Sunday, January 27, 2019

Princess Lahoma

This month my wife and I celebrated her birthday in Las Vegas. We go every year, not to gamble, but just to walk around, explore the new hotels, see the shows we haven’t seen, and watch the people. We saw a Cirque du Soliel show based on Beatles’ songs at the Mirage, a comedy show a Planet Hollywood, and a variety show at the Rio. We wandered through the Venetian, watched the gondolas, took our pictures with celebrities at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, and of course I had to visit the Burlesque Hall of Fame, where my cousin Lahoma is featured.

It was six of seven years ago when I found out about the Burlesque Hall of Fame. A young woman e-mailed me from New York City where she was working as a nanny. She had read an article I posted here on my blog about Lahoma and wanted to know more about her. Her hobby was collecting pictures about burlesque stars from the past. She had a web site where she had collected hundreds of pictures and newspaper articles about burlesque. She shared what she already had about Lahoma, and she told me about the Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, which she was helping with her research. We corresponded for several weeks sharing information and eventually we collaborated in writing a little article about Lahoma for the museum.

I haven’t heard from my friend for a couple of years but I hope she compiled her work into a book. She certainly did an admirable job with her research.

Just visited her facebook page. She still has our article about Lahoma posted. She’s selling burlesque memorabilia on EBAY to raise money to pay vet bills for her aging dog, so check it out.

Visiting the Hall of Fame reminds me of what wonderful memories I have of my cousin Lahoma, and makes me think that I ought to record more about her life than just her time dancing.

During the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s, when Lahoma was dancing, I was in elementary school, and I was madly in love with her. She was beautiful, glamorous, and she sent me stuff. The walls of my room were covered with pennants from all over the United States. I wrote her letters. I used to have a copy of one. On it I had drawn a picture of “Elfie,” the hero of my mother Wenonah’s bedtime stories.  

When Lahoma recycled her costumes, she gave them to me. I remember an Indian head dress made of purple ostrich feathers. It had a long train, or at least it was a train for me. On Lahoma, who was almost six feet tall, it probably barely reached the floor. I can’t imagine what our neighbors thought, seeing me run around wearing it. My cousin Steve says that he had one of her ostrich feather head dresses too that was white. It’s probably the one she’s wearing in the picture I put at the beginning of this article.

Lahoma’s mother, my Aunt Kaliteyo, lived in Oklahoma City. She wasn’t married, and she spent a lot of time at our house. She ate my mother’s corn bread and had milk and cookies with me when I got home from school. We kept up with Lahoma through Aunt Kaliteyo.
Every once in a while, Lahoma would come home for a visit. It was always an exciting time. She would show us pictures of the places she danced, and tell us about the famous people she knew. She dated a popular song writer of the day, Johnny Cola, who had written a new song, Vienni Su, that we were all hoping would be a success, for her sake.

Once she took me to a major production down at the Municipal Auditorium, just the two of us. It starred Victor Borga. There was singing and dancing, and of course he played the piano. Lahoma was very critical of the dancers. During the performance she pointed out all the things they were doing wrong. It impressed me that although she was a burlesque queen, she was still a serious dancer.

I’ll finish with a picture of me in one on Lahoma’s more traditional head dresses. I wore it on 89er’s Day at our school’s annual reenactment of the 1889 land run into Indian Territory by early settlers. Even at an early age I knew that not everyone was happy about taking away the Indians’ land.

Indian Brave at ‘89er’s Day Reenactment at Sequoyah Grade School in about 1949

That’s a tomahawk in my right hand.

To be continued.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Thoughts on Native American Culture

Whipping Tree, Chickasaw Council House Museum

My Uncle Haskell was an attorney and judge in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and a charter member of the Chickasaw Historical Society Board. He explained to me once that for the Indians, especially the full bloods, the concept of land ownership was totally foreign.  

He said that to them, land was like water or air, to be used by each person as needed. Before the white man came, they used land for hunting and for farming, and when game was scarce or during droughts, they moved on. There were boundaries between tribes, which changed with time depending on the size and needs of each tribe, but there was no such thing as land ownership.

After tribal boundaries were imposed by the US government, the Indians set up constitutions which reflected their tribal custom, designating land as common to all. Tribal members could use what they needed, but after their death, the land was returned to the tribe. This caused trouble within the tribe as some took advantage of the law to profit by subletting land to white men. The real tragedy though came in 1903, when tribal governments were dissolved and individuals were issued allotments.

Many Indians were so opposed to the allotment process, that they refused to be included on the tribal rolls compiled by the government, thereby eliminating themselves and their families from receiving allotments, and also future benefits of tribal membership.

