Monday, June 28, 2010

James Wenonah Paul

My mother was born "James Wenonah Paul." She was named "James" after her grandfather, James T Rosser, her maternal grandfather. They were expecting a boy, and when my mother surprised everyone by being a girl, they named her James anyway. She was called "Jamie" as a little girl and then "Jim" after about the second or third grade. My mother was then known as Jim until I graduated from college and she went back to work. At that point she decided to go by her more feminine middle name, "Wenonah."

Grandmother liked to give her girls Indian names. My aunts were named "Kaliteyo Mahota," and "Oteka." She got my mother's middle name, Wenonah, from Longfellow's epic poem "Hiawatha."

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

That's the part of the poem that first comes to my mind. Jim used to repeat it to me when I was a child. The poem goes on for many pages. It describes a pantheon of Indian gods and their interactions with their subjects. I don't know how accurate it is regarding the legends it describes, but I read somewhere that Longfellow did do a lot of research before he wrote the poem. Here's his description of Wenonah:

Fair Nokomis bore a daughter.
And she called her name Wenonah,
As the first-born of her daughters.
And the daughter of Nokomis
Grew up like the prairie lilies,
Grew a tall and slender maiden,
With the beauty of the moonlight,
With the beauty of the starlight.

Nokomis was the daughter of the moon, and Wenonah, her daughter, fell in love with the West Wind, against her mother's advice. The West Wind promptly deserted his bride after she bore him a son, a typical deadbeat dad. Poor Wenonah died soon after her son Hiawatha was born, whether from a broken heart or child birth Longfellow doesn't say, leaving Nokomis to raise the child. At that point, Wenonah disappears from history, until resurrected by my grandmother.

Grandmother actually spelled my mother's name "Winona," and it was spelled that way until my mother was in high school, when she read the poem and found out the correct spelling. It was about the same time that Jim started poking around the court house looking for her birth certificate. Grandmother not only spelled her name wrong, she also couldn't tell her the exact date of her birth.

In 1913, in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, filling out birth certificates apparently wasn't a very high priority, and Jim discovered that the name on hers was simply "baby girl," and the date was illegible. So Jim filled in her own birth certificate, correcting the spelling of her name to agree with Longfellow's poem, and fudging a little on the date of her birth. Her reasons for doing that require another story, however.

It always seemed a little strange to people that I called my parents by their first names, Jim and Don, but I felt uncomfortable calling them anything else. The explanation Jim gave to me was that I called them by their first names because that's what they called each other, and they just didn't bother to correct me.

When I went to kindergarten there was a boy named Jim in my class. I remember thinking it was funny that he had a girl's name.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Our Indian heritage

I remember one day when I was only 5 or 6 years old, I was talking to my mother about cowboys. My heroes at the time were Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and Gene Autry - for a while I insisted that my mother set a place at the table for Roy. Anyway I was going on about about how the brave cowbows had to fight the Indian savages who attacked innocent settlers on the frontier.

To this my mother replied, "Don't be too quick to blame the Indians. You're part Indian yourself."

Then I started crying, sorry to be related to such hideous monsters.

At that point My mother reassured me that we were Chickasaws, one of the Five Civilized Tribes: Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole, and that we were most certainly not savages. Most of our ancestors were farmers at the time of the settlement of the frontier. She told me that many Chickasaws, including some members of our family, had been prominent citizens, even statesmen.

My mother went on to tell me that as far as the so called "wild Indians" were concerned, they had been the victims instead of the villains on the frontier, driven from their homelands by greedy white settlers. She told how the Indians were also victims of prejudice whether or not they adopted the white man's ways. She said that the Indian tribes had their own customs which served them well before the coming of the white man, and when they fought, it was to preserve their independence and their culture.

I remember the thing that impressed me most as a little boy about this lesson on my heritage, was what my mother said about the Indians' sense of honor. She said that when an Indian committed a crime in the early days (her grandfather's time), he would be told to appear at a certain place, on a certain date for his punishment. The Indians had no jails and no need for them. The guilty person would show up at the appointed place for his whipping - this was the usual penalty - or even for a death sentence.

After that I started rooting for the Indians instead of for the cowboys.