Only a couple of weeks after I assumed by position as Director of the Museum we had a telephone call from a motel just down the street. In cleaning one of the rooms after the guests had checked out they had found some Indian beadwork and buckskin clothing under one of the beds. The items had cryptic labels attached. They had figured out that these looked like they might be museum specimens and wondered if we might be missing some artifacts.
I immediately got in my car and drove down to take a look. When I saw the cryptic labels, I recognized them. The seemingly meaningless groups of letters were a code that an old friend, Charles Eagle Plume, used to keep track of objects in his American Indian store, Perkins Trading Post. We notified the police in the nearest town, and I called the Trading Post. There was no answer. We waited anxiously while they sent officer to the store, located on a lonely stretch of Highway 7 just below Long’s Peak. Everything looked alright from the front, but what they found in the back was amazing. Charles sold not only Navaho Rugs, Pueblo Pottery, and silver and turquoise jewelry, but had a large collection of museum quality older artifacts which hung from the ceilings of the showrooms. These were not for sale, they were to be donated to museums after his death. All of the windows of the trading post had iron grilles to prevent burglaries. But what the thieves had apparently done was to put a chain through one of the grilles and attach it to their truck, intending to pull the grille off. However, the grille was more firmly attached than they had thought, and they pulled off an entire section of the back wall of the building. We soon discovered that Charles was away on a buying trip.
The motel owners had a good description of the guests who had rented the room, and a few days later a shop in Denver was offered some of the stolen goods for sale. The labels were still on them, and the shopkeeper recognized them. The thieves were tracked down. They were native Americans, and claimed that they were simply ‘repatriating’ the items. Charles was outraged at their actions. “They claimed they were repatriating my grandmothers ceremonial dress from me, her grandson.” The ‘repatriation’ didn’t jibe with the fact they had been trying to sell the items to dealers. Most of the items were recovered, and the thieves convicted.
But who was Charles Eagle Plume? I first met Charles in 1939, when I was five years old. Charles would give lectures on American Indian customs at the lodges around Estes Park. He wore beautiful costumes for these lectures, changing parts of them as he demonstrated different dances. He also sang Indian songs, although first warning the audience that the Indian scale of notes fit better into the cracks between the keys on a piano. At that first meeting, he allowed me to carry some of the costume materials to the stage. It was a huge honor for a five-year old.
Charles was an icon in the Estes Park area. He belonged to the Blackfeet tribe (not Blackfoot, they are a different group). He didn’t know how old he was; he thought he had been born sometime during the first decade of the 20th century, somewhere in Montana as Charles Burckhardt. His grandmother gave him the Indian name Eagle Plume. He had the sharp facial features characteristic of his tribe, but with one exception. His mother was half Indian, half French, and she had married a German settler who preferred to live with the Indians. Somehow Charles got both of the recessive genes required to have blue eyes. He always seemed to be squinting during his lecture, actually trying to prevent the audience from seeing his blue eyes.
This is a good place to explain the difference between an American Indian and a Native American. American Indians are the people who inhabited North America (excluding Mexico) before the arrival of the Europeans. The term Native Americans includes the original Polynesian inhabitants of Hawaii and American Samoa. Persons of mixed racial heritage, like Charles, were ‘breeds:’ half-breeds, quarter breeds or whatever, and often not fully accepted into either the European settler or Indian societies.
In his early teens Charles left the reservation. He discovered that Indians were unwelcome in most of Montana and Wyoming, so he kept moving south. He ended up in Estes Park, Colorado, where he heard that a couple who lived about 10 miles south of town had a ‘Trading Post’ and were friendly to Indians. The Perkins had no children of their own, and took in Charles and another Indian boy, Ray Silver Tongue. During the fall, winter and spring of the 1920’s Charles found work Colorado Springs, and graduated from the High School there in 1928. In the summers he would return to Estes Park. It was then that he began to give the lectures on Indian culture that made him famous. A lady from Illinois, Gertrude Hamilton, was vacationing in Estes Park when she heard him talk. She was so impressed that she encouraged him to go to the University and helped to pay his expenses. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1932. He would then spend his summers working at the Perkins’ Trading Post and then began to tour the country giving lectures during the rest of the year. He became one of the family, and ultimately inherited the little store.
Charles’ lecture was always very much the same; over the years I had seen it so many times I could have given it myself. But it always seemed completely spontaneous; he was a great orator. But in addition to fascinating the audience with dances and stories he included some comments about the state of native American that were almost always new to the audience. He also liked to point out that the Constitution of the United States drew on that of the Iroquois Confederacy which had been translated into English by Thomas Jefferson.
Few Americans realize that native American did not acquire citizenship in the United States until 1924, and the rights granted them then were limited. They could vote in national, but not in most state elections. New Mexico did not grant its Indians state voting rights until 1962. In fact, during much of the 20th century the reservations were essentially internment camps, Indians were allowed to leave only under certain circumstances. They did not gain full equality until the passing of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1986.
I spent my high-school summers in Estes Park. In the late 1940’s I would drive out to the trading post and we would talk. Charles had his own version of the general American Indian religion: Mother Earth is all that constitutes the planet, including the lands, mountains, waters and all living things. The sky interacts with the Earth, accounting for the sun, stars, and moon, the winds and the weather. This is not very different from Vernadsky’s idea of Earth as a ball of rock partially covered by water and blanketed by a thin film of life. It also resembles James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia—the planet as a living, breathing, thing. You will also recognize this in my references to ‘Mother Nature’ who may make whatever corrections are necessary to ensure the safety of life on planet Earth. The concept is in many ways the opposite of the anthropocentric Jewish, Christian, and Moslem religions. Learning about it from Charles I have always reveled in the glories of nature and have come to respect out planet as something very special.
When I was living in Washington I started taking my vacations in Estes park again, and I would go out to the Trading Post and visit with Charles. He had boundless optimism that someday the racial and cultural divides in America would disappear, but it was becoming evident that ‘someday’ would not occur in his lifetime.
Charles had Indian friends who lived near Boulder, and they were able to track him down and tell him of the robbery. A few months later I had moved to Estes Park. It was an hour long commute to my office in Boulder, but I had wanted to live in the mountains and had a lot of luck in finding just the right home. This meant that Charles and I could meet for lunch in the town every Saturday. He was delighted that I had become Director of the Museum. It would be the recipient of many of the historically important artifacts he had collected over the years. But Charles was growing old, and becoming increasingly frail. He was probably in his 90’s although he liked to report with amusement that one newspaper account had given his age as 107. When I visited him just before leaving on my sabbatical he was in a nursing home attached to the local hospital.