Thursday, June 14, 2012


  You Want Bear?

            He is a Cherokee Indian, a kind, quiet man, and he and I are friends. I’ll call him John, for if I were to use his real name, he would be embarrassed. Over the years, Laura and I have attended sweat lodges with him, participated in pipe ceremonies, and come to appreciate his humble dedication to his belief system. We enjoy our differences and our sameness a great deal.

            A few years ago, my wife and I traveled to northern Arkansas to attend a black powder Rendezvous. A Rendezvous is a gathering of Buckskinners, modern day Mountain Men, practitioners of primitive arts. In many ways, these men and women are a step apart from the rest of us, spending some of their time amid the trappings and values of the early nineteenth century. At Rendezvous, competitions are held in marksmanship, knife, axe, and tomahawk throwing, fire starting, and other disciplines necessary to life in the wilderness from times long past. Much is as it was, the camp ground full of Baker tents, lean-to’s, and the occasional tipi. Traders hawk their wares of Green River knives and Hudson’s Bay blankets, skins and weapons are bought and sold, beadwork is bartered, and marvelous costumes and authentic clothing abound. It is a slice of the past, with different social rules and regulations than our current society, an etiquette and ambience that presents the visitor with a sense of history surpassing what may be gleaned from books. Many Rendezvous are closed to the general public for a few days of their duration, so the participants can practice their lifestyle and skills in peace from gawkers and tourists.

            On this particular day the grounds were open to all comers, and it was crowded, Reeboks more common than moccasins, shorts outnumbering breechclouts. We strolled through the camp, watching the visitors watch us, and enjoying their gaping. After searching for a short time, we found John and his wife sitting on bear skin robes in front of their lodge. John’s lodge is a sixteen-foot tipi of Sioux/Cherokee design, one of the most versatile shelters ever created by man, a true pine and canvass cathedral. We joined them in front of the lodge, as John surreptitiously ignited a fire with a carefully concealed Bic lighter. Feeding the blaze carefully, he soon had a small cooking fire ready. His wife entered the tipi and returned with an iron pot containing two cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. We sat back, jawing, and watched the parade of tourists peer at us. John and his wife were in buckskins and Indian garb, Laura and I in kettle-cloth clothing appropriate to the period, and we were all armed with knife, tomahawk, or both. Picturesque we were, fascinating to passers-by.

            Rules of etiquette demand a cooking fire not be approached by strangers without permission. It is no more acceptable than an outsider entering your kitchen. The rules of etiquette also state that anyone at your fire, or “in the kitchen” must be offered something to eat, if food is ready. Soon after the Dinty Moore stew had begun to bubble, a couple stopped and stared at us. They appeared to be in their early forties, were excessively white, and dressed in matching outfits of madras shorts, sport shirts, and jogging shoes. Fresh from Rotary and the Junior League, with a Taurus wagon in the dusty parking lot, they seemed fascinated that real Native Americans and Mountain Persons were available for easy inspection. They watched us from a distance for a while, then gathered their courage and walked directly to the fire.

            “What’s in the pot?” the man asked, smiling at us. John put on his best impression of Jay Silverheels’ Tonto, and replied.


            “Bear?”  the man squeaked.

            “Huh!” John replied. “Bear. You want to eat?” This was unanticipated, and the visitor hesitated a bit. To his credit, he plunged ahead.

            “Ah…sure! Thanks. I’d love to try some bear.”

            John’s wife produced a wooden bowl and iron spoon from inside the lodge and ladled some stew into the vessel. She passed it to our guest. The fellow took a small bite of the Dinty Moore, chewed, swallowed, and grinned.

            “This is good!” he beamed, then shoveled in a big spoonful, and continued. “Bear…wow! C’mon, this is really bear?”

            “Huh!” replied John, never cracking a smile. “That his name when we kill him. That Bear…him one good dog.”

            The visitor regarded John for a moment as this new bit of information soaked in, then shot Dinty Moore Beef Stew all over the fire and my moccasins. He scurried away, wheezing and coughing, as his wife skittered along beside him, attempting to wipe the stew off his shirt and shorts. The four of us collapsed in mild hysterics.

            Was our treatment of this obviously nice man wrong? Probably, but certainly small enough revenge. I think Jay Silverheels would have been proud.


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