Indian Bracelet

“I’m going to Wounded Knee.”

At 9 years old, I was standing in our kitchen with my now divorced parents when Dad told Mom he was going to assist the Native American activists who had seized control of the South Dakota town and were surrounded by heavily armed US Marshals and FBI agents.

“We’re going to try to get some food in.”

My mom was plainly not enthusiastic about the idea of Dad entering a siege that threatened to explode into open warfare at any time, but she chose not to argue with him about it. He had made up his mind.

“Well, be careful. Don’t get yourself shot.”

It was commonplace when I was growing up that adults, especially young adults, had no idea what was so often was falling upon the ears of children. I know from my own experience as a parent that it is easy to forget that children are completely unable to take in certain words or conversations without utter bewilderment or fear.

Shot? I thought to myself. “Where are you going, Dad?”

“South Dakota. I should be back in about a week.”

Dad didn’t just look at the siege on the evening news one night and decide to go help. He had been deeply involved with the Indian community, particularly the Sioux, for some years. He worked at a social service agency in Portland called the Urban Indian Bureau. His close ties to the community had made him almost an honorary member. He made ceremonial drums and gave or traded them to his Indian friends.

Frank in 1976

One such friend was Frank White Buffalo Man, the last surviving grandson of the famous Sitting Bull. For one drum Dad made, Frank traded a wonderful oil-on-canvas he had painted of a bald eagle in flight, which still hangs in Dad’s house. Dad’s friendship with Frank also rendered another honor. Dad presented each of his children to Frank to receive a Siouan name. I went with Dad to meet him, and Frank White Buffalo Man named me Hoksila (pronounced Hoke-sheela), which means, “Young Man” or “Boy.” At age 8 this left me rather underwhelmed. On the one hand, I knew I was being honored (or rather Dad was), but I had hoped for something like “Bear Killer” or “Big White Wolf.” Young Man? Gee, I hope I can live up to that! Even so, I have never forgotten the meeting or the name I was given. I have recently learned that this very word was also applied affectionately to warriors or soldiers, just as in English we might say, “our boys in uniform.”

Dad would take us to pow-wows. There was a big one every year at Delta Park in Portland. I was utterly entranced by the real ti-pis, traditional dress and the fry bread. The music and dancing I found hypnotic. Even as a teenager in Montana, I didn’t pass up opportunities to go to Native dances or other events.

I didn’t understand what was happening in South Dakota, exactly. It sort of blended in with the general upheaval of the times. My own experience was of the demonstrations that my parents went to, and some of which they had taken me to. I vaguely understood there was something to be upset about. I also knew this meant marching and picketing with signs and chanting and singing songs and making your own cigarettes which didn’t smell anything like the ones my parents smoked. The police often showed up and that meant trouble. That I had I seen on the news, not in person. But the occupation at Wounded Knee was on a whole other level. The AIM militants had machine guns, not folk songs. The Federal response was to prepare for a full military engagement, and this meant tanks, cannon and fighter jet fly-overs. Luckily I didn’t know this at the time. My parents, whether by design or by accident, manged to shield us kids from most of the insanity that we would have seen on the evening news.

When Dad came back, he brought two things. One was the story of his attempt to sneak food into the besieged Indians under the cover of night. With another person they were creeping through a field when they were spotted and arrested by the FBI. They were booked and locked up for the night. The next day they were kicked loose and had to leave.

He also brought souvenirs for us kids. He gave me a copper c-shaped cuff bracelet with an Indian design on it. I put it on and wore it for the next seven years. I rarely took it off. I slept and bathed and showered and swam with it on. I got used to washing off the green mark it left on my wrist. I was occasionally teased by my peers for wearing a bracelet, even though there wasn’t anything especially feminine about it.

I invested the bracelet with immense personal significance and value. It was from my dad. It memorialized an adventure that epitomized for me his courage and sense of justice. It represented the Native culture we both admired. It held every bit of this meaning and reminded me of it every day, every time I looked at it. I was going to wear it forever.

I certainly tried to. When I was in high school, I had to take it off for sports fairly often. Eventually a crack appeared in the middle of the band, and I knew it was going to break in two. I asked someone if it could be welded back together, but I knew that it was time to give it up, not repair it. I took it off some time in my sophomore year when it finally broke, and eventually it was lost as I moved around over the next two years. Since I stopped wearing it because I had to, rather than by choice, I told myself that everything that it meant to me I could keep with me always, even though the bracelet was gone. I had seen Citizen Kane when I was eleven; I knew my little Rosebud could end up in the flames, but that I didn’t have to lose what it stood for. I let go of my childish idea of wearing it forever — reluctantly, though.

The summer before I started high school (1978), Dad, Jane and I drove across the country from Portland, stopping in Missoula to put all our things in storage. Then we headed toward the East Coast. Along the way, as I sat in the back seat of our Ford Pinto, I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. As we drove through the country where so much of the history took place, the whole sad drama of the clash between Indian tribes and the American settlers came vividly to life for me. On the third day of  our trip, we came to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. It was one of the most impressive and haunting places I have ever visited. There Sitting Bull, among others, led a huge army that  destroyed the Seventh Cavalry, killing every last man. The graves stand where they fell. And here I stood, with my Instamatic camera, 102 years later, privately cherishing the name given me by the grandson of the warrior chief. I felt connected to the land, its memories, the fallen, and the continuous thread running through time that ties the past to the present moment. I think Dad must have felt something like this, too.

A day or two later, driving through South Dakota, we walked through a tourist stop gift shop, and I saw some bracelets like the one I was wearing, the one that Dad had bought five years before. They cost a couple of dollars at the most. There was nothing special about them — not like mine: My bracelet had gunfire and war paint, Sun Dance and campfire and starry Great Plains nights. My bracelet remembered fallen warriors,  my brave Dad and the sons of Sitting Bull; it smelled like bison jerky and fry bread; it held courage and love and remembrance and a good name: Young Man.  If you can get all of that in a bracelet, it turns out you probably don’t need that bracelet — not forever, anyway.

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