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  • My grandfather was 3/4 Cherokee. A former friend of mine scoffed at that. "How can you be three-quarters of anything? It's mathematically impossible." For a brief second I could have choked the life out of him.

    The man I knew as Papa saw himself as a "half-breed" for a good portion of his life because that's what the whites and reds too often called him. Years later he found out that his father was half-Cherokee too but had spent his entire life passing for white. His mother, my great-grandmother, was a full blood Cherokee and could trace her ancestry back to the Trail of Tears. So Papa was about 3/4 Cherokee, if you feel the need to think in such terms.

    Papa must have shed many tears as a young boy. His family was large and suffered the kind of crippling poverty that I have never known: shoes only in the winter time, never enough food, alcoholism, beatings, and of course, extreme racism.

    Papa was sent to an "Indian School" during the Great Depression because the family couldn't afford to feed him. The first thing they did at that boarding school for Indian boys was to shave his head and instruct him never to speak the Cherokee language, not that he knew more than a few words anyway. His full blood mother did not allow her children to speak the language. She saw no hope for Indians in the white world and wanted her offspring to speak only English and try to live the white ways. The Indian ways were just too hard.

    The boarding school was tough. Papa had light skin and freckles. He was picked on and sometimes it was more than just taunts, sometimes it was physical. Papa was a small child so he joined the boxing team to learn to defend himself. He kept at it until he reached Golden Gloves status. He went from being called a half-breed to being lauded as the "Mauling Mutt". There were no more school yard beatings for my grandfather once he learned to box, though I imagine he administered a few. After his service in War War II he went on to coach other Indian boys, mentoring a new generation of Golden Gloves champions.

    For a long time my Papa was ashamed of being an Indian. I don't say "Native American" because he never felt that way. He was always an Oklahoma Indian boy, but he lived his life in the white world eventually becoming a Protestant Minister to mostly white congregations. That made my grandfather pretty square in the 1960s Indian circles, and once at a family reunion I heard a distant cousin refer to Papa as "Apple Ed" - red on the outside, white on the inside. Shades of the Indian School all over again.

    Unlike my grandfather, I was blessed by the era of my birth. I was a child in the late 1960s when the Red Power movement swept the Indigenous nations. It even reached little Wagoner, Oklahoma and had an effect on my Papa. It was now cool to be an Indian, and though he never put a "Custer Died For Your Sins" bumper sticker on his car, he did finally embrace his native heritage, and more importantly, he was truly proud of it. He got a "Native American" license plate and started doing leather work, wood carving and going to craft shows and pow wows. And he began to tell me stories of his youth and what he knew of the family heritage.

    Before my Papa died he took me to an old cemetery out in the woods of the Cookson Hills and showed me graves that stretched back to the infamous relocation, The Trails of Tears, where thousands of men, women and children died on an illegal forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma over the deadly winter months.

    "These are your ancestors as much as mine," he told me. "Their blood runs in your veins too."

    I didn't know what to say. I felt more than just an Apple Indian - I was white all over, except I wasn't really because he wasn't.

    I think about him often. I think about his strength, the adversity he faced and overcame, and his generous nature. He was never a rich man but he always gave everything he had. I think about that skinny little Indian boy hitting the punching bag, making ready to take on the bullies of the world and I'm filled with pride. Papa had Red Power down to the core. He was no "Apple Ed". He was an Oklahoma Indian and my champion.
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