Spirit of a Storyteller – interview with Matt Jones a.k.a. Sitting Bear (14 September 2007)

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Introduction

About a week ago, I received an email from Matt requesting an interview. He attached to his email a document which had some information about him. I read the attachment with much interest and knew I wanted to interview him. I am sure, when you read all of Matt’s stories below, you’ll agree that his is a most interesting tale. Without  further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you Matt Jones a.k.a. Sitting Bear …


Aneeta: Matt, thank you for writing to me with your request.

Matt:  Aneeta, I appreciate this opportunity to share my story with your readers.

Aneeta: Let’s start with you. Please tell me a little about your childhood, youth, what you do for a living and where you live now.

Matt: I spent my childhood on both of my parents Indian reservations in Oklahoma.  We would stay at my grandfather’s house.  When my father would find a job we would move to what ever city the job was in and then I would attend the local catholic school.  During the summer me and my sister would be went to one of our grandfathers home to spend the summer helping then on the farm or ranch.

When I stayed at my grandfather Harvey Atkins place, every evening all the relatives would come to his place and the women would gather in the back of the house where there was a big outdoor cooking area and the men would gather on the front porch with my grandfather.  The kids were allowed to run free around the farm until supper was ready and then we would have to stop playing and wash up and sit down and eat.

When we were done eating the kids were allowed to again run and play, the men would again congregate on the front porch and the women would start cleaning up the cooking area.  Eventually we kids would get tired of playing and we would go to see what the women were doing.  They would be talking about the day’s events, so us kids would go to see what the men were doing.  They too were talking about the days farm work, but eventually they would get around to telling old stories about our people.  The women would eventually do the same.  I grew up on these stories.

My father would find work off the reservation and we would move to where ever the job was.  I then attended public schools.  After graduation from high school, I joined the United States Army and was sent to the Republic of Vietnam, where I served with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Division.  I served two tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970.

When I came back to the United States I went to college and got an Associate of Arts degree in theatre, a bachelor’s degree in Television, and a Masters degree in Anthropology.  I moved to Nebraska and went to work for Nebraska Public Television where I distributed public television programs to schools, colleges and universities.  I also produced programs for the organization and was rewarded with a number of awards for my work.  I did this for about ten years and then moved into the teaching profession where I was an Adjunct professor.  I retired from the university in December of 2006 after twenty years.  Then in January I was invited to Oxford University for the Oxford Round Table on English as a Second Language.  I have been living in Lincoln, Nebraska since 1986.

Aneeta: That’s quite something. I read, from the information you sent me, that you’re also known as ‘Sitting Bear’. Please, do you care to share with me how you came to have this name and what it means to you.

Matt:  The name Set-Angia (Bear Who Sits or Sitting Bear) was given to me by my Grandfather.  It is a custom of my people that when a new born is brought into the world.  The parents go to someone they respect and ask that person to name their new born child.  My parents went to my grandfather and presented him with tobacco and asked him to give me a name.  He accepted the tobacco and said he would be honoured to name his new grandson, but, he would name me when he returned from Colorado.  You see my grandfather was the elder of our clan and was asked to perform different ceremonies for the clan members.  He had been asked to come to Colorado by a relative of mine, who had a daughter that was getting ready to make the transition from young girl to woman.  Our people have a ceremony for this transition and my grandfather was asked to perform it for this family.

When the ceremony was complete my grandfather took a drive into the mountains to think about his new grandson.  He found a place to park his car and saw a trail that led up the mountain.  He followed the trail up into the mountain.  As he walked along the trial he saw the little four leggeds running around, he stopped and watched one little four legged playing with an acorn it had found.  It was playing with it much like a cat plays with a ball.  He watched for awhile and then noticed that the young four legged was more interested in playing with the acorn than worrying about its own safety.  You see the young four legged was playing in an unsafe place.  There was no tree cover, the area was completely open to the sky and if a winged one wanted to swoop down and take the young four legged, it could do so.  He thought of a name (thinge scotcha), but decided that “foolish Chipmunk” was not a good name to give his new grandchild.  Can you imagine going to school with a name like foolish Chipmunk.  When role was being called, the teacher would call “Is bob here, is betty here, is mary here, is foolish Chipmunk here.”  I was glad he didn’t choose that name too.

