Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memorial Day

When I was little we always went to the cemetery on Memorial Day. There were a lot of deaths in our family, at least on my mother's side of the family. We'd take freshly cut flowers, and sometimes we planted flowers too. There were two cemeteries in Pauls Valley: Mt. Olivet, on a hill a little ways out of town, and the "Old Cemetery," in town right next to Rush Creek. It took a while to make the rounds. We went out there a lot of other times during the year too.

I think people used to value cemeteries more back then. It makes sense. Cemeteries hold the actual remains of our loved ones and ancestors. I've been back to Mt. Olivet and to the Old Cemetery a few times, and it makes me feel closer to my aunts, uncles, and grandparents as I stand out there next to the Paul plot. The Chickasaws felt strongly about the remains of their loved ones too, back in the old country. They used to bury a person right under his or her doorstep. That's the reason they hated so much to leave their homeland in Mississippi and migrate to present day Oklahoma. They were abandoning the bones of their ancestors.  

My grandmother felt that way too. My mother told me that when her oldest daughter died, Grandmother went to the cemetery so much that my grandfather almost built a house for her across the street. Grandmother outlived five of her children, and I think it helped her deal with her grief to visit and to care for their graves. Makes sense to me. 

I have a picture somewhere of Grandmother standing next to my Uncle Willie's grave. He had an especially tragic death. The plants around his grave come up above her waist. She even tore out the fence around her front yard to put around the Paul plot at the Old Cemetery to protect her oldest son's grave. "Little Samuel," as he was always known, died in 1899 before his first birthday. He was buried out there alongside the old settlers. I couldn't find the picture of Grandmother standing next to Willie's grave, but here she is alongside Uncle Haskell at the ceremony beginning the renovation of the Old Cemetery, which she spearheaded:

                         Haskell Paul and Victoria May Paul, Old Cemetery, 1953

Going to the cemetery was no comfort to my mother though. After Grandmother was gone she went out to there for a few more years and then stopped. It just brought back bad memories for her. She had herself cremated, my father too - he would have gone along with anything she wanted. I'm a little ambivalent about it though. I think I'd kind of like to have a grave to visit. I tried to visit my parents "graves" on Memorial Day several years ago at the columbarium - I think that's what you call it, and it was all locked up. You can't get in without a key. You can't plant a garden in there either.

Things are different in Pauls Valley too. They've pulled up my grandmother's garden. They even replaced her oldest daughter's tombstone with a flat one so they could mow over it with the lawn mower. My grandparents had that stone imported from Italy. 

Of course times are different now. Just because you don't go to someone's grave doesn't mean you didn't care about them. I spent Memorial Day this year hiking and listening to the tape of a phone conversation I had with my mother years ago. It's enough I suppose.

There is something to preserving and honoring the remains of your loved ones. though. We used to get together as a family on Memorial Day. Now people just go shopping.  I think it's important to the family, and important to society. You have to be moved when you see Arlington  National Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial, or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The military understands that. That's why they try so hard to return the bodies of servicemen to their families.

I did have a nice experience that Memorial Day when I tried unsuccessfully to get into the columbarium where my parents' ashes are located. My wife and I also drove out to the cemetery where her mother is buried. My wife is a woman of color, and the cemetery is in a predominantly black neighborhood. Anyway, it was packed with people, families together, some having picnics at the gravesites, little kids playing, people laughing and talking, reminiscing. It made me feel good, and I think it would have made Grandmother feel good too.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Chickasaw Horse

                                          The Chickasaw Horse
        (From article in the Chickasaw Times by Holmes Willis Lemon in 1977)

I've started reading a book entitled Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne, which tells the story of the rise and fall of the Comanche empire.
I guess I've been kind of racist in lumping the plains tribes together. I never realized that the Comanche had built an empire, but Gwynne makes a compelling argument. Anyway, I'm spellbound by the book. It's so nice to have a book about about Indian history on the best seller list.

Gwynne claims that the Comanche achieved dominance in the west by their  mastery over the horse. In his narrative he relates one of my favorite stories from the memoirs of Randolph Marcy, who made several trips west as far as California through Comanche country.   

Marcy was camped near a band of Comanche, and one morning saw two young Comanche women jump on their horses armed only with lariat ropes and chase a herd of antelope. As he watched in amazement, the girls each managed to corner and lasso one of those magnificent animals. 

