THE LAWSON’S PEAK BOOKS

The Chief

It’s not that I don’t think of him. I do every single day. I guess sometimes I worry he’d be disgruntled about being the subject of so much brouhaha, though he gravitated to the center of the attention of any group he found himself in. Once, before he went to his Creator, I wrote a column here about his little bateau, the one he built two years before I was born.

“Boy, you really put one on me, didn’t you?” he said when I saw him that evening. It wasn’t a complaint, it wasn’t an annoyance. It was his way. He was modest and humble at his essence, but secreted that behind a jocular veil of bravado.

Dad, in an earlier boat.

Dad, in an earlier boat.

Time and again, his influences I thought didn’t stick come through in my life. We spent a large part of my adolescence disagreeing on most everything, and that lasted well into my 20s. I don’t guess we were that unusual in that regard, but I am glad that our fences were mended before he left us. Still, those times haunt me, the waste of them. I absorb all the blame.

But I do think of him every day. I walk the land I grew up on, live in the house my grandparents lived in. He is everywhere, really. In every room, every square foot of the grass, every linear inch of the bayouside. Then, as now. His tools are in my workshop, Stanley planes and Disston hand saws; spokeshaves and draw knives, pocket knives and chisels. I can’t pour a patch of epoxy without thinking of him. A pile of sawdust smells like when he came into the house after working in his own shop all day. The grip of my favorite crosscut saw is darker than the rest of the wood handle. Darkened by the oils from his hands.

Nicholas Leonard Stouff Jr.

Nicholas Leonard Stouff Jr.

There’s a nagging leak in the stern of the little boat. No surprise, really. It’s 45 years old. But I can’t locate it, and I am reluctant to use it much until I can eliminate it. That leak would have obsessed him. It would have been unthinkable that his boat leaked. The well-regarded lie that all wooden boats leak was coined by people who never owned a boat Nick Stouff built. Dad’s boats did not leak, and if he were here, he’d have found and sealed that leak astern post-haste. I will find it. But I am not the boatsman he was, nor the builder. His blood is in its frames from a splinter or a knife edge, his sweat in the plywood, his enthusiasm and pride in the sheer.

When the pup’s bounding around for my attention and I reach down to rub his ear, I know my father would have loved him. My father loved a good dog like few other things. He even liked cats.

A ceremonial fan made by Nick Stouff.

A ceremonial fan made by Nick Stouff.

He had a passion for horses. Like an Indian man should. We rode all the time when I was a boy, when we weren’t fishing, of course. His quarter-horse, Tee Boy, had a leather bridle adorned with silver and turquoise and abalone. An Indian man’s horse should have no less. Tee Boy wore it proudly, and though he was just a quarter horse trotting along the cane roads around Charenton, he seemed to carry his head a little higher to show his silver, his blue stones.

Make no mistake about it, my father was an Indian man. Most folks in Franklin didn’t even know there was a reservation 10 miles away then. I was raised very secluded, to be honest, and when I turned my back on what heritage had been handed down to me for nearly 20 years, his heart broke. I shall never be the Indian man my father was. My father bristled at being asked “How much Indian are you?” and would inquire in return, “How much Pilgrim are you?”

“Only people in the country who gotta live by fractions,” he’d complain, back when I listened to what he said. Understand, back then, there was no casino, no intergovernmental agreements, just shotgun houses and bad roads. He gave his “talks” as he called them in schools across the state. My godchild several years ago was studying Louisiana history in grade school and came across a photo of the old man in his textbook. He excitedly announced that he knew the chief, and the teacher didn’t believe him. His mother had to call the school and inform a disappointingly skeptical educational system that, indeed, the boy knew Mr. Stouff well.

A traditional drum by Nick Stouff.

A traditional drum by Nick Stouff.

He was interviewed by journalists from across the globe, archaeologists, anthropologists, researchers, ethnographers, you name it. He was an Indian man, remarkably, that people listened to. Except me. For more than two decades, I didn’t listen to a single word.

He was stubborn. Oh, how that man was stubborn! I come by my own obstinance honestly, to be sure. We were stubborn in antithesis of each other, and locked horns until we avoided each other to avoid the clashes. Finally, I had the heart and courage to come back around, and in the last years of his life – heart failing, breathing shallow – it was like I had never been gone to him. That is a warrior and a chief. That is the way of kindness and dignity.

Snake flute and ornate belt and buckle, made by Nick Stouff.

Snake flute and ornate belt and buckle, made by Nick Stouff.

“Sit down a minute,” he said as I was leaving his house one evening in December nine years ago. So I sat. We talked. Nothing important. I don’t even remember what topics. Small talk, mostly. The weather. The fishing. Whatever. Just visiting.

Two, three weeks later I stood at his coffin. He was in a dark blue suit and a white, crisp shirt, but there was no cloth necktie. Not on an Indian man. He wore an abalone bolo in the shape of an arrow, the shell set in silver. His hands were folded across his chest, and held an eagle feather. A medicine bag was at his side. He was pale. So pale. He had been sick so long, but didn’t suffer pain, at least. In the next world, I knew, his skin would be the earthen hue of an Indian man again. Even then, as I stood by his coffin, he was joyous, learning songs not sung on this earth for a hundred years.

So when people ask me, “How much Indian are you?” all I can say is, “Not as much as my father,” but they just think I’m talking fractions again.

I’m not. I’ll never be the man he was, the Indian man he was, the force of spirit or the vessel of wisdom.

Violin.

Violins made by my father.

Violins made by my father.