THE OLD BLACKFEET GENTLEMAN

He wore vests and high-top lace-up shoes as a way of claiming his grandfather who had raised him. He looked quite like the old man, though even an eighty-year-old 20th century tribal man was never out in the sun and wind enough to have the dark pleated face of a 19th century tribal man. As a boy he had braids as thick as wrists, but nowadays his hair was so thin that he was a “tiny braids” though he didn’t bother to wrap them to make them seem thicker as the younger and more vain men did. Neither did he wear earrings or a choker, since they seemed to him an interference, a distraction. Now his retirement life was mostly thinking and he wanted to keep focus the way he had starting out, the way he did in grad school for his history Ph.D after the Korean conflict. Today’s kids in the tribal college were working for certificates so they could make money, but it had been different for him. He had hungered for real ideas as though they were real meat from a buffalo. Nowadays he just had to chew a little longer to digest them.

It was a bonanza when a new wave of documentation began to be available, some of it from government records, some of it coming from Europe where it had had to wait to be translated from Italian and French, and then the craze for tracing genealogy began to excavate caches of old letters from trunks and files. It helped to be old himself, because he had so many patterns of memory that gave him clues about what references meant. But this particular handful of letters on his lap had slammed him with visions from the past he had not known he had.

Down along the creek under the cottonwoods with the wagon idled, the horse set free to crop the tall grass and sweet clover among the willows. The taste of frybread made in a cast iron skillet over a campfire. A quilt spread out and on it sitting his grandfather and, lying down, a woman laughing. The boy had gone off to explore and now returned quietly, practicing his sneaking-up skills. There was something strange.

He was glad not to be looking at the letters in the tribal college but rather at home in front of his fireplace. Even with the glass doors closed on the flames, it was throwing welcome heat on this November day. But it wasn’t that. It was that the letters were written in a woman’s hand. He didn’t have to guess since they were signed “Germaine.” They had been sent to him on loan at his own request from the archive of a California historical society when he inquired about his grandfather. He hadn’t known what Germaine’s connection to his grandfather might be.

As always scents were the strongest memories: the wolf willow, his grandfather’s pipe tobacco, and the fry bread. His grandfather so loved fry bread that he’d take a floured bag of dough with him on a day trip so he could build a little campfire and fry some up as lunch. If the weather were cold, he’d put it under his jacket so it kept warm and swelling against his ribs. Nobody else ever did that. He said it was like having a baby under his coat and he always smelled a little yeasty in spite of his pipe fuming away.

His grandmother wasn’t so interested in bread. She said it was a lot of work for a plain reward. She said she’d made enough bread as an Indian boarding school student to feed an army. Her specialty was pastry and she had hands especially suited for making pie shells, both because her hands were cool enough to handle the dough and because she had the light, deft touch necessary for the kind of edging and embellishment she loved to do. Little cut-outs and appliques, patterns of fork punctures or slits for the steam. Instead of a crimped edge, a braid made separately and attached with beaten egg. No one had time for such frills in a boarding school kitchen, which was part of the point of doing it. If she were going on a day trip, she made Welsh pasties, a sort of hash inside a folded-over piecrust.

The gentleman Indian scholar checked the mantel clock. His daughter, who had moved in with him after his wife had died, would be due home soon. She taught at the tribal college but often had meetings because of her political activism: sovereignty, prevention of child abuse, proper care of the land, and on and on and on. He had never been into the politics of it all and he supposed some could rebuke him for clinging to the past. Still, history drew him.

He lifted the letters to his nose but there was no perfume. They had come carefully sorted into chronological order and he disciplined himself to follow that. “Your visit was so welcome. I enjoyed our talk. Please come again.” Rather formal, even cool. Soon the tone changed. “Your ideas excite me so much. Have you read . . .” and there were several suggested, all progressive political ideas of the time. Then, “What are we doing?”

That memory of a picnic returned, but now it was overlapped with others. He had thought the woman lying down was his grandmother, but his grandmother never went on picnics. She always went to someone else’s house, never just to an open grassy place as though used to living on open prairie. In fact, it was a rather a nuisance sometimes that she insisted on being “civilized.” She had married his grandfather after he had developed the ranch and been elected to the tribal council and she was proud of that, believing that it required a certain standard. She kept an elegant and immaculate house, if a little old-fashioned and unchanging.

Now he remembered that once he had startled the picnic couple lying down together and Germaine’s last name came back to him. It was different than the one on the historical file, so she must have married after that. She had been his schoolteacher in the little one-room school on the family’s allotment ranch. He had loved her. “Too” he added, since clearly his grandfather had been having an affair with that white woman. He could not remember any stigma about it — his grandfather was prosperous and powerful, on the Tribal Council, respected. She had a lot of ideas, too many to suit many people. Too progressive.

There was nothing in the letters that shocked him or surprised him, really. He began to imagine they had the faintest aroma of yeast about them, as though they had been stored in one of those bread dough flour sacks. He wasn’t sure whether he was just imagining that he and his grandfather took Germaine and her trunk to the train depot and that his grandfather had wept later. But he knew that after that, his grandfather was absolutely determined that education was the most important thing in life. Not boarding school, but real, sophisticated, back east, ivy league education. He glanced around at his bookshelves, which lined two long walls.

Like a jolt of electricity, he saw Germaine’s name was on the spine of one of them, one he hadn’t read but had meant to read. The publisher had sent it, asking for a review. He took it down to look at. Her photo was the frontispiece, grave and dark-haired in a white shirtwaist, but she turned out not to be the author. Her granddaughter, who had the same name, had written it.

“Grandpop? I’m home.” His daughter. There he stood, reading. “What on earth? Why don’t you sit down to read?”

He smiled at her, softly. “Could we have frybread this evening?”

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