A Native American tells her horrifying story of growing up around the Kecleh-Kudleh. It felt like my heart had just been ripped from my chest and I was horrified at the carnage that lay before me. I had never experienced such horror and my mind did a jump. I actually felt the small flutter inside my head, a small tickle like butterfly wings. It was my accepting that what my eyes were seeing was real. This was all actually happening. I was heaving from running so hard and now I was going to get sick. I turned away and got sick a few times, knowing I still had to get out of these woods. I passed my horse slowly, keeping my eyes diverted. Then I broke into a full run again. I was half way home when I met my dad coming up the trail on Thunder. Dad had his shotgun over one shoulder and his bow over the other. He reaches down with one hand and in a single, swift movement pulled me up behind him. I wrapped my arms around him tightly and began to sob into his back as he turned the horse and urged him into a run back down the trail.
I was just ten years old in the spring of 1974. My father and I were getting ready to go fishing. It was early in the morning and still quite chilly. The rest of the family were still asleep as I watched my dad pour steaming hot coffee into a thermos bottle. I loved it when my dad and I got to spend time together. Usually, my younger sister Rain tagged along. But today it would be just me and my dad.
My father, Matt, was a large man, standing six foot four and about two hundred and fifty pounds. He had the dark hair and dark eyes of our ancestors. He had a gentle nature and an easy smile. He was easy to laugh, but just as easy to give a firm hand if needed. The village council respected him for his honest nature and love of the old ways.
Dad still honored the old tradition that we would live off the land. He believed that hard work and mother nature were all you needed to survive. We trapped, hunted and fished for our meat and our vegetables came from the garden. The fruit we enjoyed came from mama's fruit trees. This is the way I was raised, so to me, this was the way it was supposed to be. Most people on the Rez (reservation) grew their own gardens, but not to the extinct that we did.
They supplemented their gardens with grocery shopping in town. This is something we rarely did. All of our food came from our land.
Now don't get me wrong. We weren't like some of these people you see on TV that live way out in the middle of nowhere chiseling out a life for themselves and living solely off the land. We lived in the mountains and yes, it was very rural. But a drive into town gave us a movie theater and fast food restaurants just like any other place in small town America. Our reservation covered the town and a good part of the neighboring mountain region. That is where we were. Mom and dad liked the privacy and that was fine with me. We had electricity and water just like everyone else. We had a TV and telephone, but there were no computers and cell phones back then so we didn't miss it. TV was usually watched at night as a family and then the Saturday morning cartoons that my sister and I enjoyed. Mom kept a small radio on in the kitchen and usually had it tuned to some country station as she worked. There were times I would sit on the back steps and listen to her sing along. Mom had a beautiful singing voice. Dad would say that she should have been named Sparrow.
We lived in a two-story cabin. Mom said that dad built it all by hand with the help of his brothers, Luke and John.
There were times I would look around and be amazed that my dad did all of this. He had cut all of the trees himself, giving him the wood to build our home and clearing the land for our farm in the process.
The kitchen was large, so mom would have plenty of room for cooking, baking and canning. In the summer months, there was always something cooking on the stove getting ready for her quart jars. I didn't mind helping her, but with no air conditioner, it sure was hot work.
Our Mom, Paula, was as much of a hard worker as dad was. She didn't believe in sitting around all day with your nose shoved in a book. Which was something Rain and I loved to do. Mom was a short lady, barely standing five foot three. She had the light olive skin of her heritage along with the large waistline. Mom came from a different tribe than my father, yet a lot of their beliefs were the same. You got by with hard work and prayer. Our mother was soft spoken and had a constant smile. She too had the dark hair and eyes that were common to any Native American. She kept her long hair braided then wrapped in a tight bun on her head. I loved to watch her brush it out, it was the same blue-black of a raven's wing.
The living room was also large with a huge fireplace covering one wall.
Dad had hauled all of the rocks up from the river to make it. Sometimes in the winter, we would cook dinner over the fire. I enjoyed it when mom did this. It made me feel like our ancestors were close by watching over us. In the fall, they would allow me and my sister, Rain, to pop fresh popcorn. It always tasted better when cooked over the fire.
