Domio (Joe) and Annie Watson started school in the dusty southwest Oklahoma town of Elgin, the oldest two children of their part white, part Muscogee (Creek) family. The Elgin area included families with jobs at the nearby Air Force base. A good many local children of varying Native American descent attended that school too, along with the children of white people.
At home, Domio and Annie’s parents spoke Muscogee as well as English. Domio and Annie spoke both languages, but their younger sisters Ginny and Lela spoke Muscogee almost exclusively. Papa was fluent, and Mama was not as fluent. She understood better than she spoke.
Domio did well at school, even getting moved up a grade early. However he, Annie, and the other Indian children discovered the unpleasant reality of White Men In Power early on in their lives. The teaching staff insisted that only English should be taught at school, so any Indian child caught speaking in his/her native tongue would be punished. Punishment varied anywhere from a scolding to a hand spanking to a board paddling to detention to writing lines, depending upon what the teacher decided was applicable.
Children in trouble are not known to tattle, since children in those days were usually punished when they got home if they got into trouble at school. Papa and Mama didn’t realize what was happening until near the end of Annie’s first year of school. She and her brother proved too honest to not explain why they were reluctant to attend, and why they felt sorry for their sister Ginny who was about to start school that fall.
Papa was furious, but he was also a realist. He was one man against a machine, the machine of government-approved mandate. It was easier for the school to have everyone speak English considering the many different languages at hand – Comanche, Apache, Seminole, Iroquoi, Algonquian, Athabaskan, Caddoan, Iroquoian, Kiowa-Tanoan, Shoshonean, Siouan, Tonkawan, Uchean, and Muscogean. It was simpler for the staff, yes. But it was stunting for the children of those tribes.
Papa sat the family down and issued hard-and-fast rules. There would be no more Muscogean spoken in the home. He would not give white people a reason to punish his babies over who they were. Bad behavior was different and his children already knew they were to behave correctly, but their genetic makeup was beyond their control.
Papa turned to Ginny and said something that stayed with her: “Ginny, from now on you must only speak English. You must learn to speak English better than the white people, BETTER. THAN. THE. WHITE. PEOPLE. You have to do everything better than the white people. You have to be able to beat them at their own game.”
At age five Ginny spoken fluent Muscogean and only a smattering of English words. She had the summer to catch up to learning English so she would not get in trouble in school. A bright child like her older brother and sister, Ginny was able to adapt but it was stressful to have to learn an entirely different language and re-learn the alphabet.
Little sister Lela was young enough to easily switch to English and their even younger sister Buddy was never taught anything else. They were too young to have straddled the chasm between Acceptance and Disadvantage. Papa would not allow anyone to speak anything but English in front of his children at home, which cut down sharply on non-bilingual visitors after a while. Lela was naturally obedient and never offered any trouble. She got along well with everyone.
Buddy’s little friends at school were all white children. It was not just because Buddy only spoke English, but she looked whiter than her siblings and therefore naturally shunned by the full-blood natives in the area. Buddy did not care. She regularly gave her teachers hell simply by being a rambunctious rebel who talked back, colored outside the lines of life and found methods of disobedience even as she stood in the corner of her first grade class. Being an Indian had less to do with it than simply Being Buddy, but the fact that she passed as white probably played its part.
The youngest Watson child, nicknamed Bird, was eight years younger than Ginny and had no inkling this sort of drama had ever played out in the family. The family moved halfway across the state before Bird was three. Although the children no longer attended a school with such stern language rules, by then the family was all-English speaking and Papa had no intention of turning back. They lived only a pasture and a creek away from their paternal grandmother, who spoke fluent Muscogean and passable English. Grandmother respected Papa’s desire for the children to excel by majority means. From her they picked up a smattering of words in Muscogean but despite the presence of other Indians the children never learned their native tongue. They were not full-blood; they were “light-bloods” and therefore not included in tribal activities as an automatic matter of course.
They weren’t accepted by the white people either. When Bird was six and in the second grade they moved to the countryside, eight miles away. The school was so small there were only four teachers, one teacher for every two grades which shared the same classroom. Second grade was completed with little trouble, but the third and fourth grades were taught by a teacher with a twisted value system. A white boy classmate called Bird “Half-Breed” and other slurs without correction from the teacher. Most of the children in the school hated that teacher but did not dare complain. The Watsons were poor and lived on property the principal owned, so the teacher was not concerned about retribution from the family or their tribe.
Bird suffered from gas since beans comprised the main protein at home. It was embarrassing, whether it was silent or created a sound, but it was nothing Bird could prevent. The teacher allowed her classmates to ridicule her for it and then later shamed her in front of the class for asking to use the restroom. The racial slurs continued, for the full-blood Indian children did not speak up in defense of a lightblood. She also pointedly excluded Bird from simple classroom pleasures like clapping erasers on the stone wall, a favored activity given to her classmates. Teacher seemed to take delight in making Bird stand at the Blackboard of Shame to redo mistakes made on homework or during class. Small slights added up.
It was not an occasional situation. It was every single day.
Bird did not know she could have protested this egregious circumstance because it had been drilled in her since birth to be obedient. Where rebellion had been Buddy’s stock in trade, Bird was led to believe she had to have a spotless record. The older Watson children made mistakes but as the sixth and last child Bird was expected to cause no trouble, to learn from their mistakes and not repeat those mistakes. Some of the Indian families in the area valued good grades, but most simply wanted to make a passing grade and did not understand Papa’s determination to eventually send his children to college. A’s and A+’s were the marks of choice and none of the Watson children were allowed to make below a B in any subject in school. Bird struggled hard to make those grades in order to not shame the family. No one outside the family would have cared, but the family members cared.
