The Christ Mission School for Indian Children

The Saga of the Seventh Generation Trilogy, Book One: THE ANCESTORS by C. J. Hotchkiss

From Chapter 7: SHOES

Word of the meeting between Willow and Mr. Gott reached Isha even before the child was due home.  When she did not return by dinner, Isha spent the night in prayer.  He would set off on foot in the morning to bring her home.  Isha was used to white men who thought they knew what was best for Indians, but, even the restraints of his grandfather’s dream, would not tolerate this new wave of the indoctrination of Indian children.  His grandfather’s dream told that it would be the children that find the Eagle and bring him back into the light.  His grandfather had foretold that it would be one of his own offspring that would help make the prophecy come about.  His grandmother had told him that love and courage must be carefully given to each of the children, nurtured in every child, so that it would be passed along to the next generation, transcending the shortcomings of the present.  It would be the children who would dance and bring back the power of the Eagle.  This would be Isha’s battle, his opportunity, after a long wait, to confront the massacre of his people and say “Enough.”  

Isha filled his prayer bag with tobacco and sage, carefully packing his rattles and drumsticks, letting his war drum hang at his side.  He did not take the time to deal with Otis; he did not want his granddaughter to be in that school one minute longer than necessary.  He also did not trust his temper on this matter.  The old man walked resolutely in the direction of the white man’s new school.  It was a good day to die and a pleasure to unleash all his impatience and rage, untangled by the responsibility of restraint.  Isha smiled at his puckish spirit, undiminished by years of forbearance.   Yes, Willow Rose was surely the gift and comfort that his vision said would come to him in his old age.  It was not just the gift of her company, but the gift of love that allowed him a measure of the battle.  Relieved that his aching body did not have to fight this fight on the battlefield, Isha nonetheless felt the liberating rush of resistance in his veins.  He smiled and spoke with everyone who passed him, talking also with the birds and elements of the earth that accompanied him on his journey.  His body did not tire; his mind was clear and eager to speak.  

In this inspired but distracted state, it took Isha a day and night to reach the school.  There was no mistaking its presence and he thought that he had arrived none to soon to keep such a building from invading his granddaughter’s spirit.  The schoolyard was empty; the dark, heavy door, that guarded the opening, did not respond to his turn.  He took his walking stick and pounded on the door, satisfied with the noise of it.  Encouraged by his newly sanctioned defiance, he pounded again, in less time than he would have in the past.  It took almost 20 minutes of pounding to produce a stiff, black suited young man, who rather uncomfortably asked what Isha wanted.

“My granddaughter, Willow Rose, has been brought here by mistake and I have come to take her home.”  There was so much more that Isha had to say, wanted to say, but he settled for the straightforward message until he had Willow in his hands.

“We have no child by the name of Willow Rose,” the uncomfortable man replied.  “You are mistaken and must leave the premises.”  With that short decree, the man shut the door and the pounding began again.  Isha found the sharp rap of his steady, walking stick against the formidable door to be quite pleasing.  

“Please sir.”  The starched man requested when he reopened the door.  “You must stop pounding.  The children are trying to study and I am trying to teach.  There is no child by the name of Willow Rose here.  Indeed, we have had no new children for over a month, so you are mistaken and must take your leave.”  It occurred to the answering man that the picture of his civilized presence talking with an old Indian man dressed in scraps of skins and cloth was the embodiment of his teaching dilemma.  How did one communicate intelligently across such disparity?  

“Kind gentleman,” Isha said in his most practiced English.  “I am sure that my granddaughter was brought here just three days ago.  Perhaps, it is you who are mistaken and you should check with someone who might have noticed a small girl, while all the trying to teach and learn was going on.”  The refined words flew in the face of the man’s concluded teaching burden.  He realized that this must be the grandfather of the little girl who arrived three days ago and was shipped to another school, in the chance that this same, determined man might come looking for her.  They had been warned that the man was senile, but persistent.  “One moment, please.”  The man closed the door, relieved to turn the tenacious old man over to his supervisor.  The pounding resumed, taking on the heartbeat rhythm of a round circle drum.  Isha smiled, enjoying his new battle immensely.

