Indian Territory

In 1965, I was seven years old. I had a wanderlust and a taste for adventure which I would assuage by jumping on my bike and riding off at top speed to destinations my imagination would pick for me. I’d be at the helm of a ship on the high seas, swashbuckling with pirates. Or, I was an explorer crawling through snow caves seeking treasure. I had a great deal of imagination and a desire to go places seeking adventure. Mom however, had other ideas. She had declared the area from 7th street to 10th street on the North and South and Jennings Street to Virginia Street on the West and East, basically a two block radius, safe and forbade us to ride our bikes or walk outside those boundaries, with a couple notable exceptions like school and the corner grocery store one block further away.
I had outgrown this small area by the time I was six and had been venturing further and further afield since then. There was one place I had found in my travels where I loved to go. I still do not know why I loved this place so well. I would go there again and again. Maybe because it was forbidden. Mom had specifically said, “do not go down there, it is dangerous.” Not unsafe, but dangerous.

Perhaps because it was forbidden or perhaps because of a story my grandfather told me when I was much younger was the reason that I found this place so enchanting. My heart would pound with fear and excitement hurrying to this place. It held such possibility for adventure. Why, anything could happen! Mystery and expectation arched like a dome overhead, concentrating in the air like an intoxicant. As you see this place, you wonder at my sanity. I agree. Even now, when I know better, I still remember the magic of being there. The hours spent in unharnessed imaginings. A free zone. Anything was possible! We had wings back then. By the time I quit going there when I was nine, everything had changed. It was no longer a magical place. It had become what my mom had warned against, “a dangerous place.”

But, back in 1965, when I still believed in magic and the possibility of adventure just around the corner, I would leave my house in the middle of 9th Street, walk two blocks east to Virginia Street. Turn right and walk two blocks to 7th Street, turn left at the little grocery store on the corner and halfway down the block, turn right to enter a no�name street that dead-ended at a six-foot high concrete wall. Lining both sides of this street are the sagging, dilapidated apartment houses, known as Indian Territory. So named because most of the inhabitants of these tenements were Native Americans, who had left the Winnebago, Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations looking for a better life in the city. A sometime friend, Zoe Devall, also lived there. She was white as were a couple other families.

During the many Summer afternoons playing down there I rarely saw any of the adult inhabitants of these dwellings. Sometimes, ancient looking, brown-skinned men were sitting on the broken stairs. There was no menace from them, nor was there welcome. They didn’t move, they didn’t talk, nor did they follow my progress down the street, their eyes were fixed elsewhere. They just sat, sometimes with a can of beer.

Looking at them, I remembered the story my grandfather told me when I was much younger. The story was about how he came to be bald. He said that one day, when he was a young man living on the farm, he was in the barn saddling his horse to ride into town. All of a sudden the Indians came boiling out of the hills and tomahawked him in the back and took his scalp. If it hadn’t been for his dog licking the wound in his back he would have died. The Indians had gone on the warpath, he said, and that’s how he came to be bald. I was fascinated with that story and would question him about it. Why’d they go on the warpath, grandpa. That’s just how Indians are. Well what did you do that made them take your scalp. Nothing. My childish understanding of that story was that Indians will go on the warpath for no reason.

I would surreptitiously watch those ancient-looking men whenever I saw them, hoping that this would be the day they would go on the warpath. They seemed so patient, like they were seeing something, watching it, unmoving while they waited. I wondered what they were seeing and more importantly to me, what they were waiting for. I wanted them to rise up and go on the warpath.

Their living conditions could certainly have provoked an uprising. The apartment houses stood side by side with less than an inch of space between them. They were two-stories high. There were four apartments in each building, two on top and two on the bottom. They had faded purple or brown siding on them. The kind of siding that has the texture of roof shingles. That scrapey, grooved material that if you brush against it will take your skin off.

During the Summer, most of the windows on all sides of the buildings were wide open. A few of the windows had screens on them. Some of those screens were torn and hanging down. Most of the windows were just open to whatever wanted to fly in there. I don’t remember any flying insects, though surely, there were flies. Peoples’ garbage cans stood, full to overflowing, fermenting in the hot sun, out back in the alley where the garbage trucks came through to pick them up. There were no mosquitoes or gnats. I think now it was because there was no moisture. It was a parched, dry place. There were no trees, no shrubs, no bushes and what grass there was, was only patches of crab grass. Brown, dead weeds covered the back yard all the way to the alley. Along the fence, dividing the backyard from the alley, milk weed grew, high as small trees. Scratchy milk weed that made my skin itch if I touched it.