My grandfather continued up the mountain and was listening to all the sound around him.  Then he heard a sound he had not heard before.  He stopped and listened to see if he could tell where this new sound was coming from.  He heard it again; the sound was coming from behind him.  He turned around and saw a bear coming out of the trees and crossing the trail he was on.  He froze and didn’t move.  The bear crossed the trail and went into the woods on the other side.  My grandfather turned and continued up the mountain.  Again he heard the sound and looked behind him and saw that the bear had come back and was standing on the trail.  He again froze and watched the bear.  The bear didn’t raise its head but kept its head down and was sniffing the ground.  My grandfather very slowly began to walk up the mountain; he didn’t want to alert the bear of his presents, but the bear didn’t raise its head.  The bear kept his head down and was sniffing the ground.

My grandfather still walking up the mountain began looking for a way to get off the trail.  A small opening in the brush and trees came into view and he slowly moved into it.  He looked around and saw a big tree; he thought he could hide behind.  He went and stood behind the tree and waited for the bear to appear in the opening he had come through.  As he stood there his mind began to race.  He thought that if the bear was looking for him, this hiding place might not be a good place.  He started looking around and saw that there was an opening behind him and there was an open field with another stand of trees on the other side of the field.  He decided to move to the other stand of trees.  He crossed the clearing and found another big tree to hide behind.  He peeked out around the tree and waited to see the bear.  He didn’t have to wait very long.  He caught a glimpse of the bear, but the bear kept going up the mountain.  My grandfather breathed a sigh of relief; the bear wasn’t looking for him.  But just then the bear came back into sight.  It came through the same opening he had come through and walked right up to the tree he had first hid behind.  The bear walked around and around the tree sniffing the ground.  The bear stood up and placed its front paws on the tree and was looking into the tree to see if my grandfather was hiding in it.  My grandfather saw the bear drop back to the ground and again sniff the ground.  Then the bear turned and started across the clearing.  My grandfather froze behind the tree and watched the bear, his heart pounding and his breathing was fast and shallow.  Sweat began to run down his face as he saw the bear get closer and closer.  About half way across the clearing the bear stopped and stood up on its hind legs.  It started to walk toward my grandfather and then stopped.  The bear sat down and my grandfather didn’t know if the bear saw him or not.  The sun was high in the sky when the bear sat down.  My grandfather and the bear looked at each other for a long, long time.  Then the bear stood on all four legs and turned and went back the way it had come.  My grandfather said that the sun was now hanging low in the sky.  The bear went back to the trail and went up the mountain.  My grandfather waited a little while and then he came out of hiding and went to the trail and slowly peeked out from behind a tree to see the bear way up the trail.

My grandfather got on the trail and went down the mountain and got into his car and went back to my relatives house, he packed his bag and told my relative he was going home.  When he got back home he went to my parent’s house and told them this story.  He told them that this would be the new grand child’s name Set-Angia, Bear Who Sits or Sitting Bear.

In my Otoe-Missouria peoples beliefs the Bear is an intelligent and wise being.  We place a high respect for this animal that the Bear Clan is a Hereditary Chief clan.  And those who are named for the Bear are expected to be a leader and teacher.

Aneeta: How did you first come into contact with storytelling?

Matt:  I was brought up with stories.  My relatives always were telling stories.  To the native American people stories were teaching tools.  My ancestors would spend the night before they went on a war raid telling stories to build up their courage.  My grandfather would use stories to instil wisdom and morals.

Aneeta: I am not very familiar with Native American stories, I admit. But, I found it interesting that your purpose is to demonstrate how white government officials and bureaucrats have imposed the Anglo point of view on Native Americans to the detriment of the Indian’s achievement and self-esteem. Can you then please give me an example of how you do this … a story, perhaps?

Matt:  OK, I will tell you about Miarke tahhunshe (Big Soldier).  Miarke tahhunshe rujirara chi kigra chigi ikunnyi.  e^e wanashe wahtohtana.  Oh, I’m sorry I will translate the story about Big Soldier.

