Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee Indian, displays the contents of one of her “medicine bundles.” It includes seeds for corn and other grains and medicinal plants. “My clan and I should be able to survive with the things in those bundles and the knowledge that we have,” she said. Thom and her husband, historical novelist James Alexander Thom, live in a log cabin west of Bloomington and are members of Utilities District of Western Indiana REMC.
Part III: The way the ‘old folks’ taught
Photos by Richard G. Biever
Dark Rain Thom, 65, grew up in what once was Shawnee territory in south central Ohio. She was called by her Christian name, Claudia, at school — and whenever her mother was angry with her, she added. But her family name, given to her by her grandmother, was “Dew.”
By then, so much of the Shawnee language had been lost, Dew translated as “DekNappe” on the Shawnee rolls, she said.
Her named changed to Dark Rain after she became an adult. She said a rascally re-enactor at one living history “rendezvous,” or gathering, of Native Americans and historical interpreters translated DekNappe as “Dark Water.” “That could be a ‘deep lake,’” he teased, “… that could be a ‘stagnant pond.’ Maybe I should call you ‘Stagnant Pond.’”
She protested, telling him it meant moisture from the air, like rain. “That began my being called ‘Dark Rain,’” she said.
She knew her family tree included German, Irish, Scottish and English, along with distant Cherokee and Wyandot. But all the while she was growing up, she was unaware it was the Shawnee tradition she was being taught.
“At that time, it was still hazardous to your health for your neighbors to know who you were,” she said. “They would burn you out once. The second time, they would kill you and your family. So they didn’t tell children. You had to be mature before any of the elders would tell you.”
After she learned of her Shawnee ancestry, her grandmother told her, “All these years, every time I said, ‘this is the way the old folks taught me,’ I was talking about our Indian ancestors.”
Thom said, “As I associated more with tribal people, I began to realize why I had a different value system, why I thought different, why I did things differently. It was because I was taught [Shawnee] tradition.”
Thom moved to Indiana in 1990 after marrying James Alexander Thom
, the well-known Hoosier writer of historical novels. They met a year earlier when he was being honored by the Shawnee for his book Panther in the Sky
, a novel about the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh. The Thoms are members of Utilities District of Western Indiana REMC.
She also served as a director on the national Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Planning Council and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Thom worked for more than a decade on the bicentennial observance and was instrumental in getting Indian support behind the 2003-06 commemoration. Her guidance and leadership also helped the Falls of the Ohio land the second of the 15 bicentennial Signature Events in 2003.
She has co-written a book with her husband called Warrior Woman
, which tells the story of a the peace chief of the Shawnee nation. She also gathered many Shawnee stories and traditions, passed down orally for centuries, in a book called, The Shawnee: Kohkumthena’s Grandchildren.
Unlike Thom, John Dunnagan, vice chief of the Miami of Indiana, grew up in Wabash surrounded by his Miami ancestry in a very public way. His mother, Frances Dunnagan, was active in the Miami tribe. She was the first and only female Miami chief, serving from 1994 until her death in 1998. His grandfather helped incorporate the tribe in 1937 to protect it when it became apparent federal recognition was not going to happen soon.
Dunnagan, 44, a Miami-Cass REMC consumer from Chili, traces his family heritage back to Frances Slocum and Francis Godfroy.
He’s now also the tribe’s historian but said he failed history in school. He said classmates laughed at him when he told them he was an Indian. And he’d sit and stew when his teacher would say all the Indians were removed from Indiana. “That’s the most untrue statement that has ever been made,” he said. “‘The Miamis were all removed,’ … and I’m right here!”
Dunnagan’s 24-year-old daughter is Erin Dunnagan Oliver, the tribe’s new public relations director. Her upbringing reveals how society’s acceptance of Native American culture has changed in just the generation between her childhood and her dad’s.
Oliver, a 2001 graduate of North Miami High School, where she was a cheerleader for the Warriors, said growing up as a Native American for her was much different than for previous generations. “Teachers wanted to know about my heritage,” she said. “They never made me feel different or that my side of the story wasn’t being told. It was really a good opportunity to educate.”
