spring was a rainy one in Los Angeles. It was my 13th spring. Rain to Los
Angeles is like an electric charge in the air. There is new green grass, new
green hills, new green shrubs and green in places I never thought had plant
life. The Baldwin Hills are bright green in the distance. The air takes on a
soft freshness that’s comforting. Looking to the east after a rain you can see
the San Gabriel Mountains. All of a sudden nature that seemed to have been
missing most of the year is set in it’s proper perspective. It was on one of
those spring days my good friend Jeannie and I went for one of our many
Jeannie and I had a bond deeper than that of many
friends. We shared our private lives and family secrets. Jeannie and I loved
and cared for each other.
We would take walking tours of our neighborhood.
This was my idea. I wanted to learn about every neighbor, block by block.
Jeannie thought my idea was very odd and “weird”. She, as always, went along in
spite of her feelings. The idea I had was to go up to anyone we met on our
walks and start talking. This habit has continued all my life to the dismay a
rain had just stopped when I telephoned Jeannie
and asked her if she wanted to go for a walk. “Sure,” came her reply and I sprinted
over to her house. Arm in arm we started our walk down the street. We often
passed an odd house that sat far back on its property. It was an old house on
about an acre of land. From the front it seemed overgrown and unkempt. Trees
created a wall effect on part of the front. The house had a hidden entrance
since the house sat sideways on the property. Seen from the street was a large
glassed-in day porch with a slanting glass pane roof on it. The glass panes
were like beacons shining in the sun.
“Let’s go look!” I said to Jeannie as I grabbed her
hand and pulled her along. Slowly we crept over the wet ground and around
overgrown hedges. We walked over to the day porch. Jeannie and I stood inches
away from the day porch windowpanes. Staring in we saw hand woven baskets of
every size and kind. There were small baskets on rustic tables filled with
dried flowers. Here and there on the floor were large baskets. Flowers and
herbs were hanging on bamboo cross bars. The room was cluttered with all sorts
of things. The room’s slanting roof reached about 16 feet high. There sitting
in the middle of all the clutter was a long and wide bench with a flowered
cushion on it. There were arrow heads in a hand-made pottery bowl near the
window, a spear on a wall, feathers of all kinds, and a tanned hide covering a
table with a large Indian design pot on it. On one wall were large and small
Indian animal-hide drums.
Jeannie and I stood silently taking in all this
Indian exotica. The glass door on the other side of the day porch opened. We
panicked but didn’t run. An old lady with a long brown skirt and a billowy
white blouse walked in. Her gray hair was to her shoulders, pulled to one side,
and tied with what looked like a bead necklace. Our eyes met. No one moved. She
came closer to the window and motioned for us to come around to the side.
Jeannie said, “Should we run?”
“Naw,” was my
answer. I, with Jeannie in tow,
walked around the house. We came to a beautiful and long grape arbor that led
us to the front door. The arbor was about 30 feet long and had clusters of ripe
concord grapes hanging from the top and sides. The walkway under the arbor was
paved with uneven stones set in cement. In the walkway between the stones were
broken pieces of colored pottery – pink, turquoise and coral bits. The large
wooden door to the house was opened and out stepped the old lady smiling.
In a husky voice came, “Hello, friends. I’m Gertie.
Gertie, yep. That’s me!”
“I’m Donnie. She’s Jeannie,” I said meekly.
Gertie invited us in. We
walked into the large
bright room and Gertie shut the door behind us. The room was filled with all
sorts of Indian baskets and rustic hand-made wooden furniture. “This is the
welcome room,” Gertie said proudly. “What you see here is a collection of Pomo
baskets and over there, she pointed to a number of large ceramic jars in a
corner, those are Zuni, all hand made.” On the walls were hand-woven rugs and
blankets. “Pretty aren’t they?” She said as Jeannie and I and touched the
blankets. “Those blankets were made on meter size looms tied to the Indian.
They make one side then the other. Then they sew both sides together – all
hand-made vegetable dyes too!” Gertie was very proud of her collection.
“I’ve lived with them all, Pombo’s right up in
Northern California, Zuni’s, Apaches, Sioux, Navajo, Piute’s, even Mexican
Indians down in Sonora and further south even from there. I was born in
Rawhide. My father died when I was a baby, so my mother baked bread and did
laundry for the miners. She made a good living from all that too.” We walked
around the house, which was a life’s collection of the cultural property of
many Indian tribes. I liked the drums she had. She knew every piece, every
artifact. Each time she picked an item up it had a story closely connected to a
person she knew.
Jeannie and I were entranced by Gertie’s stories
and seemingly endless collection.
We were asked to sit while Gertie made tea. “Touch
anything, it’s OK,” she said as she went to the kitchen.
Jeannie’s eye caught a large turquoise stone on a
table next to the split log sofa. “Isn’t this so boss!” Jeannie said as she
held the stone in her hand. Gertie walked in with a blue teapot and mugs.
“Think you’ll like this tea. It’s made from wild sage and marigolds.”
“Wild sage?” I thought to myself.
She poured the
brew into the mug and smiled. One taste of the tea and I asked for the sugar,
three or four spoons of sugar to cut the flavor. Jeannie took a sip and almost
just smiled. “Wild sage tea is called high
desert tea,” Gertie said. “Good for you too!”
