The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Playing Indians

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1992

Issue: May, 1992

When I was a child, winter or summer alike, I couldn't wait to get outside, head for the woods and play Indian. I saw every movie that came to town on a Saturday afternoon that had anything at all to do with Indians, but I wasn't often pleased with the way Indians were treated in the movies. They always lost. Sometimes the handsome young cavalry officer fell in love with an Indian princess (they were always princesses), but if he did, you knew her fate was sealed. She was bound to die before the movie was over. For some reason, Hollywood never produced happy Indian movies.

I don't know why I was so taken with Indians. Indians in movies always lived outdoors and I loved the outdoors. I also liked their clothing and the way the Indian women wore their hair in braids. I had long hair and often wore it in braids when I was a child. That's about where the similarity ended though. I wore glasses from the fourth grade on, but I justified that there were bound to be some near-sighted Indians as well, although I had never seen an Indian with glasses on in the movies.

Often my sister, Judy, who was three years younger than I, would want to play Indians with me, but I must admit, I was never very fair with her. I always chose a beautiful sounding name like Sun-se-wa-ya and made her be Minihaha. I went even further with the cruelty by pronouncing it Mini-HA-HA. Of course she didn't like it, but had to accept it if she wanted to play.

I chose a favored spot in the edge of the woods - far enough away from home to be considered wilderness by a ten year old and yet close enough to hear Mother call. This was the permanent location of the Indian village. I thought of it as a village even though it consisted of one tent made from an old blanket I talked Mother out of and a make-believe campfire. I wasn't allowed to mess with real fire, but I found stones I considered just right, placed them in a circle just outside the "tent," and filled the center of the circle with twigs.

The tent sagged at best, and if it rained, it was totally hopeless. After reading up on Indians at the school library, I bent over a couple of young trees, tied them together and used them as the frame for my tent, covered with the same blanket. Mother refused to give another to the cause. I reasoned that the tent would be better after it got wet and dried in the right shape, molded to the frame of trees. The word "mold" could be used in both senses of the word here. The blanket definitely grew a fungus from being wet so often.

From this base camp, I hunted and with the bow and arrows I made. My father showed me how to get a limber young sapling that was straight to make the bow from. Then he took his pocket knife and trimmed around each end to make the depressions where I tied the tobacco twine string. My arrows were simply small tree limbs stripped of their bark and notched at one end, no arrowhead or feather ends on them. Any feathers I might find in the woods were placed in my headband. (All Indians wore headbands - everyone knew that.) I don't remember ever hitting a single target. I never aimed at real animals. I have always been too tender hearted to kill anything. I aimed at imaginary wolves and bears. Nothing else was worthy of one of my arrows, and those imaginary animals were always instantly killed by one of my shots.

I practiced walking quietly in the woods. Every one knew that Indians were all stealthy and Could move soundlessly through the woods.

I was in luck in that a stream flowed through our woods, and in the banks of that stream I discovered clay. Indians were famed for their pottery and now I was able to make my own! It was a wonderful discovery, even though my pottery hardly resembled Indian (or any other race known to man) craftsmanship. Again, because I did not have access to fire or any kind of kiln, my pottery was sun dried and broke very easily. I did have a wonderful time painting it with bright red and blue zigzag stripes with my water color set. When I discovered the water colors weren't such a good idea, I simply colored the stripes with crayons.

I went to camp one summer and learned how to make baskets, but all of their supplies were store bought and my woodsy attempts using natural supplies didn't come out too good. Lopsided is a generous description for them.

When my own two daughters were young and got a pony, I thought to myself, "If I had a pony when I was their age, I could have been the finest Indian of them all." I had make believe ponies though, and they were pinto ponies. I rode them like the wind.

I played Indians for years - probably from the time I was around six until I was a teenager. I gave it up at the age when I was ashamed for anyone to know I still played anything. I never gave up my love of Indian lore though, and when the Indian fashions came in the 1960s, I enjoyed it very much. Even though I was grown up by then, it was almost as fun as playing again. I still had long hair and now I could braid it again and bought beaded leather fasteners to tie on my braids that were made by real Indians. I also loved the soft leather moccasins that were in style at that time.

When I think back to those play years of my childhood, I remember how very much I enjoyed playing Indian and the hours spent in the woods in my village. It was a fantasy world I could step into, practically right outside my door.

Looking back, I can see it was beneficial in many ways. It exercised my creativity and imagination. It had me in the school library reading up on Indians and learning more about the world. It also gave me a lot of healthy outdoor exercise. I had the best muscles of any little Tomboy I knew. I challenged boys in Indian arm wrestling before I reached the age when it wasn't fun to beat boys if you wanted them to ask you to dance at parties. (They tended to hold it against you if you won, instead of admiring you for it.)

They don't make many Indian movies anymore, and the ones they do make are more on an adult tone than a child would enjoy. Perhaps it's good to be more realistic than the hokie old movies I saw as a child, but I don't remember being fooled even once into thinking that the cowboys were always right and the Indians were always wrong. My oldest grandson is eight years old. Lately I have been thinking how much I would like to take him to a real Indian reservation. He has a pretty good imagination and he loves playing in the woods also. Today's world is completely different from the one I grew up in, but maybe, just maybe, it could capture his imagination too.