Authors: Jimmy Fox
And then he thought about a frequently suppressed idea that lurked in the shadows of his mind: he could start running drugs.
Some of the local young white men had chosen this dangerous way of life; a few guys he knew boasted incautiously about their wages of
sin. They were sneaking the stuff through the forest at night on logging roads and then on the sparsely traveled state highways, away from heavily patrolled I-10 and I-49. Tommy had seen forest airstrips, too. They were booby-trapped. It was hardly safe to walk in the woods anymore.
It would be easy for Tommy. He was as good a backwoodsman as anybody around here—with the exception, maybe, of his brother. But a guy could get killed in that line. He would be dealing with rough characters who’d just as soon shoot you as look at you; and then there were the cops.
Best stick to the guiding, even if humiliating and seasonal. Carl would just have to share a little more of the work with him. Tommy was the favorite of a couple of rich old Shreveport men with Range Rovers and Hummers, jewel-encrusted Rolexes, $50,000 shotguns, and more gear than a SEAL team. Who knows? . . . if things worked out, he could build a high-class lodge, train and sell some pure-bred Labs, and offer nearly year-round hunting and fishing for a king’s ransom.
He tried to filter out the mournful dirge of the cicadas, concentrating instead on the discordant voices of the ages in his soul.
he commanded himself.
What are they trying to tell me
? He had to come up with something or his family would starve, the tribe would fall apart, and their age-old dream of rebirth die. How could he face his ancestors if he let this happen?
The Golden Trace meandered by his house at one edge of his property, about fifty yards away from where he sat now. His father had cut a deal with the Office of State Parks for use of the trace, reserving for his family an island of private property in the midst of the forest. Tommy remembered how careful his father had been with the details of the agreement, having seen in his time many unlettered Katogoula lose their land to unprincipled white men. His father had always believed that no human being could own the Golden Trace. And now, though it was
officially under the administration of Tchekalaya State Forest, Tommy, like his father before him, considered himself only its caretaker.
Tourists, people from everywhere, strolled down the Golden Trace, just about all year. Harmless, friendly people, with money to spend. Brianne often fed a group, giving them fine memories—and a few pounds around the waist—to take back home.
. The voices were trying to say something, but that one word was all he could make out so far.
There were many stories about why the forest path was called the Golden Trace. Some said there was hidden gold buried by the French, the Spanish, the Confederates, or the Yankees. But he believed the story passed along by his tribe: that it was the ancient Katogoula hunting trail, and that the name came from the way the morning sun caught diamonds of dew clinging to countless pine needles.
the voices sang in magnificent harmony, startling Tommy and making him look around his front yard where the kids’ toys were dwarfed by towering longleaf pines.
Blood? Yes, of course, blood. He knew he had it, American Indian blood, Katogoula blood. He had felt that blood coursing through his veins as a boy, when, watching the first morning sunlight pour across the Golden Trace, he imagined that his own bare feet were those of his ancestors as they moved along without noise, to hunting grounds, or to battle. Blood. He could feel it as a presence in the pre-dawn darkness at the boat dock on Lake Katogoula, as the rich white men drank their bourbon-spiked coffee from gold-plated thermoses. He was with the stars above, with the pintails, the mallards, the geese; he was inside the cold blackness of the lake with the sleeping bream, perch, and bass. The white men had to ask him questions twice; probably thought he was stupid.
And it was his blood that connected him to all these things. He could feel it when he and Brianne made love, and his seed sought out
in her womb the river of blood that had been flowing for eons through their people.
His parents had been brought up to avoid the subject of Katogoula blood. Being an Indian in their day was no glamorous thing. Few whites, then or now, realized there still were Indians in Louisiana. Sure, they’d heard of the Plains Indians and reservations out west, of the indigenous peoples of Alaska and Hawaii. Everyday in Louisiana, whites rattled off tongue-twisting place names in Indian languages now dead. They flocked to one of the Indian casinos that dotted the state. But the flesh-and-blood Indians at their doorsteps still honoring their ancient ways had always been invisible—often by choice.
For much of their lives, Tommy’s parents had suffered from this desire to remain invisible. But the damage had been done: grandparents had told them of the old magical times of
grandparents. And slowly, an interest in their heritage was born.
Golden Trace! Tourists! Blood!
The voices drowned out every other thought.
Golden Trace! Tourists! Blood!
A woodpecker cackled crazily deep in the woods. The voices sank back into a murmuring babel. Tommy opened another beer.
Before his birth, during a national flowering of ethnic pride and pent-up anger in the sixties, his father had spearheaded the effort to obtain official recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Hopes ran high. Some initial genealogical work was done on a few families. The governor of the day, seeing a painless, relatively cost-free way to get some votes, quickly gave state recognition to the tribe. But eventually the enthusiasm faded. Things proceeded at a snail’s pace in this pre-Internet age. The BIA never actually rejected the federal application, but suggested that the tribe’s claims had been “misinterpreted.” More genealogical exploration, very costly, might or might not produce what was required; no firm guidance was offered, other than a stack of
not very helpful brochures filled with numbing bureaucratese and contradictory instructions and stock photos of smiling Native Americans in the desert or the snow. The Katogoula application had remained in limbo ever since.
It was all politics and CYA—cover your ass—not deficiency of genealogical evidence. The real reasons for the decades of uncertainty: well-meaning starve-the-beast budget reductions, corrupt state and national legislative shenanigans for profit by faceless operatives with the Katogoula as pawns, mercurially changing priorities, the dry rot of fraud and incompetence in administering the vast Indian trust wealth, sporadic assimilationist policies, pressure from already recognized tribes, and understandable local moral qualms about gambling.
