I Met a Chief on the 21A

by Penrod

As I boarded the bus at 40th and Lake, I noticed a short, dark, unsteady man standing near the driver. He asked the driver about the Capitol.

"It's a long ways. Go back and sit down," she said

By this time I was in the second set of the row seats by the window on the right. The old man managed to sit down on the longitudinal seats on the left — the ones that are to be yielded to aged and handicapped people.

I had pulled out The Works of Love by Kierkegaard and had begun reading in the second chapter: "You Shall Love." I read, "Christianity presupposes that men love themselves and adds to this only the phrase about neighbors as yourself. And yet there is the difference of the eternal between the first and the last.

"But, after all, should this be the highest? Should it not be possible to love a person more than oneself? Indeed, this sort of talk, born of poetic enthusiasm, is heard in the world. Could it be true, perhaps, that Christianity is not capable of soaring so high, and therefore (presumably because it directs itself to simple, everyday men) it is left standing wretchedly with the demand to love one's neighbor as oneself, just as it sets the apparently very unpoetic neighbor as the object of love instead of a lover, a friend, the celebrated objects of lofty love (for certainly no poet has sung of love of one' s neighbor any more than of loving as oneself) — could this perhaps be so?" I could see where he was going.

I looked up at the old gentleman several times while reading this. "He doesn't know when to be ready to get off," I thought. "I'm getting off where he could transfer." I remembered the feeling of anxiety I have felt when I have not known where to get off.

I was about to step up to speak to him when the bus began to cross the river. The gentleman began to take note. He looked up the river toward downtown. When the bus, moving very slowly, was about halfway across, he turned his head to look down stream toward the lock and dam. I followed his gaze and I saw the river with fresh eyes.

Once across the bridge he sank back into his own reflections. By now he had moved to the outside seat of the first row on the left. I stepped forward a row and a half, leaned over, and said to him, "Are you trying to get to the Capitol?"

He looked at me through thick glasses. After a moment he said, "Yes."

"I'm getting off where you have to get off, so I'll let you know when we get there."

"Oh," he said. "Thank you."

After a moment. "I'm just a dumb Indian. I don't have any education."

I sat down across the aisle from him.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

He looked at me — a moment's pause once again. "Milacs. I live in Milacs. I have to go to the Capitol to straighten out some things.

"It's hard when you don't have any education and are a dumb Indian. People ignore you. But I won't let them. I can talk to anybody in my language. But I don't know English good.

"I can understand you just fine," I said.

He smiled.

"My last two social security checks didn't come. I found out that my nephew cashed them. He's a smart guy. He's gone to school. He thinks I'm a dumb Indian, so it was OK for him to cash them."

"Are you going to the Capitol to get the checks replaced?"

Pause. "No. The state paid them. They are making him pay back the money to them."

"That sounds fair," I said.

Pause. Nod of the head. "That's right."

I still did not understand his mission. I took it that he needed to cut some sort of bureaucratic red tape. Something needed straightening out.

"Do you know who you need to see?" I asked.


We talked further, hardly noticing that the bus had come to a stop on Marshall not far from the SupcrAmerica station. We sat there for some time. I not iced that the bus driver was talking to someone on a bus phone. Soon she stood up, faced the passengers, and said, "Will you please get on the bus just behind us?"

My friend did not understand the message. "We have to get on another bus," I said. Slowly and with difficulty he got up to get off the bus. We were the last ones to exit except for the driver and another person from the transit company who had boarded the bus.

"Is there a problem with the bus?" I asked as we were getting off.

"There's no heat," responded the MTC man.

Once on the boulevard, I offered my friend a hand,With/ his arm through mine we made our way slowly toward the T other bus. I was worried that the bus might leave before we got there, The driver might think that everybody was aboard. The driver's scat came into view. Unoccupied. We had time.

My short, dark friend climbed slowly into the bus and seated himself in the elderly persons' seat on the right. I sat down next to him.

"Nobody can lose me in my language. The problem is I don't know all the English. It's hard to make people understand."

"What is your language?"

"Ojibway. The Ojibway language."

"I'd be completely lost in your language," I said.

He smiled.

"In the woods I know what to do. Nobody can lose me in the woods."

