Wohali and the Little People
"The great one!" shouted Wohali. He leaped from the white, plastic pail he was sitting on and began to struggle with the long, bamboo stick. "You will not get away this time," he screeched when he saw the size of the enormous catfish at the end of his fishing line. He waded barefoot out into the murky lake. The water rose higher and higher, and his feet sank deeper and deeper into the cool, mucky mud. The catfish flipped, flopped and wiggled, trying to free itself of the nylon string that was hooked into his mouth.
Wohali pulled and yanked on the fishing pole, using all the strength he had. The pole bowed with the weight of the fish as Wohali pulled back, arm muscles bulging. Moments later, the excited Cherokee Indian boy stood by the side of the lake grinning, feeling proud of his accomplishment. The catfish looked as though it weighed a good twenty-five or thirty pounds; it was magnificent to look at. The bright-eyed ten-year-old had been trying for the last month to hook the catfish as a surprise for his grandfather, who had taught him well the skills of fishing and hunting.
"This is O-sa-da," he said with glee as he dropped the fish into the pail he had been sitting on. "This is very good. Grandfather will be so proud." He gathered up his moccasins and ran sopping wet, swift like an eagle in flight, through the woods towards home, a place he shared with his grandfather, Grey Wolf.
As soon as the log cabin was in sight, Wohali began to shout in his native language, "Grandfather, grandfather! Come, come quick!" The cabin was tucked away, at the bottom of a hill, almost hidden by an over population of wild trees and shrubs; it lay secluded by winding footpaths that went in all directions. Wohali loved it here because it was like he was camping out, roughing it all the time. He and his grandfather lived off the land, in the spring, summer and fall; and when it wasn't raining, they would always eat by campfire, cooking food over an open pit.
"Wohali, what is all the commotion?" his grandfather asked, appearing in the doorway of the old, rustic cabin. His grey hair was parted down the center of his head, and two long braids hung over his shoulders. Even though he was not a young man, he had a strong muscular body. He was a tall, brave and proud man. A smile appeared on his broad face when he saw his grandson.
"It's the special catfish," said Wohali grinning. "I finally caught him!"
Grey Wolf peered into the bucket; his dark eyes glowed with happiness and pride. "This is very good," he said. "You have done well."
"I am a great fisherman," Wohali said.
"That you are," said his grandfather. "And a great hunter. With your bow and arrow, you can bring down a jack rabbit with just one single shot."
"Fishing is fun," said Wohali as he stared wide-eyed at the catfish. "I could fish every day, all day long." He glowed with happiness and pride.
"You clean. I cook," said Grey Wolf. "Tonight, we will eat well. Beans and your special catch of the day."
Wohali cleaned the fish and, when he was finished scaling and gutting, his grandfather placed it on the open pit. The scent of the fish and brown beans cooking in the open air, sent up a delightful aroma, and Wohali's stomach began to gurgle with hunger. When the food was finished cooking, Wohali sat with his grandfather on the ground by the blazing campfire and ate.
"I like this," said Wohali as he ate a piece of fish with his fingers.
"You like the fish, or you like living like a Cherokee?" his grandfather asked.
"I like them both," Wohali answered smiling.
Grey Wolf sat silent for a few moments, watching his grandson. "You know, tomorrow is the start of school," he said softly. "You must go."
"I don't want to go! You can teach me like you have been."
"I teach you the way of the Cherokee, but you must learn other things, too," said Grey Wolf.
"You can teach me what I need to know better than anyone. You are the best."
"Thank you for your compliment, but you not going to school is no good. It will be very bad for you," his grandfather said. "You need to be with other boys, make new friends. You will need friends your own age."
Wohali stopped eating and stared into the burning embers, silent.
"What is wrong?" asked Grey Wolf.
"What if they don't like me?"
"What is not to like? You will make many new friends," his grandfather said.
"I don't want to have to give up my Indian heritage if I go to school."
"Why should you have to do that? No one can take your heritage away from you," his grandfather said.
"They won't let me dress the way I want, the way I am used to," said Wohali pointing to the tan fringed pants he wore. "And what about my Cherokee Indian headband that you gave me? Will I be able to wear that? Also, I know they won't let me speak in Cherokee like I do when I am here and around you. As I see it, going to school will make me lose my language and my spirit. My Tsa-la-gi heritage will just fade away."
"You will be the new boy at school. You do not want to bring attention to yourself. You want to fit in," said his grandfather. "You do not want to stand out from the others. This is why I have bought you some new clothes to wear. And, as far as our native language, you will have to speak so that you will be understood. That is of great importance."
Wohali frowned at the thought of having to give up so much just to fit in. "Can I bring my bow and arrow?"
"I doubt if you will have need of it. I don't think your class will be hunting for rabbits. Save that for the weekend."
Wohali gave a heavy sigh, knowing he was not winning this conversation. "You are going to make me go. You will not change your mind?"
