Yesterday I spoke to my mother on the phone. She’s in Idaho; I’m currently living with my family in Ohio. We haven’t seen each other in over a year, but we talk on the phone maybe once every month or two. I asked her about my Grandmother, Grandma Gray. She was Mormon, and as is popular within that culture, she spent a good part of her last years working on genealogy research. Mormons believe that you can pray for, and possibly achieve redemption for, the dead. So they study genealogy furiously, in order to pray for the salvation of their ancestors. I was curious to know whether her research had turned up any confirmation of the anecdotal notion that there was Native American ancestry in our family.
My mother said that yes, she had done extensive genealogical research, but that it had only involved her (my grandmother’s) side of the family. She had done no research into her ex-husband’s side, the Pemberton side. This makes sense, because it’s not something they would want to dwell on. Apparently her husband, Earl Pemberton, was a drinker, a rancher, who mistreated her, and whom she apparently left when my mother was 5. Quite a step for a woman to take in 1948, with seven children. She moved from Riggins, off the family ranch and into the unknown, ending up in Emmett, Idaho to be near her cousins Herschel and Gloria, with whom she remained close for the rest of her life, and near whom she is now buried.
I was curious about the question of Native American heritage primarily because of story. I’ve been reading about Myth, Joseph Campbell’s work on the Power of Myth, and it’s answered a lot of questions about how to communicate complex ideas and difficult subjects to my son. Kids ask great questions, like: What happens when you die? Who is God? What’s inside the earth? How come we don’t just fly into space? And my wife and I have been working since he was born to come up with answers to these questions that neither skirt the issue, nor give him more information than he can really process at his age. I’ve come to the realization that for the Native Americans, their stories served exactly this purpose. Education for the real events of life, without demystifying the world we live in.
I’m thinking specifically of the Blackfoot legend of Minnehaha and the Buffalo Shaman, where she marries the buffalo shaman, and is taken from her family. Her father, upon coming to rescue her, is trampled and killed by the buffalo. Seeing her grief, the shaman tells her that her grief is no greater than theirs every time her people kill a buffalo; but if she can resurrect her father she can go free. She does. Dancing the Buffalo Dance, she brings him back to life. And the Shaman says to her, “Great! Now whenever you kill a buffalo, do this dance, and you’ll bring us back to life.” It’s a legend that acknowledges death, and the sorrow that comes with it, not just for us, but also for all creatures and all creation. And it’s one that infuses life with hope and mystery. The buffalo becomes a willing participant in the ritual, not avoiding death, but recognizing that he is part of the cycle, and simply asking man to honor him in the process.
These legends are beautiful, and I feel compelled to investigate them as ways to communicate these complex and beautiful ideas to my son.
My mother said in the end that no one in our family really knows the truth about our heritage. When they were kids they were told that there was Cherokee blood in their line back a few generations. As my mom puts it, “We’re probably no more than 1/32 or 1/64, if at all.” I’ve done a little research on my own, and can find no records at all. Ranchers in Riggins, Idaho in the early part of the last century didn’t have much use for census takers or birth and death certificates.
But I’m still interested, and I still feel driven to answer the question. My cousins are Mormon, and continue to pursue my grandmother’s work of completing the family genealogy. I want to know where I come from. I want to know why, when I lived in Hawaii and would get tanned deeply, my skin would turn deep dark red. I love that mystery in myself and I want to find more about it. What are my stories? Where do they come from? And can they help me understand myself better now? Can they help my son understand himself and his world better as he grows? Dr. Seuss is great, but he’s not likely to give my son a direct sense of relationship with the mystery of the universe and himself. He's not likely to gain knowledge of the sacredness of nature and all creation by reading There’s a Wocket In My Pocket.