Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I came from Dallas, where I knew maybe one or two people with Native American ancestry, for whom as far as I could tell their heritage existed in history books. Of course, I probably do have childhood friends whose homes kept alive a vibrant Native American heritage, but I never knew of it. In my world, the Indians were pretty much defeated and forgotten. I knew of the existence of reservations (I wasn't entirely uneducated) but in any real and practical sense just had no idea that Indians were still out there.

When I moved to Oklahoma, my first big surprise (after the city-shock) was discovering that THERE ARE PEOPLE HERE WHO LOOK INDIAN! Like, woah, that dude could totally be the famous photograph of Geronimo. In a totally not-racist way, I had had no clue that Native American facial features didn't die off with Indian sovereignty (which I later learned also still exists). Again, in a totally not-racist way, I had never seen anyone with Native American features who wasn't predominantly and obviously hispanic. I was from Texas. I just had no idea. (I've since then found out that most of my Texan friends also have no idea, and when I tell them I live in a hub of Native American culture, they kind of say, "what's that?" So don't judge me.)

A few months after I moved to Tahlequah, I saw some news that there was to be a pow wow, and I thought I'd like to go see it. I sat in the stands and drank my root beer and looked at the dancing as one would look at a Civil War re-enactment. "Hey, those costumes are really cool! Hey, this music makes absolutely no sense to my European-trained ear, but it kind of sounds like Last of the Mohicans! Look, big headdresses!"

It wasn't until I met my husband that I began to realize that this heritage doesn't just represent the vestiges of a long-conquered culture, but that it is real, alive and vibrant. His father and brothers participate in Osage ceremonial dancing. When I first heard a conversation among brothers about acquiring an eagle wing (or feathers, or tail; forgive my ignorance, but I don't remember exactly what it was) I kind of thought the whole thing was silly, but as I've been exposed to this heritage more and more I have begun to realize just how deep and important this heritage is.

This area was the end of the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee were removed from the land of their heritage in Georgia and the surrounding area and forced to move to Indian Territory in a brutal trek. When they arrived, they had to rebuild their lives in this new area of rockier soil and harsher climate. For many, the memory is still very painful and present. They brought their Eastern stories and culture, founded a seminary in Tahlequah (now Northeastern State University), and have been active in enriching the culture ever since.

Part of my husband's heritage is Cherokee, and part is Osage. The Osage have been on this land for time beyond history. They were some of the first to convert to Christianity, but are quite proud to have never been one of the five civilized tribes. They did not make peace with the white man, so my husband tells me, but maintained their bad-assery and fierce tribal pride. The Osage is the tribe for which my father and brothers in law dance, and in which my family received our names this past weekend.

The Friend family belongs to the Tzi-Zho Wah-Shtah-Keh clan, which means the incredibly soft plumage underneath the tail of an eagle, but which is often simplified in English to the Eagle clan. The Tzi-Zho Wah-Shtah-Keh are the mediators of disputes, and the clan which provides the chiefs.

The names we received reflected aspects of our personalities as well as characteristics for us to strive for. Ryan's name, Ah-Who Shin, means "the one who carries the sacred eagle wing." The wing of the eagle from elbow to tip is something that can only be carried by one who has achieved maturity and wisdom, and who has seen so much in his life that he has come to humility and an understanding of how little he really has seen in the whole world. My husband is young, but he often does approach a decision with a wisdom beyond his years. His being named for this quality is both a reflection of a characteristic that he possesses and a blessing that he may come to possess it more.

My name is Eh-Nah Doin Pi, which means "the one who looks to the maiden," or the one who can go through the clan giving each person what he or she needs, crying with the one who is mourning and laughing with the one who is celebrating. I definitely think that my name must be much more of a blessing than a description because I don't feel I have this gift at all, but if it's a blessing it's one I'll accept gladly, because I would love to be that person.

Heidi is the first daughter, and all first daughters receive the same name: Khu-Eh Doin, which means "looking at the eagle." It means, more or less, the maiden who receives wisdom and guidance from the sacred eagle and brings it to the people to guide them. First daughters are supposed to be in charge and strong-willed, know what they want and what needs to happen, and to take charge of matters with no uncertainty to get things done. I kind of wish that the first daughters of this clan tended to be a bit more easy-going and easily led, but ah well. Hopefully the understanding nature represented by my name will prevent battles of willfullness represented by her name.

My sister in law and I are not Osage, but we received names because if our husbands pray for us in Osage they will want to be able to say our name, and therefore the Osage give names to women who marry into the tribe. I began my journey not even being aware of this rich and beautiful heritage, and I feel so honored to be welcomed into it now. Thank you, Rauk, for making this possible, and thank you to my Osage family for putting up with an ignorant little white girl as I learned. Not that you had much of a choice. I wasn't going anywhere anyway.

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