My sister Rain was only a year younger than me, so she and I spent most of our time together. She was shorter than me and looked a lot like our mother. I had taken after our father with the long legs and slim build. A lot of people at school could never guess that we were sisters. We teased one another about being from different tribes like our parents.
Dad had filled the thermos and now was wrapping a couple of the buttermilk biscuits we had left over from dinner last night. These would be enjoyed later this morning while we were fishing.
We headed across the yard toward the trail that led down to the river. The sun hadn't started to rise yet and the morning silence made it seem as if the whole world was still asleep. The only sound was our footsteps crunching the frozen leaves. As we made our way across the big yard, the barn was to our left, some of the horses heard us and gave sleepy snorts.
We passed the goat fence that was completely empty. At this hour, they were all still in their shelter. As we neared the head of the trail the surrounding woods looked dark and scary. I had grown up playing in these woods, but only during the daylight hours. Mom and Dad warned us not to go near the woods at night. There were too many dangerous animals out there. And the Kecleh-Kudleh hunted at night. The Kecleh-Kudleh was our native tongue for "Hairy Savage", meaning Bigfoot or Sasquatch. The Kecleh-Kudleh was a very large creature that roamed the forest at night. The woods and land had belonged to them way before us, so we owed them a certain amount of respect. There were even stories of children and small animals being taken by the Kecleh-Kudleh. As we neared the woods, I walked a little closer to my father and pulled my hood up tightly over my head. The air was still cold, so the warm hooded coat felt good and I felt more protected from anything that might be watching us.
I knew that monsters weren't real. And I assumed the elders just made up these stories so they didn't have to worry about us kids getting lost in the woods. Even with knowing this, I was glad to have my Dad leading the way.
We neared the first trap and dad handed me his fishing rod and had me wait on the trail as he entered the woods to check it.
I wasn't at all comfortable with this, but I didn't let on. I couldn't have my dad thinking I was spooked he might not ask me to come with him next time. As I stood there alone on the trail I listened to my dad's footsteps walking away until I could no longer hear them. In the eerie silence, a branch snapped to my right causing me to jump and spin around. I couldn't see anything as the early morning light was not strong enough yet to penetrate the inky darkness. It could have been a squirrel landing on a dead branch. I strained my ears but didn't hear anything else. I stood there for what seemed like forever. Why was it taking dad so long? Maybe he was having a hard time freeing the animal. I could have gone with him, but I wouldn't have been much help. I wasn't old enough to carry a knife on my side just yet. But dad had said maybe by next season. Then I would get to really help dad with checking the traps.
I stood there in the dark thinking about all of the stories I had heard. What if the Kecleh-Kudleh were watching me? What if they didn't want us in the woods? Another branch broke and my heart began to pound. I wished the sun would hurry up so the woods wouldn't be so dark. I had never been in the woods alone in the dark and I didn't like it at all. I was thinking about all of the scary stories the kids told at school. Standing here alone in the dark woods made them seem more real now than ever.
"Look what I've got" came dad's voice. The sudden noise in the silence caused my adrenaline to surge through my veins. I turned to see dad coming back out of the woods holding up a white snow rabbit. This will make a mighty fine stew tonight," he said.
He sat his backpack down on the trail and opened it to drop the rabbit in. I saw that he had already bled it and cleaned it out. That must have been what took him so long.
He slung his pack over one shoulder and his gun over the other. He turned to me to get his fishing rod and stopped. He was looking up the trail past me. I could tell by the look on his face that he had seen something. I turned to look at what he was seeing. There was nothing on the trail. I could only see about twenty yards, then the trail turned left into the woods. "What did you see?" I asked
"Oh, nothing", dad answered, "I had thought it was another rabbit"
I didn't get the feeling that he was being totally honest with me. I knew he had seen something. But why wouldn't he tell me what it was? What was the big deal I wondered. I was familiar with all of the wildlife around here.
"Let's go," he said, as he began walking. 'We still have a few more traps to check before we get to the river".
The next few traps were empty. The ones that had been triggered dad re-baited, but, this time, I tramped through the woods with him. I wasn't being left alone like I had earlier. Something had my nerves on edge.
