Thank an Indian

     I lived on Indian reservations for seven years and don’t usually tell stories about it because the only thing white men haven’t done to Indians yet is to leave them alone. But it’s Thanksgiving, which is the one day a year – remember? – when white people are supposed to thank Indians. And an incident that happened one year sums up pretty well not only white people’s relationships with Indians, but Americans’ relationship with the rest of the world today – and our relationship with each other. So I’ll tell the story.
     I was teaching Apache history to San Carlos Apaches. (Don’t ask.) The Apaches were the smartest kids I ever taught in nine years at public high schools. But the San Carlos Apaches don’t get along too well even with each other. That’s because the U.S. Army forced seven bands of Apaches onto a reservation about 140 years ago and called them all San Carlos Apaches, but those bands had been fighting one another since anyone could remember. They didn’t fight all the time, but they fought. There were alliances, and enemies.
     Apaches are not only smart, and tough, they are fiercely independent.
     So.
     I picked up a little bit of Apache language that year because the high school also had assigned me to teach Apache language. (I told you not to ask.) One day my teacher aide asked if I wanted her to bring the first elected San Carlos Apache chief to talk to my Apache history class. Well, of course I did.
     The chief had been elected after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Now he was in his 80s, and blind. He didn’t speak English.
     My teacher’s aide had had an interesting life. When she was a little girl, a bluecoat soldier in the 7th Cavalry had scooped her up on horseback and carried her to the school on the reservation, behind barbed wire. That’s how Cecilia started school.
     The year we worked together, she is the one who told me that “that thing exploded.”
     “What thing?”
     “That thing with the teacher in it.”
     “The space shuttle?”
     That’s quite a life span.
     Anyway, Cecilia brought the chief to my Apache history class. He stood in front of the class holding a cane with both hands, thick cataracts clouding his eyes, and said about two sentences in Apache. Then Cecilia interrupted him.
     “No,” she said in Apache. “That’s not how it was.”
     “Silence!” the chief shouted. He banged his cane on the floor.
     Cecilia clammed up.
     The chief said about two more sentences and Cecilia interrupted again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, or words to that effect.
     “Silence!” the chief shouted again, banging his cane on the floor. He called her a terrible word in Apache. She was a nosy old woman and he was the chief.
     Cecilia stood up and let him have it, in Apache. She hollered at him good, then stomped out of the room.
     Leaving me with an 80-year-old blind Apache chief who didn’t speak English – and I was supposed to drive home.
     Happy Thanksgiving.

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