Our mutual friend Todd Guenther invited us to his History and Hollywood Class on the American West. It proved to be one of the best educational experiences I’ve ever had and with over 225 college credits in my academic career that’s saying something.
My friend Chico Her Many Horses and I were a bit skeptical at first. I had recently retired and Chico was in the midst of his first retirement before returning to his classroom at Wyoming Indian High School. We were about to attend a regular morning class at Central Wyoming College with a room full of 18 to 22-year-old students, students who could have easily been our children and maybe even grandchildren.
Todd sweetened the pot by telling us we qualified for free tuition due to our advanced age, I think his actual words were something about reaching “geezerhood,” but we didn’t mind, it was three free recertification credits toward our Wyoming teaching license.
The class was fabulous. Todd is a gifted instructor that brought the American West to life, the real American west, not the Hollywood image that so many people believe.
As the class moved on through the semester, Chico and I gradually became more involved, we lived this material in our daily lives, studied it extensively, and taught it to our students over the course of our careers.
Occasionally, Todd would stop his lecture, and ask us with a grin, “You guys want to just come up and take over?” As tempting as it was, we always deferred to Professor Guenther.
The mix of kids was interesting, a few sleepy cowboys off the rodeo team that thought a class on History and Hollywood would be an easy three credits, a few history majors, and several of Todd’s anthropology students.
One 20-year-old from Arizona had a bit of a militant edge to her. She was always trying to move the discussion to race, gender, and equity. Chico and I both enjoy youngsters with strong opinions, knowing that life will soon take the sharp edges off their view of the world.
During class Chico would bring up fascinating stories, and information on the Oglala people, the Seven Tribes of the Sioux, and tales of the old days in Western South Dakota. My contribution came from my background in the Civil War and the westward expansion that ended the freedom of the plains tribes.
It bothered this young student that we got along so well.
One day she looked at us after we’d had a brief discussion and said, “How can you too even sit next to each other, 150 years ago you would have been mortal enemies.”
Chico, one of the wisest men I know had an answer for her, “We’re friends, we’ve been friends for a long time, 150 years ago we would have found a way to be friends.”
His reply wasn’t what she expected. It stunned her view of the world. How could this Swiss, Scottish, English guy be friends with an Oglala? And more so, how could they know so much about each other’s people, respect what they knew, and carry on like they did?
I wish the entire world were able to do that. It boils down to respect, interest, and learning that you don’t know everything. For most of us, we don’t know a whole lot, but listening, respecting the opinions of others, and working cohesively is one of the secrets of life.
A couple of years ago, I took a genealogy test from 23 and Me, to see my ancestry. I knew about the Swiss roots since both my grandparents emigrated from Switzerland in the 1920s. I also knew of my Scottish background since my ancestors the McElduffs, emigrated from Scotland to Tennessee in the early 1700s. The rest was a blank.
Sure enough, I’m half French, not really, they didn’t have a Swiss category, and France was the closest thing. Then came Scottish, English, West African, and a perplexing category listed as two percent unknown Southeast American. As a kid, I heard my grandparents speak of the Choctaw many times, and I inherited a Choctaw spear point from my great-grandfather Luther Bonner. There were hints of Choctaw heritage, but my grandparents and their families lived in the south, anything in your ancestry besides white European was never spoken of.
These thoughts coalesced in a strange location last week. The Central Wyoming Community Choir was performing, my wife Sue has been a part of that choir for a couple of decades. As they sang Loch Lomond, thoughts of Todd’s class, my friendship with Chico, my lifetime friendships with Arapaho and Shoshone kids I grew up with, and my inability to understand the prejudicial hatred of other people being openly expressed in America today came to mind.
But so did a little spot of martial aggression, the Scottish kind. Every time I hear a Scottish tune, like Loch Lomond, or even more to the point, “I’ll Stand my Ground” I feel a connection.
Bagpipes do it as well. No, I’m not a believer in reincarnation, but I think that researchers may someday discover evidence of genetic memory.
Geese fly back to the place they’re hatched after flights of tens of thousands of miles. Salmon live in the ocean only to return upstream in freshwater to the place they first emerged from eggs years before, why can’t we have that type of genetic imprint? Maybe we do, and perhaps we don’t, but a traumatic, life changing experience by an ancestor could have that memory implanted deep into their psyche. Do any of us know how the cells in our brain store memories? We inherit eye color, intelligence, height, speed, and myriad other genetic information from our ancestors, could a bit of hereditary memory not slip in there as well?
So a guy who traces his family back to 18th century Scotland, and early 20th century Switzerland has one of his best friends, a compatriot, fellow traveler, and kindred spirit in a man whose ancestors lived on the Great Plains from modern day Minnesota to the Black Hills for thousands of years. Why not?
In one of my favorite movie quotes, Chief Ten Bears says to Josey Wales, “It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men.”