The houses sit on a high embankment. There is a four foot high retaining wall straining to keep the embankment in place. The retaining walls run the length of both sides of the street. This wall has crumbled in places. The sloping lawn behind and above the wall has poured dirt and rock across the sidewalk, over the broken curb and lies baking into odd-shaped, brick pancakes in the gutters, waiting for the next rainfall to perhaps, this time, wash it down the drains. Those same rains will wash more of the sloping lawns into the same gutters, clogging them with mud, rocks, weeds and other lawn debris causing water to wash across the street into a swirling muddy creek which the barefoot children will play in. The street is cracked and pothole infested. Most of the curbs have been broken so that there’s jagged rock exposed rather than the smooth, curved cement of the original curb. The sidewalk is also cracked and great chucks of concrete are missing.

The lawn slopes upward to a level place where all the houses sit. It’s not a lawn like in my neighborhood where the green grass spreads out in all directions, around the houses, stops at the sidewalk and picks back up at the grassy embankments leading down to the street. Nobody watered their lawns in those days, but the grass was always full and green. (The bane of my brother’s existence because he had to mow it at least once a week. Twice a week if it rained.) The lawns in Indian Territory were hard baked, cracked dirt. There were tufts of crab grass here and there. These tufts were avoided by hands and feet because the minute, serrated-edged blades of grass could cut flesh if you stepped just right, or let your hands slip upwards over the blades. There are no trees, so it’s hard to explain the presence of so many sticks and twigs. Like there had been a storm and the trees shed all their dead pieces. But there are no trees here. It’s also hard to explain the sharp, pointed roots breaching the surface of the dirt everywhere. It’s as if, a long time ago, someone built a random defense of buried spears around the yard and then chopped them all off, leaving these sharp, little stubs sticking out of the ground. There is other debris in the yards, a ragged looking shirt, too torn up to be used as a dust rag; the torso of a doll, no arms, legs or head, just a pink, plastic torso; beer cans; cigarette butts; balls of aluminum foil; plastic bread wrappers; and other things I never got close enough to identify.

There’s a sidewalk going to the left of the building, that takes you around to the weed-infested backyard and then to the alley. The concrete front steps climb up to the level place where the houses sit. Then there’s another set of wooden steps leading up to the front door of the apartment house. Most of the steps have pieces missing from them. Jagged, splintery holes await the unmindful. Other steps are completely gone and have been replaced by someone laying a board across the length. It’s not nailed down so you have to step over that too. There is no railing to hang on to.

Some of the buildings have a decided list, with all their broken and torn parts. They look like they could be haunted houses, but they are not sinister. Just kind of spooky. Spooky like when you go to a haunted house and you know the blood is fake. The “eyeballs” they place in your hand after blind folding you are really just peeled grapes. You know it’s fake but you still get that creepy, excited, scary feeling, like “what if…!” What if this time, the convict really has escaped and broken into this haunted house and made all the blood and eyeballs for real! It’s like that. No real danger, but what if….! It’s the same way I felt about those men sitting there so patient. What if today is the day they go on the warpath? I’d get that same scary, excited feeling.

The inside of the apartments are a wreck too. The linoleum in the kitchen curls in stiff waves at all the edges, it is cracked and torn and the brown underside shows through largely, especially in the center of the room. The cabinet doors in the kitchen are either missing, or hanging at awkward angles and have gouges and scratches all over them. It’s always dark in there even with the lights on. The lights give off a feeble, yellow glow which does not reach the floor or the corners of any room. The walls are all greasy and stained and have a waxy feel to them. I try not to touch them, ever. The doors don’t close all the way, they hang with gaps at the top between the door and the sill. There are cockroaches and water bugs scampering all over the place. I never want to be inside of Zoe’s family’s apartment. It stinks and feels clammy in there.

I don’t know why such abject poverty inspired me to feel it such a magical place. Maybe because everything was imagination driven. There were no toys to play with, no trees to climb, no bikes to ride, no grass to cushion our fall when we spun around until we fell over dizzy. Everything was in our minds and our bodies. We used our imagination to enact stories we had read, been told or seen on TV. The treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson was climbed, pantomiming the careful placement of a foot on a branch. The chopping down of coconuts and dropping them to our friends below. It was the enactment of stories that stirred my mind. It was the enactment of grandpa’s story that I kept waiting to see whenever I went to Indian Territory.

