The Woodshed Wheel
Excerpt from the book Catch the Whisper of the Wind by Cheewa James. The book is a collection of inspirational stories and proverbs from Native Americans.
The Woodshed Wheel
By Dave Risling, Hoopa, Karuk, Yurok
In those days before cars came, there was just a wagon road to our house. We lived on what was then known as the Hoopa Reservation Extension in northern California. My dad worked in the woods and as a commercial fisherman, traveling 25 miles by river to the river mouth for supplies and work.
In my later growing-up years, we moved to be closer to the Hoopa Agency and School. My pop, David Risling Sr., was a born politician. Our house was a common meeting place for tribal discussion.
He always was an independent, get-it-done kind of guy. He ran away from the Chemawa Indian Boarding School near Salem, Oregon, in the third grade and learned to live on his own. Later, he picked up jobs in agriculture and construction and with the railroads. Someplace along the way, he learned to play the violin. I have many memories of my dad sawing away on his violin. He played for many of the fund-raising dances to help finance our fight with the federal government as it took our lands. Pop was always the best in everything he did.
I was an achiever in our high school. It was a little one, only 70 students, but I was student body president, captain of the football team and a champ boxer. Pop was the best in what he did, and I sure was going to try to be the same. This kept me away from the drinking. In our family, we also supplied all our own game, salmon and garden vegetables, and that kept me busy, too.
I was determined, the fall after finishing high school, to go on to college. There wasn’t money for college, but I painted the school buildings during the summer at 25 cents an hour, and the savings began to grow. What really sealed the deal was when I was able to sell my two prize hogs for $66.
I was, therefore, pretty astonished when Pop invited me into the woodshed for a talk one August day, just prior to my leaving. Someone had surely told him a whopper of a story because I hadn’t done anything wrong that I could think of.
The woodshed was to provide the backdrop for the greatest lesson I ever got. Pop looked me up and down and said “You’re leaving for college. Don’t bother to come back if you forget who you are. And if you do come back, you better learn how to fight fire with fire, and understand the rights and laws we live by.”
He drew a big circle on the dirt floor and put his stick right in the middle.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“It’s a circle with a dot in the center,” I responded.
“That circle is the dominant society. The dot is us, and those are the odds you fight. In fact, we’d have to use our whole valley to symbolize the resources of the dominant society compared to the dot.”
It was an awesome statistic. The sun had drifted through the window and the circle stood out, crudely drawn but making a point that I was never to forget.
“That world out there,” he said, pointing to his circle, “is powerful, and making changes won’t be easy.” He paused, and I moved to go. I thought we were through.
His words stopped my movement. “Now make that circle a wheel. What do you have to do to help our people?”
I knew the answer. “I will be a lawyer.”
He drew a line connecting the dot with the outside of the circle. “Do you think a wheel can turn with only one spoke?” I hadn’t given the right answer.
“Well?” he probed.
I couldn’t give him a good answer. That is when, in a dusty shed, on a remote California Indian reservation, I got the lesson that would guide me for the rest of my life.
“You need to have education away from here, and you need to understand everything you can about what is happening. Put in as many spokes as you can.” At this point he stroked in half the wheel.
“But you also have to learn about your spirituality,” and here he emphatically drew the first spoke on the other side of the wheel, “your culture and traditions,” and the stick drew more spokes on the wheel.
“If you don’t come home often and keep in touch, the spokes won’t be there. Some young people who leave here have problems coming back home. You need to keep the spokes on this side of your wheel full so it can roll right.” His stick flashed out and drew in spokes. “Self-determination, control of your own education.” With each item he listed, he drew in a spoke.
He emphasized the need for Native Americans to know their own history, do their own research, and even do their own printing, so the truth would be there. The stick continued to draw spokes.
“You can have information,” he said, “but you have to know the channels to get things done.”As I watched him draw in the dust, I was overwhelmed with both respect and love for this man who worked so hard to bring the best to his family and community.
I went to college, and it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have college prep classes or anything to prepare me for what I found there. I immediately went on academic probation and had to dig myself back out. There was only one other Native American in the school, from a reservation in Nevada, and he only stayed for a while.
Over time, life has put many spokes in my wheel. The wheel finally rolled out of the woodshed. It moved across California and even the nation. I am active in serving the cause of education for Native Americans.
But the wheel runs smoothly because its other side is full, too. I went back home often, as I still do, and did what I had always done with my dad: I helped organize the ceremonies. The White Deer Skin Dance comes in the fall and asks for world renewal. It is followed by the Jump Dance, ten days later, thanking the Creator for salmon, acorns, good life and the health of the people. For years I have worked to make sure it all comes off right: feeding all the people, checking ceremonial gear and contacting people who have disputes that must be dealt with before the ceremony can go on. There can be no bad thoughts, no disputes as people come to the ceremony.
As I have worked with Indian education and rights programs across the nation, I have always made sure that the wheels we create look like my dad’s wheel on the woodshed floor.