Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More on Native Americans

My relationship to our Native American community goes way back in my scouting history. When we first moved to Manasquan from northern New Jersey (1941?) I quickly learned that once the farmers did their fall plowing and following the first rain thereafter it was worth while to walk the newly plowed fields to look for arrow heads. I learned which fields along the Manasquan River had been used by the Indians and found scores of arrowheads now sitting on top of the plowed furrows. I also found some sharks teeth fossils as many of those old fields had been fertilized with marl dug from pits in the area. In my explorations of the area I found stone geodes (?), i.e. stone pipes and balls, the pipes being about 6" to 8" long and about 2" in diameter. The balls were about 3" - 4" in diameter. These were irregular formations, not smooth. When broken open inside the shell (about 1/4 inch thick) one found powder. One of them was orange and the other was red. I can not remember which was which. Legend had it that this powder was used for making body paint by the local Indians. I recall finding a lot of them on Treasure Island (supposedly used as inspiration by R.L.Stevenson) in the Manasquan River, a place where some of us scouts used to camp.

I was entranced with the stories of our Native Americans and read all I could about them. I recall as a youngster hitch hiking or taking the Jersey Central train to New York City and going to the Heye Foundation of the American Indian to study their exhibits on Indians. One time when I was in the 8th grade (that would make me 13 or 14 years old) in the Allenwood Grammar School I organized a class field trip to NYC to visit the American Museum of Natural History and the Heye Foundation of the American Indian. What I failed to do was to inform the teacher/principal of the school that five of us were going to play hookey and go to NYC. Since there were only 11 of us in the 8th grade this made our absence quite conspicuous. My mom laughed at the consternation of the teacher but I guess some of the other parents did not take it too well. I only took a group once but I often did it by myself. I hear that one can no longer hitch hike at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in NYC. Oh, well, things do change, don't they?

One day I decided to make myself an Indian headdress so I searched in all the books I could find for information on the construction of the traditional headdress and began the process of making one. First I found an old felt hat that fit me and cut off the brim. Then I had to locate appropriate feathers. I found the feather market located under the Brooklyn Bridge on another of my hitch-hike trips to NYC and purchased a batch of turkey feathers, black on the top but white all the way to the base of the quill. Then I got a batch of 'fluffies' which were short feathers, about 4 or 5 inches long that were more like a small feather duster than a nice flat feather. The final type of feather was the one that was attached to the top of the turkey feather along with several strands of horse hair. As I recall there were 14 distinct steps in preparing a feather for the war bonnet. Chick Hancock, also of Troop 59, joined me in this enterprise. He was part Indian so he had a special interest in the activity. When the headdress was done I made a tail using a bright red felt material and then a number of 'bustles' and a piece that was worn horizontally across the back from hand to hand. It was an awesome costume when done.

To go with the headdress and other feathered items I decided I needed a buck skin outfit. So again I went to NYC to the leather market where one found shop after shop of leather hides of all types. I explained to one shop keeper what I wanted and he took a lot of time with this 14 or 15 year old kid to explain how to tell the quality of a deer skin hide. He helped me select several hides and I went home to Manasquan to begin making my buckskin outfit. Using illustrations from various books on Indian lore I designed the shirt, the leggins and the breech clout. For thread I cut a fine cord from the buckskin and stitched the whole thing together with that buck skin cord. The shirt was heavy and did not 'breathe' very well.

Now, having made the full costume I decided to learn Indian dancing. I was able to locate several books on Indian dancing and taught myself the dance steps. I also taught myself the hoop dance, done, of course, without the headdress and feathered bustles. Having all this gear and dancing skill now I started putting on Indian dances for scout gatherings. When I went in the army in 1951 I donated the headdress and leggins and breech clout to the Order of the Arrow, Lodge 9, of which I was a member. I kept the shirt and finally gave it to a cousin of mine in California. I wonder if that headdress is still in existence? I have a photo of me posing with it.

In 1946 , when I was but 15 years old, I took off from NJ with my knapsack and a sleeping bag and headed out west. I hitch-hiked about 4,000 miles that summer visiting scout camps and Native American reservations and attended many pow-wows. In La Junta, Colorado I spent four or five days with Buck Burshears who created the Boy Scout troop called the Koshare Indians. All the boys in that troop had made their own Native American costume and learned Indian dances. They were about ready to put on a pow-wow in a local stadium so I joined them. I slept at night on bear skins in a tepee pitched in the middle of the stadium . I did not dance in the public performances but did do so at their campfires. It was an incredible experience. At Burshears home he would open up chests and chests of Navajo and other tribal Indian jewelry and show them to me. I felt that I had died and had gone to Indian heaven.

