Friday, March 24, 2006

Putting the Indian in Indiana

I was in Second Grade in 1970-1971. It was my third school in three years. We lived in St Louis when I went to Kindergarten, and moved to Ft Wayne in the summer of ’69 (cue Bryan Adams) where we rented a house for a year while I went to first grade. We moved to a different rental house in ’70, which my parents eventually purchased and where we lived until 1977.

I was a very bright kid back in those days, before gifted programs. School was not terribly exciting for me. I knew how to read already, and I could to the basic math (I was not a math savant like my son). I remember telling my first grade teacher (Mrs. MacIntosh, bless her heart) that I just didn’t want to go to school anymore. I remember that during quiet time, I would go to the bookshelf to find the “L”encyclopedia that had the neatest entries about Robert E Lee and Abraham Lincoln. I loved the Civil war as a 7-year old. Man was going to the moon, and that’s what I was going to do on the way to being President of the United States. I loved reading about Presidents.

In second grade my teacher was Mrs. (Ruth) Cochran. I recall that she was 64 and very grandmotherly. As most teachers do, she would read from a book out loud to us almost daily. One of the first books she read was “Little Turtle, Miami Chief.” It didn’t say “Miami Chief” on the cover, so my first impression of the book, before she even opened it, was this was going to be a lame book about some turtle that talks and has adventures with life lessons along the way.

She started reading. The Miami Indians lived throughout the Midwest, including Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. One of their principle villages, Kekionga, was near the present site of Fort Wayne. Chief Little Turtle was one of their greatest and wisest War Chiefs. He was great because he killed a lot of his enemies so the Miamis could keep their land. He was wise because he knew that eventually the Indians would be defeated and when he saw that defeat was coming, he tried to convince the other chiefs to negotiate. He was ignored, and shortly later proved right.

He was cool because he adopted a 12-year old white boy, William Wells, who he loved very much but later allowed to re-join the Whites.

After defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Little Turtle helped to negotiate a treaty between the United States and the Indian nations. It was considered a good deal for the Indians. And we all know what happened to any treaty the favored the Indians.

This book entranced me. I imagined that the Indians must have lived in my very neighborhood. I would convince my pals to explore the woods that were near our homes, looking for artifacts and maybe even an old Indian who didn’t know that civilization had come to his land.

Thankfully, our school library had lots of local history books. I learned about Frances Slocum (who my First Grade school was named after), who was abducted by the Indians as a youth and as an old woman declined to return to her family after they found her. I learned that William Wells, the beloved adopted son of Little Turtle, was killed at the Fort Dearborn Massacre just weeks after Little Turtle passed away. Wells was killed by Indians while trying to escort white settlers out of the fort, and had fought so ferociously that when finally vanquished, the Indians who slew him cut out his heart and gave slices of it to warriors to eat, hoping that his courage, bravery, and skill as a warrior would be transferred to them. I learned this at age 8.

I would find out about many Indian battles. I never thought about who was right and who was wrong. I understood that the Miamis had to kill settlers and soldiers to keep their land. And I understood the Americans sometimes and to kill Indians to get the land they thought they deserved.

Mrs. Cochran was my favorite teacher. No one (until Steven Smith at A&M) turned on the lights for me like she did. This was back in the days when a teacher could take students out for supper, one or two at a time, and get to know them. Mrs. Cochran took me twice, once on a weeknight with another student, and once on a Saturday, just me. She took me to lots of the battle sites around Fort Wayne. She showed me the place where the Maumee River emerges from the St Joe and the St Mary’s, where Little Turtle won a battle in which the bodies of the dead created a bridge across the river. She took me to Little Turtle’s grave. It was right between a couple of houses in an older part of Ft Wayne. This was before “Historic Fort Wayne” was rebuilt in the late 1970’s. This was before Little Turtle’s gravesite was cleaned up and turned into a park area.

To this day I can’t pass an historical marker on the side of the road and not think of her.

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to find a copy of “Little Turtle, Miami Chief” online. It is long out of print. But thanks to the power of the Internet, I found a copy on Amazon and ordered it. It arrived last week, and now I’m reading it to my son. When I told him that I wanted to read a book about Little Turtle, he expressed the same skepticism that I did 36 years ago. What could be interesting about a little turtle? For the last week, he has found out.

Thanks, Ruth. Thanks for turning the lights on for me. The Social Security Death Index tells me you passed away about 10 years ago, but your memory and love of books lives on.

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