Circle the wagons, the Indians are coming

Published 2:00 am Saturday, November 21, 2015

If anybody ever mentioned anything about the Pilgrims and Indians and Thanksgiving when I was a little girl, I don’t remember it.

Perhaps, that’s because that wouldn’t have interested me one bit.

We had a cornfield right by our house so I’d seen corn planted and pulled and done some shucking and silking myself. And the idea of Indians sitting down to a big dinner with the Pilgrims was nothing special. Mama had a big dinner cooked for us every day.

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And, what I knew about Indians, I’d already learned from Daddy’s “Army” photograph album.

Daddy was a pilot with the Ferry Command during World War II. He was stationed at Gore Field in Great Falls, Montana, where I was born.

When I got big enough to pick up the album with the shiny, wood cover that said “Air Corps,” I was fascinated by it.

The pages were rough, black paper and the photographs were held in place at each corner by black tabs. So, I could take the pictures out for close observation without anybody ever knowing.

Many of the pictures were of Indians. Indians with big headdresses. Indians with staffs with feathers. Indians with bows and arrows. Indians on horses. Indians by their teepees and Indian squaws cooking over fires and with babies strapped on their backs.

I made up my mind right then that when I got big I wanted to go back to Montana and be an Indian.

I learned even more about Indians when I got old enough to go to the picture show on Saturday afternoons. Sometimes Ma and Pa Kettle or Lum and Abner were on but most of the time it was a western. I liked westerns because they nearly always had Indians.

Usually, the Indians would follow the wagon trains and, at some point, the wagon master would yell to “Circle the wagons” and the wagons would circle. Then the Indians – thousands of them — would appear on the horizon. They would be on horses and the chief would have his feathered staff held high. Sometimes he would thrust the staff forward and the Indians would give loud, shrill war whoops and attack. Sometimes, the chief would jerk the staff back, turn his horse and they would ride quietly away and disappear.

Either way, my heart would pound with excitement.

The next week, all the young’uns in the neighborhood would play cowboys and Indians or Cavalry and Indians. I was always an Indian.

We would make headbands out of rags and chicken feathers and bows out of stout green branches and string them with heavy chord. Arrows would be made from notched dry branches. Our horses would be anything we could straddle and drag around.

Mama would let me make Indian beads out of macaroni and old buttons. I’d add chinaberries and any red berries I could find. I wore the beads but I was not a princess. I was an Indian brave.

When we – the Indians — were on the warpath I would paint my face with Mama’s rouge and smut from the coal pile. I could walk real quiet and not rustle the leaves. So, I could slip up on the cowboys or the cavalry soldiers and knock them in the head with my tommie-hawk. It was so much fun to be an Indian.

When I got old enough to know the real story about Indians and how the he took their land and moved them onto reservations and made them second-class citizens — that made me mad and sad.

As a college student, I worked at Yellowstone National Park. Several of the employees were Blackfoot Indians. We became good friends and I learned to appreciate them and their plight.

They were too often victims of social prejudice and, oddly, those of us from the South were the only ones who would sit with them in the employee cafeteria. They often remarked about that and thanked us for our kindnesses.

Many years later, when I had children of my own, we spent one Thanksgiving at DeSoto State Park and we had a Pilgrim and Indian Thanksgiving.

Sis and I went up a couple of days earlier with our children. The Pilgrim Fathers came later – so as to miss as much of the “experience” as possible.

We made Indian beads out of macaroni and vests from paper sacks for the children. We made headbands with bird feathers and decorated old socks for moccasins.

Our Thanksgiving dinner was one the Pilgrims might have enjoyed – roasted turkey, corn, beans, skillet bread and sweet potato pudding. The table was set outside with the stern Pilgrim Fathers taking their places at each end. They looked the part in their paper Pilgrim hats the children had made for them. The stern faces, they supplied.

The children, in their Indian attire, made their way deep into the woods only to emerge when they were called to dinner with the Pilgrims.

I have this wonderful, vivid memory of the little Indians making their way from the woods into the clearing where the table was set for the special guests.

The feeling I had that day of thankfulness for the precious gift of children and the love and joy they had brought into my life was probably much like the feeling of thankfulness the Pilgrims had for the Red Men who taught them how to survive in a hostile environment and gave them hope for a better life in their new world.