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Les Tate


How often have you heard or said "I'm part Indian"? If you have, then some Native American elders have something to teach you. A very touching example was told by a physician from Oregon who discovered as an adult that he was Indian. This is his story. Listen well:

Some twenty or more years ago while serving the Mono and Chukchanse and Chownumnee communities in the Sierra Nevada, I was asked to make a housecall on a Mono elder. She was 81 years old and had developed pneumonia after falling on frozen snow while bucking up some firewood.

I was surprised that she had asked for me to come since she had always avoided anything to do with the services provided through the local agencies. However it seemed that she had decided I might be alright because I had helped her grandson through some difficult times earlier and had been studying Mono language with the 2nd graders at North Fork School.

She greeted me from inside her house with a Mana' hu, directing me into her bedroom with the sound of her voice. She was not willing to go to the hospital like her family had pleaded, but was determined to stay in her own place and wanted me to help her using herbs that she knew and trusted but was too weak to do alone. I had learned to use about a dozen native medicinal plants by that time, but was inexperienced in using herbs in a life or death situation. She eased my fears with her kind eyes and gentle voice. I stayed with her for the next two days, treating her with herbal medicine (and some vitamin C that she agreed to accept).

She made it through and we became friends. One evening several years later, she asked me if I knew my elders. I told her that I was half Canadian and half Appalachian from Kentucky. I told her that my Appalachian grandfather was raised by his Cherokee mother but nobody had ever talked much about that and I didn't want anyone to think that I was pretending to be an Indian. I was uncomfortable saying I was part Indian and never brought it up in normal conversation.

"What! You're part Indian?" she said. "I wonder, would you point to the part of yourself that's Indian. Show me what part you mean."

I felt quite foolish and troubled by what she said, so I stammered out something to the effect that I didn't understand what she meant. Thankfully the conversation stopped at that point. I finished bringing in several days worth of firewood for her, finished the yerba santa tea she had made for me and went home still thinking about her words.

Some weeks later we met in the grocery store in town and she looked down at one of my feet and said, "I wonder if that foot is an Indian foot. Or maybe it's your left ear. Have you figured it out yet?"

I laughed out loud, blushing and stammering like a little kid. When I got outside after shopping, she was standing beside my pick-up, smiling and laughing. "You know" she said, "you either are or you aren't. No such thing as part Indian. It's how your heart lives in the world, how you carry yourself. I knew before I asked you. Nobody told me. Now don't let me hear you say you are part Indian anymore."

She died last year, but I would like her to know that I've heeded her words. And I've come to think that what she did for me was a teaching that the old ones tell people like me, because others have told me that a Native American elder also said almost the same thing to them. I know her wisdom helped me to learn who I was that day and her words have echoed in my memory ever since. And because of her, I am no longer part Indian,


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© 1998-2001 Les Tate. E-mail:

Image credit "Gay Head Indians", reprinted photograph by 'Vineyard Images', Edgartown, MA.

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