The Home of the Brave

I was watching a show on Netflix called, The West last night with my husband. I was so full of emotions because I am North American Indian, Potawatomi and Chippewa Cree from Turtle Mountain. I have such a connection to the land and my people without ever having direct relatives teaching me the ways. I was fortunate to have a family friend that I called after my mother died that was a legendary American Indian Elder. His name was Tone-Key, pronounced "Tonkey Eye." His daughter and my mom were best friends, and as fate would have it, they died within a year of year other. When I called him, after finding his number in my mom's phone book, I just wanted to send my condolences, and I desperately needed more connection to my mom, my people, and myself. I was pregnant with my fourth child, and I woke up in the middle of the night with this profound feeling of loss. It wasn't just the loss of my mother, albeit, there is none more significant. I felt a loss of a part of myself. I felt a deep sorrow of a loss of a way of life, or as Indians call it, "The good red road." I went to Indian class, growing up in Oklahoma and I made some God's Eyes, but there was nothing substantial for me to hang on to, or to share. My stepdad was a full-blooded Choctaw Indian, and the part I knew about Indians came from him, and it wasn't the pleasant side that pushed me to know more. When he died, I made my peace with him, but I also made some blocks in my life for Indian people. That was until I made the call to Tone-Kei.
You see he was a vivacious, charismatic being, that brought joy and happiness everywhere he went. He MC'd most of the local pow-wows and some of the largest gatherings all over the world. He was revered and respected. He had his a local television show and a weekly article in The Oklahoma Journal. He was in a presidential inaugural parade, and it seemed like he knew everybody, from Robert Redford, Willie Nelson, to the President himself. When I called Tone-Kei, I wanted to know more about Indians, really about myself. I knew he knew, probably better than anyone else. He went to local schools and told folk tales, and wrote many as well. And his life, well it was more glamorously tragic than any other I had ever heard.
It was lovely speaking to him, but I felt like I wanted to hang on to him forever. I wanted him to teach me.
I threw it out there to Tone-Kei, and I asked him, for some strange reason, if I could write his life story. I think it went more like this, "Has anybody ever offered to write your life story," I asked, wanting to know more about him myself. He replied, "Sure, plenty of people have talked about it, but nobody ever has." There it was - it rolled off of my tongue, "Can I write it for you?" He didn't say no, but it felt like a contrite pat on the head when he responded, "Send me a letter, and I'll look at it." I quickly wrote a letter to implore him to let me write his life story, and share the ancient North American Indian folktales he had preserved in his heart. I swore I was ready to write his memoirs, and I would make him proud. Well, we wrote it. He shared his life over bologna sandwiches and coffee, and I recorded every bit of it. I can sincerely say it was one of the best days of my life. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Watching The West sent me reeling because, I thought back to that special day when I got in my minivan, pregnant with my 5th child, with a photographer in tow to go interview Tone-Kei. He was a fantastic mentor and friend. We had an automatic trust. He took the mask down and told me about his life, and about the people he loved. He trusted me with his life and his precious stories. On the PBS show, The West some of the ugly truths were revealed that many people from all over the world came to discover this land and put their claim on it. However, as Tone-Kei touted, "How can anyone claim an already inhabited land that was full of indigenous people?" I hurt over the way people took from Indians for their gain. I am sad how many died, with very little of their customs left. Even their faith was obliterated, but never their bravery. As I sit here on the 4th of July, Independence Day, it is bittersweet because I love my freedom and this land, but I want to make it right for Indian people. The only way I know how to do that is to keep in concert with this land organically. I recycle, honor, and love this land and teach my children to do the same. I am kind to its creatures, and all of its people. But most of all, I continue to seek the answers and "The Way" of its indigenous people. I will not let that way die in my lifetime. I will keep the beautiful, sacred parts in my heart and live it, and I will share the elements that made this land the welcoming, vast, indispensable, and unbreakable home of the brave. There is enough room for all of our dreams here in America. As Tone-Kei told me, "Keep your dreams alive; it's what keeps us all going."
The book, Tone-Kei A Storehouse of Memories, Historic Speeches, Indian Folk Tales & Empowerment from a Celebrated Kiowa Elder is available on Amazon


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