That Time I Saw THEM
I have always had strange things happen to me. Maybe I’m a magnet of some kind, I don’t know.
What I’m about to tell you is not something I have told even my closest family or friends. It’s the reason that you’ll find so many references to Native Americans in my work. I’m minorly obsessed with them.
My great-grandmother was a Blackfoot Indian. I remember her coal black eyes and her waist-length hair. She always wore it in a bun, tucked up on top of her head with two large bone combs. Grandma Kate, we called her. I’m told they gave her that name when they found her, an orphaned child alone and dirty, cast aside by the movements of the Indian removals through our area.
There was a silent grief she carried, and I was fascinated by her. That was what started my obsession with them. When I was nineteen, I had an experience that would forever change the way I see the world, the way I see them.
High up on the bluff above the wilds of a river bottom, there was a clearing where the trees gave way leaving the stony ground flat and barren.
It was a cold November morning when a photographer friend asked me to accompany him to the shadowy bluff. He had positioned a tree stand at the top of one of the gnarled oak trees at the edge of a ravine he found and would perch himself up there, taking shots of the sunrise and the various creatures that inhabited the woods there.
When we first arrived, it was with all the gloom and chill of a typical November day, the light of the dawn only beginning to flow over the horizon and spill out onto the tops of the trees. One red squirrel followed us as we navigated the paths to the hollow in the bottom of the ravine. He had one eye. One overlarge, watchful eye. It seemed to us he was the guardian of those woods and had taken it upon himself to keep his one bulging eye upon us.
The sun shone spokes through the grim forest and there was a chatter among the animals as the warmth stirred them. Not having the inclination to climb to the tree stand nor to spend the day sitting so high above the forest floor, I left my friend to his work and climbed the hill to the top of the bluff to watch the sunrise.
I situated myself on a stump that overlooked the clearing. I sat drinking coffee from a thermos and enjoying the time away from pavement and cars and civilization in general.
I had been there an hour or so when a small fox trotted across the meadow and then made her way to me, stopping directly in front of me. Her red fur fiery against the grey of dead grasses and pale stone, she looked at me for several seconds with her strange cat-eyes, and then moved along.
The same thing happened a few minutes later with two does. While I thought the behavior of the animals odd, I did not connect it with any danger or disturbance, and went about my revelries in the bright, clear sunshine.
I had gotten warm and still and, despite the coffee, sleepy. My head was nodding, and I contemplated lying on the ground and taking a nap. There was a moment when I thought I may have been dreaming.
I heard its loud breath, it could not have been more than a few feet from me. Coming to, I opened my eyes wide and saw the large rack of a buck just in front of me. He snorted and pawed at the ground like they sometimes do when challenged or frightened.
Having no place to go, I sat frozen on the stump, hoping he might get wind of the does and move along. His head swung the half-velveted antlers, along with bloody peels of tissue, back and forth in front of me. I could not understand why he was trying to intimidate me. Whiteless eyes bore down on me and I realized that I might be in real danger of getting gored with the tips of those bloody, peeling antlers.
The deer slung his head around, watching for something behind him which I could not see, and taking advantage of his momentary distraction, I slid off the stump and moved to the relative safety of a tree. He soon spun back around, and running toward me, dug his hooves in, and charged.
Wild-eyed and running at full speed, the buck passed me by and charged ahead down the hill away from the clearing. I breathed a silent sigh of relief and resolved to find my friend.
I made it to the center of the clearing before I noticed them. The old chief went before all of them. He was adorned with breastplate and headdress, walking out to meet me before his tribe.
Stunned, I watched as the rest made their way up the hill to the bluff. There were braves with leather breeches, women in their dresses, children, dogs, painted horses. There were so many. The woods were filled as far as I could see. Every eye was on me.
No bird chirped, no squirrel chattered.
Irrevocably tied to the past, they appeared as real as anything living in those woods. Their silence was profound. Though there were no words, an exchange of understanding passed between us, and my heart felt fuller having been in their presence. We stood facing each other for ten minutes or more before I decided to leave them be.
Now, each time I go out to the woods, I scan the trees knowing that they’re out there, somewhere.