The wind was blowing the day the list was made — but the wind was always blowing in those high grasslands. The cavalry tent flapped hard and the private hoped the pegs and ropes had been installed properly. A fly sheet in front gave some shade, but naturally that was claimed by the officers. The private, who had been assigned to his task because he had been a schoolteacher in his previous life, had carried a rickety little table out in front of the short row of seated and uniformed old men under whom he served. On the top of his too small table, he arranged a ledger, his ink pot, and a couple of stones for paperweights. He kept his quills in his hat band so they would not “take wing.”
Straggling out from his table was a long line of jostling Indians who understood themselves to be signing up for the issue of commodities. It was important. The people remained on the remnant of their own lands but were like refugees because they could not follow the nomadic round that provided their food. The buffalo that were the keystone of their life and their very metabolisms were gone. The officers were concerned that Indians that should be fed by Canada might be pushing into the American list, but there wasn’t much of a way to sort them out. The 49th parallel was an arbitrary boundary that cut across both natural and historical uses of the land. The whites could hardly tell one dusky face from another.
The first customer was a giant of a man in a tent of a shirt, but no “nethers” except a loincloth. His legs were like two trees and his face was a thundercloud that he thrust down into the pale countenance of the trapped soldier who squeaked, “Name please?”
A sound like thunder, unintelligible. “Again, please?” Same result. An interpreter had not been provided. The second person in line, a round woman with a bold attitude, said, “Beaver Who Prepares For Winter.”
“I’m not ready for you yet, Ma’am.”
“Not MY name — HIS name!” The clerk looked into the thundercloud for confirmation and it nodded. Then the man stepped over to the side of the table where he clearly intended to remain as some kind of adjunct. He stayed for the duration, but — thankfully — didn’t interfere. In fact, he gestured people to come forward, hurrying them up. The round bold woman was named “Her Children Are Strong.” Sighing, the clerk wrote “Strong Mother.”
The line wasn’t all that long since so many people had died in the preceding years, but somehow it kept growing. Also, dogs began to join the people. A few quarreled, making a lot of noise and commotion. No one moved to do anything about it. An officer came out of the tent and shouted, “Who owns these dogs? Get them out of here!” The People looked at each other. What could he mean? No one owns dogs. They are a tribe of their own.
Glancing up while he dipped his pen in the ink, he looked down the line and saw someone he recognized. It was Joe Oiseau. He knew the man was French Canadian — in fact, a trapper from Eastern Canada, not an Indian — but he liked the man. Joe had his arm around a very pretty girl, quite a bit younger, wrapped in a blanket and certainly full-blood. When they got to the table, Joe looked at the clerk and said nothing. The officers had gotten bored and withdrawn deeper into the tent where the clerk could hear them talking and laughing. No doubt someone had brought a flask.
The clerk wrote down “Joe Oiseau” and asked, “Your daughter?” Joe, tight-lipped, said, “Wife.” Then he grinned. The girl peeked over the edge of her blanket with huge dark grateful eyes. Her name was “The One Who Wakes in the Night.” The clerk wrote “Mrs. Oiseau.”
As the day went on, warming up as well as windy, people grew tired and dehydrated but there was nothing to drink. Finally Mrs. Strong Mother brought a bucket from the creek and the People scooped it up with their hands. Lunch meant that the officers ate in the tent and someone brought the clerk a chunk of bread and some cheese, but there was nothing for the Indians. It wasn’t meanness. No one had thought of it. They didn’t complain.
A man who had been standing in line with three women, stoically enduring, now became the focus of a quarrel more serious than the dogfights: his wives began to scream and hit each other. Someone had just told them that only one wife could be put on the list and each was determined to be that wife. The stoic man ignored them and removed himself to the end of the line. This did not stop the fighting and screaming until the big man the clerk thought of as “Thundercloud” went back and beat them hard with his hands. They did not leave, just turned their backs on “Thundercloud” and linked arms. But they became quiet. And kept their place.
And so it went.
Her bright blood sprang into the syringe when the phlebotomist took it for genetic testing. The label on the test tube said “Josie Oiseau.”
“You know, of course,” the woman said, “There is no blood test that will tell what tribe you belong to and anyway, blood quantum is a misnomer. The records are by descent, provenance, who your ancestors were or at least who they were thought to be at the time the first records of the tribe were made. In those days no one even knew there were blood types, much less anything like a genome.”
“Yeah. I’ve been reading up. There wasn’t even any such thing as a tribe until the whites came along and lumped people together according to language and customs. It’s an outsider concept. We were just whoever was there when they made the first list.”
The technician smiled. “You college kids are so smart! But then why do you want your blood tested?”
“I need to prove I’m my father’s daughter. There’s no documentation: no wedding license or baptismal record. My mother married other men along the way and the third husband is the stepfather who raised me. He’s Indian but not this tribe. My mother is a quarter. It was her genetic grandparents who were on the original roll as full-blood. I’ve taken their name and now I need to prove I’m their descendant. Otherwise I won’t be able to inherit my mother’s ranch or get any help from the government for grad school.”
The technician looked at the beautiful slim young woman with big eyes and black satin hair, and thought, “There’s something stylish about her. Almost French.” She asked, “So when is your father coming in for his blood draw.”
“He’s dead.” Silence. Then the girl offered a small wooden box with brass decorations, the kind one might buy at an Asian import store. The technician opened it. Inside were two thick glossy braids. “My grandmother saved these when they forced my father to cut them in order to play basketball. They were considered a hazard: whips.” More silence as the phlebotomist looked at the braids.
Finally the technician had thought it through. “Yes,” she said, accepting the box. “We will use as little hair as we can to get a good genome match.”