Gertie’s husband died from the flu two years after
they were married. They had no children. He left her a good sum of money, which
came to her after her father died. His father was a businessman in Carson City,
Nevada. “The old gentleman was real well-heeled,” She said with a laugh. Gertie
packed up and decided to travel after her husband’s death. This was something
young ladies did not do at the time. She was a self-styled cultural
anthropologist, spending most of her years living near or with Native
Americans. She was able to live off the interest of her husband’s money and
from the odd jobs she did.
Gertie traveled to different Native Reservations
and made many friends. She made friends with the Indian agents too. I suppose
her behavior was so odd that people couldn’t resist talking and being friends
with the curious white lady.
Gertie had large leather-bound notebooks filled
with Native American names, places, dates, pencil drawings and pasted little
things like leaves or a dried flower. It was her collection of the stories,
places, and things she had heard and had seen through her life. She pointed to
a number of pictures of raggedy looking Indians. “These are all my family,” her
voice trailed off into a private thought as she closed the book.
Many times that spring and early summer I was to
visit Gertie. I spent hours listening to her stories and the nature of each
piece she had collected. She told me about Indian medicine and beliefs. I
didn’t really understand a lot of what she said, but her voice said it was
important to her, so I listened and asked questions. I was also interested
since my mother and grandmother were Native Americans. Gertie retold the story
of the Cherokee (my people) “Trail of Tears,” the deportation from the
Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky to Oklahoma. In the dead
on winter. Hundreds perished on that trail.
Sometimes her stories got intertwined with other
stories, but it really didn’t matter to me. I told her about my mother and
grandmother and she pulled out a Cherokee grammar book and told me stories
about Sequoia and the history of the Cherokee nation. I was deeply moved by
Gertie because my grandmother lived as a girl and young woman in Oklahoma. Gertie
was sharing my heritage, held in silence in my family. My grandmother’s Indian
name was “Fire Bush,” which became a family joke on the white side of the
family, of course. I was too young to understand. My mother always considered
herself “white,” as did everyone in her family except grandma.
Gertie bought me a book on American Indians. We
would leaf through the book, and she would give details about the different
tribes and their lives. She showed me on her arm where she had been badly
burned. She said an old Indian woman had wrapped her burn with bear fat and
moss. There was no scar on her arm. “See, hardly anything at all!” she said
day Gertie, took me to a large closet at the
end of a hallway. In the walk-in closet Gertie had hundreds of jars and bags
with all sort of herbs, dried mushrooms, bark and ground up powders. “These are
Indian medicines. I know how to use most of them. I know how to cure all sort
of ills and such. This, let me show you this,” she said pulling out a leather
bag about the size of a fist. The bag had leather ties at the top and there was
a dried up nasty looking bear claw tied to the end of one of the draw strings.
“This, with the medicine, gives a person special power. Here hold it.”
Carefully I took the bag in my hands. “Press it against your heart, Donnie.” I
pulled it towards me. “Against your heart. Against your heart!” Gertie yelled.
I held it over my heart and she smiled. She placed her hands over the bag, her
dark eyes locking onto my eyes. It was a spiritual embrace.
It was towards dusk one day that I wandered over to
Gertie’s. The door was opened the moment I entered the long arbore walkway.
Gertie was standing at the door with that same warm smile. “Donnie, today is your
day,” she said with her deep voice.
“My day?” I asked. She led me to the day porch,
which was filled with the gold light of the setting sun. “Sit down, Donnie,”
she said as she sat me on the bench in the middle of the room. “Today is your
Indian birthday. Today you take on the Spirit of your people.” I thought this
was all a great game, and I was more than willing to have fun. Gertie picked up
the white deerskin and tied it around her. Next she handed me a small drum, and
she picked up a large rattle from a table.
“To my beat” she pointed her fingers up above her
head and then, as if hitting a drum with her rattle, she struck the beat. I
kept the beat on the drum. Gertie next picked up her bear claw medicine bag and
put it around her neck. She slowly started to chant in the Cherokee language.
Her voice in all its tones raised and lowered. Her singing went on for 15
minutes, and then stopped abruptly. She dipped her fingers in a clay pot and
when she pulled her fingers out they were red. Gertie stepped over to me and
made marks on my face and forehead. She then wiped her hand, turned to a side
table and took a feather with a string on it. She tied the feather to my hair
mumbling something I didn’t understand. “You are now Singing Tree. All creation has a song. Learn the Song of Creation,
Singing Tree,” Gertie said smiling. I sat crying.
I never returned to Gertie’s again. It was soon
after being “made” an Indian by Gertie that my mother died. Pain and sorrow
took up many weeks and months. I went to live with my cousins for a while
before returning home. My path in life never again crossed Gertie’s. It is only
rather recently that I have reflected on what she did for me. She paid me an
honor. She gave me a tie to my ancestors. Gertie made me aware of the Song of
Creation and I’m still learning to sing it.
In 1990 my partner Rick and
I drove cross-country to move to Virginia.
On the way we stopped in Clinton, Oklahoma for the night. We awoke before
daybreak to continue our trip. After eating a breakfast in the little cafe next
to the motel, we both walked outside. We could see for miles across fields, all
the way to the eastern horizon. I thought of my Cherokee ancestors and the many
sunrises they had seen from that land. There was red and gold on the land
stretching out over the fields. I could feel Gertie with me. I could hear her
song in my heart. I could feel the drum beat inside of me. Singing Tree’s path
had finally led back home.