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The Indian Man

Grandpa always had a fascination with frontier American life, in particular with Native Americans. (For him they were always Indians.) His interest, as an outdoors man and artist, was a mixture of curiosity and respect. He would read about them, about how they did things, and how they made things. As an outdoors man he had an interest in how they lived and functioned—their rugged survivalism and closeness with in nature. But his preeminent interest was artistic—he was fascinated with the craft of Native Americans.

Grandpa and his indian

Beyond appreciating what the Native Americans created, Grandpa wanted to duplicate their work. This was expressed in small ways by the various little knick-knacks he created, from fletching arrows to attempting to create arrowheads from stone and even dabbling in designing crude knives. His most involved craft was the moccasins he fashioned from a deer hide, curing, cutting, and sewing the hide himself.

If Grandpa’s preoccupation with Indians was mostly a private affair which few people really saw, his greatest creation broke that mold. What was a private whim and fancy became a dramatic public artistic statement when Grandpa created his Indian.

Grandpa’s Indian was a life size figure, created from scratch. I don’t remember what he used for the basic skeleton structure, but the flesh was a plaster painstakingly applied and molded by hand. The final creation was startling in its realism. Infused into the statue was Grandpa’s own artistic genius, and intricate details from Native American life—loincloth, bow, beds, hair, feathers, and knife.

To call the Indian amazing was an understatement. As a first time attempt it was unbelievable. On first sighting I was in equal parts creeped out and awed. One day I walked into the garage, arriving for a visit, and there the Indian stood, tall and proud, his face creased with stern lines, his steady eyes staring into the far distance. The first sighting was almost shocking, and I gave the statue a wide birth. But it called in its own strange way, and I would go back to the garage to stare at it—afraid to get too close, and yet curious to draw near. I could stand there and look at him, noticing the care given to every details, and wondering at the mystery of it all.

If the Indian was given a name, I don’t recall it. To everyone in the family it was known as “The Indian” or “Grandpa’s Indian” and he stood in silent watchful guard over many family visits. He was a great source of conversation and endless marvel.

As with all of his creations, Grandpa’s own feelings about the Indian were mixed. It was a first attempt, and as such the Indian certainly was not flawless. Grandpa, as his own worst critic, could never forget the imperfections, and how it could have been better. But, widely acclaimed as his greatest work, he couldn’t help feeling a measure of pride—but it was pride mingled with embarrassment and some vague sense of shame. Grandpa never wanted to be the center of attention, and with such a dramatic work of art it was impossible to escape being the subject of conversation. If the Indian was the subject of conversation, it wasn’t long before Grandpa was mumbling something about it being “Foolishness,” or “Not that good. It should have been better,” or “We don’t need to talk about that.”

But if the Indian was a source of some embarrassment for Grandpa, the rest of the family had no such problem. The Indian, with his raven black hair, loin cloth, bow, and pouch, was undeniably a unique work of art. He was a family treasure.

What followed was a minor tragedy. A fall damaged the Indian, putting a large crack through one forearm. It was a painful reminder that the Indian was fragile, and moving it a risky proposition. Then, later, Grandma and Grandpa were moving to a new house and it was decided the Indian would not go with them.

Grandma dealt in collectibles, and over the course of the years a number of people had expressed interest in purchasing Grandpa’s Indian. Some said it belonged in a museum. Grandpa didn’t want to sell it. A part of him was embarrassed, and thought it wasn’t worth selling. A part of him didn’t want to let it go.

One day someone came to the door and said, “I saw that Indian you have there in the garage, and I would really like to buy it. Would you be willing to sell?”

“Well, okay,” Grandma said. “You can have it for $300.”

“Oh,” the man said. “That’s too bad. I can’t afford that much.”

Then Grandpa broke in. “Forget all that! Give it to him for $100, Ma. It isn’t even worth that much. Just give it to him for $100.”

That was Grandpa—never the businessman, he either never wanted to part with what he had made, or he wanted to give it away because he thought it was worth nothing. As a work of art the Indian was easily worth $500, perhaps even $1000 or more to the right audience. As a family heirloom, the Indian was priceless. But at the instance of Grandpa it went for $100.

After the Indian was gone, some family members felt regret that they had not acted and kept the Indian in the family. The Indian was Grandpa. It was unique, and there would never be another. If Grandpa had refined his skill he could have made statues worth significant money and made a name for himself as an artist in his old age. Instead, he made the one Indian, and never made another one again.