I don’t know when Indian Territory started changing from magic to menace. Maybe I just grew up, stopped believing in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and realized that Grandpa’s story was a lie on so many levels. I had pretty much stopped going there by the time I was nine. Zoe’s family had moved and I had not been down there since.

One day in 1967, when I was nine, I got a lonely feeling for the place, I missed the fun I had there and decided to go visit. Maybe somebody I knew had moved in there and we could play. When I got to the little grocery store on the corner of 7th and Virginia, I was surprised to see my older sister and her best friend out front talking to this whole group of boys. Some of them I knew, the Lange brothers, Whitethunder, Campbell, Wabashaw. My sister got mad when she saw me and told me to go home. I just walked past her like I had business of my own and turned the corner to go into Indian Territory. It had changed so dramatically I looked back to see if I’d turned down the right street.

If it was possible, the houses looked even more dilapidated. They were no longer just listing, some of the buildings were actually leaning against the one next to it. There were more people out on their steps. There was not a white face among them. They were all brown-skinned people, but younger, meaner looking. The sidewalks did not exist anymore, they were all dirt. There were radios and TVs blaring. People were fighting inside their apartments. Kids were crying. The people sitting outside on their steps were giving me hostile glares. I turned and walked back to the corner grocery. I stood by Lu. She ignored me. I think I was in shock. But I heard the boys talking about all the money they were going to get. Bragging and laughing about all the stuff they were going to buy. I kept wondering why they were talking about “lids”? They used the “F” word a lot. I finally just walked away and went home.

Years later when I was allowed a home visit from the girl’s home I was in, Mom said that they had torn Indian Territory down. I put on a coat and walked over to where it used to be. There was a nice park with a wooden, corral-like fence around it with swingsets, teeter-totters, a jungle gym, and picnic tables. I stood there outraged and then wondered why I was so mad. The place had been a menace, a health and safety hazard. They should have condemned and torn down those buildings when I was seven. I think I was so angry because they could spend all that money to make a nice, clean park for all the white folks moving into the neighborhood, but they wouldn’t spend the money to fix up those ratholes to make them livable for the people who were forced to live in them. But then what did I expect, the consensus in that town was that they were throw away houses for throw away people. Nobody cared about the people who lived in Indian Territory. Just a bunch of drunken Indians, let em live in squalor, it’s what they’re used to.

Such virulent racism was typical of not only my family but everybody in that town from the store keepers who followed my native friends around their stores, watching them like hawks, speaking sharply to them, demanding they choose what they wanted, pay for it and get out. The schools made the native kids stand at attention, on display, outside the principal’s office waiting for him to deign to speak to them because they were tardy. When the rest of us were tardy we were given a note and sent to class. The city government never once cited, let alone fined or enforced the laws on the owners of Indian Territory for health or safety hazards, nor did the City bother to repair the street or sidewalks, also a safety hazard. The racism was city-wide and systematic. My racism was a product of ignorance but racism all the same. I accepted as true my grandfather’s story about his being scalped. I went to Indian Territory specifically so I could see the Indians go on the warpath. I had such hopes for those old men’s uprising. As I stood there looking at that park, I still foolishly wished that those men had risen up and said, No more!

At that time, when I was looking at that park and wishing for an uprising, the second Wounded Knee had not yet happened. The result of that uprising by those men and women was, for many of them, prison or an untimely death. They were killed or imprisoned for their efforts. But back then, looking at that sturdy, clean park, I wished those ancient-looking men from my childhood had fought back.

As for those young Indian boys my sister and her friend were talking to that day in 1967, they did say “I’m going to get out of this shithole and have a better life.” Most of them are dead or in prison. Those boys’ uprising was fanned by alcohol and drugs and their warpath became B&Es, robberies, assaults and drug dealing.

I think now, those old men knew what their younger counterparts did not, that any uprising or warpath they went on would result in their deaths, in one way or another. Instead they listened to a bunch of kids screaming with laughter in a place that should have been burned to the ground and salt sown in with the ashes, and perhaps, they heard hope in that laughter.

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