Harjo: Dad


I want to tell you about my father, Freeland Douglas. I am bursting with equal parts pride and sadness. Pride because he was a hero and - well - Dad. Sadness because he died on April 5 in San Antonio and there were things he did not get to do.

He did not get to go home to Okmulgee, Okla., where he wanted to be around Muscogee -speaking people all the time and hear Muscogee songs. He wanted to bring a lawsuit about what federal Indian boarding schools did to him and other Native young people and to Native languages. He wanted to recover his family lands, or at least know the whole truth of how they were stolen.

His doctors said if he didn't have an operation or chemotherapy he would live for two years. He chose the two years and decided how he wanted to spend them. But then came the stroke and there wasn't even time to go home.

He was 85, lived a full life, died peacefully at dawn and Muscogee songs sang him farewell. Others will have to be his language and land warriors.

When Dad asked me to arrange for him to move home, he also said he wanted to spend time fishing at Lake Okmulgee, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that Dad loved. He spent a summer in an all-Indian CCC camp near Bull Holler and was pretty sure the following song lyrics referred to his group: ''Another day, another dollar, another night in Bull Holler.''

Dad was Hodulgee (Wind Clan) from Nuyakv Tribal Town of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He always said those were the first and most important things to know about who he was.

His nickname was Fuco, Duck, which he earned at Chilocco Indian School. Hungry boys liberated some pheasants from the meat locker after the principal returned from a hunting trip. They roasted the birds over hot stones in an open pit by the water. Dad thought he heard someone approaching and meant to tell the others to take cover and hide the pheasants, but it came out, ''Duck the ducks!'' Whenever he recounted the story of that nickname, he would grin, pat his stomach and say, ''We had mighty fine dining that night - the best duck I ever ate.''

The boys who looked well-fed the next day were beaten repeatedly and told to confess to the pheasant caper. They all denied any part in it and later laughed about it, saying they didn't even have to lie - after all, they dined on duck, not pheasant.

Dad was a survivor. He survived the theft of his family's treaty and allotted lands, going from lush woods, cool waters and fertile farmland to borrowed tents, worn blankets and government commodities on the grounds of Newtown Church outside of Okmulgee. That's how his family survived the worst of the Great Depression - that and federal boarding school.

Dad survived Euchee Indian School, where he was beaten up every time he was caught speaking Muscogee. I asked him what he was beaten with and he said, ''Boards - 1x2s and 2x2s.''

He once told Washington Post reporter Rich Leiby that he could guess when the omnipresent and inhumane ''Indian Civilization Regulations'' from the 1880s were lifted, even though he hadn't heard of them before. He was right in thinking they ended in the mid-1930s and he thought so because that's when school disciplinarians started hitting him with leather straps instead of unforgiving boards. Dad later told me, ''That was a really good day.''

Dad survived Chilocco by falling in love with Susie Rozetta Eades, Mom, the Cheyenne and Pawnee woman he was married to for nearly 60 years, until her death in 2003. On April 10, he was buried in the rich red earth at Concho next to her and their youngest son and a host of other Cheyenne relatives. Now they all speak the language of the ancestors.

Dad survived World War II, where his boarding school knowledge of many Native languages and his photographic memory for names, faces, landscapes and maps helped win battles in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno and Monte Cassino. He was with the 45th Infantry Div., Company C. All the first soldiers of Company C were certain the ''C'' stood for Chilocco, because they were all students there.

The men of Company C were code talkers. Their code was an informal one of their own devising, made up on the troop ship to North Africa, from the languages, experiences and places they had in common at Chilocco. They spoke mostly in the Muscogee languages, with words and phrases in Euchee, Cherokee and other languages spoken by Chilocco students. Their directions and coordinates were the layout and orientation of natural and constructed places at Chilocco.

Many of the first Company C soldiers were highly decorated and all were heroes, including Ernest Childers, Dad's fellow Creek schoolmate and the first Native American to receive a Medal of Honor. The survivors joked that Chilocco trained them to be good warriors because that's where they learned to conduct night missions, elude the enemy and withstand torture.

Dad almost lost his legs at Monte Cassino and had a long rehabilitation. He returned from war as a disabled veteran without a high school degree. He married Mom, who earned a Haskell Indian School business degree while he was away. Even though he was more damaged by boarding school than by war, he went back to Chilocco and graduated.

The Army recruited him to be a cryptographer and gave Dad a formal education, including language immersion courses. He learned Chinese and Korean in 11 months. My brothers and I would show him characters and words on cubes and cards and, if he got the English word right, we would say, ''That's very good, Dad; you're a very good dad.'' He let us think we were teaching him, but I really think he was helping us with English.

Dad had a secret military life that I rarely glimpsed. When I was in my 40s, I called him from Bowling Green, Ky., to let him know I finally saw it. He sounded puzzled. ''I've never been there.'' I reminded him that he used to write me letters from there. ''Oh,'' he said slowly. ''Didn't you ever notice that I never mentioned weather or scenery? My letters were posted at Bowling Green, but I was always somewhere else.''

I think Dad survived the Army by taking a principled position against the Vietnam War. After I mentioned this at his funeral, the Newtown minister said she was a child of the '60s and ''never knew that a man such as this could be against the war.'' He was also against the current one in Iraq, which he said was unwinnable.

Dad's was a legacy of survivance. The history of his family's land is a tangle of records, some missing, involving lowlifes and pillars of society and people who couldn't or wouldn't do anything about anything. Dad's birthplace is the most beautiful land I've ever seen in the spring and fall. He longed for that land in the same way our ancestors longed for the old lands that they were stolen from in the forced marches to Indian Territory.

Dad was born at home on his mother's Muscogee land outside Okemah around the end of January in 1922. When it came time for a birth certificate, no one could remember the exact date and they chose Jan. 24 as his birthday. As with his birth date, Dad made the best of his life, chose what he had the power to choose, sought justice for 85 years and died in his sleep. May we all be so fortunate.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.