A Native teenager at the Stonewall Gay Power Protest, June 28, 1969
Suzan Shown Harjo.
I cannot be sure that my brother, Rick, was the only Native teenager at Stonewall, but he told he didn’t see any others. Rick was my baby brother, the younger of twin boys by ten minutes, ten minutes that his “older brother,” Dennis, never let him forget.
Rick, Dennis and I were born to Mom, Susie Rozetta Eades Douglas, a good looking Cheyenne and Pawnee woman, who earned a Haskell business degree while waiting for her good looking Muscogee (Creek) man, Freeland Edward Douglas, to come home from WWII. He returned as a disabled combat veteran, who almost lost his legs during the arduous, bloody battle for a Nazi-held monastery at the top of a hill — called Monte Cassino, Italy — which had to be taken before the Allies could take Rome by the D-Day target date. After seven operations from Libya to Oklahoma that never quite got all the shrapnel from his legs, he returned to get his degree from their alma mater, Chilocco Indian School.
While mom worked in a security job for an airplane manufacturer, Dad was preparing to rejoin the Army, which provided additional education in language emersion and cryptography. He and the other Chilocco boys already excelled in the field, when they made up their own unbreakable code while in training camp and on the troop ship from the U.S. to North Africa. Their code was based on the coordinates of the school and its lake and surrounding features and used as many words and phrases as they knew in the many languages the students were forbidden to speak in school, but did anyway. The boys of Company C were given walkie-talkies to communicate with each other in Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
Our parents were staunchly conservative about treaties, land rights, water rights and sovereignty, and ardently liberal about recovering Native freedoms, languages, ceremonies and dignity. They also were convinced that the best ways to achieve social justice, human rights and personal liberties were through a strong work ethic in study, sports and physical and mental exercise, as well as exposure to diverse countries, cultures and the many ways to be in the world.
Mom traveled to almost all the bases where Dad was stationed, taking my brothers and me along to the garden spots: Oahu, Hawaii, Pacific Grove, California, and Naples, Italy. The rest of the time, we got to live with our grandparents and other relatives on treaty lands in rural and small-town Oklahoma, in El Reno on Cheyenne land 25 miles to the west of Oklahoma City and on Muscogee farmland south of Tulsa, between Beggs and Okmulgee. It was the best of so many worlds.
The twins were born when I was five. They were a surprise to everyone, even to Mom, who weighed only 95 pounds when she began to give birth. Minutes after delivering what turned out to be the first baby, Mom heard the doctor say, “Hold on, we have another one here!” Rick had been smothered in the womb and was kept alive in an incubator for six weeks and given super vitamins and who knows what else. Because of all the intensive care, the “baby” of the identical twins always was taller and stronger than his older brother. But, the doctors told us that Rick would have health problems that would tax his heart, which they did not believe could beat beyond nineteen years.
Rick’s hypertension and other health problems were not readily apparent to anyone outside our extended family. When he entered his teen years, he began having recurrent convulsive seizures, which condition and similar neurological disorders were lumped under the heading of epilepsy. The good thing was that his big brother was always there to catch him before he hit the ground. Dennis described experiencing something throughout his torso, shoulders and arms that feels the way that lightning appears behind clouds — a slow-moving electrical impulse wrapped in softness — and he would know his brother needed him. Rick would not always realize he was seizing inside and Dennis would make him sit down and rest, and sometimes he would only convulse once or not at all.
One time, Rick played nearly a quarter of one of their senior high school football games without being fully present. Dennis noticed that Rick, while playing well, was set on autopilot, and took him off the field during a timeout. Rick went to sleep and had no waking memory of anything that happened during that 15-minute period.
Rick’s given name was Rickey Dean, reflecting our parents’ devotion to sports and the underdog. Branch Rickey was the Dodgers’ general manager/owner who helped make the Brooklyn baseball club the people’s team, and who desegregated major league baseball by recruiting, signing and backing Jackie Robinson, the first black professional baseball player. Rick’s other namesake was the league’s pitching champion, Dizzy Dean, who inspired kids across depression-era and dustbowl America — especially Indian kids and others who were “different” — because he excelled despite being portrayed as dumb and crazy.
