Returning to Oklahoma last week presented an opportunity to breathe the air and walk on soil of my relatives. Everyone we spoke with—from museum curators to cousins—were genuinely happy we returned to Indian country and especially glad when we asked questions about history and bought books written by Osage story-tellers.
Although I searched for materials that reflected Indian science, I didn’t find anything specific, thus reinforcing my growing belief that science is woven into stories and histories, not extracted as a single subject.
My mother was adept at science, particularly math and biology, according to my uncle who attended college with her and my father. And because we honored my mother’s memory this week in Oklahoma, I find her presence tugging at my keyboard. My uncle told me that mother would be finishing homework while eating lunch at the college cafeteria, carrying on a conversation while simultaneously writing answers for class. He said she was brilliant. My mother was studying medicine in the 1950s, and family lore is that her father urged her in that direction. Truth is, her father demanded that she study medicine, in part to leave behind any trace of Indian in her identity.
My mother and her two brothers and sister grew up on the road, moving from town to town, often leaving before the rent was due, my uncle said. They lived off my grandmother’s headright–a check sent quarterly by the Osages from the oil discovered on the Oklahoma reservation at the turn of the century. My grandmother managed the household and my grandfather looked for odd jobs such as designing menus and creating signage for stores.
But mostly my grandparents drank.
My mother never talked about growing up but my uncle told me that she—rather than her mother–took care of her brothers and sisters, and that their parents would leave in the evening and return in the early morning, soused. If funds were low because the Osage check hadn’t arrived, they would clear out and move to the next town when rent was due.
My grandfather noticed my mother’s aptitude for science and made sure she took classes so she could study medicine. And one evening, science and trickery merged, sending my grandfather howling in the night. My uncle said my mother had a saucy streak, and she gave her father his come-uppance, courtesy of high school biology class.
Seems the class was studying amphibian physiology and the students sliced open frogs, examining their guts. And it seems that my mother tucked her lifeless frog into her skirt pocket and brought it home.
Sometime in the night, the frog carcass found its way to the string affixed to the porch light at the front of their rented house. The lights were out when my grandparents returned home from their binge, and when my grandfather reached for the string to turn on the light, fist met frog.
My grandfather shrieked as the frog flew out of his hand, so he never knew what caused the slime or that mother was the trickster.