Big Soldier was walking from his home to his grandmothers home when he was stolen from the Otoe people. (This is what I said before).  When he didn’t come home before dark, his father, Ko Inga went to Hawapeme, his mother’s house to find him.  Hawapeme told Ko Inga that she had not seen Miarke tahhunshe.  Word was sent out from Ko Inga’s home to all the relatives that Miarke tahhunshe was missing and a search was being held.  They searched for four days and didn’t find any sign of Miarke tahhunshe.  The family went into mourning.  They prayed too Waconda to receive the spirit of Miarke tahhunshe.  Hundoyame, mother of Miarke tahhunshe, felt the loss of her son deep in her heart.  She wept for days and almost went mad with grief.  She sat in Miarke tahhunshe room and in a low mournful voice sang a song that she use to sing to him when he was a baby.

Hinwákigroxe, Hinwákigroxe, Aré hinwákigroxewi. 
Dagúresdun warigroxe, Hánwe aré hingri tahñe.
Dagúrestun, Hinwágiroxi. 
Rísdan mínke rigáxena. 
Warúthañe wóchexi ke. 
Wakándasdan hinwágiroxe.”

At this time the Great White Father had sent word to all his children that the young ones were to go away from their parents and people.  The wahtohtana refused to send their children away.  So the Indian agent hired a child catcher.  His job was to drive a buck board wagon around the reservation and pick up kids he found and send them to the boarding school.  He found Miarke tahhunshe.

Miarke tahhunshe was placed in a big room with many chairs along with other children who had been stolen.  Miarke tahhunshe recognized some of these children as Wahtohtana, Panyi, and Ponca.  Soon the room began to move and the children became frightened, some of the children grabbed each other for safety, others covered themselves with blankets.  They travelled for several days before they were allowed to get out of the moving room.

One day Miarke tahhunshe was taken out of the moving room and put onto another buck board wagon and taken to a big house where he and the other children were herded into a large room.  Miarke tahhunshe and the other boys were taken into small room and told to remove their tribal cloths, then they were taken into another room and told to wash themselves.  When Miarke tahhunshe had washed and dried himself he was taken into another room and given new wasee gayscaw (white man) cloths.  Miarke tahhunshe was taken into a small room and sat into a chair where a wasee gayscaw cut his hair.  This act frightened Miarke tahhunshe because this was a sign of mourning.  Miarke tahhunshe thought they were going to kill him.

The wasee gayscaw took him and the other boys too another room where there were long tables and benches.  Miarke tahhunshe and the boys were told to sit on one side of the room.  They heard a noise and saw the girls come into the room.  These girls were also dressed as wasee gayscaws.  They sat on the other side of the room.  A tall wasee gayscaw woman came into the room and told Miarke tahhunshe that he was not to speak Wahtohtana any more and only speak the wasee gayscaw tongue.

The sun hung low in the sky and Miarke tahhunshe and the others were taken to another china (house) where they were fed.  After Miarke tahhunshe had finished eating, he and the others were taken from this china to a place where they could sleep.  That night as Miarke tahhunshe lay in his bed, he could hear much crying.  Then he heard a voice speaking the Wahtohtana tongue.  He answered the voice and saw a boy younger than him walking down the middle of the room.  The boy came to him and had tears in his eyes.  He told Miarke tahhunshe that he was Homoshoocha (Red Elk) and he was afraid.  Miarke tahhunshe told Homoshoocha that he also was scared , but they needed to pray to Waconda for strength and guidance.

Miarke tahhunshe and Homoshoocha sit on the floor and pray and sing to Waconda.  A wasee gayscaw comes into the room and grabs Miarke tahhunshe and Homoshoocha and drags them out of the room.  He takes them to a small china where he takes a big stick of the wall and begins to beat Miarke tahhunshe and Homoshoocha.  Homoshoocha being smaller soon falls to the ground, but the wasee gayscaw continues to beat him on the ground.  Miarke tahhunshe tries to help Homoshoocha but this only makes the wasee gayscaw hit Miarke tahhunshe told Homoshoocha him harder and soon he falls to the ground.  The wasee gayscaw continues to beat them and soon Miarke tahhunshe fell unconscious.  When Miarke tahhunshe woke up he found himself in a small dark room.  There was only one small window in the door that let a small shaft of light into the room.