Dennis Gene was named after Dad’s first pro boxing hero, Gene Tunney, a strategic fighter, who held the world championships in both the light heavyweight and a heavyweight classes (Dad fought as a welterweight on the 1942-1943 Thunderbirds 45th Infantry Division Boxing Team, and taught all his children how to fend off blows and land a punch, with and without gloves). Dennis was our parents’ schoolmate who made everyone laugh and was killed in WWII.
After graduation, Rick asked if he could spend the summer with me in New York City. I was delighted, although a bit apprehensive about what might happen without Dennis to catch our brother’s every fall. But, the medical alchemists who were mixing Rick’s cocktail of anticonvulsant uppers and downers thought they had discovered the perfect formula for keeping his seizures at bay; and, since he had been seizure-free since his 19th birthday in March, he was confident that the docs found the right mix.
Rick thrived in the streets and parks of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side (fashionably known as the West and East Village) because he could walk everywhere, and he was as excited as a boy about riding, subways, buses, and ferries. Because he hadn’t been free of convulsions or the meds that prevented them, Rick was not allowed to drive, even though he knew how. When we were little kids, Grandpa Lige had deputized me to teach Rick to drive the small tractor and to ride with him. I was happy to relive those cherished times by guiding my little brother through the wilds of Manhattan.
My brothers and I grew up with the freedom to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted. That is, we could do what we wanted, during daylight and early evening hours, and after our chores and reading time. Chores in those days in Muscogee territory could include shooting squirrels for breakfast, making biscuits and soup, hauling well water, salting deer strips to sun dry on the roof, planting and harvesting corn, picking the red-black buffalo currents and purple juneberries, stoking the fire in the potbelly stove, filling the kerosene lamps or pulling the rope-tied watermelons from the bottom of the creek. In Oahu, we’d ride bikes for hours and often all day, grabbing low-hanging guavas, mangos and avocados, and picking fruit we thought was most like the wild grapes, plums and paw paw we ate in Oklahoma. Once in a while, we would hit the food stands and spend a nickel each for meat or fish on a stick.
In Naples, we never left home without enough lire to buy street food. Our favorites were zeppulelle — paper cones of zucchini, seaweed, pistachios, ricotta, citrus and/or fish dipped in pasta batter and cooked in olive oil — and panuozzo, little oven-baked heroes with fresh spinach, basil, cherry tomatoes, pitted olives and vinegar, with or without sausage, peppers or hard cheese. In New York City, people who speak of street food usually extol the virtues or condemn the single-slice pizza and hot dogs, but Rick managed to find the best tasting walking food in neighborhoods I never explored.
We often took my daughter to either Tompkins Square Park, near my Lower East Side home, or Washington Square Park, near my first New York apartment. Rick would play my guitar (which he did better than I did) and I would keep time or sing, or both, until we drew a crowd and got everyone to sing and play. That’s how things were some of the time in the City in 1969.
The only night joints we went to were music places or off-B’way theater where friends were performing, usually the folksingers’ showcase, Village Gate, and Slugs, the after-hours haunt of the great jazz musicians and old beat poets. There were few Native cultural centers or gathering places in urban areas, so Indian political organizers and people just looking for company went to the Indian bars, which always were in the worst part of town, but where you’d find the most astute and funniest takes on what the latest policies portended for Indian country. There was only one “Indian bar” in New York at that time, the Spar in Brooklyn, which was an ironworkers’ bar after work, an Iroquois ironworkers’ bar until midnight and the Mohawk ironworkers’ bar ‘til closing. There was an Irish bar in Chelsea that Native people went to after the monthly pow-wow at the McBurney YMCA across the street, and even the non-drinkers stayed past closing, carrying out sleeping children still in their little dance moccasins and ribbon shirts.
In 1969, Vine Deloria, Jr., was the toast of the town, or at least the toast of the great writers’ bars, because his first book was a big hit, Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. A few years earlier, I introduced the Standing Rock Sioux author, then a politician, to my then-neighborhood bar on Hudson Street in the West Village, the White Horse Tavern, widely known as the pub where every poet’s hero Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. Vine introduced me to the Lion’s Head Tavern, on Christopher Street in Sheridan Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village.