Oliver was the first “Miami Maiden,” an honor position started in 2002 to represent the tribe as kind of an ambassador at community events.
A 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Oliver now plans to pursue a law degree in tribal policy. Her ultimate goal, she said, is to use the degree to help her tribe regain its recognition through the courts.
Anthony Redfeather Nava
, a Pascua Yaqui Indian of Arizona living in New Albany, uses his ancestry to teach as well. A musician and artist, he creates traditional flutes from cedar and plays them at various events. He and his wife, Shannon, a native Hoosier whose ancestry includes Creek and Choctaw, also travel to schools, libraries and the like with a hands-on museum.
As a Southwest Indian, Nava’s ancestry is more apparent in his facial features than Native Americans from the East who traditionally had lighter complexions. He hears the stereotypical comments and takes the opportunities to enlighten. “Every day, I have people walk up to me and say, ‘heya, heya, heya,’ or ‘how!’ or ‘kemo sabe.’ A lot of times, I’ll look at it as innocence, but sometimes people use it derogatorily,” he said.
“One of the things I try to get rid of is the ‘Hollywoodisms,” he said. “Hollywood and the media are destroying not just the Native culture — all cultures — because of the stereotypical views and responses toward people of different colors, different beliefs, different social, economic, religious backgrounds. They do not fully show the beauty of what people are.”
Thom said she began noticing a big shift in the way Native Americans were viewed after the Wounded Knee standoff in 1973. News coverage of the event allowed the voice of the Indian to be heard for the first time, and the public was outraged at their mistreatment. And the changing perception has continued.
“Many Americans still hold guilt and embarrassment over the way Indians were treated,” she said. “People come to me and say, ‘What can we do to make up for that? I feel so bad.’ And they’ll have tears in their eyes. And I say, ‘Don’t repeat your ancestors’ errors. Start today treating everybody nice. Go to bat for them. See to it that the government lives up to its obligations to the tribes.’
Thom noted some Americans still wish Native Americans would assimilate and go away. They’re annoyed by the federal support Indians receive. “The sooner everybody is assimilated,” she said, “the sooner the government doesn’t have to make the land payment. It isn’t just welfare. That’s the long-term payment for the land every one lives on now.”
Those who say American Indians should just assimilate into the dominant culture don’t realize what they’re asking.
“Your identity worldwide is established by your language, your religion and your cultural way you live your life,” said Thom. “Why would we want to give up our own identity? I know who I am. I’m proud of my ancestors. I’m not willing to give up my culture.”
She added, “Why would we assimilate into a culture that is so lacking and so mean-spirited?
“There is a lot of interest in the Native American culture right now,” said Kay Neumayr, board chair of the National Center for Great Lakes Native American Culture, Inc
. The not-for-profit organization preserves the culture of tribes from the Great Lakes region, including Indiana.
“If people today followed what’s called the ‘Red Road’ — the teachings and culture of the Native American peoples — this whole world would be a lot kinder and gentler,” said Neumayr, a Tipmont REMC consumer and former board member of Tipmont’s Operation RoundUp community fund.
Keeping their culture and their deep sense of spirituality, Thom said, doesn’t mean tossing out technology. Native Americans developed and used the best techniques of the day. “We were quite the experimenters. We were the ‘Purdue’ people, if you will,” she said when it came to hybridization of corn.
“What we try to do is be what our ancestors would have evolved into had he and the white man got along,” she said. “Take the good things, eliminate the bad.”
In addition, Thom and Neumayr noted there is much society is still just learning that Native Americans have understood for centuries.
“Modern science is just beginning to realize that everything has its place in the grand scheme of things,” Neumayr said. “But Native peoples realized that thousands of years ago. If one species is lost, it really does leave a hole.”
A wide and deep hole was left with the destruction of so much of the Native culture — the burial mounds and other parts of their society. Europeans never accepted that the Native Americans had an advanced culture in place. “It was foreign, so they considered it inferior. But it wasn’t,” said Neumayr, a distant Native American descendent. “When I think about all the things that were lost because of it, it makes my blood boil.”Go to Part IV: The State CommissionGo back to Part II: The Land of the IndiansGo back to “Following the Path” index
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