~Written by Les Tate

(From NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art ~ Poems & Stories 1996)

How often have you heard or said “I’m part Indian”? If you have, then some
Native American elders have something to teach you. A very touching example was
told by a physician from Oregon who discovered as an adult that he was Indian.
This is his story. Listen well:

Some twenty or more years ago while serving the Mono and Chukchanse and
 Chownumnee communities in the Sierra Nevada, I was asked to make a housecall on
a Mono elder. She was 81 years old and had developed pneumonia after falling on
frozen snow while bucking up some firewood.

I was surprised that she had asked for me to come since she had always
avoided anything to do with the services provided through the local agencies.
However it seemed that she had decided I might be alright because I had helped
 her grandson through some difficult times earlier and had been studying Mono
language with the 2nd graders at North Fork School.

She greeted me from inside her house with a Mana’ hu, directing me into her
bedroom with the sound of her voice. She was not willing to go to the hospital
 like her family had pleaded, but was determined to stay in her own place and
wanted me to help her using herbs that she knew and trusted but was too weak to
do alone. I had learned to use about a dozen native medicinal plants by that
 time, but was inexperienced in using herbs in a life or death situation. She
eased my fears with her kind eyes and gentle voice. I stayed with her for the
next two days, treating her with herbal medicine (and some vitamin C that she
agreed to accept).

She made it through and we became friends. One evening several years later,
she asked me if I knew my elders. I told her that I was half Canadian and half
 Appalachian from Kentucky. I told her that my Appalachian grandfather was raised
by his Cherokee mother but nobody had ever talked much about that and I didn’t
 want anyone to think that I was pretending to be an Indian. I was uncomfortable
saying I was part Indian and never brought it up in normal conversation.

“What! You’re part Indian?” she said. “I wonder, would you point to the part
of yourself that’s Indian. Show me what part you mean.”

I felt quite foolish and troubled by what she said, so I stammered out
 something to the effect that I didn’t understand what she meant. Thankfully the
conversation stopped at that point. I finished bringing in several days worth of
firewood for her, finished the yerba santa tea she had made for me and went home
still thinking about her words.

Some weeks later we met in the grocery store in town and she looked down at
one of my feet and said, “I wonder if that foot is an Indian foot. Or maybe it’s
your left ear. Have you figured it out yet?”

I laughed out loud, blushing and stammering like a little kid. When I got
outside after shopping, she was standing beside my pick-up, smiling and
laughing. “You know” she said, “you either are or you aren’t. No such thing as
part Indian. It’s how your heart lives in the world, how you carry yourself. I
knew before I asked you. Nobody told me. Now don’t let me hear you say you are
part Indian anymore.”

She died last year, but I would like her to know that I’ve heeded her words.
And I’ve come to think that what she did for me was a teaching that the old ones
tell people like me, because others have told me that a Native American elder
also said almost the same thing to them. I know her wisdom helped me to learn
who I was that day and her words have echoed in my memory ever since. And
because of her, I am no longer part Indian,