Growing Up Native And Remembering “Old Ways”
Country and poor. Running through grass fields, knitting and quilting, riding in wagons, growing vegetables in gardens. That’s how my grandmother grew up. Mrs. Jackson (that’s her real name, LOL), is an Oklahoma native, with both Cherokee and Choctaw heritage. So much Native American blood runs through her that you wouldn’t suspect she is African-American as well. When I tell people about my racial background and that I’m from Oklahoma, the first response is always, “There are Black people in Oklahoma?!?!” I have to remind them that Oklahoma was originally all-Black territories, occupied by freed slaves. Native Americans were forced there while moving West during the Trail Of Tears. As White settlers tried to intimidate freed slaves and Native Americans, pitting one against the other, both races found a commonality in each other—and often intermingled with no controversy. That’s how my grandmother’s parents, Cherokee, Choctaw, African-American and White, joined in union.
I called my grandmother three weeks ago, and told her November was Native American Heritage Month. She, like most people, answered, “Really? I didn’t know there was such a thing.” We laughed. I told her that all of these years, all the recipes and natural remedies she’s taught us are fading from my memory and I wanted to start a journal (blog) to document them. Oral traditions run big in Native Am and African culture, but as the world evolves, I understand it is equally important to write them down. My grandmother told me she barely remembers them anymore. She thinks of them in the moment she needs them. I pleaded, “What about the time you told me about how old nails that are rusting are used to help with a headache, how the iron does something with your hair, and cranium, and, and…how did that work again?” She said, “Chiiiiile,” and again we laughed. “I barely remember that stuff!”
Although my grandmother is in her early 80s, and constantly telling us she’s getting old, she did remember a lot about her childhood. She was the sixth child of eight, and the youngest sister. She has one living sibling left, an older sister, who still lives in their hometown Hugo, OK. My grandmother started telling me about how she walked seven miles to a log house, which served as the school for the “neighborhood.” (Keep in mind, a neighborhood in the 1930’s was the size of a town. I’ve been to Hugo several times, and it reminds me of a country town in the 1960s—just enough commerce going on, but still a little segregated.) She remembered they never missed a day of school and were never late. Even if it rained, they still attended. That’s how important education was. When she and her brothers and sisters would come home, one of the family’s two dogs would be on the porch waiting for them. They’d start yelling “Mamaaa,” and the dog would lightly howl, only for the second dog to howl back from a location in the woods. She said the first dog would always lead them to the second dog and her mother, by the river. The children would help their mother fishing, gathering food from the garden, picking fruit and vegetables, whatever was needed to be done. Then they’d all walk back to the house. I asked my grandmother, “So on average, you probably walked 15 miles a day?!” She said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Cause we didn’t have a bus until I was in the eighth grade.” Wow. I can’t even imagine.
My grandmother remembered everyone was poor, and most of the Af-Ams and Native Ams in the community knew each other. Since most White settlers owned the stores, automobiles, etc., Af-Ams and Native Ams were relegated to service work. Some had livestock and made their living by farming and sharecropping land. Anytime cattle was butchered, the meat was hung in a smokehouse, for one or two families to share. (My grandmother said she remembers running through the smokehouse, playing tag with others, and not thinking anything of the hanging meat, LOL) She told me “Now remember, there were no refrigerators back then. If you had meat, you ate it the same day. It wasn’t no freezing it over for next week!” Fun for her was peeling bushels of sweet potatoes, de-shelling peas, climbing trees, and riding horses. I asked what type of work her father did and she said he worked for the local railroad company, packing cross-ties with his brothers. Later at night, he worked as a stocker at the grocery store. Her mother was somewhat of a mid-wife in the town and a cook for church functions. She also remembers her mother sitting home all day, making preserves and canning food. My grandmother stated when anyone got sick, her mother would send one of the children outside to pull up a root from a tree so she could make an herbal remedy for that person. Older women in the town would rotate house-sitting with the sick person until they were well. My grandmother also recalled how her parents knew the children could have a better life by getting an education. “In those days,” she stressed, “going to school was a ‘bragging right’ and every kid was proud to tell adults they went to school.”
I asked my grandmother whether she knew of the differences between Af-Ams and Native Ams in the community, if that was explained to children when they saw different shades of skin color, different textures of hair, treatment by white settlers, etc. She said she really didn’t understand until she was in high school. Like I mentioned before, she said everyone was poor so they didn’t think much of the differences. My grandmother also said she would hear older women “talking the old Indian talk” but she wasn’t taught any of it. Adults would tell the children, “You have to learn things the new way.” I remember once as a kid, my grandmother said she heard the elders say they “don’t trust the White man’s medicine.” Now that I’m older, I think I understand what they meant. So many of them lived off natural resources from the earth. And for them to think that mankind was creating something better than what had already worked just wasn’t acceptable. Most of her elders were unable to read and had been coerced into signing papers, not knowing they were giving up their land, wages, or whatever. The elders had been deceived so much that they were cautious. My grandmother remembered hearing them talking quietly and secretively at times, but would never be allowed to sit in the room with adults because that was culturally disrespectful. Instead, she and her brothers and sisters would always play outside in the fields.
When my grandmother became a sophomore in high school, she married my grandfather. They left Hugo and moved to Oklahoma City. By this time, the 1940s, there were more jobs and opportunity in OKC than their small hometown. My grandmother rarely visited her family after the move, and of course, she adopted contemporary living practices. Working in restaurant kitchens and housekeeping for doctors left her little time for gardening, quilting and the things she did in Hugo. When I spoke to her last month, I told her I was gonna call her more often. I wanted her to start remembering more about the way she grew up and the things she was taught so I could keep my journal updated. She said, “I don’t wanna bore you with the old ways, you’re young, you got your own life.” I told her just because those were the “old ways” doesn’t mean they were wrong. Listening to her laugh about her simple, communal upbringing makes me wish more people today could experience the “old ways.” Back then, people consistently worked together to make a living. Today, we are inundated with so much individualism that we don’t appreciate each other. I understand this is the 21st century, and making a living requires a different skill set than in 1940, but I also understand that appreciating little things can only help us in the overall scheme of life. I encourage everyone to call their grandparents, or anyone in their family over 60 years of age. Ask them about the way they grew up, the values they were taught, what they endured as the world changed. There’s always something to learn from their experiences. I’m blessed to have a grandmother over 80 years old, who’s seen everything from Jim Crow, to the Great Depression, the industrial age, Civil Rights, death of Apartheid, the turn of a century, and an African-American president. There’s something to be learned in her experiences, counting blessings, understanding change, but also remembering “old ways.”