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McElhenie: Andrew and the Indians

I have a friend who tells me to write of my pain. My friend is a storyteller, an Indian. To people of the white race, a storyteller is just a person who tells stories. To an Indian, a storyteller is a special person, revered by the clan. They hold the past in their heads, and the gift of seeing unseen things.

My mother was born on what is today known as the Poarch Creek Indian Reservation outside of Atmore, Ala. My mother never talked about being an Indian. It was ingrained into her as a child not to let that be known. ''Hide your heritage.'' Her home was not a reservation when she was born there.

The U.S. government said she didn't exist as an Indian.

Why did she not exist as an Indian? Because Andrew Jackson, one of the heroes in every child's history book, said she did not exist as an Indian. That hero, who killed a thousand of my people in only one day at Horseshoe Bend, made this decision. This man, this president, said the American Indian did not deserve to be treated as a human. He stated that they should be herded like sheep or cows and put into pens. My mother's ancestors did not understand his reasoning, and hid out in the dense forest of southern Alabama to escape this indignity. As a consequence, they later suffered the indignity of being denied their heritage, their birthright, and their right to exist as an Indian because they were not listed on the ''proper'' roles.

My mother was made to feel small in school because she knew that she was a ''dirty'' Indian. She learned to deny being what she was. She learned to ''pass.'' When I was a child, she whispered to me that she was an Indian. ''Shh,'' she hummed in my ear, ''don't tell anyone. It's our secret.'' Suddenly, I realized why, during games of Cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the Indian, even though it meant I had to be the one who died. We all watched Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and other cowboy heroes. The cowboy was always the good guy wearing the white hat. The Indians were always the stinking coyotes, sneaking up on people and doing dirty deeds to poor, unsuspecting white settlers who were just minding their own business. Here comes Hopalong Cassidy, and he saves the day. Bang, bang! ''You're dead, you dirty Injun.'' Still, it didn't feel right to me to play the cowboy, or even Annie Oakley.

My mother was never allowed to be proud of her heritage, not only as a child, but for most of her adult life. I have an older brother who was born in Alabama. His birth certificate states his race is Indian. I was born later, after my mother moved to Louisiana. No one knew she was Indian. It was easy enough to ''pass'' in Louisiana with so many dark-skinned people there. My birth certificate even denies me my heritage. I am white. My birth certificate says so.

Time moves forward. Views change. Things once hidden are released to the liberal sunlight of acceptance. Your sins will find you out. Genocide, that horrible word associated with Hitler, never happened here in our wonderful land of the free. But it did. Ask the Creek, the Choctaw, the Cherokee and the other two ''civilized'' tribes who adopted the ways of the white man only to be betrayed and murdered by their mentors. Long before the ''death march'' of Bataan, there was the ''Trail of Tears.''

The white man does not understand how I feel about the attempted genocide of my peoples. When I say my peoples, I am not just speaking of my mother's Creeks; I am speaking of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Comanche, Apache, Ute - every tribe that suffered the same indignities. Here in the home of the brave and the land of the free, we were not allowed to be brave or free. This country, founded on religious freedom, took away our most sacred ceremonies and declared them illegal. Yet, they say it happened a long time ago; and ''get over it. You can't expect us to keep making it up to you.'' I feel unsettled when I hear these things. Why is that? They didn't do those things to me personally, and they cannot understand why it affects me. Why do I feel this pain? I have no real answers, but the pain is there. It is real. It hurts.

I recently stood on the steps of the Riverwalk in New Orleans - a beautiful place with lots of ambience. Across the distance there was a bronze statue of a man riding a horse. This man must be a wonderful person for them to raise a statue in his honor, to name a section of the city after him. This man was Andrew Jackson.

I stood in Jackson Square. By my side was my friend, the storyteller. When I looked at him, I saw the same pain written on his face that was on mine. We did not need to speak. Each knew what the other felt.

Teresa McElhenie, Muscogee Nation of Florida, resides in Spring, Texas. Her mother is Muscogee Creek from Atmore, Ala.