I'll quote to you another story from Marcy's journal, about the Comanches' love of horses.  

I once made an attempt to purchase a favorite horse from a chief of one of the bands of the Southern Comanches, and offered him a large price, but he could not be persuaded to part with him. He said that the animal was one of the fleetest in their possession; and if he were to sell him, it would prove a calamity to his whole band, as it often required all the speed of this animal to ensure success in the buffalo chase; that his loss would be felt by all his people, and he would be regarded as very foolish; moreover, he said (patting his favorite on the neck), "I love him very much."

When you know a little bit about a subject, you're always going to find something to disagree with, and it's the same with me and Empire of the Summer Moon. All of Gwynn's talk about Comanche horses reminded me that the Chickasaw were also noted for their horsemanship and for breeding horses. Gwynne states in his book that none of the other Indian tribes bred horses, and I have to take exception to that.  

The Chickasaw may have even been the first Indian tribe to become acquainted with horses, since they first acquired them in 1540, after overcoming Hernando de Soto and his men (See blog of 8/25/2010). From those original horses, the Chickasaw created their own breed, which became known as the Chickasaw Horse.  

I couldn't find any references to the Chickasaw using their horses in battle, but they gave did use them to great advantage in hunting, and when the region became ranching country, the speed and intelligence of their horses made them valued by ranchers as the forerunners of the modern day quarter horse. They were small and muscular, and had short necks like a zebra, which caused them to have to spread their legs to graze. It is said that over a quarter mile there was no faster horse. 

The Chickasaw loved their horses as did the Comanche, and when it came time for them to leave their homeland on the Trail of Tears in 1837, they refused to sell them, taking 5 to 7000 west in great herds.  

In describing the Chickasaw and their horses, Col. A. A. M. Upshaw, the Chickasaws' conductor on the Removal complained:  

I have used all the influence that I had to get them to sell their horses, but they would about as soon part with their lives as part with a horse. 

The Chickasaw Horse is now extinct as a separate breed, having been replaced by the modern quarter horse.

Monday, May 7, 2012


May 2nd was the anniversary of my mother's death - she died two years ago. We visited some of my cousins in Texas last week so I got to talk about her a little with them. When their father was alive he suffered from emphysema. Once he was looking for a place to stay and at the age of 90, my mother got on the phone and contacted the head of Chickasaw social services to help him find an apartment.  

I went hiking a couple of days ago. I always think of my mother while I'm hiking, I guess because it allows my mind to wander. Jim was pretty much homebound for the last 10 years of her life, so she enjoyed hearing about my treks into the mountains, and seeing my pictures. When I went hiking I was always thinking about what I could tell her about my trip. I still find myself doing that, even though she's not here any more.  

Jim travelled with my father before he died, but she was a little afraid of the mountains. She told me once about getting a panic attack while trying to climb up the steps next to Seven Falls in Colorado Springs. The experience puzzled her because she had climbed on trees and on the roof of her parents' house as a girl without ever being afraid.  

A couple of days ago I hiked up the Ben Tyler Trail just a few miles SW of Denver. The trail is between 9000 and 10500 ft elevation. There's not much snow remaining there, but the vegetation still hasn't grown up much yet. We had hoped to see some wild flowers - Jim loved wild flowers, but there weren't many. They were like jewels when we saw them though. There were a couple of clumps of Pasque Flowers, and in the middle of a bed of dead grass and fallen leaves we found about four stems of Fairy Slippers, a beautiful variety of orchid.

                                                Fairy Slippers

We met a young woman on the way down and got to talking with her. She does a lot of hiking and was telling us how she struggles to keep fit while holding down a job. I told her about how my mother started exercising with Jack LaLanne in her mid 40's and continued until she developed bone cancer at the age of 96. She remains my inspiration for the benefits of exercise.

There was a story on the news recently about a bear who wandered into Boulder Colorado and had to be tranquilized and taken out into the mountains. About a month later the same bear showed up in Boulder again. He had traveled about 30 miles to return. That's the kind of story Jim enjoyed. She would tell me about her childhood and I would tell her about the mountains, or whatever else I was doing.  

I really miss her. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but she was always on my side; she was always proud of me; she was always interested in whatever I was doing, and she was always glad to see me or to hear from me. No one will ever be able to replace her.  

                                       James Wenonah Paul Gunning