Thursday, May 29, 2008
Chickasaw elder speaks to youth
By SUE WATSON
When Robert Perry was 12 years old, two things happened that gave direction to his life – his grandmother gave him some advice and he visited the town library.
Retired from Conoco/Phillips and one of 14 members of the Chickasaw Nation Council of Elders, Perry advises the governor of the Nation on cultural affairs - a duty that is part of keeping his promise to his grandmother.
He was in Holly Springs a few weeks ago to discuss native plants with employees at Strawberry Plains Audubon and to speak to school students while on his way to Alabama.
At age 12, Perry’s grandmother called him and his playmates in from the yard where they had been fighting and gave them some guidance - telling them that if they would do constructive things and learn, they could give back to their community later in life. “Our Nation would always be strong, if you do,” she told them.
Perhaps that advice was incentive for Perry to go to the town library where he looked through books and decided he was going to become a chemical engineer.
“I was from a small town and nobody knew to tell me different,” Perry said.
After his chemical engineering career brought him to the point of retirement eight years ago, Perry moved back to Ada, Oklahoma, the headquarters of the Chickasaw Nation where he grew up.
“Basically, I moved back to Ada so I could write about the Indians of Oklahoma,” he said.
He published “Life With the Little People” (Greenfield Press) - a collection of sacred stories never in print.
Perry said tribes do not know each other’s sacred stories and traditionally have kept their stories within the family.
He has written a second book, “Uprising! Crumbo and Indian Art” (available from Chickasaw Press in October) - a book about the rise of Indian art during the life of artist Woody (Woodrow Wilson) Crumbo.
“He didn’t want his life story magnified,” said Perry. “He was very humble. His wife provided these stories to encourage young artists.”
Crumbo showed promise as an artist early in life and at age 26 was appointed to director of Indian Art at Bacone College - an exclusive college for Indians - where he was steeped in his heritage and culture, studied Indian design and revived ancient techniques of silverwork, dying and weaving.
Three years ago, Perry was invited to talk at the Tuscumbia Festival in Alabama.
“Tuscumbia, like Holly Springs, is located in an area of a huge spring, where chiefs used to meet and where businesses were located,” he said. “There are a lot of descendants of the Chickasaw still in the region.”
The ladies married out of the tribe and remained in the Tuscumbia area (Shoals in Northwest Alabama) after the Chickasaw Cession.
“All the people in Tuscumbia believed their ancestors left and disappeared and that they had no connection with the Oklahoma Indian,” Perry said. “People are finding they are related to George Colbert, chief before the Trail of Tears back in the early 1800s, but the Colbert names are missing in the telephone directories in Tuscumbia.”
Perry is also a descendent of chief Colbert.
Each year Tuscumbia celebrates the Trail of Tears at Tuscumbia Landing in Sheffield, Alabama, where 100 Chickasaw were put on a river boat and shipped out west via the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and White rivers.
Tuscumbia Landing will become a part of the National Trail of Tears Network of the National Park Service. After archeologists work the site, it will be added to the park system.
Madge Lindsay, executive director of the Mississippi Audubon Society, asked Perry to visit Holly Springs to discuss native plants, after seeing an article about the dedication at Tuscumbia Landing in October 2007.
Perry first visited Strawberry Plains in January this year where Lindsay asked him to speak to school children at Holly Springs Junior High and Marshall Academy.
“We share many interests with Robert,” Lindsay said. “Native plants and hummingbirds have been a common theme at Strawberry Plains, but we are enjoying learning about the contemporary Chickasaw in Oklahoma as well as their heritage in Mississippi and Alabama. The Chickasaw and Choctaw were part of the landscape around here before white settlers arrived. Through our relationship with Perry, the knowledge about the heritage of Strawberry Plains comes full circle.”
His recent trip contained several objectives.
“When I travel, I go at the behest of Bill Annoatubby, the governor of the Chickasaw Nation,” Perry said.
“The true objective of this trip is to go to mid-Alabama to a sacred site to meet the keeper. The keeper wants to tell me that long ago before Hernando DeSoto, the Chickasaw used to come and use his sacred site.”
Sacred sites are places for religious ceremonies.
Perry added that the Chickasaw Nation is spending $68 million to build a cultural complex in Sulfur, Oklahoma, opening in 2009.
“I was asked by the museum director to find out how to make a turkey-feather cape and to make one for the museum,” he said.
Quoting Benjamin Franklin, Perry said, “the point of this is to give more honor to the wild turkey.” Franklin wanted it to be the national bird, but lost his bid and the bald eagle was chosen, Perry said.
“We recognize the bird is sacred and all the feathers used in the cape never touch the ground. A special person has to do this for the tribe.”
Perry carried the turkey feather cape from Tuscumbia to Oklahoma.
He is also a seed bearer and has traveled to Chile carrying heirloom corn seed. Perry taught the Indians in Chili how to plant the corn with varieties of squash and beans in the traditional manner for use as holistic foods and medicines.
“I believe my God has answered my prayers and moved me to Ada to connect with all these people,” Perry concluded. “As a facilitator and a seed bearer, I am going back and forth between tribes.”
He said his visits to schools are a part of the sharing of the culture of sovereign Indian nations with Americans and other nations.
At the schools, Perry showed students a bearclaw necklace, leg bands used in dance and spoke of the traditional dress, then answered questions.
He declined a request by students to dance with the percussion shakers, saying his wife is the dancer. Perry said he was given no Native American name.
“My father wanted me to get an education first then come back (to Ada),” he said. “I think it is better to walk in two cultures. You need to go to other nations and learn what other people do.”
Students asked about the colorful red, yellow and black tassels on Perry’s shirt. He said they are the tribal colors.
“When you dance, they spring like fury,” he said.
The use of tassels dates back to the early 1800s, he said.
He said the bearclaw necklace was made from glass bearclaws so no more bears would have to be killed to make the necklace. The making of the necklace resulted from a dream he had that included a giant Cave bear.
“After a terrible fight, the bear asked me to make such a necklace from glass and imitation fur, so that man would no longer kill bears,” said Perry. “Bear Nation would be eternally grateful.”
“When you are asked to do something, you do it,” he said.
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