Wednesday, April 4, 2018

My Pocahontas

My Pocahontas

I honestly believed my mother was Native American.  My brothers and I were proud of that. 

She was also a very discreet and secretive mystery in our constantly questioning lives.  When we’d ask about her childhood and early life, she was often evasive and cautious to cover her answers with the frosting of anecdote rather than actual answers.  But in our minds we fantasized another truth.

"How’d you get that scar by your right eye?  Why is your nose bent and different than ours?  Why do you turn so much darker in the sun while we just burn?"

“Dog bite.”  “Thrown baseball bat.”  “Dunno, just do.”

She was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and I knew just enough about the Trail of Tears to believe my mother was definitely Cherokee.  My younger brother believed more romantically she was Apache and hopefully had carbines stored somewhere in a wall in the basement.  Whatever, we agreed that was no dog bite.   More likely from some ceremony of bravery, self-administered before a snapping fire against a purple sky. 

Our extended family helped fuel our belief.  They whispered to us when we were tightly pajamed in bed, “Just so you know, your Mother is a half-breed, you know.” 

“Really?” But they mistook the excitement in our mouthing voices for horror, not the ecstatic hope that Mom was something wild and beautiful and filled with a history of freedom and boundlessness. 

“Yes, really. And that’s just the beginning, I’m afraid.”

My mother and father eloped in 1946, just like Elizabeth Warren’s parents did over a decade earlier in 1932.  My father, having returned from a war which murdered his sleep for the rest of his life, blind-dated a dark-haired woman in Virginia, then returned to his Indiana home and dawdled one week before he left smitten back to Virginia to beg another chance.  Another chance forever.

His family and uncles and aunts never forgave him.

Unfortunately, we haven’t changed much since that time long ago when I suffered the hushed comments of my relatives.   In the Chicago Tribune, John Kaas described his glee at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s reluctance to undergo a DNA test to reveal whether or not she had any American Native DNA present in her genes.   Senator Warren, like my brothers and our family, fell prey to the allure of our family’s apparent narration and little scientific substance except for the manufactured tales of the unaccepting family.  Isn’t it delicious that Fauxcahontas, aka Sen. Elizabeth Warren — the liberal Massachusetts Democrat toying with a 2020 presidential run — is refusing to take a DNA test to finally prove whether her self-serving claims of Cherokee heritage are true?
Actually, watching Warren squirm and Chuck Todd all but flagellate himself for having to ask about the DNA test on “Meet the Press” was more than delicious.”

Chickasha is in Grady County southwest of Oklahoma City, and my mother’s orphanage is no longer in operation, but in the early 1930’s it was populated by the unwanted offspring of Mexican laborers and Native Americans, as well as some Whites.  She was only three and her adopters chose her and my Uncle Jack, a darkly handsome Mexican boy nearly three years her elder. 

And it was just the beginning, I’m afraid.  Whenever the “family” arrived, my mother stayed present but retreated into a distant and perfunctory person who smiled little and talked less. I remember her receiving a gift for Christmas: a long, sharply honed butcher knife with two carefully cut notches in its handle.  Everyone laughed at this inside joke, but my mother’s mouth played a faint twist as if suppressing an unwanted memory.

When Trump derided Warren once more, using his usual pejorative word Pocahontas to describe her for the Native American Code Talkers of World War Two  standing before him, I was more than staggered. I was catapulted back to my own childhood bed, in my pajamas, listening to one part of the family whose susurrus of whispers derided another’s skin, another’s color, another’s refusal to accept and my own mother.

As a result, I embraced multi-ethnicity without knowing what it was; instead, just a seething resentment for those who would dismiss my mother with a judgmental and derogatory description: half-breed, Indian, Red, squaw.  And if and when they visited and came to tuck us in, I gorged my antipathy waiting for them to finish the Lord’s Prayer with some breathy, disdainful comment about my mother.

Yet, like Senator Warren, I was without any real proof, just a desire to know she was special and her blood was coursing through my veins with all the history and significance my small life lacked. 

Now, science has trumped the lure of romantic family lore.  No longer believe in your responsibility to your great-great grandmother’s legend.  Check the DNA stream. 

Kaas calls Senator Warren Fauxcahontas.  Inversely, as mean-spirited as anything I ever heard hushed to me while I drifted to sleep.  

In the end of his sad diatribe, Kaas reminds us all that we are just and more importantly all Americans.  But in this respect, he would reaffirm what his column already purports: that those honored code talkers can be insulted by an ignorant man in power (momentarily), that the honored memories of a family’s past responsibilities and  beliefs are worthless unless scientifically provable, that the Democrats’ politics of race and gender are nothing compared to what we have now, and it’s just acceptable now to make fun of a politician interested in the lives of those without advocacy.

My mother died some ten years ago, and I wrote to the District Judge of Grady County for the records of her birth.  After determining that there would be no one left alive to argue against such a release, I was provided her records.  She was white and a ward of the state of Oklahoma.  White.  

As if that ever mattered.

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