It was mainly full bloods, who held onto their traditions more strongly, those who deserved the benefits most, who were left out, and even for those who signed the rolls, the concept of land ownership was so difficult for them that they often signed over title to their allotments for a night on the town. As Uncle Haskell told me, “They didn’t think land was worth anything.” So it wasn’t just that the Indians were opposed to private land ownership of land, they couldn’t even understand the concept.

The tragedy that befell the Indians during the allotment process is described in detail by Angie Debo in her book, “And Still the Waters Run.”

I include this story as an illustration of the tremendous power of culture and tradition to mold the thinking of the members of a group.

The Indians also had no concept of wealth. Often the chief was the poorest person in the tribe because he shared what he had with others. Possessions were shared. Poor or disabled members were taken care of. Even now the Chickasaw have what they call “giveaways.” People take household appliances, clothes, linens, furniture, whatever they don’t need, and give it away to whomever needs it more.

Gifts were even exchanged between enemies as a symbol of good faith. The Europeans didn’t understand this. There is an example in the Roanoke Colony story. During the first exploratory mission the explorers noticed that a cup was missing after a meeting with the Indians, and they retaliated by attacking the village and burning the Indians’ food stores. We have no explanation from the natives’ point of view, but I imagine that they would have expected the Europeans to share what they had.

Another difference in Indian culture I learned from my mother. She told me about the honesty and honor among the Chickasaw. In fact they did not even have jails, or at least not until quite late in their history. When a crime was committed, a date was set for the punishment and the guilty party was told to appear at a certain time and place for his or her punishment, usually lashes, and the guilty one always came to submit to his punishment, even if it was execution. The Chickasaws’ whipping tree has been preserved at their museum in Tishomingo, Oklahoma.

My mother explained that for the Indian the worst punishment wasn’t execution, but banishment from the tribe. An individual’s identity, his or her very existence depended on membership in the tribe.

In tribal society, the very concept of identity was dependent on tribal membership. A warrior’s name was given based on a characteristic or achievement, for instance “Running-deer” or “Ten-killer.” Also tribal members’ names might change from time to time depending on their position or rank. In an article recently published in the Chickasaw history journal, there is a discussion about whether or not the chief Tishominko was in attendance. In the article they say that “Tishumustubbee” is listed, and that in future documents listing Tishominko, Tishumustubbee is not mentioned.
Minko means chief.

Chickasaw society was, is matrilineal, which makes sense in a culture where the men are away much of the time hunting or at war, at risk of losing their lives. Lineage made a difference, and clan (family) membership was important. There were certain clans from which leaders were taken. Clans were thought to have characteristics, such as bravery, wisdom, or hunting ability.

At the same time tribal identity appears to have trumped lineage, or even race! The Chickasaws experienced intermarriage from an early time, especially with Scotch traders and missionaries and these men were adopted by the tribe. For this reason the Chickasaws were better able to negotiate with the government in their treaties. The mixed blood members understood English, and also they understood the the white man’s way of thinking, for instance on the issue of land ownership.

Early in Chickasaw history the Natchez Indian Tribe was decimated by the Spanish and the remnants were adopted by the Chickasaws.

Slavery was commonly practiced by many Indian tribes including the Chickasaws. Captives from raids on other tribes or survivors of battles were often made slaves, or servants, but with time many became members of the tribe. This applied not just to Native Americans though. Black runaway slaves were adopted by the Seminoles in Florida.  In fact, there were some tribes that were predominantly black.   

In the west, the Plains tribes frequently raided white settlements, taking hostages for slaves or ransom, but often adopting them into the tribe, and it was not uncommon for these hostages to refuse to return to their families when they were discovered. In other words, the Indians determined tribal membership not by family membership, but by performance and loyalty.

Thinking about my last article about the Lumbee tribe, I think that the Indians would have accepted the Lumbee as just another tribe, in spite of their genetic heterogeneity.

The tribal culture, the Indians’ concepts of ownership, and tribal identity, served them well possibly for millennia, but they are totally foreign to our way of thinking. I make two conclusions from these observations. First, the tribal culture works. There’s plenty of room for compassion, loyalty, generosity. The members of the group each have a place, they produce what they need, and they have security and support from their community.

The second, and perhaps the more interesting conclusion to me is that, not only is the tribal system efficient, it requires a totally different way of thinking. Its members are not just convinced. They are conditioned to think in a way that supports their system, and their conditioning is so strong that they have difficulty surviving in a different culture.

It makes you wonder, how are we conditioned by our culture? Does this conditioning prevent us from understanding or judging other cultures? Can we see the flaws in our own culture? Would our conditioning prevent us from adapting to another culture?