Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--a cross-cultural mess


Old Elizabeth--she picked up a white woman's name--never heard of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony. Couldn't have. She didn't know English, knew nothing about a right to vote; but that didn't mean she wasn't a feminist. No sir and no ma'am.

She had little to do with men, but a lot to say. Outspoken? Yes, on all things gender-related. Opinionated?--maybe to a fault. She just flat out didn't like men.

Could be argued that she had cause. Corabelle Fellows says old Elizabeth had "merry eyes and many chins." Miss Fellows is kind, but it doesn't take a sleuth to catch the hints. Old Elizabeth may well not have been an American Beauty rose. The Cheyenne River Reservation had many more comely females. She was, Miss Fellows says, an "old-maid Indian." Thus, she was left out by her people, who had, Miss Fellows says, the unpleasant tradition of putting women of forty winters out of the village if they'd never married.

This feminist Lakota woman was, however, Miss Fellows' host when Miss Fellows came to Cheyenne River to teach school, her boarder, you might say. Old Elizabeth offered her log cabin, nicely furnished, lacking little--well, running water you had to run for, but on the reservation in the 1880s, who knew about faucets? 

Elizabeth held strong opinions about men, which must have made Miss Fellows' English night school for men--they met at Elizabeth's place--something of a trial. No matter. In the one-room cabin, Elizabeth lay right there beside them sleeping. Well, snoring. 

Three men--Miss Fellows calls them "boys"--brought along a friend one night, who carried the most amazing, white doeskin blanket. The three who'd asked her to teach them were eager learners, she says, but this companion said nothing that night. He was stone silent. But she couldn't take her eyes off that "pure white gleaming doeskin, entirely unornamented," she says. 

Now old Elizabeth had warned Miss Fellows repeatedly not to go out by herself after dark. But that night, with her hostess apparently sawing wood, she stepped out and was, in a flash, "seized by strong arms, wrapped tightly in a white doeskin blanket, and borne swiftly away by noiseless feet." She could not move as much as a little toe, she says, before her captor dropped her in a snowbank. 

Corabelle Fellow had spent a couple of years teaching at the Santee Reservation before being reassigned. But being grabbed in the darkness was terrifying. Her nerves weren't frozen, they were fried.

Oh, my word, did old Elizabeth get mad. It took no more than a few minutes for the old woman to chug down the same path towards the river in the dark, where she found Miss Fellows. Then she half-dragged, half-carried her back up, mad like you wouldn't believe, boiling like stew over an open fire. When they got back, Miss Fellows nose about quit functioning in the stink put up by the horrid concoction brewing on the stove, a kind of insect repellent to keep men away, she was told. 

Two hours it took before either of them could settle down--Corabelle from bone-chilling terror, old Elizabeth from flat-out rage. 

At her. That's right. Old Elizabeth blew a gasket because Miss Fellows had left the cabin alone and thereby just about given herself away to the guy with the handsome duds. She'd done everything that silent visitor hoped she would: she'd asked him to speak, looked at him fondly, then left the cabin alone just after he did. 

Old Elizabeth told Miss Fellows she was acting like some cheap hussy. Out there on the  Cheyenne River Reservation that night, two women--one young and white, the other old and Lakota--got it all decidedly wrong, the blind leading the blind. Nobody understood a thing about the other's world. 

That's the story Corabelle Fellows tells in her memoir, Blue Star

And, yes, in that log cabin, the whole cultural mess finally got straightened out. Miss Fellows knew no more about Lakota marriage customs than old Elizabeth knew about white folks' courting rituals, so both proved idiots. Once they got things straightened out, the old feminist quit stirring that horrid herb charm, and the two of them laughed. And laughed. And laughed. 

Which is where all such stories should end, don't you think? The two of them came to understand each other's ways--isn't that sweet? Corabelle even kissed old Elizabeth, something that just wasn't done on the reservation.

One more thing. If you're male, don't go feeling sorry for the poor guy with pretty white doeskin. He may have gone home empty-handed that cold night, but he didn't go back to an empty tipi. He already had several wives. 

All's well that ends well.

1 comment:

Carrie Lindsey said...

It’s funny the things you find on the internet. I’m Corabelle’s great, great, granddaughter. I had just finished listening to Sarah Vowell’s Assassantion Vacation (for the 2nd or 3rd time) and went to the internet wondering whether Corabelle and Sam were at an event mentioned in the Ms. Vowell’s book. And I found your blog! I have often wondered how many people have read Blue Star, original or reprint. From my long view perspective, and intimate familiarity with her female descendants, Corabelle was clearly very impulsive. Also probably a little rebellious, intellectually curious and fairly self-sufficient. Her nature, curiosity, and willingness to learn and take risks made for an interesting life. There is an interesting article that I found back in February, the last time I wondered about something related to Blue Star. It dives deeper into the “cross cultural mess”made sometimes by misunderstandings, sometimes by hearts that want what they want, and maybe sometimes by outside pressure you weren’t aware even existed. (I thought I had saved the article but can’t find it. Here’s the link https://www.jstor.org/stable/40071937.)

Thank you for making my day!
Carrie Lindsey