Miarke tahhunshe beats on the door and yells in Wahtohtana for help.  Soon a face appears in the window and tells Miarke tahhunshe that he must speak wasee gayscaw tongue only.  Miarke tahhunshe didn’t know wasee gayscaw tongue, he only knew Wahtohtana.  After awhile Miarke tahhunshe was given food and water.  Another wasee gayscaw came to see Miarke tahhunshe and began to fix his body.  Miarke tahhunshe asked about Homoshoocha, but since he only spoke Wahtohtana he got no answer.  Miarke tahhunshe never sees Homoshoocha again.

Miarke tahhunshe spends many years at the wasee gayscaw school.  He learns their tongue and he also learns how to live like a wasee gayscaw.  When Miarke tahhunshe had finished this schooling he is allowed to go home.  He comes home and his family is overjoyed to see him alive.  All the relatives comes to Ko Inga’s home to see Miarke tahhunshe.  They talked to him in Wahtohtana, but Miarke tahhunshe can no longer understand them or speak to them.  His heart was heavy with sadness because he cannot speak to his father or grandparents, the most important people in his life.

He could no longer function on the reservation.  Miarke tahhunshe moved to Red Rock and tried to work in the wasee gayscaw world.  No wasee gayscaw would hire him.  He did get some small jobs from the Indian Agent, but that was the only work he could get.  The sacred fire in Miarke tahhunshe heart began to burn low.  He found pahnin hgainge (whiskey) and soon became a danyinge (drunk).  Miarke tahhunshe was found one morning laying in two inches of water in a ditch.

For the Wahtohtana, Miarke tahhunshe was the beginning.  The wasee gayscaw took many more of our children and when they returned to us they were not good for our way of life on the reservation.  Some of our young people never returned and we were not told what happened to them.  There were many tears shed by the mothers, aunts and grandmothers for these lost young people.  Others followed the path that Miarke tahhunshe led with pahnin hgainge.  Over time pahnin hgainge became the greatest enemy too the Wahtohtana, its influence is still being felt today.

I hope this story answered your question.

Aneeta: Yes, it does. Furthermore, it reminds me of another film I watched, Rabbit-Proof Fence. It is a true story about three aboriginal girls in Australia who were forcibly removed from their parents to be assimilated into white society.

Matt, from the information you’ve sent me, you’ve certainly done so many things from book reviews to manuscript reviews. One of things which caught my interest was that you’re a Television Script Consultant – what kind of work does this entail and what are some of the more memorable pieces you’ve worked on?

Matt: My work on the scripts that I reviewed dealt mostly with content issues.  I made sure that the tribal content of the stories were accurate.  That the script writer had identified the cultural, custom, and lifestyle accurately for the Aboriginal nation they were describing in their screen play.

Aneeta: Now, I do know that movie, Dances With Wolves and I enjoyed it. I want to know what you thought of it, please.

Matt:  Well, I am kind a bias about this movie.  You see.  I was a consultant for the third version of the script.  I was glad to see some of the changes I suggested made it into the movie.  But, I was also disappointed that some of the stereotypes about the Native people were kept.  Over all the movie was good, but it could have been better.

Aneeta : In the list of awards you provided me with, I see that there’s an Emmy nomination. Wow ! What was this for, Matt ?

Matt :  I produced a television program for The American Experience series on the National Public Television Network.  The program was called “In the White Man’s Image”.  It was about how the U. S. Government forced Native American children into boarding schools and how Government policy striped them of their Native Identity and how this policy impacted generations of Native people.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give those who would like to venture into storytelling?

Matt:  I would tell anyone who wants to venture into storytelling that they need to know and understand the story they are telling.  My grandfather told me a long time ago that stories have a spirit and we as the teller give that spirit life and purpose.

Aneeta: This is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Matt: I would like to thank you for this opportunity and I would also like to say to your readers that I hope the story spirit will bring them joy and happiness.

Aneeta: Matt, thank you.

Matt:  Ah-Ho, Aneeta


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