When Shasta and I were out riding around in the foothills the other day, I came across an old, abandoned Indian dwelling. Right away it reminded me of the afternoon I spent with the Yokut Indians when I was about six years old. What a scary time! I was scared to death of Indians, mostly because Riley had read me a dime novel about Indians capturing people. He laughs about it now, but it was not funny at the time.
He and I ended up getting lost in the middle of the ranch (we were pretty young), and these two Indian boys showed up from behind some bushes! I was so scared, I started crying. Then worse! An Indian man showed up. There were Indians everywhere!
Come to find out, these Indians were the Yokuts, a peaceful, kind people. Riley and I ended up having a great time playing with the other children, eating acorn mush, and spending the night in a hut that looked just like the one above. I made a new friend too. A little girl named Choo-nook. She didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t speak a word of Yokut, except I knew the word “ohom,” which means “no.” The next day, the Yokut man, Lum-pa, took Riley and me home.
Most of the Yokuts used to live in the valley and along the shores of Tulare Lake, which is a huge, shallow, freshwater lake. Lots of fish, wild birds, and other wildlife to live on, plus rushes (called tule), with which to construct their houses. But they moved into the foothills and on our ranch before I was born. And they had a camp alongside the San Joaquin River, which is one of the boundaries of the Circle C.
After I met Choo-nook, Riley and I were invited to come and play whenever we wanted. Trouble was, Mother wouldn’t let us go off by ourselves. It was too easy to get lost in the Circle C rangeland. So Mitch or Chad or Riley’s Uncle Sid had to go with us, and we wanted to go a lot.
What I liked best to see were the beautiful baskets the Yokuts made. Even Choo-nook could weave small ones, and she did a fine job. Her grandmother made big ones with special designs.
One special day, we showed up just in time to watch Lum-pa and the others construct a new dwelling. It was fun to watch how they put the frame together and then cover it with tule reeds. This house was more rounded than the one we slept in a few years before.
Here is Choo-nook when we were both about ten years old. She tried on one of my dresses, and I wore her grass skirt and a rabbit shawl. We both laughed so hard we fell over. I let her keep my dress, and Choo-nook let me keep her clothes. When our foreman, Sid, fetched me home, Mother was horrified to see me in such disarray. Worse, Aunt Rebecca had shown up for a surprise visit that day. It was one of the worst days of my life. Auntie fell over in a dead faint, and Melinda was so embarrassed that she ran to her room in tears to see her little sister dressed like an Indian.
After Aunt Rebecca recovered from her swooning, she grabbed me before Mother could intervene and ripped the pretty shell necklace from around my neck. Then she yanked the string from around my head and tore out the feather Choo-nook’s little brother had given me. It was the most beautiful wild turkey feather I’d ever seen. I burst into tears, but Aunt Rebecca paid no heed. She scorched me with words up one side and down the other for wearing “heathen” and immodest clothing.
She might be right about the immodest part, but Aunt Rebecca has the whole “heathen Indian” thing all wrong. Lum-pa and his family are all Christians, just like we Carters. Father told Lum-pa about Christ years and years ago. But will Aunt Rebecca admit such a thing? Oh, no. Not if she lives to be a hundred and five. Not even Mother or Justin can talk sense into her.
When Aunt Rebecca shooed me upstairs to take a bath and change back into “decent” attire, Mother came to my rescue. She wiped away my tears and apologized for Aunt Rebecca’s rough treatment. “But in my day,” Mother confessed, “my aunt and even my mother would have whipped me good and hard, but mostly for leaving my dress with the Indians.” I could see Mother was trying hard not to smile. “When I was a little girl, we were too poor to have more than two dresses. One for every day and one for Sunday. So you see, Andrea . . .” And she said no more but just looked at me.
I saw her point. “I’m sorry, Mother. I’ll get the dress back if you like.” But Mother shook her head. “I’m sure Choo-nook feels very special to have a cloth dress.” She started chuckling. “Honestly, daughter, with your dark braids and that feather in your hair, I was sure Sid had brought home the wrong little girl.” I laughed too, and Mother put her finger to her lips. “Now, hop into the bathtub, rub the berry juice from your face and arms, and change into your prettiest dress. That should sooth Aunt Rebecca’s ruffled feathers, don’t you think?” Mother winked, and that was the end of that.
I visited Choo-nook many other times, but as their band grew in size, they headed farther east, nearly to the boundaries of the ranch. Even on the Circle C, Lum-pa and his family are not safe. Not even now, in 1880. There are some mean white Americans who try to take advantage of the $5.00 bounty on their heads. Yes, really! Five dollars to kill my friends. Oh, God must weep when He sees what evil men do because they don’t care for the color of another’s skin. When I ask Mother why, she says because sin always corrupts. But someday God will make all things new. And God holds Lum-pa, Choo-nook, and the others in His hands in life, and even in death.