I can’t recall many memories of my grandfather. The ones I can remember revolve around food made on the backyard grill or of him sitting at a table chewing Red Man with his back to a window unit air conditioner. Yet, this giant of a man has been critical to my faith and to my cultural identity.
This man was red skinned with a jet-black pomaded hairdo. He was as big as the sun and I orbited around him as such. He was often mistaken to be Mexican in the Orange County [CA] neighborhood we lived in and this bothered him, it bothered him a great deal.
My grandfather was a full-blooded Indian. He was Skidi Pawnee & Kaw. He was related to Charles Curtis [31st VP of the US]. He was great-great-great-great grandson to White Plume, signer of many treaties with the US Government. The blood of Lisha-Lalahikots (Brave-Chief) flowed through his veins. Robert Henry Pappan was a man of honor and royal blood. He was my grandfather.
He traveled the country playing college football in a time when work was scarce and damn near nonexistent for a man of dark complexion. In doing this he earned a couple of college degrees. He worked as a plasterer & contractor for most of his life. He worked at Disneyland and was part of the “Indian Village” tribe that sat and BBQ’d when there were no tourists in Indian War Canoes paddling on by. He was bigger than life. He drove a huge car that could fit myself and his 6 other grandchildren. He would bribe us with burritos from Pup ‘N’ Taco and ice cream from Thrifty’s. He smiled as wide as a bridge and sounded like thunder when he spoke.
My parents divorced in 1980 and we moved into grandpa’s house. He got sick around the beginning of 1982 and “went native” on us. As my grandfather got sicker he had long native looking black hair with his neck adorned with a bone collar. He rarely spoke English to us and was preparing for the journey home, back to the ancestors. He died August 04, 1982.
My uncle Andy came to our house to perform rituals where we had to stand on bricks and be “cleansed” with the smoke of a burning bush that choked our lungs. Our ears were filled with stories of Indians and family that had long ago begun the journey and that “Buster” was gonna catch up to them. There was weeping and more smoke, some feathers, leather bags of stuff, & food. There was lots of food. It would be 23 years before I saw this family or heard these stories again.
After my grandfather began his journey the world I lived in seemed smaller and a little less bright. When I think of him now I can no longer hear his voice or smell his hair. I imagine he sounded like thunder and smelled like cars. I was an Indian left with out a chief. We all were a tribe without our leader.
When I began school that fall I was enrolled by the State in a program that would instruct me what it meant to be an Indian and how I was supposed to act. We spent our time in these Indian classes making popsicle stick dream catchers and learning “Indian sign language” from photocopied charts of crudely drawn Indians some talking to the white man and others sitting around fires with each other all wore buckskins and feathers. Gone were the stories of the Indians I knew, gone were the stories of my family.
There was no more Tirawa and the nighttime ritual of storytelling. There was a generic primitive religion that was practiced by primitive natives that looked nothing like me. All of the noble, red skinned creatures some with horses and some without horses. These stories were intertwined with the tales of “savage” Indians killing settlers that just wanted to offer a better way to those red skinned, dark haired savages.
I was a blonde haired, hazel eyed part time Indian mamas boy with fair skin. I wasn’t savage or noble. I was certainly not dark haired. I was afraid of feathers and had no desire to ride a horse.