Wednesday, December 11, 2013

An American Idyll, Chastened by the Chief

After surviving the gauntlet of the greater Miami megalopolis one might be lulled into the fantasy of an off-season escape to the quiet shores near Jupiter, Florida.  Don’t give it a thought.  Apparently no one ever goes there.  There were three fleabag motels between Jupiter and Port Saint Lucy that did not overtly advertise rooms by the hour, but we knew them when we saw them—not that we had experience in such places.  We finally found a place to stay after blowing through the turnpike tollbooth without a ‘Sunshine Pass’—expecting a ticket to be delinquent when we get home—in the middle of a construction site near Vero Beach with no hope of dining within a five-mile radius.  We settled for a TGI Friday’s with an annoyingly gay waiter who could not take an order without trying to enhance it.

As anxious as I was to leave the Sunshine State, I had always wanted to see the Spanish fort at St. Augustine and was cajoled by Sandy’s logic that I probably wouldn’t live long enough to have another chance, so we went.  Castillo de San Marcos is a wonderfully preserved stone fort, classically built, in a perfectly defensive position on the Matanzas bay.  Many of you would say it’s just another pile of rocks, but it’s the kind of rock pile that appeals to me.

Charleston was our goal but GPS, Scott’s poor route choices, and weather became serious obstacles.  We found ourselves deep in ‘Bubba-land’ during a downpour with headlights blinding my geriatric eyes for the last forty miles into Charleston.  A night at the Meeting Street Inn and dinner at Magnolia’s soothed our jagged nerves and put us back on the road the following sunny morning without partaking of Charleston’s charms.  It was a stellar day that lured us back to Georgetown to make that library call we had missed the previous Saturday.  It killed about three hours but we left with the marriage certificate of an obscure, long dead cousin, and that’s what genealogy is all about.

However, it made us late for our date with my niece, Wendy, near Williamsburg and we had to postpone it until Saturday so as not to miss our meeting with the Chief.  The Chief, you say?  I’ll get back to that, but passing through Georgetown reminded me of an anecdote that I should have related in the Thanksgiving episode.  Cousin Robin’s oldest daughter, Jean Marie, lovely, feminine blue-eyed blond, with an urge for blood, has been determined to kill her first deer for five years.  She is a fashion plate in the deer blind in her form fitted camo coverall with chic boots, cap and earmuffs, but do not doubt her deadly earnest.  Jean Marie’s Uncle Rockie delivered her and her fiancĂ©e, Richard, to separate blinds each dawn and dusk during our sojourn at Suttons—separate because Richard, the fool, considered his future bride not disciplined enough to shoot deer.  As it came to pass, on Friday evening we older folk were clustered around the fireplace when Jean Marie burst through the door floating on an ecstatic cloud of bloodlust.  She recounted sighting, firing and watching her quarry drop, motionless, with one shot, then she had to sit in blind without phone service, gnawing her manicured fingernails until Uncle Rockie returned to retrieve her, Richard and the prey.  There was much recounting of the details of the kill and infinite arguing over whether to photograph or field dress the hapless doe.  Doe?  You cry indignantly!  Yes, there are so many deer in that part of the state that restrictions on does have been suspended.  The punch line of the tale came when long suffering Richard finished the obligatory evisceration of the cadaver and Jean Marie held court around the hearth.  She said with determination, “I’m gonna get over this twinkle toes excitement and get back there to get me a ten or twelve point buck!”  Love those Southern Belles!

Fast forward to the recent past.  Friday night we sat poised for our rendezvous with the Chief Red Hawk of the Cheroenhaka Indians.  “What the hell?” you say.  So, you haven’t read the book!  Family Traits, my debut literary offering, is the story of how the Skipper clan arrived in the New World and their negative impact upon it.  A certain George Skipper somehow ingratiated himself with the Cheroenhaka Indians, aka, Nottoway Indians, and became a ‘Chief man’ of the tribe.

Some weeks ago I mailed a copy of Family Traits to the attention of Chief Red Hawk for his review with the hope that he would add a link to it on his website and/or put some copies in their tribal bookstore.  Shortly thereafter I got an email: “This is Chief Red Hawk, call me.”  Well, when the Chief calls, you reply.  He said that he liked the book very much, but where was the acknowledgement of the Cheroenhaka website?  He had me there.  I had failed to acknowledge anyone, or include a bibliography.  This long after the writing of it I really didn’t remember what came from where, but I did know that the Official Cheroenhaka website was either the source or the pointer to many of the facts I recounted in my story.  I could only dissemble.  Guilt aside, I very much wanted to meet this man.  He invited me to visit the Cheroenhaka reservation if I were ever in the area, and as luck would have it, I was going to be there this December.

