by Kathryn Lidington, SCA ‘09
Excerpted from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Smoke Signals
When I first interviewed for an SCA Fire Prevention internship with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Chickasaw Agency in Ada, Oklahoma, I could understand about one word in three that Sheldon Sankey, my future supervisor, said to me.
I’d never had much problem with Southern accents, despite being a Yankee from Boston, but this accent was another thing altogether. I opted to say “yes” a lot and hoped that I wasn’t agreeing to anything I would come to regret. Considering how often the word “tornado” came up in the course of the conversation, though, I was left with the uneasy feeling that this may not have been the best approach.
When I won the internship, I packed my bags, reassured my mother (and myself) one last time, and headed out, first for training in Boise, Idaho, and then Oklahoma. On my second day of work, I joined Sheldon and William “Tommy” Schultz to survey a tract of land for a prescribed burn. They took advantage of the long drive (the Chickasaw Nation covers a total of 7,648 square miles in 13 different counties across southeastern Oklahoma) to educate me in the ways of my newly adopted land.
This in-depth briefing covered four-wheeling, shotguns, hog hunting, brush-hogging, ribs, wild boars, spiders, snakes, ticks, chiggers, heat stroke, tornados (again!), and of course, fire, as well as a lot of bewildered head-nodding on my part. It wasn’t just the Oklahoma accents this time; I simply had no idea what they were talking about, other than what seemed like a ridiculous number of natural dangers. I sat in my hotel that evening watching the local news: raging fires and tornado watches, smoke thick in the air and 70 mile-per-hour gusts of wind outside. I couldn’t help but smile. Whatever chain of events had brought me to this strange land within my own country, I had the feeling that I’d landed in a good place for that best of all experiences: an adventure.
Among my favorite episodes was learning to drive a tractor. Tommy and I were heading out to build line for a prescribed burn, so we secured the tractor to the trailer – a tale in and of itself – and drove east out to the Kullihoma Reservation, the site of the planned burn. There, Tommy unloaded the tractor, showed me the few controls, and turned it over to me. Due to an overly cautious nature and a complete unfamiliarity with the clutch-shifting process, I was afraid to put the tractor in any gear higher than first, and therefore putt-putted down the road at approximately four miles per hour toward our work site. Finally realizing I was getting nowhere fast, I managed to shift to second, then third, gear with only minor grinding. Tommy laughed when he heard what had taken me so long, but I was just proud of myself for having – eventually – gotten out of first gear.
Brush-hogging with the tractor turned out to be a lot of fun, at least when it only involved mowing the grass and low brush. Eventually, however, we reached a section of the line with fallen trees and logs that needed clearing. Tommy showed me how to use the bucket, making it look like the simplest of procedures. Of course, I found this not to be the case. The bucket rolled over logs I was trying to scoop up. It grabbed huge clumps of dirt, mud, and grass when I was trying merely to run the blade lightly across the surface. I’d push a log one way and watch, befuddled, as it went completely in the other direction. All in all, it was an infuriating and frustrating process. At long last, I had only one small log left. It defied my every attempt to remove it from the path. Finally, making sure that Tommy was out of sight, I hopped out of the cab, picked up the log, and threw it into the brush beside the line. It was, without a doubt, the most satisfying moment of the day.
Similarly satisfying was my tomahawk-throwing lesson at the Chikashsha Ittifama. The Chikashsha Ittifama, which translates as Chickasaw Elders’ Reunion, is an annual event that takes place at the Kullihoma Reservation. Tommy, Sheldon, and I were staffing a fire prevention booth but I had ample opportunity to check out the other booths, including many sponsored by American Indians. One in particular drew my interest. There, you could practice throwing tomahawks at a mounted log. My first attempt went slinging off into the woods, but it wasn’t long before my tomahawk was bouncing off the target, if not actually sticking in it. Finally, I threw one that landed perfectly and stayed in place, though maybe a bit to the right of center. But my next throw lodged itself not in the log, but straight in the shaft of my previous throw! In recognition, I got to keep the split shaft, and it currently sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf
Sadly, there’s not enough space to detail the many other excellent events in which the fire prevention team participated, nor the myriad other projects that made up my internship, nor the support that Sheldon and Tommy gave me and the many things they taught me, not only about wildfire and prevention, but also about Indian culture and history. But as my internship winds to a close, I am happy to say that I can now understand the Oklahoman accent. I’ve encountered ticks, chiggers, spiders the size of my hand, and extended periods of 100 degree weather, and I’ve survived. I’ve eaten catfish, hush puppies, fried okra, and ribs, and I’ve become addicted to that marvelous Southern invention: sweet tea. I’ve pushed my own personal boundaries, which is what adventures are all about. And though I haven’t seen a tornado yet, I find that I now look upon the possibility with anticipation instead of fear. Provided, of course, that it is miles and miles away from where I’m standing.
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