Saturday, August 2, 2008

Outlaws, Indians and Family Fables

Jailers and guards in "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker's court in Ft. Smith, Arkansas

By Pat Browning

Grandpa was Scots-Irish, and illiterate. Grandma was full-blood Muscogee Creek, educated in the white man’s mission school. They lived in interesting times, on a farm at Greasy Creek, Oklahoma.

I’d like to say Greasy Creek got its name because oil ran under the land, but I don’t want to start another family fable. More likely, the name came west with Creeks who were removed from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States.

The Creeks are great storytellers even today. As my Cousin Doug says, they can be a little windy. Take the legend of Grandpa, the illiterate Scots-Irishman with a reputation for reading the Bible, speaking French and curing sick horses.

At a family dinner last week I sat with my brother Tom, who loves those old fairy tales, and Cousin Doug, who can probably recite family history in his sleep. Tom heard this story from an elderly relative who merely smiles when you catch her in a flight of fancy.

The story goes that Grandpa was fetched to treat a horse lying prone in a barn. Grandpa said a few words in French, read a few Bible verses, and “laid hands” on the horse. Then he went up to the farmer’s house for a hearty supper. After supper, lo and behold – Grandpa found the horse up eating hay and swishing his tail.

Tom later double-checked the story with an aunt, who said, “That’s absurd. Dad couldn’t read or write, and the only languages he spoke were English and Creek.”

We had a good laugh. “So much for his fluency in 28 Indian dialects,” I said.

Tom’s wife, who was half-listening, said, “I heard it was nine.”

I did hear a couple of true stories. One concerned my great-grandfather, Old Frank, who was some kind of deputy marshal when Indian Territory outlaws were tried in federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The judge there was Isaac C. Parker, the famous “hanging judge.”

Old Frank was either a volunteer or appointee who transported non-Indian miscreants from Indian Territory to Fort Smith. Since there was no jail in his neck of the woods, he kept the prisoners in his home. It’s said that he let them borrow his rifles to go hunting while they waited for the trip to Arkansas. When it was time to go, Old Frank chained them to the horses and away they went.

Indians had their own tribal courts and tribal police for Indian lawbreakers. In the Creek Nation, a tribal member guilty of a violent crime was given a year to put his affairs in order and make arrangements for his family. At an appointed time, he appeared before the council and chose his one-man firing squad. It was usually a friend, or a marksman who could make one shot do the job.

So why didn’t they teach that stuff when Oklahoma History was a required subject in the seventh grade? I remember absolutely nothing about it, that’s how boring it was. Now I have a long list of books to read as soon as I can get to them.

The birthday dinner was last Saturday. Today, the invitation was for a family wedding, on the hottest day of the year, low 100s in the shade. I came home from Wal-Mart pouring sweat, thinking there was no way I could cool off in time for a wedding. Closed the blinds, shucked off my clothes, and took a nap.

Fast-forward 50 years. A little kid says, “Grandma, tell us about your wedding and the old auntie who stood up and took off all her clothes when the preacher said, ‘Who gives this woman.’” A family legend is born. Didn’t happen, but who will be around to say so?

The truth is, it was lovely. The chapel was once a dance hall, designed like a Spanish hacienda, with ornately carved doors and massive furniture. The ceiling was draped with twinkle-lights and Japanese lanterns. The couple wrote their own commitment vows, and I liked this: “I promise to love you as you are, and not as I want you to be.”

Five generations occupied the pews – from babes in arms and little girls with flowers in their hair and glitter on their shoes, to a couple of old cowboys wearing straw hats. The bride’s friends had arrived earlier with trays of homemade hors d’oeuvres. When the ceremony ended there was a rush to the bar. Guess who got to the food first. That’s right. You’re looking at her.

And I was home before dark. Families, God bless ‘em, fables, foibles and all.


Anonymous said...

Another wonderful family story. Pat, no one tells these better than you.
for real.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kaye. I got a million of 'em! :-D


Jaden Terrell said...

I'm glad you've got a million of 'em, Pat. Please keep 'em coming!

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Terrific story and more wonderful because it's true.