“You have to be better than the white people at everything.”
When some of the boys in the fourth grade class cornered her behind a movable chalkboard and made gross sexual remarks and suggestions, Bird knew she had nowhere to turn. She was not allowed to fight in school and the boys were twice her size anyway. She did not trust confiding in the girl schoolmates, who might tell the teacher in the mistaken belief they were helping Bird. And God only knew what sort of reaction the teacher might have – for all Bird knew, the teacher might look the other way and let the boys the carry out their notions. She might even encourage it; that was the sum of Bird’s scholastic experience so far.
Bird developed the remarkable ability of creating a psychosomatic feverish sweat in order to avoid attending school. It was a mild fever of usually 100 degrees but enough to give weight to her claims of malady and the very real tightness in her stomach. Mama worried enough to keep her at home from time to time. Bird realized she had to work on remembering to look ill all day, not an easy feat for a child relieved to not have to attend a place of torment. The summer between third and fourth grade Bird frantically enjoyed her vacation days, but the well child of summer once again became ill in the fall. After a few more times of ‘illness’ and slipups of good health, Mama made her go to the bus stop, now with Annie to make sure she boarded.
Bird eventually resorted to simply avoiding getting on the bus at all. Sometimes she bolted in the middle of the field between the house and the road; sometimes she dashed away from the bottom step of the bus at the last minute, squeezing between the barbed wire and racing for home. By winter Papa was home all the time with hardening arteries and saw for himself how Bird was acting up. They knew she hated school and did not like the teacher, but she offered no elaboration. Day after day Bird slipped from Annie’s grasp at the bus stop only to run into Papa and the fly-back paddle he used for correction. Despite knowing she would be spanked for her transgressions she persisted in the attempt to avoid school. Papa and Mama could not understand it; Bird’s grades were good, mostly A’s and perhaps a B or two, so it was not the dread or inability to do classwork. They finally took her into town to the county-provided social worker.
Bird was tested and interviewed and analyzed. Happy with not having to be at school and given the chance to show she could be a person despite her last place in line, Bird breezed through the tests and finally opened up about her situation. When the social worker met with Papa and Mama, they were told Bird was above average in intelligence and imagination and there was no reason to worry about her academic ability. Rather, her teacher was a source of the problem and the worker explained why.
Thunderstruck, Papa wanted to know why Bird had not told them any of this awful business. The social worker explained the psychology of abuse, and the confusion of a child feeling punished even when following rules. Papa drove Mama and Bird back to school, asking more questions as he drove and getting answers that further enraged him. Once there, he dragged the teacher out of class and into the principal’s office where he railed at the staff, exposing the facts and berating them for fostering this atmosphere of fear. He frightened the teacher with angry, vicious words that burned with blunt honesty. He alarmed the principal, a kind man who realized no one in Papa’s position would risk eviction without just cause. A call to the county social work office confirmed this, and the principal assured Papa and Mama that matters would be rectified. Papa left the school with one last word to the shaken teacher: Don’t ever try to do this shit to my child again, or I will find you.
In the coming days the family asked around and discovered a pattern: every year the teacher chose one girl per class to torment, usually a Native American girl or from an impoverished family; sometimes both at once. A neighbor told Mama her daughter (two years older than Bird) had been the mark during her years with the teacher. Another suspected her child in the third grade was also being targeted.
The teacher was extra careful after Papa’s visit to treat Bird with kid gloves. She sharply corrected the white boy who liked to instigate most of the trouble and never allowed anyone to pick on Bird again, especially herself. It is likely she was afraid of losing her job, with the principal and staff scrutinizing her every move now. Perhaps she finally realized the harm she caused. Perhaps the degree of Papa’s rage and venom made her afraid for her life. Whichever the case, the abuse stopped. Even after Papa unexpectedly died only weeks later, the teacher continued her change of attitude. She even attended the funeral and murmured her condolences to Bird as the child followed the family up the aisle after the service. “I’m sorry for the loss of your father.”
But nine-year-old Bird was not obedient this time; shame was not applicable. Stunned and racked by the loss of her champion, Bird did not accept the sympathy from her former tormentor. She looked her teacher in the eye and bitterly replied, “I just bet you are” and continued her charge out the church door. Later she realized her snap might cause a return to the abuse now that Papa was gone, but it did not happen. Whether it was because the teacher was officially chastised or whether she was terrified that the nerve-prickling sound of the Muscogee language in that church might summon Papa from the Great Beyond, is unknown. What is known that the teacher never allowed Bird to be harassed in her class again. Mama moved the family to another town that summer and Bird never saw that teacher again.
I was Bird. I never felt fully accepted in the white world nor accepted by the Muscogee world during my childhood. My family felt the pressure of shame for knowing a language other than English and in order to try to make a good future possible for his family, Papa made us play the white man’s game. We learned English better than the white people but sometimes even that isn’t enough.
Now replace “Native American” or “Muscogee” or “Creek” with “Muslim” or “Hispanic” and you’ll understand the current problem in the United States. Put any hyphenated-American title in those spots and it’s the same thing, personal anecdotes aside. Bigotry has no place in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Lumping people together under the same heading is not what the Constitution guarantees. As a child I knew there were good white people and bad white people; good Indians and bad Indians. Even “good” and “bad” possess a wide range of values.
We are individuals in a nation born through diversity. Half my ancestors came here as immigrants the my other half met them at the shore. My credentials as an American are solid.
So are the credentials of my fellow Americans. Take away the hyphens, for WE ARE ALL AMERICANS.
Our native tongue is liberty.