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My View: Outdoors were central to life on the reservation

By Angela Jonathan

November is Native American Heritage Month – a time to celebrate native history, culture and traditions.

I started at a new school in Niagara Falls in 1969. We were well removed from the old days, but I suppose kids were still watching John Wayne and Western movies.

I got all dressed up for my first day of third grade with Mrs. DiCamillo at 24th Street School. Mrs. Soboleski was the principal. My teacher told the kids that there was a new student in class that day and she asked what school I was coming from. I said proudly, “Tuscarora Indian School.”

She went on to tell the kids that I was coming from the Indian reservation and had moved to the city. One of the kids yelled, “Did you live in a teepee?” Another asked, “Do you ride a horse? Do you shoot bow and arrows?” Even though I was only 9 years old, I recall feeling surprised by such questions.

I was happy I was Tuscarora and from the reservation. I wasn’t cut out for city life; I was just a country mouse at heart.
When I was 9 and my brother 10, he got hit by a car crossing Pine Avenue and ended up in the hospital with a broken arm and leg.

This could have happened anywhere, but we weren’t allowed anywhere near the road on the reservation – this was before there were gas stations or smoke shops. You knew everyone who passed your house. Strangers were rare – they usually ended up being long-lost relatives.

Every year in July, we looked forward to the Tuscarora Indian Picnic, held for the past 172 years. We threw ping-pong balls to win fish in bowls. We posed with non-native kids for pictures so their parents could prove they had been to a real Indian reservation.

At the end of the night, we gathered on the school field to watch the fireball game and cheer on our brothers, cousins and uncles as they played the young men versus the old men with a ball of kerosene-soaked rags on fire.

We watched the greased pole-climbing competition; the catch-a-greased-pig contest; a real bear you could see for a quarter on the corner of Upper Mountain and Printup Road; and lacrosse games in the box on Walmore Road.

An exciting day was walking to Jughead’s – the only store around where there was a phone booth and a jukebox.

We ate pheasant, deer and sometimes rabbit shot by family members.

The outdoors were central in our life. We lived to be outside playing or lounging in the sun, in the shade, in the snow, in the rain, in the mud puddles, in the woods and in the breeze.

We enjoyed social gatherings at the old gym where wedding receptions often took place. Birthday parties were held at your home, not at the fancy venues there are now.

I recall walking cross-lots to go visiting. Yes, back in the day visiting and talking to each other was a common pastime.

We picked berries, threw a few crab apples, walked the roads, biked the pathways, slid on the back of bumpers and played outside – in what my Kusood (Grandma) called my dungarees – in the dark until we were told to get inside or the “skedahdeehs” would hear us making a racket.

We walked the escarpment ridge with my uncle, who named all of the trees and special plants. We should have paid better attention because all of that knowledge was lost with his sudden passing at a young age.

These were the things I wanted to tell my new third-grade classmates. Real life on the reservation was so much better than in Western movies.

Angela Jonathan, of Lewiston, teaches beadwork at Tuscarora School and is a member of the Tuscarora History Group.
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