Miss Fleming sighed, when her awkward teacher reported the arrival of the old man, probably the grandfather of the child Mr. Gott had brought to the school three days earlier.  Just as Mr. Gott predicted, the doddering, old man had come in search of the girl.  Most family made a show of reclaiming their children, but few actually did.  They were nothing the experienced educator could not handle.  Surely, this man was no exception, but it was a relief, at the end of a tiring week, that she could honestly say that the child was not here.  Miss Fleming heard the persistent, rhythmic pounding from the other end of the hall and marched down to make the old man stop.  

To her own annoyance, she found herself walking to the beat of the pounding door.  Miss Fleming opened the heavy entry quickly and found herself staring at an old, rumpled Indian man, smiling cheerfully at his indisputable presence at the front door.  The open kindness in his smile took her aback for the moment.  She had been set for a different battle.  “Whatever are you doing, sir?  I am Miss Fleming, the Principal of this school. I must ask you to stop disrupting my children and their teachers.  This is a school, not a pow wow.”

Isha, poised for battle, assessed his opponent.  White.  Female.  Overdressed for combat, but that may be a ploy – a form of war paint on her lips, cheeks, and eyes, designed to confuse the warriors.  The woman’s tone suggested that Isha fight first with words.  “My apologies for the disruption, Miss Fleming.  I have come for my granddaughter, Willow Rose, and will stop pounding as soon as she is delivered to me.  I am honored to have the assistance of the Principal of this esteemed school and will leave as soon as Willow is ready.”

The Principal could see that Mr. Gott had been correct in suggesting that Willow Rose be sent to a school further away from this imposing old man.  “We have no student by the name of Willow Rose at this school and I must ask you to desist in disrupting our classes.”

Isha looked directly at the gesturing woman.  “The Indian agent, Mr. Otis Gott, has untruthfully taken my granddaughter and, by all accounts, has taken her here.  She carries the prophesy of the Eagle and must continue her lessons at home, with me.  I will remain here in full battle, until you have returned my granddaughter to me.”

Miss Fleming could see that Mr. Gott had also been correct both about the old man’s senility and his resolve.  “If you do not leave these premises, I will call the sheriff and have you removed by force.  Your granddaughter is not here.  Please go home.”  Miss Fleming summoned her most intimidating stare, which Isha returned with delight.  It would be a full battle and Isha could not be more pleased.

Miss Fleming closed the door firmly and Isha retreated into the field that surrounded the building.  There were willows down by the Washita river and volcanic rocks at its edges.  Isha carefully cut enough limber branches to create a small sweat lodge and pine branches to soften a sleeping spot.  An inattentive deer provided both dinner and skins, as Isha set up camp outside the gates of the imposing school building.  The night air was filled with his chanting prayers and the smell of venison.  Miss Fleming was determined to ignore the old man and ordered her teachers to do the same.  He would tire of his disruption more quickly than she could have him arrested.  Late into the night, after all the white people had fallen asleep, the children crept to the windows and watched the grandfather and smiled.  Nobody could be more persistent than a grandfather.  

After six days of singing and drumming, Miss Fleming had made it an official policy to ignore the man.  She would not let him know that he had disrupted her school for a minute, after she had summarily closed the door on him.  The primeval sounds of the old man’s chants became a part of every meal and every lesson, penetrating the life and heart of the school.  Children were disciplined for unconsciously tapping their foot to the heart beat of the drum.  Teachers found themselves absentmindedly humming along to the harmony of the old man’s prayers.  When Isha paused, everything stopped, waiting for the beats that had become a part of the wind and the sun and the sky.  Children held their breath, teachers waited to begin a lesson, and, even Miss Fleming found herself impatient for the sound to begin again.  By two weeks, the school continued as if it had never existed without the steady drum and chanting of the man named Willow’s grandfather.  Isha kept a close watch on the enemy camp, determined not to leave without his granddaughter.  Miss Fleming’s only satisfaction lay in the fact that she knew that Willow Rose was not in the school.  With that secret victory, she let the old man keep his watch and sing his chants.  

The Principal, teachers, and children all lived at the school.  The nearest town was ten miles away.  Food and supplies were only delivered once a month and the teachers rarely had cause, time, or interest in traveling to the unsophisticated settlement.  Some of the older children worked on nearby farms, but they were carefully escorted away from Isha’s encampment.  The only person who came and went daily from the school was Elana, the large, invisible, half-Cherokee woman who worked in the laundry and oversaw the girls’ hygiene and possessions.  Elana had been raised in a mission school and had been attached to various settlement services her entire adult life.  She had no opinion about anything.  She did as she was told, was paid for her efforts, and went home.  Elana’s private room and yard were her only real pleasures – not the space, so much as the isolation.  At work, she never spoke to the girls or teachers, answering her supervisor as sparingly as possible.  Nothing, beyond her simple, repetitive tasks, warranted her thoughts or concern. 

