours of routine chores or work. Boys learned to farm, do carpentry and plumbing, and make shoes for horses or people. We also learned how to raise crops and work livestock. Girls learned to cook, sew, make clothing, and housekeeping. We knew we were unpaid help under the guise of education.

Breakfast was always coffee and bread. I learned to hide a piece of bread up my sleeve. My chores included milking cows, so I could soak up sweet milk with a hunk of bread. And mama cat and litter could share some squirts too. Sometimes I'd share some bread with a runny-nosed Apache kid. His fearful eyes looked like the eyes of Indians I'd seen pictures of when they were in Marion prison. Eyes of sad boredom and forgotten freedom.

Learning farming methods taught us how to grow crops. We joked in the Indian way about growing crops in a row. Crops are like a row of white people because the wasichu like things neat and orderly, like marching soldiers.

Once Virgil Hollow Stone said, "Getting rid of weeds is like getting rid of Indian people. They are messy and just keep coming back." We all smiled. Roger Red Leg shook his head and said, "That's so funny, my dog back home must be smiling too."

Then Levi on the Tree said, "Hey, maybe someday the government will protect weeds. You know, like they tried to protect the passenger pigeon after they hunted it to death. Kind of like protecting the buffalo from Buffalo Bill's sport-shooting guns. Before you know it, they'll be protecting fish and snakes. And if an Indian gets to work for the BIA, maybe they'll try to protect the buckskins."

Snorts Lovelets smiled and hung his head. Then said, "Don't talk with white clouds in your head, someone might think, I am like you." We smiled and shook our heads.

We were taught how to control and kill weeds. We learned to twist and pull a weed at the same time. It had the same result as wringing a chicken's neck. Sometimes the weed's green blood stained our hands as we slowly strangled them or simply uprooted them from their environment. We knew how that felt. We had learned that well.

We learned the white way without libraries, music, or art. We learned not to talk with our teachers--only to answer. We learned suspicion and mistrust and to fight each other in frustration. We learned, once you have been discriminated against, it never goes away. And we learned to reject our heritage, which nearly killed us. When we left Haskell, we went back home to live in boxes called reservations.

I still remember and hear the wasichu teachers at Haskell yelling out, "Gawd, look at those weeds. Where did all those weeds come from? Someone better get rid of them! Yank them out. Nothing worse than a gawd-damned weed!"

I often wonder if the wind discovered my beads--especially when I feel the wind return a well-remembered echo from along the Cheyenne River bottomland, "Little Emery, you're growing tall--like a weed."

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From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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