We met in a waffle house for breakfast.  We knew the Chief as he crossed the parking lot by his ponytail and jacket with ‘Chief Red Hawk’ inscribed on the shoulders.  Here began a fascinating few hours.  Chief Red Hawk, aka, Walt Brown, is retired as a colonel from a long career in the Army, he has green eyes, a photographic memory and passion for breakfast.  While I nursed my eggs, grits and country ham, the Chief embraced tea, French toast, poached eggs—over done to his annoyance—sausage, grits, hash browns, toast and a big glass of milk.  He is a repository of history who talks fast and intersperses his narration with Cheroenhaka words, being one of five speakers of the language alive today.  My note taking skills could not keep pace.

When breakfast was done, we retired to the reservation.  Originally the Cheroenhaka received grants from the Colonial Government of the Colony of Virginia in the form of a circular and a square reservation comprising about forty-one thousand acres.  My ancestor, George Skipper and several other Chief men of the “Nottoway”, i.e., Cheroenhaka, were instrumental in selling all those acres to generally unscrupulously speculating, insider trading Indian trustees and their relatives.  Walt and his tribal council are determined to buy back at least a portion of those lands and to win federal recognition of the tribe.  They have already won state recognition and are not likely to fail in attaining federal acceptance given the Chief’s tenacity.

Our private tour of the recreation of Cattashowrock Town in the crux of the Nottoway and Blackwater Rivers where “The People of the Fork of the Rivers,” i.e. Cheroenhaka, thrived for millennia happened on a cold morning with occasional drizzle.  We got to see the recreation of the palisade that I outlandishly attributed in Family Traits to the ingenuity of George Skipper and the long house where I further claimed that George cavorted with Indian maidens.  The Chief took my presumptions with good humor.

The Chief and the tribe have acquired to date one-hundred acres of the former Square Tract where they intend to build a museum and cultural learning center.  As of this writing they have the partially complete palisade, longhouse, two single family houses, a sweat lodge—that would have felt good that morning had it been operating, a ceremonial center and several other examples of Cheroenhaka artifice.  In addition to the construction goals, the Chief and his followers are seeking the repatriation of more than a hundred skeletal remains excavated at the Hand Site and removed to the Smithsonian Institute where they now languish in shoeboxes.

Sadly, I am not eligible for membership in the tribe due a gap in my paper trail between Shadrach Skipper, born c. 1790, and George Skipper, Jr., who died about the same time Shadrach was seeing the light.  I will not relent in my quest for that document, nor will my wife, Hurricane Sandy, let me.  She is convinced the Cheroenhaka will someday have a casino and she wants to get a piece of the cash flow when the slot machines start spinning.

I want to thank Chief Walt, Red Hawk, Brown for his time and his forbearance, and I will rectify the oversight of not including an acknowledgement of the Cheroenhaka website as a source of the historical facts portrayed in Family Traits.  In my defense, I did not acknowledge any of my dozen or so sources and do not now remember what I took from the Chief’s work and what came from primary sources that I discovered independently, however, upon revisiting the Official Cheroenhaka Website, I realize that I didn’t need to look elsewhere.  I would have saved a great deal of time if I had studied it in depth and simply asked for permission to cite it.  It contains the fascinating history of the tribe in rich detail and I invite you to take a look at it at:

Digressing a little, on the way to meet the Chief for breakfast, we passed within a mile of Skipper’s, Virginia, and could not resist stopping at the Good Earth Peanut Store.  The proprietor there is in Skipper denial.  He maintains the source of the town’s name is obscure and that there are no Skipper thereabouts.  However, he has a framed newspaper clipping from the seventies that suggests the name came from George Skipper’s 1685 patent of a piece of land in the area and that he may have also operated a trading post there.  I believe all that is probably true but the strongest evidence of Skipper influence is that the gentleman running the store is the spitting image of my grandfather.


Next time: Who the Hell Loves New York?

No comments:

Post a Comment