The clientele of both taverns included longshoremen — remember, New York City is a series of islands with lots of waterfronts, shorelines and sea industry. The views of the dockworkers and seamen often clashed with other patrons — poets, playwrights, novelists, reporters, editors, actors and directors — usually over the Vietnam War, homosexuality and issues involving race, women and economic class. But, they always shook hands and bought each other more drinks, because they were in the same basic club: smart white men who drank way too much. Jimmy Breslin frequented both, but Norman Mailer was king of the White Horse and Pete Hamill ruled at the Lion’s Head. It was a great time to be a fly on the wall, so long as you weren’t a bar fly, and to be a designated memory.
When Rick first arrived, Vine came to town with Floyd Red Crow Westerman, the Sisseton-Wahpeton singer/songwriter, who wrote and recorded songs based on Vine’s book. Rick and I and other friends and fans were their entourage at the Lion’s Head, where Vine bested or held his own with all the other captivating storytellers. One of his book’s chapters, Indian Humor, tried to debunk the stoic-Indian stereotype. As if to provide a live demonstration of the point, he set up Floyd and Rick perfectly for very funny lines or stories that had everyone in stitches, and we all laughed as if we never heard each other’s tales before.
Before closing time, we visited with Vine and Floyd in the little Sheridan Square Park, one of the best people-watching spots ever, noticing that only we had kept Lion’s Head from being whites-only that night. The only other place on Christopher Street that was not all white was the nearby gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, where the black and brown drag queens and beefy and fey men and women outnumbered the white ones, although most of the latter were the straightest dressers and appeared to be customers. While people poured out of the other saloons holding onto one another or at least holding hands, we noticed that none of the gay couples were demonstrative, and we were reminded that it was still against the law to be homosexual.
We knew what it meant to have everything about you criminalized because it had happened to Native peoples as to no others under U.S. policies and practices that were still on the books when Vine was born. We were no strangers to being outlaws — even as recently as one week earlier for Rick and me — for being part of site-specific ceremonies or protests on our original treaty lands that were under military or private jurisdiction. In addition to the skills involved in making and breaking camp and preparing for and completing religious duties, it took considerable talents to just getting into and out of the locations without being caught.
We all knew or knew of people at home who were men living as women and women living as men, and who were in same-sex relationships before anyone used the term. We saw the women’s movement of the day as representing mostly women’s struggles against white patriarchy, and most of the white matriarchy as being against non-white women going outside the gender construct and raising issues of race and ethnicity. We also were familiar with the sexism and racism in the anti-war movement, but Native combat vets against the war had so much respect that it made anti-war activism less problematic for the rest of us. All of these things meant to us that Native Peoples got a lot right and that the American experiment had a long road ahead toward perfection.
On the afternoon and evening of June 28, 1969, we celebrated my daughter’s fourth birthday and had a house and backyard set up like a mini-fair with games that adults were watching kids play or letting them win. Once the house was put back together again, Rick decided to go to the Lion’s Head. He didn’t drink, but he wanted to sit with the writers again and smoke and share stories with them. He later told us that he was having a terrific time until someone ran in with the news that there was a fight outside. Rick ran out and saw police dragging people out of the Stonewall and arresting people who yelled back, “Why” and “What did I do?” Rick said he really got mad when he saw the cops roughing up the people who looked the smallest and weakest. He said that “bystanders” were throwing things at the police and “some big guys moved in on them,” including a few in high heels.
Before long, Rick was part of the crowd that was chased out of Sheridan Square, that would hide around the corner, pick up reinforcements and run back toward the Stonewall, until they were chased out of the Square and went around another block, hid for a while and went back. He said the “bystanders” kept throwing things at the police, outside and inside the bar, and more police arrived and new run-and-hide chases began.
Many years earlier, my brothers and I visited our parents at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and we went to Persimmon Creek to look for persimmons. Near the water, we saw two black snakes and shouted at them to go away, but they didn’t. Instead, the pair chased us — not fast enough to catch us, but fast enough to tree us. We knew they could climb the tree, but they didn’t. Instead, they turned around and sauntered toward the water. We jumped down and chased them and they turned on us again, sending us back up the same tree. That time, they went away, but at a snail’s pace. I asked Rick if he felt like the police were snake-playing with them and he laughed at the game quality of the two chases.
