by George T. Harrell, III
Chief Red Dawn was an extraordinary individual. He exuded a great dignity and sense of pride that he was an American, from the stock of the original Americans. A native son of proud people. He was at camp during the ’54 & ’55 seasons. As I recall he was not on the “campus” every day, but was a frequent visitor. He was probably between 45 and 50 years old with jet black, long hair tied back in a ponytail. I’m sure I’m correct that he was not Cherokee, but Sioux. He mostly wore jeans and a printed shirt, not an Indian costume, when he was helping Mike in his lodge teaching Indian Lore. However, his costume at pageants was spectacular and awe-inspiring. It was full length made of deer skin and covered in ornate beads. His bonnet was immaculate and displayed many eagle feathers. His moccasins were also deer skin and decorated with multi-colored beads. Chief always wore a massive head dress but never a loin cloth, just his usual khaki pants and shirt. Nevertheless, Chief always sat at the place for a chief in the Counsel Ring.
To most campers Red Dawn was a curiosity who materialized on dark evenings to celebrate campfires and ceremonial dancing. They were called “Pageants.” He worked with many counselors perfecting their respective dances and songs. Mac Francis, as I recall, was always the “star” with his tremendously exciting “Eagle Dance.” He also performed a breathtaking dance with flaming hoops that was exhausting just to watch. The drummers beat the cadence as he and, eventually, all of us danced in a circle. The “dum, dum, dum, dum (pause) dum, dum, dum, dum” echoed through the hemlocks all aglow and flickering from the reflection of the massive fire ragging in the middle of the circle. I remember that that fire was very welcome because some of those nights were quite cool and most of us were wearing only a loin cloth and moccasins; no shirts, no underwear, no pants.
I regrettably have lost my songbook from camp so I don’t have one of my favorite Indian songs we always sang during a pageant but I can clearly remember it, as well as, the melody we sang to the words: (Phonetically)
Nee san ta wa sin, naw wa sin a zay cu oh, naw wa sin a zay ku oh…..
Red Dawn and I established a unique friendship. As a boy, even before I attended Sequoyah, I had been reading about the American Indian and had long since dismissed the portrayal of them in western movies. I admired their culture, resilience and bravery. I also mourned their lost civilization. I used to winch at the very mention of General Custer. I considered the term “red man” as offensive as the “N” word for blacks.
In quiet moments in the solitude of our hemlock shrouded retreat, we privately talked openly and candidly about the American Indian saga. He was discouraged that Hollywood and TV had never accurately portrayed his people. They were not savages. They were not primitive people. They were a proud, resourceful culture who worshiped nature and had an enduring respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants. Like most of all cultures they were highly protective of their families and land. Their anger was for the “invaders” who took their land and destroyed their means of feeding themselves. The word “reservation” clearly stuck in his craw.
To get a sense of who Red Dawn was watch a movie with Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) or Russell Means (Last of the Mohicans). Greene could be the son of Red Dawn in his features, his speech and in his demeanor. Both Greene and Means are true native Americans and excellent actors.
Red Dawn was a realist and recognized that his job of spreading knowledge of his heritage was his means of putting food on the table for his family and providing them with a home. He saw his job as that of an educator, not an entertainer, and he took it very seriously.
I was privileged to learn the truth, not be mesmerized by the fantasy of the American Indian, thanks in part to Red Dawn. His strength and pride was unassailable. He greatly admired Chief and welcomed Chief’s celebration of the Indian culture albeit that it was somewhat white-washed and shallow. He considered the display of costumes, campfires and dancing as “frivolous” compared to the real culture of his people. Theirs was a society of values and honor. “We are a people who respect the land, our food source (game and maize) and honor the traditions of our ancestors”, he would often say. “Our God and yours was the same.” That stuck with me for life.
I, to this day, wonder if he was a true Christian or a practicing Sioux. I have grown to believe that a deity is in all cultures, native Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Africans, Aztecs, Aborigines and every known society in the world. He sparked my interest in history which has lasted to this day. I am now a hopeless addict of anthropology.
I often thought that Red Dawn’s true ambition was to take a select group of campers out on a hunt with bow and arrows and tag a deer, skin it, hang the skin out to dry, gut the deer, and eventually eat it around a “real” campfire. I also knew that he would have liked to have planted a row of maize, nurtured it and had us all eat it with him after it was harvested. Tobacco was, of course, a forbidden commodity at Sequoyah, but it was an essential crop for trading with early Europeans who visited the eastern shores of America. He rolled his own in private seclusion. He also had an authentic long pipe. Chief, I’m sure, would have been horrified.