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A Personal Story

A Personal Story

By Gerry Robinson

NSNT Columnist

 

 

I’d like to share some of my own writing this week. We learn early, growing up on the reservation, that it is important to remember and honor those who came before us. It made sense therefore that, in one of my earliest pieces, I felt a need to write about a man who many of my generation on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation remember with great fondness.

Aaron Whiteman was a well-respected Northern Cheyenne ceremonial man who was raised learning the traditional ways of his people. He lived a simple life, but he managed to touch the lives of nearly every single member of the tribe, even if, for some, it was just from the regular and very familiar sight of him walking along the reservation highways.

That’s where I first met him. I’d like to share that story with you.

 

Short Cut

 

“Scoot over,” Dad said, as he pulled his brand new, 1970 GMC half-ton quickly over to the side of the road.  He intended to pick up the small dark-skinned man, carrying a gun, walking along the shoulder behind us.

A bit startled, I slid over to the middle of the seat, glancing back and forth between my father’s face and the man approaching us in the mirror.  He really didn’t appear to be hitchhiking, more just walking down the road carrying a .30-30 Winchester.  No doubt hunting twelve-year-old boys and their friendly but naïve fathers.

“He has a gun!” I said, half cautioning, half pleading for some recognition of the danger involved in this reckless act.

“It’s just Aaron,” Dad said, as if giving the wiry little guy packing the hunting rifle a name should be reason enough for me to calm down.

The passenger door opened to a less sinister grin than I had expected to see, and instead of hearing one or two blasts from the gun (one if he shot me first, two if he went for Dad first), I heard the words “Ha-ho, ha-ho, Hunnum.”  From what little of our Cheyenne language that I understood, I knew this to mean “Thank you, thank you, Bee.”

My father was what some would call a non-traditional a half-breed and Bee doubled as both his nickname and his Indian name.  This made me a self-absorbed and moody son of a Bee in either culture.

Aaron slid into the cab of the truck beside me.  He smelled of sweat and sage.

“Where you coming from?” Dad asked the man as he settled in for the ride, securing his small pack under his legs while pointing his rifle muzzle down into the floorboard, propping its butt against his inner thigh.

Dad’s question seemed backward to me.  You were supposed to ask hitchhikers where they were going when you picked them up, as they usually just came from the same direction that you did.

“I come across from Birney,” Aaron began in a thick Cheyenne accent, indicating with his hands that he meant through the hills, on foot.  “Been out three, four days.”

My brothers and I had slept out in the yard a few times on warm summer nights, “roughing it” as Mom used to say when we came in for breakfast the next morning.  I had no concept of what “been out three, four days” entailed.

“See anything?” Dad asked.

“Naa,” Aaron scoffed.  Again, his hands were telling his story, even expressing his disgust, as fluently as his words.  “There’s no deer out there no more, not even up in the timber.”

“They’re all hunted out,” Dad replied, his own hands starting to translate his words into a language I’d never seen him use before that day.

For the next ten miles I sat between the two men, listening and watching, as the conversation evolved to the point where more gestures than words were being used.  Each man watched the other the way my brother Carl watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, chuckling and nodding as the other would wave his arms or flutter his hands faster than I could decipher.  I was also busy watching the road though, as it appeared to me that Dad had become a bit lax with his responsibility there.

Somehow, we managed to stay on the road and, as the miles slipped by, I realized that I was sitting next to one of the last old-time Cheyennes on our reservation.  He had taken this three-or-four-day journey through the hills as casually as I would walk into the kitchen looking for a snack.  He was at home there, always had been.  My concern for Dad’s driving ended as I now focused all of my attention on Aaron.

Being twelve, I was at that age when it had become impolite for me to stare.  This was one of the last times that I allowed myself the leeway to break that taboo, trying my best to be discreet about it.

I pretended to watch Aaron’s hands to see what he was saying, but was really looking past them at him.  For just a moment, the past and the present came together in front of me.  His sweat-stained, yellow Caterpillar baseball cap became his headdress, his scuffed, secondhand work boots, and his moccasins.  His buckskins were a plaid flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up past the elbows, tucked into a pair of sky-blue Levi leggings with white string clouds about the knees.  His bow was the well-kept lever action rifle with a turkey feather tied to its barrel.

Beyond what he wore, his facial features were angular, his body lean and compact, his skin, the color and texture of wet ponderosa pine bark.  A knowing seemed to find me; he belonged to this land, and it to him.

“Right here.”  Aaron’s voice brought me back into the cab of the truck.  Dad started to pull over to the side of the road again, still a good five or six miles from the next town.

As the two men signed their good-byes to one another I looked around trying to see why Aaron had asked to be let off there.  Having come out of the hills, there was nothing now but miles of sagebrush surrounding this flat stretch of highway.  I turned to watch him as he shrugged into his small pack and slung the rifle over his shoulder just outside the truck door.  Seeing the bewildered look on my face, Aaron spoke directly to me for the first time during the trip.

“I know a shortcut,” he said smiling, his right hand, palm open facing him, cut across his flat, open left palm, while he moved both arms forward.

I watched the old man as Dad pulled away, leaving him there adjusting his pack before heading across the road into what appeared to me to be miles of dry, lifeless desert.  As he faded into the prairie, I turned back around in my seat and began repeating the word to myself with my own hands; shortcut, shortcut.

 

This piece was first published in 2011, in a journal called Yellow Medicine Review. I share it here with love and respect for Aaron and his descendants, including my dear friend, Clara.

 

 

(Gerry Robinson can be contacted at thestoryfires@gmail.com)

 

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