I don't know how much of our lives we are allowed to choose. The belief that our paths are paved for us at birth is sometimes true and other times questionable. I have to believe that I had no choice in this life. I was born into tradition, culture and respect. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest on the Umatilla (yuma-till-a) Indian Reservation. I know now that my life was made possible by the elders of my youth.
His name was Chief Clarence Burke and it is said he was "the most photographed Indian in the Northwest." It is a title he carried from the moment he became chief of our Confederated Tribes in the 1930's until his death in 1987. To all of us he was Grandpa Clarence, who always extended his hand to Indian children.
His famous words were, "What we do as adults will always reflect upon our Indian children." He lived up to that as an honorable chief and our people always came first to him, no matter what. As a boy, I remember his teaching about the Indian songs. He told us that even if you choose one song to sing, you are a step closer to the Creator. Today and every day I sing an Indian song. I think of him, and I am really proud to have witnessed his leadership.
She came from the Satus (say-tus) Longhouse in Washington that rests above the Columbia River. Her name was Tilly Totus (toe-tus). I saw her for the first time in Nes-pe-lam, Washington at a pow wow in 1976. The women's shawl dance was sweeping the Northwest at the time, and Tilly entered that competition as a traditional dancer dressed in full buckskin regalia. She was surrounded by youth, beauty and vitality, and she prevailed and made the final competition. When the judges called her name the spectators roared with applause the likes I had never heard before. As a boy, I had seen respect but never anything like that.
Tilly was a traditional force to be reckoned with. The spirit of an eagle feather told her to lead the men in the Longhouse religion of the Seven Drums (the dreamer faith). She did just that and it was unheard of for a woman, and it had never happened before, or since. Tilly was a true believer in the Creator and you could hear it in the Indian songs she sang. The strength of her voice was really unforgettable. There is no one like her who commands as much respect. Even though she died nearly two decades ago her legacy lives on.
I own only one item of Alex Johnson music, and it is an old cassette tape that he sings on called "The Umatilla Tribal Singers" (Canyon Records). He passed away in 1998, and he lived through our Umatilla and Nez Perce songs. Uncle Alec, as we called him, knew all the War Dance songs, and none of them were made up. They were handed down from the generation before him. As a boy, I never saw him sitting anywhere except at the drum. Uncle Alec experienced every Indian song he sang, and there were a lot of them in his lifetime.
What sticks in my memory though is only one thing. An Indian doctor came to his funeral and witnessed a sight unseen by the rest of us. This doctor spoke of the Spirit that attaches itself to our Indian people individually when we are born. This Spirit stays with and protects us throughout our lives. One remained with Uncle Alec until the day he died. This Indian doctor saw a golden cougar lying peacefully on top of uncle's casket during the funeral. It was without a doubt his spirit.
They are all gone now, Grandpa Clarence, Grandma Tilly, Uncle Alec. I think of them and my growing up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. I live here in Hollywood, Calif., far removed from the Northwest. I am a struggling actor who lives in a real white world. Yet, many times out of loneliness I walk the streets or get on the bus and I think about my elders and I am reminded that I am a true Indian.
I honestly feel that I am the fortunate one to have had such a wonderful Indian upbringing. These elders taught me loads of respect, and I can honestly say that I grew up in a time when our elders reigned supreme.
Roscoe Pond, Umatilla/Nez Perce, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild who has worked in Hollywood for five years. He holds a Bachelors degree in Theater Arts from Portland State University and was a member of the Daystar Dance Company from 1990 to 1998.