"My mind is made up, you must go. It is a must. You are young and you still have a lot to learn," his grandfather said. "You have done well learning Cherokee and our heritage and ways. You make me proud; your parents would be proud, too, if they were here. But, now it is time to learn and experience new things. It is time to prepare for your future, because tomorrow is right around the bend. Do you not understand?" Grey Wolf paused. "Besides, I made a promise a long time ago, and you already know that promises are not to be broken."
Wohali nodded because he did understand about the promise that was made to his mother before she passed away. Still, he was sad.
"I do not have to cut my hair, I can keep it, right?" he asked. "I do not have to give that up, too?" He ran his fingers through his dark, shiny, shoulder-length hair.
His grandfather smiled. "You can wear it, but remember; your appearance does not make you Cherokee. What makes you Tsa-la-gi is what is here and here," he said as he pointed to the young boy's heart and head. "Always remember the right way of living; remember the laws of the Creator and let your Tsa-lagi heritage shine from the inside out. Remembering all that I have taught you, then and only then will you be able to soar like the eagle, my grandson. I promise, if you listen, learn and obey, you will succeed."
Wohali gave a half smile; then took another handful of fish and crammed it into his mouth. "I will not forget," he said after swallowing the food. "I will remember."
Grey Wolf nodded his approval. They finished their meal in silence, with only Wohali's mind asking a lot of "what ifs".
That night, as Wohali lay on his cot, thoughts of the new school danced in his head. He imagined the worst. He felt more secure with his grandfather than going to the Community school. His grandfather had taught him everything he knew; reading, writing, the English language as well as the Cherokee language, all in the surroundings of the little cabin in Oklahoma. Grandfather was a good teacher, a good role model, so why did it have to change now? he wondered.
The young boy tossed and turned all night. Visions of an old school master, with whip in hand entered his dreams, turning his first day of school into a nightmare as the whip came cracking down around his ears. "No Cherokees allowed in here," the school master shouted in the dream. "You will have to change. I will make you change," he continued to say, his deep voice rising and getting louder and louder.
Wohali woke up, breathing fast and hard. His heart pounded as he sat up on his bed, and he began to pray in Cherokee.
"Please make me brave," he said softly as he stared at his sleeping grandfather on the other side of the room. He wished that he, too, was sleeping peacefully, but every time he closed his eyes, he faced a new nightmare, one which left him sitting straight up on his bed, breathing hard, with beads of sweat running down his face.
The third time when his weary eyes closed, he found himself back in the woods, running in his dream. He was excited as he relived the moments of him nabbing his catch of the day. He was carefree as he raced through the dense population of trees and shrubs. He jumped over fallen limbs and trees; his arms were scratched up by the branches of over-grown thorny bushes and prickly leaves that were growing wild. However, he didn't feel any pain. Wohali felt good as he carried the pail, and even though his prize catfish bounced around like a jumping bean inside the white container as he ran, the fish did not fall out of the pail. He was in his favorite, safe world….the woods; which was so much like the wilderness in some of the great stories that his grandfather told him. This was his favorite spot, where rabbits hopped, and squirrels scampered and raccoons hid in trees.
All of his senses came alive when he was in the woods. He could never get lost; it was as though he had a compass built into his head. He would never go hungry either because of all the wild, edible berries that grew everywhere. He already knew which were poisonous and which were safe to eat.
If Wohali had to, he could even bring down a wild turkey with just one arrow. He knew how to survive, if by chance he should ever lose his way. But, he was confident that that would never happen, not even in his dreams. It was then that Wohali began to sleep soundly as more peaceful images danced in his head.
Just as the spirited Indian boy was running lickity-split in his pleasant dream, he came to a sudden stop, standing still like the trees that surrounded him. Wohali's eyes grew big as he stared at the enormous size of the black bear that stood just ten feet in front of him, blocking the path that he had intended to take. His heart pounded, and his knees trembled, but he did not move an inch. It wasn't because he didn't want to, it was because he couldn't. It was as if some kind of magical spell was upon him, leaving him standing motionless and silent like a totem pole. The only thing he could do was breathe, and blink, as the bear inched its way towards him in a scary and taunting manner.
All kinds of thoughts ran through Wohali's mind in a flash. He knew the bear was hungry and looking for food. It could smell his dinner in the white pail. As the bear approached, it stood up on its hind legs, towering over Wohali. The bear's mouth gaped open, ready to pounce on its prey. All of a sudden, Wohali heard it….the sound of the little people's drums. The thumping sounds reminded him of a thousand little bare feet running over ground, and echoing with each thump of their tom toms.
Ahh, the little people are coming to my rescue, Wohali thought to himself. If anyone could help him out of this situation, it would be the friendly Dogwood People; after all, they were the ones who helped when there was trouble. He remembered the stories of the little brownies that his grandfather told him about. He knew and believed they existed, even though he had never experienced seeing any personally. He remembered Grey Wolf telling him that the little people were just knee-high folks, male and female. They were powerful; however, some were mean, some were nice. And then there were those who were just plain mischievous and loved playing pranks on the big people.