Please help me welcome my friend E. Ayers to my blog today. She has one of the best columns we’ve had and I know it will resonate with all of you.
Remember when we played cowboys and Indians? I had a metal toy gun, and it even took rolls of paper with gunpowder dots. When you cocked the gun, the paper slid forward so when you pulled the trigger, the hammer slammed against the little dot and it went POW! It was so cool! I have no idea how many dots were on a roll (25-50?) only that I had to “save” them and not use them all up frivolously. Huh? It was a toy, and it’s called playing. Maybe that meant I was supposed to be certain of my aim before I pulled the trigger, unlike the TV shows where everyone shot into the air and made lots of noise. Anyway, I had it all, thanks to two older brothers. I had the felt hat, the tooled leather gun belt and holster, the gun, the suede vest and even the sheriff’s star.
Also in my toy box I had the tomahawk, knife, the headdress with colorful feathers, and a reed flute. Thinking back, it makes me wonder. Was the flute a last resort weapon? Maybe they could blow it in the enemy’s ears and ruin their hearing before scalping them. Or were my parents hopeful I might learn to play a musical instrument. I only remember that I was not allowed to throw the tomahawk or the knife with their wooden handles and rubber blades, because someone might get hurt. Most likely that would have been the dog, as it was extremely rare for me to have playmate when I was very young.
But if I had a playmate, I never wanted to be the Indian. The Indian always had to die. The cowboy with the gun always won, and Indians were always the bad guys. The only fun part of being an Indian was dying creatively. That meant you got to dive into the grass and roll down the long hill, lift the tomahawk as if you were going to throw it, then in a dramatic flourish fall back and die.
No one ever questioned why the Indians were the bad guys. They just were.
Fortunately, I grew up in the north in a pocket community of educated people. I never knew a thing about prejudice and even when I came face-to-face with it, I had no comprehension of what it was. Life was simple. You went to the Presbyterian church, the Baptist church, the Catholic Church (you always spelled their church with a capitol C), or you were Jewish, which meant they were still waiting for somebody like Jesus. But they were okay and didn’t need Jesus, because they were God’s chosen people. Yep, life was simple.
Then my parents decided it was time to expand my six-year-old world and teach me about the United States. They yanked me out of school, but brought my schoolbooks with them, and to make matters worse, they added a few extras to the pile. I got to see forty-six of the forty-eight States.
A few things happened on that trip and with it came the realization that not all people were considered equal. I remember seeing signs for whites only. My unfortunate mom was coping with this inquisitive, precocious child who couldn’t imagine why Negroes were any different from white people. The only thing different about them was the color of their skin. And she’s trying to explain not everyone feels that way while hissing we are not going to have this discussion in public!
But I’m thirsty. Why can’t I use this water fountain? Why do I have to wait in line for the one that says whites only? They both work. What difference does color make?
Later, she explained how incredibly stupid such an attitude was but also tried to explain why people embraced prejudice. Then she told me how people hated the Jews. What? Why would anyone hate my friends and their families? My mom bought books on slavery, and Hitler. Ugh! More books.
I saw chain gangs wearing striped uniforms and real heavy chains that hooked these men together at their ankles while they worked on the roads. I saw people picking cotton. My mom said to remember this and don’t ever forget it. I never have forgotten any of it.
I had begged my parents to let me see an Indian as we drove westward. My mom promised there were plenty of Indians where we were going. I remember the first Indian male I’d ever seen. He was working at the gas station where we had pulled in to fill up the car. Thinking back, he was in his early twenties and probably closer to twenty. He didn’t look like an Indian. He wore regular clothes, jeans and a tee shirt! His dark blue-black hair was cut short, the way my much older married brother wore his. The Indian had sharp, chiseled features, and even at my young age, I knew he was extremely handsome. In my excitement, I jumped out of the car and asked, “Are you a real Indian?”
If looks could have killed, I probably would have died on the spot. I don’t think he ever answered me. But my mom almost killed me and with it came another lecture about people being prejudiced.
That was it. I decided that half the world hated the other half and the other half hated the first half because everybody thought they were better than anyone else. And in my childish, idealistic way, I decided we’d all be better off if we just stopped hating each other over the stupidest things and accepted the differences. I also realized I had been prejudiced by TV into thinking that Indians ran around in buckskins and said ugg! They were just people who lived in houses and went to school or work like everyone else.
