My outstretched hand froze in motion for a moment. Did he really say “White Feather” or did I miss something? A handsome, dark-haired school principal with a regal, aquiline nose was smiling at me. His dark, almond-shaped eyes did not betray anything mischievous. I trusted him and shook his hand.
I felt both thrilled and uneasy that morning, driving through an arid, depressive prairie on my way to the school. From a distance I spotted a school-like building sitting in the middle of a small, dusty plateau surrounded by brown, sloping hills. A few trailer homes were scattered around. There were no trees in sight, only tufts of withered yellow grass shivering in the gusts of a cold October wind.
A few minutes later, I walked into the office of a small school, with no idea of what to expect in this dreamlike setting. I was on a real Indian reservation, and the only people I was to deal with for the next few days were Sioux Indians.
My childhood memories are of reading James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” mixed with flashbacks from East German Western-style movies. Both were extremely popular in Russia in the ‘60s, especially to a group of boys. Our entire yard gang would use any opportunity to watch these films again and again.
In the cool darkness of a movie theater, we licked our ice-cream and gazed at the screen, where fearless and honorable Indian warriors fought their enemies. The Indians were played by Yugoslavian actors with reasonably dark complexions. They looked quite authentic to us, as did the German cowboys. Moreover, everyone on the screen spoke perfect Russian; at that time, all foreign films were dubbed to enhance the viewing pleasure of moviegoers.
To our unceasing pleasure, the Indians always had the upper hand, finally defeating the sneaky, unshaven and gun-crazy whites. We made passionate comments and argued possible developments of the plot even though we knew by heart every little detail. Sometimes we smuggled our toy guns into the theater and joined the shootouts, helping our Indian friends.
Now, 30 years later, I found myself shaking the hand of a Sioux Indian who called himself White Feather. The principal escorted me to the school cafeteria so I could set up my program.
I played that morning for a group of 70 or so elementary school students and a dozen teachers. The going was not easy. From time to time, a student stood up and left the room. Others came in leisurely, chewing on candy bars or other food.
The teachers paid no attention to the traffic in the room. Nor did they try to quiet any of the younger kids who decided to start playing in the middle of a song.
I struggled for 40 minutes. I told them that being a Russian Jew, I understand how it feels to be part of a discriminated minority. I strummed my balalaika and finally made it to my “Children of the Rainbow” grand finale. The audience clapped some, and I was through.
The teachers invited me to join them for lunch. As we stood in the food line together, I noticed three good-looking young men passing trays of food to the students. One of the teachers caught my eye.
“There is no work around here. That is all they can do,” she explained with a bitter smile.
Soon we were sitting at a limp plastic table where I tried diligently to pierce slippery, green beans with a plastic fork. Chipping away at a dry chicken patty with the same tool was no easy job either. Instant mashed potatoes, though, caused me very little trouble.
During the dessert of milk and an ultra-sweet chocolate-chip cookie, another teacher commented on the students’ behavior at the assembly: “You probably think that the kids were rude. It is not so. We just never force our children to do things. We want them growing free.”
On the way back, White Feather was waiting for me in the corridor. “I saw the first part of your program,” he said. “It was good for the kids to see something that different. Most of them will stay here for their entire lives.”
Then, looking me straight in the eye, he asked bluntly, “Are you a full-blooded Jew?”
Being aware of what a similar question (just replace “Jew” with “Indian”) might mean for any of these native people 200 years ago, I braced myself for a possible harsh development and answered with some defiance: “Yes.”
White Feather gleamed, opened his arms widely and pronounced joyfully, “Shalom!”
Now it was my turn to be thrilled. We shook hands vigorously, both feeling happy. The principal saw me off to my car, helping to carry some of my equipment.
He spoke a little more: “I was born not very far from here on the reservation. I spent a year in Oxford, England, in my college years as an exchange student. I saw the world a little bit. After getting my diploma, I decided to come back. I taught in this school for a while, and then became a superintendent.”
White Feather pointed to the school, the trailer homes and the naked hills all around.
“This is where I belong,” he said, smiling warmly.
I shook his hand again. Instead of a farewell, he said, “If you want to have a real talk with any of our people, ask ‘Do you accept both the light and the darkness?’”
In a few minutes I was back in my car, looking at the map and driving again. My heart was full, and I did not look back.