The Indian Lady Who Lived in a Quonset Hut

As a child, one of the most thrilling things to me was the story my father told about how he, at the age of ten, first encountered Indians on a dusty road near the Flandreau Santee Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He had been sent to live with relatives who homesteaded there after his mother died in the flu epidemic in 1918. These were almost fantasies to me, stories which transported me away from my insular life on a small lake in rural Michigan. But to him this was his real and often tragic life. My father who was many things to me was also someone who bridged our “modern” world with that ancient world where the original citizens of this land resided. They weren’t Indians on the warpath galloping out of a movie or Indians in one of my favorite books but “real” Indians who still had one foot in their own history and one foot in a world that had changed forever.

In addition to the stories about the Indians my father encountered, Betty was an Indian who haunted my childhood just by her very existence. I had never met her even though she lived just a stone’s throw from my house in 1940s Michigan. She lived in a deserted Quonset hut which, previously, had been a chicken coop. The only people I knew who ever visited her were teen-aged boys who were curious and, in my mind, fearless. It’s entirely possible that others in our community interacted with her but I never knew about it. She must have gone into town to shop occasionally or walked outside but I only ever thought of her inside those curving metal walls. She was desperately poor and died alone in that chicken coop probably sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. I don’t know how old she was, whether she came from somewhere else or was one of the last remaining Native Americans in that area. If so, she might have been Potawatomi, Huron, (or Wyandot) Sauk or Miami; descendants of people who had migrated to what we now call Michigan, perhaps as early as 11,000 BCE, long before white people “discovered” this same piece of earth. She was one of the original inhabitants whose roots extended deeper into this land than any of us who came later. It was her ancestors who gave this land the name Michigan, a Chippewa word; “meicigama” meaning “great water.”

And so, eventually the newest immigrants to this land willfully pursued, hunted, fought and pushed the original inhabitants out and imprisoned those who didn’t perish onto small chunks of set-aside land, a containment reminiscent of the Quonset hut where Betty lived. And there I was, a white child descended from Irish and German immigrants who were also compelled through circumstances to leave their homes and to travel to a new country, albeit many years later. And here we were, all of us occupying space and time together, all foreigners and immigrants, the actual state of every human who inhabits this earth. What else could we be?

In a sense we’ve all been journeying toward one another for millennia and, if we go back far enough, time blurs, boundaries and even separate species disappear and we become one creature, one people. We are that one mythical fish who discovered or imagined that it had legs and decided to use them or that one ape who carried within itself some trace of original stardust to eventually become Einstein, Sojourner Truth or Chief Sitting Bull. My father, this country’s original inhabitants, Betty and I, poor, cruel and broken, are inextricably bound by chromosomes and circumstances and also some part of original cosmic matter. We have emerged from mystery and are, inevitably, traveling together back into mystery. If we take the long view we can see that we are all immigrants—and, in the deepest sense, are one being. So while we abide here on this earth, what is done to one of us for good or ill will ultimately affect all of us.

—Sharron Singleton, poetry editor

Photo of author Sharron SingletonBefore she turned to poetry Sharron was a social worker serving low-income families and the mentally ill and worked as a community organizer around issues of civil rights and the anti-nuclear war movement.

Her poems have appeared in Agni, Rattle, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, among others. In 2009 she won the James River Writers Contest and was named the Poet of 2010 by the journal Passager. She also won 1st place prizes in 2010 and 2012 in the Poetry Society of Virginia annual contest, 1st place in the MacGuffin Poet Hunt contest in 2012 and 1st place in the Sixfold Contest in 2013. In 2015 she won the Thomas Merton Award for Poetry of the Sacred. Her chapbook, A Thin Thread of Water, was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press.

She teaches poetry in Charlottesville and in her town of Scottsville, is married with two children and five grandchildren.

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