Years later on a visit to Mexico City I went to the tiangis (flee market) at La Lagunilla on a Sunday morning. That market is about five blocks long and contains four or five rows of tables or stalls wherein local merchants sell everything imaginable. The reputation is that what was stolen last night will be for sale in La Lagunilla the next day. Well on this particular visit in about the fifth stall I spotted a magnificent Navajo bolo tie with an immense turquoise stone surrounded by red coral chips on a silver base and with two bear claws on the top. It was signed by Jim Redfeather and had his sign inscribed on the back of the piece under his name. I enquired "Cuanto valle?" (how much) and was told $200 dollars. I rolled my eyes and exclaimed "Ni riesgo." which essentially means "no way!" But I knew I was going to get that bolo tie. So I walked the full length of the tiangis and on return asked the vender, a woman, if she was running a museum. She did not understand the question so I explained that if her price was so high she was merely showing her wares and not selling them. She asked me how much I wanted to pay and I responded $50. It was her turn to exclaim "too little." At this point her neighbors got involved. "Come on mister, buy it. Her husband is in the hospital and she needs the money." I responded that while I was sympathetic with her husband's situation that had nothing to do with the price of the work. "Come on mister," called another neighbor, "it is worth it." I responded "I know what it is worth but we are discussing the price which is another thing." So I left again knowing full well someone could come along and purchase the item. On my return it was still there so I said, "OK, what is your final offer?" "$150" she responded. "I'll buy it" I said and put down $100. She said that was not enough so I added ten dollars. Still not enough. "No," I said, "Now you have to make me a better offer." She dropped the price to $135. I put down $125 and said that was my best offer. She refused it but the neighbors got involved knowing full well that we were closing in on a deal but wanted me to be the one to give in and pay the $135. After much encouragement by her circle of friends I asked "Do your friends always help you like this?" Yes, she replied. "OK," I responded, "I will pay you $135 for the piece provided you buy each of them a beer thanking them for their help and we celebrate the sale." The group howled with laughter knowing full well that she could not say NO. So we had a small party there and parted with smiles all around. I have since been offered over $1,000 for the piece. It is one of my treasures.

I made my headdress with turkey feathers because it is against the law for non-natives to have eagle feathers. But one time I not only had one eagle feather, I had a full eagle feather headdress including the bird's tail. Here is how I got it. I paid the international air fare for a young man of a native community in the Amazon jungle to fly to Seattle, Washington and spend ten days with me in Bellingham. When I met him at SEATAC airport in Seattle he spotted a very obese baggage clerk and remarked "In the jungle we eat pigs when they get that big!" Several years later I spent time with him in the jungle and understood why the natives never got so obese. But, back to the eagle feathers = Edmundo had brought with him not only his personal native costume (on the plane he wore a T-shirt and Levis.) but lots of other items for possible sale. He had a certificate of permission from the government of Ecuador to export these items. Among them was this incredible eagle headdress for which he wanted $1,200. It was worth every penny of it but only a Native American could legally own it. When he returned to his native tribe he left the item with me to sell and I hid it in my safe until I could get it to the local Indian reservation. The head of the Lummi tribe said he would try to find a buyer but he ultimately asked me to take it back as he had no time to play merchant. So I was stuck with this item in my office, hoping no law officer would find out that I had it.

One day the local art guild featured an exhibit of Native American art. I got in for a preview and spotted a magnificent moon mask and a very large sun mask by a Kwakiutle Indian carver. i ended up buying the moon mask but at the close of the show when the artist, Omukin, showed up to get the large sun mask which had not sold I asked him to come to my office. I showed him the eagle headdress and offered it to him in exchange for the 6' diameter sun mask. He agreed. Then I called friends for donations and raised enough money to donate the sun mask to the park near my home where it is affixed to a building in the park with a sign "Dedicated to our Native American Friends and Neighbors." On my next trip to the jungle I gave Edmundo his money.

I have more Indian stories to tell later.


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