In 1973 it was common to call Native American people Indians. We lived in Montana and demographics always included a large percentage of Native American families. In my stories I refer to Native American’s as Indians, because it holds true to the times. I recognize the inappropriateness of this term today and do not intend for it to be disrespectful.
Mom got a job waiting tables and we lived with Grandma and Grandpa for a couple more months until mom saved up enough to get us into our own place. A new low income complex had just been developed in the middle of town and we were the first to live in our apartment. Cottage Grove Apartments, Apartment #44, off of 3rd Street. We were on the ground floor, a 3-bedroom apartment with all bedroom windows facing a small open grassy area split in half by an irrigation ditch with the laundry facilities for the complex off to the side. The playground, or the swings, were behind the laundry facilities within sight. There were a lot of kids running around, mostly Indians. I hadn’t made up my mind about our new place as I was still missing my home in Veneta, Oregon. Jerry was quick to head out and find the rebels. I continued my role as mother-to-Jason and held him tight on my hip as I ventured out to meet some friends.
Time passed and we came to know Cottage Grove as our home. I had two close friends with whom I spent most of my time and got into trouble. Mayme lived in the adjacent apartment building in a third floor apartment. She was hearing impaired and I quickly learned to read lips and sign the basics. Once Jerry pushed us in the ditch filled with water because he was being Jerry, and I remember her jumping out and running home yelling, “Jay, wah! Jay wah!”
My other friend was Wanda, an Indian girl who lived at the far end of the same building as Mayme. She too lived on the third floor, at the edge of the complex. Her bedroom window faced a trailer park and a small farm that raised peacocks. The peacocks were loud and one could clearly hear their creepy, ominous cries of “help” from Wanda’s bedroom. We would gather their beautiful feathers through the fence and wear them like the warrior queens that we were.
One day we were at Wanda’s apartment and decided we would learn to smoke one of her father’s cigarettes. Sitting on the couch, I remember holding a match to the end, waiting for it to light up. With the pride of an insider’s “know”, she informed me that you have to suck on the end to get it to stay lit. Simultaneously grabbing the cigarette from my fingers and striking a match, I thought she was a genius in her confident movements. Upon receiving the gift of the little lit stick from Wanda, I quickly learned how to make tiny curls of smoke drift to the ceiling. Suddenly we heard the loud footsteps of her huge father coming up the stairs. Wanda instantly opened the window and I got rid of the cigarette in my hand. I threw it in the couch and buried it under a pillow.
We couldn’t escape the expression of guilt and fear fixed to our faces so instead we escaped into her bedroom just as her dad entered the apartment. I surveyed the drop from the third story window and realized there was no way out except to exit through the living room, past her father. We waited for what seemed like hours hiding silently in her room until we were certain the coast was clear. After a seemingly safe span of time Wanda slowly opened the door and carefully poked her head out. It seemed harmless enough and we carefully and slowly proceeded down the hallway toward the living room. A wall of smoke and a loud booming voice hit us in the same instant. I jumped out of my skin as we turned the corner and saw the couch engulfed in flames and her father violently trying to smother it with a large blanket. Wanda quickly ran to the kitchen to fetch some water, but I stayed planted firm, frozen with terror. I had seen Wanda’s father’s rage before and the resultant black eyes on her mother.
The stereotype of an angry, drunken Indian is not lost on me and for that reason alone, I wish the events had not unfolded as they did, but they did. Recognizing that we were the culprits of the chaos, Wanda’s father began yelling and thrashing for us. He grabbed the closest heavy object, and again, stereotypically, it was a large mallet that accompanied his ceremonious pow wow drum. I reverted to what I did best, I ran. Wa’nt no drunken Indian gonna beat me that day. As I cleared the door, I saw Wanda cower on the floor beneath her father’s violent blows. Wanda and I ceased to be friends as I’m sure her dad told her to keep away from me and there was no way I was going anywhere near their apartment.