It was fall and he was gone again. Oh, he’ll probably come back drunk, she thought to herself. And he thinks I drink way too much, hunh! She smoothed back her hair and looked in the mirror. That deep longing of loneliness was tugging at her again. The leaves trilled softly down on the lawn. Outside was a beautiful elegant fall day. I think I’ll buy myself a coat. That’s what I’ll do.
She set her mind and made her way to town. She knew where she would go. And she liked how somebody flirted with her there. Even though she knew he wanted to make a sale, it was nice to hear good words from someone.
She made it to the store and walked in. Her hair was high upon her head with gleaming curls. She always dressed smartly, and she had a smile and a sense of humor that made her eyes shine. There he was; he came right over.
“What can I interest you in today, Rita?” He had a great smile and that teasing look. Sometimes she liked him and sometimes she didn’t.
“I’m looking for a good winter coat,” she said, and he went into his spiel. “I’ll look around first,” she said.
“Well, you let me know when you’re ready to try one on and I’ll be there.”
“Huh!” She said. “Since when do I need someone to put my coat on for me?” But she liked him fussing over her.
She busily looked through all that looked nice to her. She would look at the stitching and the seams. She didn’t want anyone bothering her during her own inspections. They were always talking about how great everything was, with that sly smile of theirs. She chose two or three and started to put one on.
“Oh, let me help you with that,” he said and came rushing over. “You look striking in that one.”
She smoothed the sleeves and felt of it and rose up a little. She put her arms forward to test the shoulders.
“Turn around,” he said. She edged to the three-way mirror to look at herself. “That looks real nice,” he said.
She never knew if he was really talking about what she wore or her. “I’ll try the other one,” she fussed.
He took this one off and held it looking pensive and pleased. “Oh, that’s just you, look at you. I really like that!” He gushed. “And it’s so warm. The style enhances your figure and your hair and eyes.”
She had almond shaped eyes, full of soul. You could see all the hurt in them. When she smiled the sun came out. When she laughed her eyes would gleam.
“Oh Harvey,” she’d say, “Where’s that other coat?” She put it on with his help. There was tension in the air. He’d linger around her putting that coat on. Today she needed to know that she was still desirable. She chose one and left the store. She ran into Bernice and her sister.
“We’re going to the Bloody Bucket tonight for drinks. Why don’t you come with us?”
“I think I will,” she said. She felt excited and pleased with herself.
The women chatted about this and that and she drove them all to the bar. After ordering drinks, she lifted the glass and quickly scanned the room. She would quickly assess who was going to be friendly, too friendly and or hostile. It was a subconscious, instantaneous assessment she always did when entering a room, especially in bars in town.
There were hunters in town. The other women were slowly taking note of them. Some may come over and or start to talk or buy them beers. She knew the game by heart. She also knew she could probably drink anyone of them under the table.
There was dancing, drinking conversation since Bernice and her sister were single and obvious. Old cougars, they called them. She got carried away by the night, by the joy, by the fun and attention. Later that night, she took the ladies home. She had a few, but it’s not that far to home. She came in and the house was dark. She thought her husband wasn’t home. He was sitting in the dark with a beer and cigarette. Panic set in.
“Where the hell have you been and where did you get that coat!? Who bought it for you?” he said as he lunged at her.
“Don’t!” she screamed.
He tackled her and said, “Is this what you do when I go hunting?”
He tore at her coat and was covering her with his body, trying to get on top. She pushed him and rolled away and sprang for the door. She was running through the weeds for her sister’s house. How many times have I done this? she thought. Just get there and lock the door.
We lived by the lake. It was quiet because it was away from everyone else. Each morning I got up, I would go to the lake and float on my back in the water and pray and meditate. It was the constant beginning of the day. This was the time of peace. This was my bath. We had no running water.
I worked as a secretary for the Community Action Program.1 I was new to the Peter Dana Point community. Everyone treated me well except him. I could find a job. Why couldn’t he? We worked on an on-the-job training program and made forty dollars a week. That’s how we got lumber to make our house. Hannah called it our bird house. We received eight dollars from the state. When we finally had our baby, we received one dollar more. I should have breast fed. We would go to the office. Everyone talked about Virgie Johnson,2 how haughty she was. It’s like she was miserable with her life or herself and felt that everyone else should be. It didn’t take much to drag us down.
“There might as well be walls around this place,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. We used to hang around his friends, politically minded people who worked to change things.
“Do you ever know what they’re talking about?” he asked me.
“A little,” I replied. It was all what’s happening on the national scene. We never thought it affected us.
He said, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
I just looked at him. They were his friends. He’d always smile and laugh. I had no idea of the gap.
“There’s no jobs here, there’s nothing here,” he said.
It was then I knew he was feeling bad about no work. He did work for some construction crew. He got a car. He gave me a ride in it, down the road and back, then took off with his cousin and friends.
I ended up leaving. Too much drinking, too much violence and cruelty, too much craziness.
I just left that when I left home, or so I thought. I think I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. I escaped anyway. And it felt just like that.
It had been years and another family when I saw Virgie Johnson again. The old man had left and I had six kids now and had to go ask for help. My folks worked hard all their life. My mom said she’d rather eat grass then ask the state for help. Little did we know that out west they were saying of the Indians, “let them eat grass!” I felt ashamed to be alone and frightened. I fought for this, I told myself.
