Christmas on the Rez was like Christmas anywhere else, only worse.
Kidding. I jest. The holiday season, New Year's no less than Christmas, radiated color and excitement embellished with beads, feathers and drums.
Making them up as we went along, we evolved our own family traditions to accommodate a setting unlike anything Belva and I experienced as kids.
Many years we trekked out into the hills to saw the top out of a tall Ponderosa pine. Once we brought it home roped to the old Ford pickup, I nailed two-by-fours to the base, leaving room for the protruding end to rest in a bowl of water. The long pine needles didn't dry out fast like those of spruces or firs. It was pretty when we put it up, and still pretty in May when Belva finally insisted on dismantling it. Why be slaves to the calendar?
Our old BIA house had high ceilings, room for a 10-foot tree. We mounted a ladder to hang the topmost ornaments.
A large fireplace warmed the living room. We could've barbecued a buffalo.
Twenty miles away over the Ashland divide, an old sawmill still operated. Huge piles of trimmed pine logs were scattered in the yard like jackstraws, and they let me have some.
After figuring out how to run a chainsaw without losing any body parts, I backed the '61 Chrysler (known locally as "Hauxwell's Batmobile") to the log pile, and sawed 8-foot chunks from logs as wide as 20 inches.
After I wrestled the ends of the logs deep into the trunk, its bumper barely cleared the pavement on the slow drive back over the divide, logs jutting aft between the high tail fins.
I cut the logs into 2- to 3-foot lengths and stacked them on our enclosed front porch. That fireplace could accommodate such logs; the resulting blaze kept the whole room hot, but sucked the warm air out of the rest of the drafty dwelling.
We used the fire for atmosphere, not heating.
Flames were typically roaring when the long-awaited time came to "open presents." The date we chose for that ritual was determined by my call schedule. We didn't do presents on call days; if the clinic was closed on the day after call, we might do morning presents. It was understood "morning" might mean noonish, if I needed some sleep after my shift ended at 8 a.m. Otherwise, we did the presents at night; the particular date wasn't important, except to impatient kids who chafed at any delay.
A clunky, suitcase-sized VHS camera recorded the proceedings from its perch on a tripod. If we only opened one package at a time, the four of us could spend a couple hours arranging parcels, shuffling piles of papers and pretending to be delighted when we unwrapped socks or underwear.
Indoor Christmas and New Year's powwows were truly memorable events. Entering the tribal gym (before it burned down), the Quonset gym at Busby or the "old Catholic gym," newcomers negotiated floors slick with melted snow, searching for a seat as far from the door as possible. The heaters in those places were challenged to keep pace with the cold air blowing in every time the door opened, but later on, the assembled warm bodies and their dancing kept things pretty toasty. Seemed like everybody was happy, even the perpetual grouches who show up among any group.
My first role as Head Man Gourd Dancer materialized for a Christmas powwow. As member of the Powwow Committee, I was expected to host a give-away, after the usual honor songs. Colorful framed photos comprised most of our give-away gifts. By happenstance, in the bleachers sat a visiting Lakota lady who had urged us to dance our very first time a few years before. That had been a pivotal event in our efforts to become true members of the community. I was delighted to call her up to receive a nice tipi-at-sunset picture.
The gaudy costumes, whirling dancers, wailing singers and thudding drums make "traditional" decorations look drab.
One must learn and respect certain informal protocols. One lady gently admonished me that one does not wear nice moccasins while traipsing from car to gym through snow and slush, as I had just done. Instead -- silly Veho?o -- one wears galoshes or moon boots as usual, and carries the beautiful beaded buckskin moccasins in a plastic bag. When you're seated, then you put on your gear. Makes sense. Dress moccasins aren't hunting boots.
As president of the Lame Deer Women's Club, Belva coordinated the annual judging of residential Christmas decorations. A group of fellow club members piled into our minivan for the tour. At night, the lights were brighter, but visibility was otherwise reduced. This confined cluster of chattering chicks constantly fogged the interior windows. The vapor rapidly froze; they circulated a windshield scraper so the driver could see to navigate.
Theresa, an elder who was nearly blind, cherished these contests because the judging afforded her a rare opportunity to get out and around. No one objected each time -- that is, every time -- when having completed the survey of brightly-lit houses, she insisted they make a second round past all the entries "so she could see them again" -- to help her make up her mind.
I think I'll try that ploy the next time there's a wine-tasting hereabouts. Happy holidays indeed.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family
physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.