As we followed the trail on down, the frozen dew had begun to melt, leaving wet leaves and causing some of the areas to become slippery. I had started paying more attention to my footing than the surrounding woods. I didn't want to fall and get my coat damp or possibly break my fishing rod.
The morning had begun to get colder just before the sun come up. Dad and I both looked like steam engines with our breath coming out in white plumes. I pulled my coat a little closer around me enjoying the warmth it provided.
I was beginning to hear the water rushing over the falls to our far right. We wouldn't be going anywhere near the falls today. We had a better spot about a half a mile up the river. It was a nice and calm area of water, that usually provided a lot of fish. We arrived at our spot just as the sun topped the mountain.
I stood there relishing the beauty of the purples, orange and yellow that the sun was creating in the clouds. I spoke a silent prayer to our creator in giving thanks for such beauty.
The river was wider here and the water was calmer. The trees on the far bank were thick with Mountain Laurel. Sometimes Rain and I would go to a spot further up the river. There was a nice sandy area where we could walk the horses right into the water. It didn't have the drop off bank like this one did. That's what made this one better for catching fish. They would hide in the grasses against the bank along with the bugs and baby fish they like to eat. Looking across the river, it occurred to me that I had never explored the far bank, but I was thinking this summer might be a good time to do that. I would bring my sister Rain up here with me. She would enjoy that.
"It sure is pretty. Isn't it"? Dad asked. Bringing me out of my daydream. I looked over to see him admiring the sunrise as well.
"Uh Huh," I agreed. "Well, let's get these rods baited and in the water," he said
Dad had a large rock right by where he sat that he would prop his gun on. It had been here as far back as I could remember. I'm not sure if dad put it there, or if it was natural, but it was the perfect place for him to prop up his gun within easy reach while we fished.
It wasn't long before Dad and I had a nice stringer full. We took a break to enjoy the coffee and biscuits he had brought. I had finished eating and was lying on the bank enjoying the feel of the warm sun when a large branch snapped in the woods behind us. Dad immediately jumped to his feet, grabbed his gun and spun around. The sudden loud noise had sent adrenaline surging through my veins. I knew dad was expecting to see a bear coming out of the woods lured in by the smell of our morning catch. We waited, holding our breath and straining our ears, knowing he would break the tree line any second. This wouldn't be the first time a bear had wanted to challenge dad for fish. The last one's head hung over the fireplace.
After a few minutes of not hearing or seeing anything, dad propped his gun against the rock he had been resting it on and began to pack our things back into his backpack. r, "I guess its getting time for us to head back", he said.
This struck me as odd, we would usually fish well past lunch time and sometimes right on into the early evening. The fish had been biting. I didn't understand why he would want to leave.
"Head back?" I asked
"Yes", said dad. "I have some things at home to get done today".
I stood up and looked to the edge of the woods. We kept an old bucket hanging here for cleaning the fish. I was wondering if it was safe for me to approach the tree line.
As if reading my mind, dad said, "Let them be today".
Was he not wanting me to clean the fish? But why? This is something we always did before we started home unless, it was already dark. And I could clean them almost as good as he could.
'What"? I said. More than a little confused.
We'll take care of them at the house dad said.
"Get your stuff together and come on."
I bent down and gathered my things, then ran to catch up with dad. He was already at the trail head waiting for me. I was feeling really confused at the events of the day. This just wasn't normal. We had never stopped fishing this early, especially when they were biting so good. I had thought that dad seemed a little uneasy today. I didn't know exactly what was wrong. I was only ten years old, but I could tell when something just wasn't right. And dad's behavior wasn't normal. It made me nervous to see dad acting so unpredictable.
Possibly picking up on my confusion, dad said, "Your Uncle Luke said there had been a rogue bear in the area lately and I don't want to take any chances." That explained it! There was a bear in the near vicinity. Having a rogue near meant that we weren't safe out here. Especially carrying a mess of fish. Now I understood why dad had appeared jumpy and ready to leave early. I was ready to leave now!
I grabbed my fishing rod and hurried up the trail behind him. We hadn't gone too far when dad stopped walking signaling for me to listen. I stopped instantly, holding my breath. I didn't dare make a sound. Dad had heard something and was trying to make out what it was. He slowly bent down and sat his pack on the ground. Then he slid his gun from his shoulder. I quietly knelt down behind him.
