I remember that when my father was Mayor of our small city, he often rode on patrol with the policemen at night. In third grade we had a very clean, pretty young teacher from another part of the state. Also that year we had a number of Indian children who attended the Public school rather than the reservation school. The teacher had them sit in the back of the classroom. I noticed that they often fell asleep and couldn’t or didn’t answer the few questions she asked them. One night I talked it over with my father. (Mom had already given me her view, which was pretty much conventional wisdom in the town at that time, “Indians are just inferior, no use wasting too much time or energy on them since that only grow up to drink and live on government hand outs anyhow.”) My father took my worries seriously however, “You are asking complicated questions,” he said. “I’m not sure what answers to give you. The Government supports them so most of them don’t work for their money. That caused them to treat it casually because they know more will automatically come next month. It’s not a good system, but that’s the way it is now.”
“If the government gives them money, why don’t they have to bring money for milk break, like the rest of us do?”, I asked. My Dad looked at me seriously. “they don’t pay for their milk because their parents don’t have any money left over from their own spending on liquor and other items.” He told of riding around late at night in Indian town with the police and seeing the one and two rooms houses, with kids asleep on the floor under the beds , while adults were up fighting and drinking until all hours. “The teacher puts the kids in the back because they are dirty, they have head- lice , they are tired, and when they get into a warm room they will fall asleep, especially after they’ve had milk break at recess. It’s probably the only food they’ve had so far that day,” he continued. I knew that sometimes they fall asleep at their desks with their heads on their arms, so I accepted his simplistic explanation-adequate for an eight year old.
But even then I wondered why other people didn’t know what my Dad knew? There were other differences between my Dad and his friends. For example Dad always knew Indians by name, but few others in our town did. One example will do: The night before Christmas one year, an Indian man came into the store with a quilt, it was thin, certainly not a treasure like those that many ladies make today. It was not color coordinated nor did it have a design, but he asked my Dad to take it on trade for toys so he could have Christmas for his three kids. He knew if anyone in town would do it, it would be my Dad. Dad did! Our oldest daughter still has that quilt, patched up and passed down. Tolerance and concern for human beings is tied up in that quilt and it will always remind me of Dad and his ability to look at each person as a person with needs and feelings just like his own. In a very human way he modeled for us the love of God. My father did not claim to be a Christian, but because he was handicapped and a farm boy he had lived with his grandmother in town during the school year. She was a believer and read the Bible a aloud every morning. Saved my father was not, but the moral teachings had their influence on his later lifestyle.
After we had talked about the Indian children I made up my eight year old mind to make friends with some of them. John Long and Ruth Milk became school friends of mine. Although I observed that each year there were fewer Indian children on our class, my particular friends stayed on. We spent the next five years of grade school with an ongoing relationship, not close because of the nature of our society at that time, but we were always there for each other on the daily school level. It worked for us. Ruth had a lovely smile and was gentle and kind, John was nice too; he was the biggest boy in our class and was always picked to be on any team. Because of his athletic ability he got along fine with the boys, but Ruth was shy and the other girls didn’t include her in anything willingly! She and I spent noon hours together sometimes and shared my lunch. I ate at school in most weather because of the difficulty of getting up and down school steps with braces and crutches. Everyone else went home except the country kids, who usually ate in their cars with their older brothers and sisters. Ruth told me she had nothing to go home for because things were quite at her house until later in the day.
What that might indicate I had no idea, but I accepted her evaluation of the situation and we simply shared my lunch when I was there. John and Ruth both graduated from eighth grade, but did not go on to High Schoool in town. John was large for his age and went into the military as soon as he could lie about his age and enlist in the Navy. My Dad told me John had stopped by the store one day because he wanted to let me know he was leaving. He told Dad that he had lied about his age and enlisted. “It could be worse.” my Dad said, “He can make of it what he will, at least he’s away from tribal region nfluences.” By then I had a pretty good idea of what kind of influences my Dad probably meant.
That same year on Easter Sunday morning, we attended the Sunrise Service. As we drove down Main Street, very early I saw a person laying on the ground in front of one of the stores. There were always several Indians passed out near the Liquour Store on Main Street so I was not surprised. But that day one of the bundle of rags sat up and staggered on down the street near Dad’s store. It was Ruth! She was obviously pregnant, I couldn’t believe it. I made my Mom stop and I called to her, “Ruth, Ruth Milk, but she was in bad shape, she glanced at me bleary eyed and staggered on. I had understood that she had gone back to the reservation to high school, but it was not so. She went on to become a local sight, I don’t know at that age what I could have done for her, but I knew that if the time came when I could do something to help American Indians, I would!