We must have traveled through a reservation, because suddenly everyone around us was an Indian. Something broke on the car and we had to stay a few days until the part came in. We stayed at a motel in a small town and I assume the children I had found belonged to the owners. We had fun. They were little girls just like me, except they had the most beautiful color to their skin, sort of sun-kissed reddish brown.
Later, my mom bought me a doll dressed in traditional Navajo clothes. She was one of my prettiest dolls and I loved playing with her. I also never wanted to play cowboys and Indians ever again. It was wrong and I knew it. But many a time, I played Indian princess.
Fast forward to the present. Over the years, I’d picked up tidbits about our American Indians and their cultures. I’m on the east coast and there’s not many true-blooded Indians left on the east coast. Those we didn’t kill, we married. So most all have other blood mixed into them. And our dirty-laundry history said if you weren’t white you were colored, therefore any color was colored. (And everyone knew colored was just another name for Negro.)
It took until the 1960’s and a huge advertising campaign before most people woke up and realized that our American Indians were people who were just as entitled to an education as any other American. They were employable, and they deserved equal pay and benefits. The list goes on and on. Who remembers the childhood jump rope ditty rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief? Today that doctor or lawyer just might be an Indian chief as more American Indians have access to universities and scholarship monies are made available to them.
Bigotry is a difficult attitude to erase. There are plenty of people who are reading this wondering why anyone would feel any prejudice towards another person based on the color of their skin. That idealistic six-year-old in me is shouting with joy, because children know there is no difference between people. They recognize the differences and happily will play with anyone who will play with them. We’ve come a long way since 1896. (At least, I hope we have.) But we haven’t achieved world peace.
It’s only been in the last fifteen years and with the help of the Internet that I’ve really had an education in American Indian history. And even what I do know is still very limited. It’s getting better, and the various tribes are starting to create websites with information on their culture and their history. As an outsider looking in, it’s important to remember that each tribe is different.
The more I’ve learned about the Crow Nation, the more thrilled I am that I had chosen them in be part of my Creed’s Crossing, Wyoming stories. They were one of the most feared tribes by the other nations, yet they were one of the most peaceful tribes. In other words, they didn’t want to fight, but if pushed, they would fight to their death. They were also one of the few tribes that held woman in very high esteem.
When I wrote A Rancher’s Woman, I wanted to portray history as accurately as possible. I refused to hide what we did to not just the Crow tribe but to all the tribes, and to show the prejudice against these people. I want people to see Mark “Many Feathers” Hunter, not just as an Indian but also as a man. One who is as fascinated with Malene’s milky white skin, golden-blonde hair, and blue eyes, as she is with his dark handsome looks. He is a man with that pioneer spirit to succeed where there is nothing – a man who is willing to learn new things as a way of protecting his people and preserving who they are.
Malene had grown up in a protected environment of upper middle class. Pushed and pulled along in the tide of the conventions of the time, she has to find her own footing and with it the confidence to break away from what she is supposed to be doing. It isn’t enough to admit that she loves an Indian – she has to be strong enough to step away from society’s strict standards and forge her own path.
Pick up your copy of A Rancher’s Woman on Amazon http:// www. ayersbooks.com
(Amazon Author Page)
http:// amzn.com/ e/ B005AYJ0XE
Other Books by E. Ayers
Wanting (A River City Novel)
A New Beginning (A River City Novel)
A Challenge (A River City Novel)
Forever (A River City Novel)
A Son (A River City Novel)
A Child’s Heart (A River City Novel)
Coming Out of Hiding (a novel)
A Rancher’s Woman (a historical novel) *
A Fine Line (a novella) *
Mariners Cove (a novella)
Ask Me Again (a novella)
A Skeleton at Her Door (a novella)
A Snowy Christmas in Wyoming (a novella) *
A Cowboy’s Kiss in Wyoming (a novella) *
A Love Song in Wyoming (a novella) *
A Calling in Wyoming (a novella) *
Sweetwater Springs Christmas (anthology) *
Exquisite Quills’ A Holiday Anthology (anthology) *
* sweeter reads