I nodded. I had an idea of what he meant. I remembered an Indian family some friends and I once met on the Turtle River just north of Rainy Lake, in Canada. We were going up river. The Indian family — husband, wife, and baby — were coming down the river, We passed one another on the portage trail. It was clear they were not lost.

"I grew up near the Canadian border. Have you ever been up there?" I asked.

"Yes." He nodded.

"Rainy Lake?"

"Yes. I've been up there, and I've been to Kenora. The Indian place up there."

We were moving again. I realized now that, during his pauses before responding, he was translating my English into Ojibway in his head.

"In my own language I am not dumb," he said. "This country is too far gone. I remember what my grandfather and father used to say when I was a boy. I didn't understand it then, but now it's getting clear to me."

"I'll bet there are a lot of things you would like to say and to write down."

"That's right," he agreed. "The young people just want to lay around. I used to play baseball when I was a kid. I was a pitcher. The kids don't even do that anymore."

"Did you have a good aim?"


"What was your best pitch? A fastball? Could you throw hard?"

He smiled. "Yes," he nodded.

"I bet there are a lot of things you would like to point out to your people," I offered.

"Yes. But I have no education. I can speak like anything in my own language."

"You know what tape recorders are'?" I asked. He nodded. "You should get a tape recorder and just start talking in your own language. Then you would have it down and someone could translate it. We need your story."

"I could do that easy," he said. It seemed like he was making plans to do that.

Ahead I could see the Cathedral far down Selby Avenue. "See that building with the green dome and spire?" I said, pointing. He peered in that direction through his thick, scratched glasses. I had an impulse to offer to clean them for him.

He nodded.

"That's the Catholic Cathedral. It was built around 1910 or 1912, so it's been around for awhile."

He nodded again. "I was born in 1912. April 17, 1912."

"I was born in 1938, so I'm a bit younger than you."

He looked at me and smiled. "You are a young man. I wish I was that young. I had an operation on my legs a few years back at the Indian hospital in Bemidji. They straightened some things in my legs. I had to wear special shoes for a while." As he said this he held his short legs out straight in front of him.

"Did it help?"

"I can walk now," he laughed.

"When we get to the stop where I get off, you have a choice, Either you can walk about five blocks to the Capitol or you can continue on downtown and catch the 16A bus that will stop right by the Capitol. (By now I had ruled out transferring to the 12). If you think you can walk that far, I'll walk with you."

"That would be good. We can talk as we walk," he said.

Shortly, he returned to the subject of what he wanted to say to his people.

"My grandfather was the chief of all of Minnesota. Now we get everything made for us. We get our clothes and our food in the store. They wait for money from the government."

"Do the young people understand the Ojibway language?"

"Yes." He nodded.

"My whole life I've always gotten things from the store," I said. "I don't know what I would do if I couldn't get things there. That must be the hope of your people. They could do better than we could if we had to live off the land. Sometimes I bet you feel like it would be better if something were to happen to force people back to a better way of life."

He digested this for a few moments. "That's right," he said with conviction.

By this time we were at the Cathedral stop at the end of Selby. "The next stop is the one where we get off if you want to walk," I said, getting up. The 21A began to make the sharp turn left and head down the hill. An older lady who had just boarded the bus sat down next to my friend and smiled pleasantly at him.

"I'm an Indian," he said to her.

She smiled nicely and made a polite response which I could not hear. He stood up, holding on to a vertical hand bar, and peered ahead at the Capitol.

"There's the Capitol," I said again, not sure that he saw it. "Do you think it's too far to walk?"

He studied the distance, standing there like a chief. "Take me down there a little closer," said the chief to the bus driver. He didn't know that the bus would turn right.

"O.K.," I said. "Take the 16A when you get downtown."

My eyes caught the eyes of the bus driver as I disembarked. Did those eyes suggest that I was a do-good meddler and that I should stay out of things that didn't concern me? That I had told him the wrong bus? That either the 7 or the 5 was more logical?

As I surveyed the distance to the Capitol, I realized that my friend had made the right decision. It would have taken him an hour to walk that far. I set out in the fresh, crisp March air, filled with gladness and thinking of our conversation.