I was looking around dads leg, in the same direction he was. But I didn't see a thing in the trees. Nothing at all was moving. Then I heard it, another loud branch snap and a very low rumble. It sounded almost like a growl, but the sound was so low that it was almost inaudible. My heart began to pound and sweat popped out on my forehead. A bear! We were being flanked by a bear! I froze in place, not hearing anything but the pounding of my own heart. I knew dad had his gun, but that didn't make us completely safe. A rogue bear that was hunting in close proximity to humans could be very dangerous.
I had seen bears in the distance. But I had never had an encounter with one. Dad raised his gun and used the scope to search for any movement. After a few minutes, I knew the threat was gone as he once again shouldered his gun and picked up his pack. He turned to look at me.
" I want you to walk in front of me, and we're going to pick up the pace just a little. If at any time you feel my hand on your shoulder, I want you to freeze. Got it"?
I quickly nodded my head and stepped up in front of dad. This had never happened before and it made my blood run cold to see my dad so concerned. I did just as Dad had told me and walked as fast as I could without running.
We kept hearing branches break as if the bear flanked us all the way back to our yard. Once we broke the tree line I breathed a sigh of relief. A bear was less likely to walk right out in the open yard and challenge you.
Dad and I went around to the back side of the barn where he would clean the fish. This barn had been here as far back as I could remember. It had two massive doors on each end with a large breezeway down the center. The inside housed a tack room and four horses, one for each of us. Meredith was mine, Thunder belonged to dad, Rain had Lady bug and mom had Lucky. I loved it when we all went riding together. We had four milk cows that dad sometimes moved in there during the winter months.
I loved the smell of this old barn. It smelled of hay, horses and old wood. Rain and I played in here during the summer months when it was just too hot to be outside. When all of the doors were open, the wind would blow right through the center, creating a nice place to play while offering a reprieve from the heat.
Dad had an old wood table set up just to the left of the barn doors. This is where he worked on the horseshoes, built fence posts and anything else that needed doing. I went around to the side of the house to get him a fresh bucket of water.
I took the water back around the barn to dad's table. He had already begun the messy job of cleaning the fish. He would scale them and cut the heads off, then he would slice the meat away from the bone creating a thick filet.
I watched as his skilled hands ran through each fish with precision. Dad had done this for many years, so his knife flew through what would have been a job for me. I watched as the scales and heads were tossed into a bucket at his feet. This bucket would then be taken down to the far edge
of the yard, just at the tree line and set on a tree stump for the wildlife. This was always something dad had done himself. As far back as I could remember, this bucket had been sat on that stump every evening.
He finished with the fish and placed the fillets in the clean bucket of water. "You take these on up to your mama," he said handing me the bucket of clean fish." I'll have the rabbit ready in a bit.
I took the fish in the back door to the kitchen where mama was just pulling a pan of fresh biscuits out of the oven. She looked up at me as the screen door slammed.
"Y'all are back early," she said with a questioning look on her face.
"We are", I said. "There was a bear in the woods."
Mom gave me a concerned look. It's a bit early in the day for the bears to be roaming around.
"I thought so too", I told her. "But Dad said there was a rogue bear".
For just a split second mom got a strange look on her face. She turned to put the hot pan on the counter. "Then it's best you kids don't play near the woods today", she said.
I sat the bucket of fish on the counter beside the sink and went back out to get the rabbit. As I rounded the barn I could see dad down at the far end of the yard setting the bucket on the stump. I had often wondered what kind of animals showed up to eat. Rain and I had sat for hours watching that bucket, but we never saw any animals.
I guess they came at night while we were all asleep. Maybe I could talk her into sitting up with me one night and we could watch the animals as they showed up to eat.
I walked across the yard and joined dad at the edge of the woods. "Do you think the bear will come"? I asked.
"Don't know". "But I want you and your sister to stay away from the woods for the next few days." "You hear me"? Dad asked, giving me a stern look.
"Yes sir", I replied. "Rain and I will play up near the house or in the barn."
"Good girl". Dad put his arm across my shoulders and led me back across the yard. "Let's get this rabbit in the house for your mom. I'm looking forward to some dumplings tonight."