During one of their hiding-around-the-corner periods, Rick struck up a conversation with another man in the chase-and-be-chased crowd. When things died down and the streets started clearing, they got iced egg creams and bagels. Because his new friend had his little box of chess pieces with him, they went to Washington Square Park and played on the concrete chess tables that are a feature of so many parks in the City.
When Rick got home, he amazed and entertained us with his adventures at what WBAI-FM Radio was already calling the “gay power protest.” I conducted Native and other programs at the station and called the news and public affairs producers about Rick. They put him on the air, first with a phone-feed and later with an in-studio interview. Rick met others who were participants or witnesses that night. While they all were there at the same time, they saw and heard and thought different things. It made for really good radio.
Rick’s Native accent with a southern drawl really stood out among the varied New York accents. When someone commented on the way he talked, he got to tell about how our Muscogee town and ceremonial ground, Nuyakv, got its name during the making of the 1790 Treaty of New York between the ancient Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the very new United States. There were two daughter towns of the mother town, Hickory Ground, and both had the same name, which was a common occurrence. When the Muscogee Delegates and President Washington concluded the Treaty, it was consecrated with a ceremony, in which the youngest daughter town was given a new name: Nuyakv. It was the word Delegates heard New Yorkers say to describe themselves: New Yorker, Noo-Yawk-Kah, which is how you pronounce Nuyakv. Rick said it was inevitable that we would wind up in New York because we were Nuyakv.
After his radio extravaganza, Rick told us more about his new friend, a professor at New York University. “I hope I didn’t insult him.” Why? “Well, he asked me if I liked boys.” What did you say? “I didn’t want to say the wrong thing,” so he said, “I used to, but I’m off ‘em now.” I laughed, which made Rick worry more, but I reassured Rick that his friend probably knew the answer before he asked the questions and likely was not insulted by his effort to say the right thing.
Rick caught up on his sleep and did not go back to Sheridan Square that night. Upon hearing that there was an even bigger protest the second night, he felt like he missed out. I had worried half the night that he might have had a convulsion, so I was glad he missed the second and then the third nights of the Stonewall protest.
After his 19th year, our family thought Rick had beaten the odds that his first doctors gave him about not getting out of his teenage years alive. He lived to marry a lovely Acoma Pueblo woman, Karen Garcia, and have two beautiful children, Cat’e Star and Francine Nicole. We thought he would live forever. He did not.
One day, he was fishing alone at one lake, while Dad, Dennis and Rick’s young son and daughter were fishing at another one. Dad and the twins were seriously competitive about fishing and it was their favorite sport. Dennis felt that familiar electrical impulse he had not experienced for many years and he told Dad, “Rick’s in trouble. We need to go.” Dad put the kids in the car and started driving. Dennis said, “It’s over.” Dad asked if Rick was okay. Dennis said he didn’t know, but whatever it was, “It’s over.”
When Rick had walked to his fishing place, he exchanged pleasantries with an off-duty policeman, who saw Rick pick his spot, cast and fall face-down in the water. His great big heart finally gave out.
I kept putting off my happy birthday call to Mom. She called me, crying. Is it Rickey? “Yes.” Oh, no. “Did they call you?” No, I just knew. Mom knew that I was part of the twins’ non-verbal communications and Rick sometimes complained about how unfair it was that Dennis knew he was going to be sick before he knew himself and that I knew what he was thinking as soon as he thought it. But, he also told Dad that he didn’t have to have any secrets about anything, because I always kept them for him. I still take pride in that.
Rick died on July 2, 1989, our mother’s birthday, and was buried on the same date as my dear husband had been, exactly seven years earlier. Frank Ray Harjo, who died at 35 on July 4, 1982, and Rick loved each other and formed a true brotherly bond.
When Dennis said his final farewell to Rick — after Rick’s hero, F. Browning Pipestem, Esq., said the last word — I saw a thin translucent baby cord between the live brother and the one in the casket. Dennis never recovered from the loss of his twin. Mom and Dad could not mention his name without crying, so they eventually stopped trying to talk about him.
I was privileged to know the twins’ language, and I was honored to have such a kind, considerate, honest, loyal and brave brother. Rickey lived to be 39, twice as long as he was supposed to live. I credit his summer of freedom as a Nuyakv, including his part in the Stonewall gay power protest, for his extra 20 years.
Sweet summer memories.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. An award-winning Columnist for ICT and the Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.