By Bill Skiff
September 5th, 2013
When I was growing up on the farm, my buddies and I spent a lot of time playing cowboys and Indians. Dad’s sugarhouse was Fort Apache and the abandoned chicken coop was our cowboy bunk house. Many a heated battle, and a few creative ambushes, took place on the cow trails connecting the two buildings.
Cowboys and Indians I am familiar with, but Cowboys and Eskimos? It was in August while washing dishes at my son’s Lumberyard Deli in Wasilla, Alaska that I learned of this novel combination.
The intriguing part of washing dishes in the deli is that I talk with many people. Take Cowboy Walt, for example. He entered the deli one day dressed top to bottom, from his straw hat to his snakeskin boots, pure rodeo cowboy. Walt had come from northern Colorado to live near his son. I learned he had grown up on a ranch and had been a rancher and professional bull rider all his life.
Bull rider—now that sounded interesting. I asked him when was the last time he had ridden a bull. He said 15 years ago. Then I asked him how old he was….he said 95! You do the math.
The last time, Walt was at a rodeo where two young cowboys couldn’t ride a particular bull. He told them, “I can ride that bull.”
To complete a ride, you must stay aboard for eight seconds. Walt climbed on, drew up the cinch, and into the arena he flew, staying on for 7.9 seconds. He told the cowboys now that he knew how the bull moved, he would be back tomorrow to the complete his ride. They said, “No way.”
The next day they wouldn’t let him ride; he felt this denial was because they knew he could do it and didn’t want to be shown up by a senior citizen.
Then there was the time he was leading a rodeo parade riding a big unruly bay that was “wilder than a ‘coon.” Everything was going fine until a truck came by and blew its air horn. The bay reared up and took off through the nearest yard, snatching down a clothesline with it. As they burst out of the yard into a large open area, he spurred the horse to get him to run out his spirits. By then they were throwing up large pieces of grass and dirt, as people stood waving their arms and yelling. He thought to himself how nice it was to be in a town where people appreciated a fine riding cowboy. That’s when he realized he was galloping down the middle of a golf course.
One night after a rodeo he and his Indian buddy, plus a couple of cowgirls, were spending the night in a hay loft of a local ranch due to a lack of funds. When he woke up, the girls were gone—and so were all of his and his buddy’s clothes. He had on some undershorts and his buddy had only his Indian blanket. As they were trying to decide who would go into town for clothes, his buddy said, “You go, White Man.”
The cowboy was walking down the street barefoot at five in the morning, wrapped only in the Indian blanket, when along came a cop. The cop strolled over saying, “Where do you think your going, Sitting Bull?” A couple nights in jail, and a new set of secondhand clothes later he was back on the back of a bucking bull.
Coyboy Walt said he felt like he had broken every bone in his body at least once and some twice. After he thought awhile, he commented that although he had made many mistakes—including tangling up with a couple of troublesome women—that his life has been good. At 95, Alaska was treating him well. I promised to bring him some maple syrup next year. Hope I can make it.
While sitting with a couple at breakfast, I learned that the man was from Chicago and the woman was a native Alaskan Eskimo and a member of the Raven Clan. They were husband and wife. He related that people in her clan could not pronounce Chicago—they said, “Chic-ca-ca.”
I asked him, “How did a man from Chic-ca-ca marry a woman from the Raven clan?”
He replied, “It was after a big drunk!”
His father worked in the Chicago train yards. Sometimes, when working with his dad, he would end up falling asleep on a train. When he woke up the next morning, he wouldn’t recognize the names on the street signs. That was because he would be in Kansas City, Denver, and one morning, Alaska.
His wife’s Raven clan adopted him and made him a member of the Eagle clan. Why not a member of the Raven clan? First because of incest, and second because of war. In the early development of Alaska, tribes fought over land and fishing rights. When a Raven married an Eagle, those two tribes could not fight as they were now family.
The wife makes beautiful Eskimo crafts. She made me a bolo tie out of porcupine quills. It has the state of Alaska in the center with the number 50 commemorating the 50 years since Alaska became a state.
Cowboy and Indians was fun, but Cowboys and Eskimos are more interesting.
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]