I never met a Kickapoo

It seems to me that we have both general and specific memories. General memories are composites of many specific memories – sort of like the way you can produce the image of an “average” person by simply imposing a large number of specific pictures on top of each other. The Great Peoria Ocean is based both on a general memory about how we played being lost on the ocean, and on a specific memory of walking down the alley behind my house one morning, on my way to Roger’s house. The street architecture in those days --  that is around 1950 or so – included alleys for use by garbage trucks. These alleys bifurcated the rectangles of paved streets that cars used. Generally the alleys were “paved” with cinders. In my specific memory I am trying to toughen up my feet so that I can become like an Indian. I certainly did not know the term “Native American” in those days. Nor was the term “Indian” meant to disparage that group of people in any way. I don’t know the extent to which other boys shared my feelings, but I aspired to be Indian.

I had seen images of Native Americans – probably in cowboy movies – and I knew that they wore loincloths. By choice I would have dressed that way – or would have simply run around naked. But I had learned from my mother that this was not acceptable dress in these “civilized” times. We had to cover our shameful parts.

As I walked down the alley toward Roger’s house, my house was on the left of the alley and his on the right. Also on the right there was a garden. I remember carrots and large cabbages growing there. I helped myself to a carrot on my way to Roger’s house. I wiped it off as well as possible. I wasn’t bothered by the few smudges of dirt that remained.

The game we were to play that day is as described in the poem. We were hopelessly lost on the high seas – but we survived just fine. There were plenty of fish to eat and I suppose we drank rainwater. That was the game. There wasn’t much of a plot to it, but I could have played it forever. Roger, however, was coming to the end of his fascination with the “lost on the ocean” game, and he suggested that we find an outboard motor and some gasoline and make our way to a shore or someplace where we could pursue other adventures. I rejected this idea. It wasn’t realistic. Where would we going to find an outboard motor in the middle of the ocean? He argued that the remains of a shipwreck might provide us with almost anything.

Roger and I didn’t always see things eye to eye, but he seemed to like pretending we were Native Americans as much as I did. They were cunning and powerful and had almost magical skills in getting around in the woods very silently without being discovered by anything or anybody who might want to harm them. And they didn’t have to go to school.

Roger’s father was a dentist. He was my dentist to be specific. He did not believe in giving people novocaine before their 12th birthday. I had a number of cavities during my childhood – probably from sneaking candy bars. To have them drilled out by the old slow-speed drills they used at that time was literally torture. That adults thought this was all right still appalls me. The reasoning, I think, goes something like this: children are very small, so their experience must be small. For some reason people didn’t remember how it was to be a child or they wouldn’t have made this mistake. The "small experience" applied to psychosocial experience as well. For example adults would talk about “puppy love.” The idea is that the love that children have is somehow not as full or intense is the love adults experience. Children have puppy love, puppy pain, puppy humiliation, and puppy experience in general. Odd. My own recollection is that some of the most intense experiences of my life – both positive and negative – happened when I was a child.

Being “Indians” was a significant part of the pretend games Roger and I played. We collected buckeyes from under a tree in a nearby pasture in order to thread them on a string and make necklaces. Indian men and boys could wear necklaces and it wasn’t considered girlish. That was one of the many good things about them.

And we were always in search of feathers to wear in our hair. When Roger’s father killed the great horned owl we got all the feathers we needed. I don’t know why he killed the owl. It was not for food, and he had no use for the feathers. He kept it on the floor in his garage until it began to rot.

Roger’s father also killed chickens in his backyard. He chopped their heads off, after which they flopped around and sometimes even got up and walked for a few steps. It was quite horrifying.

I remember one time when Roger’s father came out to the backyard. He looked at Roger's face and told him he had failed to “wash his eyes” that morning. I had never heard of “washing your eyes.” I think he must’ve seen some of that residue we called “sleep” at the edge of his eyes. Roger’s father was a very frightening person to me.

There were real Native Americans fairly near my home in Peoria Illinois. They were from the Kickapoo tribe that used to live along the banks of the Kickapoo Creek. In Kickapoo Creek one could catch channel catfish that were as big as I was – or at least that was what I had heard. It might’ve been true for all I know.

I fantasized about the Kickapoo Indians. I envision them as living very much as they would have lived before the “white men”, which is to say the Europeans, arrived from across the ocean. How I wished I could go live with The Kickapoo. The Kickapoo Indians were the first non-Western culture I ever fell in love with. Or at least I fell in love with my idea who they were. So far as I know I never met a Kickapoo.

Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood I had an intense interest in non-Western, pre-industrial societies. I felt that their lifestyle was superior to our own. I read all the National Geographics I could find. As I got older I spent time in secondhand bookstores where I found a lot of them. Like all boys, and perhaps girls as well, in those days I liked to find pictures of naked people but I was also interested in reading the articles about preindustrial societies. I read a lot of them and began keeping a scrapbook in which I pasted a few pictures of children from other cultures than the dominant one to which I belonged. Always toward the end of the articles about preindustrial cultures there was a paragraph that said something like this:

The people of [Name of Culture] face a lot of challenges as they encounter the modern world. Their traditional beliefs are brought into question and their children and young people are lured into industrialized cities where they believe they can find a more satisfying life. With hard work and creativity the people of this culture struggle to preserve their values and life forms. What their success will be remains an open question.

Something along that line. The trouble is that it wasn’t true. It wasn’t an open question. It was a foregone conclusion that the non-industrialized society would be destroyed by its contact with the industrialized modern world, and that as a result a great many of its people would fall into despair, alcoholism, a wide variety of self-defeating behaviors and contempt for themselves and their traditions. It was what always happened.

I was always on the look-out for brief quotes that somehow clarified the evil that I saw within me and around me and in the world, and that gave me some hope. Here are a few of them that I put in my scrapbook on disappearing cultures:

Everyone must suffer who is different.” From Nicholas Stewart Gray "Grimbold's Other World."

The earth and myself are one mind.” From chief Joseph of the natives peers is quoted in "Parabola."

The function of these groups [small social units] was sublimated into the central state, leaving only two loci of power in the modern world: the isolated individual and the vast impersonal government. From James W Jones, "Cross Currents" volume 32.

He was only a fox like 100,000 other foxes. I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world. From "The Little Prince."

Uprooted from any sense of value, modern consciousness pursues the endless gathering of data with no guide to its significance. James W Jones in "Cross Currents" 30

And so I observed how needful it is for me to enter into the darkness, and to admit the coincidence of opposites, beyond all grasp of reason, and there to seek the truth” Nicholas of Cuse

The closer you come to the heart of your own tradition, the closer you will come to the heart of the other traditions." Brother David Steindle-Rast, Benedictine monk.

It was God himself who was having a bit of fun.” From the legends of Meister Eckhart" as recounted in "Meister Eckhart" translated and introduced by Raymond Blackening

“In the Valley and on the mountain – only God I saw." Baba Kubi Sufi poet

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” From the Little Prince,

To say that the world is the result of chance is as reasonable as to say that the unabridged dictionary resulted from an explosion in a printing shop.” Wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein. Source unknown.

To become ourselves is the one thing to be done.” Aurobindo from the Divine Life.

I realized that we are not lonely atoms in a cold, unfriendly, indifferent universe, but that each of us is linked up in a rhythm, of which we may be unconscious, and which we can never really know, but to which we can submit ourselves trust fully and unreservedly”  Happoid from "Adventure in Search of a Creed

Humanity groans, half crushed under the burden of progress it has made.” Bergson as quoted in Turnie's "The Whole Person in a Broken World."

To imagine that what is possible for me now is the same as that which is ultimately meant for me is the dangerous illusion of the age.” Father Sylvan as quoted by Jacob Needleman in "Lost Christianity."

Whatever else the child may suffer from, it does not suffer from remoteness of life. Normally it is fully alive, and that is why people, thinking back to their own childhood, long to have that naïve vitality which they have lost in becoming grown up. The child is an inner possibility, the possibility of renewal." Marie Louise von Franz as quoted in "Parabola."

When I was a baby and a little child, I cried so much because everyone had their doors so closed. It took me a while to get used to living a place where the doors are closed." Simon Firestone, aged eight is quoted in "Parabola."

Western civilization has become horribly one-sided and unbalanced, so much so that serious people cannot see the distinction between a computer and a man." Father William Johnson as quoted in "Lost Christianity" by Jocob Needleman.

"Creation is not a hurdle on the road to God, it is the road iteslf. We are created with one another and directed to life with one another. Creatures are placed in my way so that I, their felow creature, by means of them and with them, may find the way to God." Martin Buber as quoted in the Catholic Worker


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