I went to the Indian agent’s office. I stepped inside and told them what I needed. There she was faded, pale as ever, like a dying flower, with orange lipstick on, Virgie Johnson. She snapped some words off. On the radio was a song about all Mama ever wanted was a coat. I felt like sobbing. Emma gave me a coat from a rummage sale or somewhere. I wore that for years. It’s ironic too, because my grandmother had a fur coat everyone was jealous of.
I didn’t like seeing Virgie Johnson sitting there in judgment at the pinnacle of haughtiness. The queen of haughty. She gave me something; I didn’t remember what. I had six to feed now. The country and western song that was playing was so sad. I never liked them. I felt they were telling people to revel in your hard times. Just roll around in that and like it. Like a dog rolls in stink.
I had finally moved from the old house. My aunt taught me how to stick up for myself. By gee, it worked.
She told me, “You go tell them you need a house. If they don’t hear you, go back and tell them again. If they still don’t listen, you holler at them and tell them.”
So I did. I had a house with nothing much in there. I had a job, the job I always wanted. I also had a boyfriend who bought me a coat! It was tan with a Nehru collar and brown piping. It was short, long but short. Jim told me I could get help if I needed it. You had to go to what they called GA (General Assistance).3 Everyone else was. So I went. My aunt told me to go.
“You’re not like those other slop pails who are always there.”
Wouldn’t you know that when I showed up there was this woman, a young woman married to someone in the tribe who was the head of it. She said to me, “yeah, you know some people who come in here have colored televisions (my uncle just gave us one, we never had tv before!) and new coats.”
My feeling jumped.
“Well, someone gave me this coat,” I said quickly and I was remembering my uncle who gave us a colored TV, that’s how he was. I got something but I felt like she shamed me at the same time. She was actually just as bad as VJ but she had a pretty face!
My Grandmother’s coat
My grandmother had a fur coat. She used to hang it on the line to air out. One day my aunt on my father's side, Nohkem (who was a child then) and another girl were giggling about her coat. They were laughing about her coat. If you’re doing well there’s always another Indian pulling you down. My folks worked hard, especially my grandfather. There was talk about my grandmother and this trapper. They even said Regina was his daughter. My grandfather loved my grandmother and he worked hard.
He earned enough to be able to buy her this coat because he loved her. My grandmother wasn’t perfect but he loved her anyway. Some men don’t let woman wear their coats and some men do.
In Women Who Run With the Wolves,4 Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes about a coat. This man had captured a fairy one day when he was out in the boat. The fairy got away but the other fairy told her, you have to go and be his wife now. So she went for a while. It was for a short time. They eventually had a child. The child woke one night because he heard a voice from the sea, calling "Oogruk Oogruk."5 He ran towards the sound and tripped on something wedged in the rock. It was his mother’s coat. She was looking awful. Her skin was drying out. He was the spirit child born of them. He returned his mother’s coat. She looked at him with the wild look in her eyes. She knew she was going back to where he could not follow. I remember this story because I remember my partner’s mother in the hospital with that look in her eye. She used to tell us stories about sealskins and her life on the coast. I loved her so much.
I am recovering my coat. Scape coat - make one with negative symbols, symbolic coat, that’s you, and all that will sustain the real you. Coat of light, coat of colors. Coat of freedom, coat of arms, arms to gather, arms to hug, arms to do and manage, arms for art, play. Coat of sustenance, outdoors, goodness, wellness, plenty, being, gathering, connectedness. Coat of armor - slippery, oily, impenetrable, thin, thick, no harm could come in. Coat of freedom, coat of flowingness, coat of comfortableness, coat of being, coat of nature, wild and untamed, coat of peace and light, justice, and truth.
Do you have a medicine for pain/grief?
Do you know a balm to soothe the wounds?
There’s oppression not only out there
But also in here and I need a healing.
The worst act of violence was the first act of oppression
Perpetrated against “the people”
Slave house rules
I need to move beyond it all
Yet I can’t see beyond the pain
Take this from me
I’ll start wearing it as my own
I need to drop it or give it back
Send it back
The negative energy
So I can shine
I’ll wear my own coat of light
and no one will take it away!
1 Community Action Programs are non-profit program which began after the passage of the federal 1964 Economic Opportunity Act. These programs are funded by the Community Services Block Grant and assist with job training, operating food pantries, promoting community service, and other initiatives for low-income community members.
2 Virgie Johnson was an Indian agent giving out so called "help", they say it was from the state, but the state managed money they had from stumpage, cutting wood and hay on our land, and from old sales of our land long ago.
3 A General Assistance program is a statewide program which offers last-resort assistance to individuals who do not qualify for other forms of public assistance such as Supplemental Security Income.
4 Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archeype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published in 1992, analyzes stories from different cultures to deconstruct the archetype of the wild woman and its relationship to the female psyche.
5 An oogruk is a type of bearded seal.
Born and raised on Indian Island, Carol Dana has six children and nine grandchildren. In 2008 she earned her MA in Education at the University of Maine. She has devoted years to Penobscot language revitalization, working with linguist Frank Siebert on the Penobscot dictionary project during the 1980s, and teaching Penobscot at the Indian Island School during the 1990s. Carol currently works at the Cultural and Historic Preservation Department for the Penobscot Nation where she uses her skills as a language master to teach and continue learning the language teaching methods. She teaches at the Penobscot Nation Daycare center, Boys and Girls Club, and with the elders in the community. In 2010 at the Algonquian Language Conference, Carol was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her dedication to the Penobscot Language. She is the author of two books of poetry, When No One Is Looking and Return to Spirit and Other Musings, both published by Bowman Books.