Rockwell and his companion rode into town with the children straddled in front of them, their nervous faces scanning the landscape as the neighbors stared. They rode straight past Main Street and into the round about in front of President Young's house.
Later that day the children emerged cleaned and fed and dressed in white man’s clothes: Two boys and a girl. The story unfolded of their parents’ massacre miles away, caught, supposedly, in the crossfire of the Blackhawk Indian War. Orphaned and starving, the small ones made their way upstream, surviving on berries, bitter root and raw fish.
President Young commissioned Porter Rockwell to take the children on up to Wood’s Cross in the newly established Davis County, north of Salt Lake City.
“Take them out to Sister Peninah. She’ll know what to do with them.”
Peninah Cotton was an Indian; half Cherokee. Her mother was daughter of a Cherokee Chief, which in family lore made her an Indian Princess. Back in Illinois she had heard missionaries speak of Christ and when the throbbing in her heart would not leave her content to remain where she was, she became the first Indian in the latter-days to lay her body down in the waters of baptism and become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She crossed the plains with the rest of the saints after they were driven from Nauvoo, married a white man named Daniel Wood, settled Davis County Utah, and bore a passel of children. Her good heart, the same one that embraced a living religion, welcomed the orphaned children without hesitation. She knew, even if their hearts did not meld, that they would be extra hands for the plowing, and besides they had been sent by the prophet. She felt a surge of pride that he would think her worthy to nurture them. They were thereafter raised by Peninah, who is my grandmother's grandmother on my mother's side.
We have always, in our family, had a particular soft spot for Native Americans. Maybe it’s our ancestors speaking to us. Maybe they are pounding in a massive drum circle in the heavens and our heart beats align with their calls.
When my mom was a child she accompanied her father to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation for their annual Sun Dance Pow Wow. Mom’s dad was the only white man allowed to attend. He was respected and trusted, and the ice from his ice house kept the watermelon he supplied crisply chilled. Mom, as a small girl, travelled beside him, their load of melons filling the bed of their wagon. While her father set to his duties she sat quietly on the rim of the circle, her bony little girl knees drawn up to her flat chest, her chin resting on them, as she watched the men jump in pulsating circles through the night. A ring of dark braided natives took turns pounding on the tight vibrating piece of elk hide stretched over the rim of a massive drum. Their mouths opened and chins quivered as they sang, wordless melodies rising from their ample chests. The dust of the Idaho sandy soil rose up like wood smoke around the beaded moccasins of the braves as they danced, tiny metal bells stitched to the fringe of their soft deer hide loin cloths ringing through the beat. Their feet touching toe, then heel, toe then heel, their heads bobbing, their bodies moving in and out from a central pole, the earth stirring into a swirl of dust as the night wore on. The eternal beat never changed. The little fair haired white girl sat close enough to hear their panting, the occasional grunt of exhaustion as they pushed themselves through the night until the rising of the sun. She laid her head against her knees and, mesmerized by the repetition, soon fell into a sleep undisturbed until her father picked her up and set her on the buckboard of the wagon.
Years later, when I was a child of that child, our mother took us back to the Pow Wow. The reservation had changed, and so had the pow wow. Pride stripped and forsaken, the natives opened the perimeter of the ceremony to white men and women, welcoming their quarters and nickels and solid silver dollars that were laid down for the beautiful handiwork of bead and hide. Pushing her way through the masses of people on that hot July night, we trailed behind our mother. She stopped occasionally to ask questions. I could not hear her for the cacophony of sounds, the thick pulse of the drum underscoring all else. My brother and sisters and I held hands and scurried behind her like a bevy of baby quail. We wove our way through the crowd until she stopped, facing an old weathered red man who stared at her as she spoke. I watched as his face lit up, his lips rising on the edges as he returned conversation. She took our hands and pulled us in front of her, introducing us one by one. He was tall and ancient and authentic. I might have been afraid of him, except for the obvious love that shot from his deep set eyes and landed on our mother.
His name was Willie George. Mom had known him as a young dancing brave in those early Sun Dances. He had been charmed by her as a girl, and the affection obviously remained after all those years. I caught the passing spirit of some ancestral native whisking by and gave my whole imagination to the him: I was a Native American girl, my feet knew the softness of this ground pounded by Indian feet, and I belonged right there next to Willie George. My mother backed up with her Polaroid camera, and Willie George lifted his arm and drew us in. I laid my blond haired head against his waist, inhaling the scent of smoke and sweat and sage, all earthy and sweet. I stood there beside him in that dark Idaho night, when other little white children are sound asleep in their beds; my dark tanned ripe-with-summer skin looking so pale next to his, my white cropped pants and pale pink shell contrasting against his denim and leather and braids. Still, he made me feel like I belonged. And I suppose I did. I am, after all, 1/32 Cherokee.
I have kept a little newspaper clipping in my small box of memories in the basement. There’s a photo of Willie George in it, and an obituary. He died at 101 years of age, having witnessed first hand the agonizing evolution of his people under the hands of the imposers. Still, he had put his arms around mine.
Tonight we took our mom for a short outing where we all went inside a workroom for about 20 minutes. We had decided to go rather abruptly, and she, not wanting to miss, joined us for he ride. We had accidentally put her from her wheel chair into the car without her shoes. When we got to our destination she wanted to come in with us, so Dave wheeled her empty chair up to the passenger side of the car and lifted her feet out onto the cold asphalt. “Mom, where are your shoes?!” It had snowed this morning, and though it had mostly melted by then, the ground was still pretty darn chilly. She didn’t flinch. I called from the back seat…
“Ahhh, she’ll be fine. Those feet are part Indian, you know.”
She held her arms around David’s neck as he lifted her into her chair, her bare feet twisting on the frozen ground beneath her. “Let’s go!” she insisted.
Mom may not be one who can dance any more, but she can sense the beat, and her feet are weathered enough from the eternal dance to withstand whatever kind of earth she finds underneath them.