Striving to Keep `Old Way' Alive

Full-blooded native American tribal elder saves and shares the heritage of his people

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE old way.

Carl Butler knows he is the living presence of the heritage and culture that is as old as fire.

The old way.

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His Indian name is Bear Gnawing on a Tree. As a full-blooded native American, born in 1910 near Cushing, Okla., and raised in a family that spoke only the language of the Sac and Fox tribe, Mr. Butler knows that what he is, and what he represents, is disappearing.

``My grandparents were just as it was at the beginning of time,'' he says, seated in a workroom in his small brick home on a side street near a new Wal-Mart store. In the living room, his second wife, Sophie Good Chief Butler, watches wrestling on TV.

``They were the old way,'' this tribal elder says, ``and I am the old way disappearing.'' Changing image of elders

No one knows exactly how many full-blooded Indian tribal elders are still alive in the United States.

Always respected in Indian culture and religion, the stature of elders has elevated in recent years as more and more younger Indians seek to preserve their heritage, customs, and language.

But the number of elders who lived all or most of the old ways is as rare as Bear Gnawing on a Tree.

Many tribes now accept tribal members with less than one-quarter Indian blood.

``I grew up as an Indian,'' he says in a voice that blends a touch of Oklahoma drawl with the short, powerful, bunched cadences typical of older Indians. ``We hunted to survive - squirrel, possum, skunks, lots of fish - day to day. The streams were good then.... [Indian] kids go to Pizza Hut now. They don't know how to say `hello' in Sac and Fox.''

Butler has 32 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. ``I can't remember all the names,'' he says.

His efforts to save and share his American-Indian heritage include recording religious songs in Sac and Fox, lecturing in local schools, and talking to community groups.

He shows the beautiful beaded gourds he makes and sells, and talks about the old ways. He tells of his personal history, of the mistakes he made, and of the opportunities he lost to alcohol, even while he tried to stay close to the old ways.

``When I started in school, we couldn't wear moccasins or Indian shirts,'' he says. ``I didn't know English.

``When I asked a friend what the teacher was saying, the teacher put me in front of the class and told me not to speak Indian anymore. She thrashed me on the hand with a ruler. I was ashamed.''

School for Butler at the Shalako Indian School stopped at the sixth grade. ``I ran away two times,'' he says.

``My parents said, `You'll suffer if you don't go to school. You should learn the [white] people's way now.' Yes, I suffered by not being educated. I had to work hard right away because we were poor.''

He had three brothers and three sisters. His father was a Baptist preacher who combined Christianity with Indian ways and was shunned by traditional ministers.

Butler remembers riding in a horse-drawn wagon into Cushing on Nov. 11, 1919, and hearing all the gunfire celebrating the end of World War I.

``People were laughing and crying, and firing shotguns in the air.'' Childhood years

As a boy he listened to the council meetings of the tribal elders. ``Only the old men talked,'' he says. ``They talked Indian, and they were outspoken and always tried to protect Indian life. Many of them lived in bark houses. But they weren't no match for the white man.''

Because so many of the Oklahoma oil companies and small towns had baseball teams in those days, Butler started playing catcher on teams. ``I got pretty good at it,'' he says. ``One of the oil companies paid me 50 cents an hour [to play] - which was pretty good money in those days for eight hours a day - whether I played or not.''

He was asked to try out for a professional team in Joplin, Mo., in 1927. ``That's when the bottle got me,'' he says. ``I couldn't leave it alone. After ballgames, people would invite me to go drinking. I'd drink all night long.''

Eventually he ended up playing for the Pawnee Indian Tribe in Pawnee, Okla., where he met his first wife, Laurabelle Caesar. He continued his drinking and became a common laborer, working for farmers on and off.

Over the years he and his first wife had seven children and struggled through the Depression. He lost several jobs because of his drinking. Sometimes the only clothing they had was given to them by the US Army.

Eventually Butler became a welder. His drinking ended when the Korean War came and his underage sons begged him for permission to go and fight.

``The youngest one begged and begged me,'' says Butler. ``I signed permission, and after he left, I got down on my knees for spiritual help and made a vow to God: `If you let my boys come home, I'll be your servant.' And that's what I've done.''

He says now, ``I done all the bad things, and some of my kids suffered from what I did, but God loved me through it, and now I want to greet every man the way I want to be greeted.''

Recently the heirs of famed American athlete Jim Thorpe, an Indian raised near Cushing, honored Butler with an ``adoption.''

``There is an Indian ceremony of adoption when a person becomes the continuation of someone else,'' Butler says. ``It goes on and on. Thorpe's kids were small when he died. And the granddaughter asked me to be the continuation. Now they call me Dad ... and see how I'm doing.''

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