The BIA, long viewed as the most inefficient federal agency, in his father’s day faced dwindling funding to support a sloppy bureaucracy that chronically mishandled paltry benefits intended to help existing tribes. Given the internal chaos and the external hijinks, it was no wonder that the BIA never made a small Louisiana group of people with a complex claim of Indian identity a high priority, or any priority at all.
Tommy himself had pretty much forgotten about the application, in the frenzy of adolescence and then the press of family life. During the seventies and eighties there were brief spasms of excitement and a few marches on the Capitol in Baton Rouge, as civil-rights and other interest groups sought to co-opt Katogoula resentment. After that, he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had brought up, other than sarcastically, the topic of recognition. There was a box of paperwork somewhere in one of his garage closets; that was about all he knew of the disowned idea. It was a thing his parents and their friends were all stoked about, until now as relevant to him as bell-bottoms and tie-dye.
the voices shouted.
Tommy jumped up from the rocker.
OUR JACKPOT BLOOD! Our salvation!
Now the strange chorus ceased. He could hear his own inner voice again.
Yes! Tribal recognition. It would be like winning the big one, the lucky once-in-a-lifetime score!
Thoughts now rolled across Tommy’s mind, whirring like the symbols in a slot machine’s windows. He would get on the phone, fly to Washington, triple mortgage his house and his land . . . this was now his mission, his sacrifice. He would devote all of his time to getting the application back on the front burner. The Katogoula could form some kind of charitable group, a foundation; solicit donations, take out loans, sell their hand-made baskets door to door, whatever they had to do. And finally, when they had federal recognition, they would open a casino, like the Chitiko-Tiloasha.
Tommy ran unsteadily to the garage, tripping over a plastic tricycle. He ricocheted off his truck and his wife’s old Pontiac as he charged to the closets. He didn’t have the key to the closet he wanted, so he kicked in the hollow-core door and groped for the string of the light. He pulled it so hard the ceramic fixture fell on him. The box that held the files for the application with the BIA . . .
where the hell was it?!
Tommy dug through layer after layer of family junk.
“Please, God, I hope it’s not thrown away!” he said, his voice slurred by alcohol, his throat choked with fear, his shirt sticking to him.
“Tommy! What are you doing?!” Brianne stood in the garage between the two vehicles, holding something. She looked disapprovingly at the mess. “Have you lost your mind?! You’re soused to the gills. And you’re soaking wet.”
“I’m looking for our people,” he said. He couldn’t explain now.
“Floyd just delivered this.” She held up the thick manila envelope their mailman had brought. “He had to come all the way back here from
the highway to get a signature. He wasn’t happy. Here. It’s addressed to you. I bet you can’t even read it.”
“Shhure I can,” Tommy protested, trying to stand up like a sober man, which only made him appear drunker. “Lemme see it.”
Looked official. Addressed to him personally, from the BIA, Branch of Acknowledgment and Research.
He ripped into it. Dozens of forms spread across both hands; some fell to the oily garage floor. He read the first few words of the cover letter. He shook his head vigorously and read the words again.
. . . happy to inform you that a final determination of acknowledgment of the Katogoula Tribe of Cutpine, Louisiana, has been reached. . . . actual tribal recognition did not result from actions of this agency, but through the Omnibus Congressional Funding Resolution. . .
Tommy let out a whoop. He grabbed Brianne and twirled her around until they fell against the Pontiac.
“Tommy! The baby! I’m pregnant, dear. Be careful.”
“Yeah. Right. Uh. I’ve got to, uh . . .” Shock and confusion momentarily immobilized his tongue.
“What does all that mean?” She tried to read the letter Tommy held in his shaking hands.
“Brianne, the BIA is giving the Katogoula tribal recognition!”
She inhaled sharply and put her hands over her mouth.
“Don’t cry, honey. Don’t cry.” He hugged her, gently now.
“Well, I’m so happy,” she said. “I can’t help it.”
Tommy tried to rub sobriety into his face. “I’m not sure what happened, exactly.” He read more of the letter, and as he did clarity sharpened his words. “Says here our senators and congressmen snuck some bill through that gave us official recognition and funding. The BIA’s got to take it from there. Look, I need to talk to Chief Claude. I’ll call you from their casino. See if you can find a beat-up blue cardboard box
of tribal records in there, about newspaper size, six inches high. Don’t lift anything too heavy; get the boys to help you when they get home from school. Call Miss Luevie, too. . . . And don’t worry, honey. All our problems are over.”
The white people of Cutpine had shunted the last of those who still called themselves Katogoula to the southern edge of the piddling municipality and beyond, where the longleaf pine forest, the Indians’ ancient home, grew thick again after the clear-cutting of the late nineteenth century. Their dirt-yard neighborhoods of ramshackle wood-frame houses had become their ghetto, their de facto reservation, and would probably be their deathbed if the gradual cultural extinction continued.
A hodgepodge of legends now little more than superstition, a stubborn pride, and a vague hope for rebirth were the feeble remaining elements of Katogoula identity. This complex of beliefs and emotions made them feel different, wronged, alienated, and yet blessed; it was both a curse and a treasure.
Cutpine was a good hour’s drive from the immensely successful Chitiko-Tiloasha casino, but more like two hours the way Tommy had to drive his old truck, always on the verge of breaking down. Tonight, he didn’t mind; he had a lot to think about.
Before setting out for home that night, Tommy had called his wife from a brightly lit gas station on the Chitiko-Tiloasha reservation, fifty miles outside of Lafayette, in the southwestern corner of Louisiana. He’d spent hours at the tribe’s Bayou Luck Casino. But he hadn’t been gambling. Today, the luck of his own tribe had changed forever, and it had nothing to do with the flashing electronic jangle or rolling dice or shuffling cards of the vast casino floor.