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Gray Wolf's choice

When I was a boy my father would always brag about our being part Indian. This was the '40s, and nobody said "Native American" in those days; and while I have no trouble referring to others as Native Americans, I still think of myself as having "Indian blood."

As a young child I thought of individual drops of blood somehow coursing through my circulatory system. How much, I always wanted to know, how much did I have to be proud of? When I was old enough to understand fractions, the answer was disappointing. My father's maternal grandmother was, he thought, half Cherokee, or possibly one-quarter _ which made him either one-eighth or one-sixteenth.

The very uncertainty of the fraction made my own claim the more tenuous. I was either one-sixteenth or one-thirty-second Indian. Why was this tiny fraction so important to my father? What about the rest of my ancestry? The English, Irish, Dutch?

Hearing my questions, my father usually stopped his boasting and smiled to himself, as if thinking about some immensely funny private joke. The part of him that I wanted to engage in debate simply disappeared.

Still, I liked the stories he told about growing up in Oklahoma Territory, about his grandmother _ a healer who soaked flannel rags in kerosene and hot lard for him to wear on his chest as a poultice when he had a cold. I liked hearing about how he and his family would go down to the plot of land at the back of his family's farm, known as the Old Hickory Stompground, where the Indians used to gather to dance _ medicine dances in the early spring, followed by the green corn dance and the ribbon dance. I liked the idea of all this somehow rubbing off on me, and when I watched Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy on television I found myself rooting for the red man.

When we moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a few strips of pine woods and pasture remained at the edge of our housing development, and I spent hours tracking unknown animals through their tunnels in the honeysuckle _ an impossible but sensual task, full of fragrance and mystery. I fashioned tomahawks and spears and constructed shelters from pine boughs. My friends and I adopted secret Indian names. I was Gray Wolf.

My sister was less enthusiastic about the whole Indian business. Three years older than I, she was interested in boys, cheerleading and being cool. "Please, Daddy," she begged, "don't talk about us being Indian around my friends. It was okay in Oklahoma, but around here people think Indians are savages."

It took an effort, I'm sure, but he complied.

Once my father and I went for a drive, stopping to eat at a little roadside grill in nearby Fairfax County, Va. The year was 1951; I was 11. A bell tinkled as we opened the screen door. I remember the dusty floorboards, the fly paper, the row of red Leatherette stools.

We sat down at a table, and my father called my attention to a sign on the wall. "What do you suppose that sign means?" he asked me. I looked at the sign, which read: "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."

Though his voice seemed neutral on the surface, I sensed a strange tension in it that I couldn't comprehend. I said I didn't know.

"It could mean," he said, "that they don't serve Negroes." He looked around for the waitress. "I'll ask _ I'll just ask what it means and see what she says."

My heart started beating a little faster as the waitress approached. She told us the special and held out the menus. My father pointed to the sign and asked what it meant.

"Oh," she said, "I guess it just means we reserve the right not to serve someone."

"Anyone in particular?" he persisted.

"No." She seemed flustered. "Do you all want to order?" She held up the menus again.

My father looked at me. "Do you want to eat here or someplace else?"

I shrugged.

My father took the menus. "We'll eat here," he told the waitress. But he told her that the sign offended him. "Because of how such signs are often used," he said, "to discriminate."

While we waited for our order, he told me a story. Once, as a young man traveling through Wyoming on business, he ordered eggs at a diner that had a sign on the door saying, "We don't serve Indians." He hadn't wanted to eat there, but he was traveling with another man and didn't wanted to inconvenience his companion. He did go so far as to warn the waitress, in a joking way, that he was an Indian. She wasn't amused, apparently, because the other man's eggs arrived fine; but nothing for my father.

"

"Why she must have taken you seriously, Wil,' my companion said. "She's not serving you.'

"

"Oh, yes," the waitress said, "his eggs are coming." She went back to the kitchen and after several minutes she returned and plopped a plate in front of my father.

My father laughed and made a face, recounting this. "Those eggs were cold and just swimming in grease."

Years later I thought to ask my father if he'd eaten the eggs. What I had remembered from the telling was a kind of stubborn pride. I had assumed he had left the eggs untouched. I was surprised to learn that he had eaten them. But he had, after all, chosen to reveal himself _ had, in effect, chosen those eggs.

When I was in my late 20s, Vietnam came between my father and me. I was active in the anti-war movement and my father, an attorney working for the Navy, became the occasional target of my ire.

On one of my visits home I remember becoming infuriated at some reference he made to his Indian ancestry _ because it struck me as essentially dishonest, as nostalgic in the face of the actual suffering of disenfranchised peoples everywhere. "You have the luxury of choosing!" I declared.

Over the years we drew close again. It helped that he, too, finally rejected the war, about the time he retired from government service. And it helped that I came to the realization that however much I might identify with the downtrodden, I, too, had the luxury of choice.

Early photographs of my father show a darkly handsome young man with black hair. He could have passed for Indian, except for his skin, which sunburned easily, and except for the Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations that specify a larger percentage of Native American ancestry to qualify someone as "Indian," for various purposes. As it happened, I think he made a private choice that was otherwise denied him.

And if he resorted occasionally to self-parody, boasting of his "old Cherokee remedies," that was part of his elusiveness within the Indian persona _ a way of keeping it his own choice.

He was also savvy enough to use his Indian identity as a vehicle for advancing his political agenda, casting his belief in socialized medicine and racial equality, for instance, as old Indian principles.

During the McCarthy era, when others wrapped themselves in the flag, my father wrapped himself in his Indianhood, keeping himself free of other labels. Adopting that Indian identity was a way of maintaining a private identity apart from the mainstream culture.

I also think it offered him some escape from the rationalism of his legal training _ and for that matter the rationalistic assumptions of Western civilization.

All this became clearer to me once I realized that past a certain point the precise size of the fraction has nothing to do with one's identity.

My skin is fair, my eyes are blue; I could never be mistaken for an Indian. So by all outward appearances I've lost that luxury of choice.

And yet for me, as I suspect with most people, it remains a matter of choosing which fractions of my genetic history to affirm or deny. It's what to do with the eggs on my plate.

David Morse, a writer who lives in Storrs, Conn., wrote this for the New York Times Magazine.

David Morse

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