Elana had washed Willow and given her a uniform and haircut.  Elana had watched the girl’s Indian hair drop to the floor, wrapped in its careful Indian ties and beads.  She would have forgotten the small girl, as quickly as the others, if it were not for the chanting man and the rumors that he was the girl’s grandfather, here to take her home.  Elana could not remember anyone ever going home.  Some children got sick and died, but, in the two years that the school had been open, during which Elana scrubbed their small bodies and washed their clothes, no one had ever gone home.  It was not the kind of school that let you go home and most parents gave up when Miss Fleming told them to go away.  Elana could not remember a grandfather ever coming to get a child and she knew for sure that no grandfather had ever camped out in the front of the school building.  The chanting became a pleasantly distracting rhythm for her never-ending scrubbing.  She caught herself smiling when she heard a teacher humming along with the old man or saw a wide-eyed child peek out the window at her Indianness.  Unaccustomed to pleasure, Elana was surprised at the comfort she derived from the man’s presence.  She stared ahead and knew better than to acknowledge his presence when she walked by his tidy camp, but, on the second week of his untiring battle, she dropped a hunk of the bread she had rescued from the morning garbage by his folded knees.  Isha, too, knew not to incriminate her, but nodded his appreciation.  She became his fellow warrior and secret agent.  This odd conspiracy of food scraps continued for three weeks, before Elana decided to talk to her accomplice.  She had recognized some of the Cherokee signs on his rattles and wanted to speak to him in what little Cherokee she could remember.  By now, she understood the battle cry and enjoyed the secrecy of her connection to the ancient chanting man.

On Monday, Elana worked late.  It was laundry day and it always took the full day for everything to dry and be folded.  She knew the timing of the man’s breaks and planned her passage for the end of his daylight song.  “Meet me by the willows at the river at sunset.”  She walked and stared forward as she spoke.   Isha’s movements were so unbroken that she was not sure that he had heard her.  She waited silently by the spring, a little breathless from intrigue.  Without the snap of a twig, Isha suddenly appeared in front of his co-conspirator.  He shook her hand and introduced himself.  “I am Isha Red Bear of the Bird Cherokee clan.  I am here to get my son’s daughter, Willow Rose, and return her to my home where I take care for her and train her in the ways of the Eagle.  She was brought here by the Indian Agent, Mr. Gott, over a month ago.  I will stay here in battle until the Principal woman lets her come home with me.”

Elana nodded as she listened.  She had overheard Miss Fleming confide in one of the teachers that she would let the man stay and waste his time for as long as he wanted, because she knew that the girl was not here – staying would just delay him from ever finding her.  That was when Elana decided to cross enemy lines and talk to the persistent grandfather.  “I am Elana, of the lost clan of the Cherokee.  My mother was Cherokee and my father was a missionary.  I was raised by the Sisters of Forgiveness and work here at the Christ Mission School for Indian Children.”

Elana paused, thinking for a moment about her description of herself.  “I washed your granddaughter and cut off the hair she had since she was a baby.”  Elana handed Isha the wrap and beads that had held his granddaughter’s hair.  Isha was so glad to hear an affirmation that Willow had really been at the school, that it softened the loss of his granddaughter’s hair.  “The man that brought your granddaughter knew that you would come for her.  He advised Miss Fleming to send her to another school and this was done the next day.  I do not know the name of the school, but I do know the name of the white Chief who rules over all of the Indian Schools.”  Elana was quite proud of the eaves dropping that she did when the children were in class.  “He is Chief James and he lives in a place called Washington, near the river of Potomac.  He will know where your granddaughter is and, if you speak to him, he may instruct the school to let you take her home.  Staying here is a plot to keep you from finding your granddaughter.”

Isha heard the words of the woman warrior and shook her hands heartily.  That night he prayed and drummed all night long and, in the morning, he packed up his things and left.  The air felt empty.  All day, teachers and children looked out of the windows in search of the old man.  The Warrior Elana chanted quietly to herself as she folded the laundry.

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