Things never really begin or end in Kiowa storytelling. Narratives commence without clear motivations and their conclusions are left purposefully open-ended, entrusting the listener to find their own meaning in what they’ve just experienced. It’s a nuanced tradition, and I’ve found it essential to comprehending the accounts of a certain ancestor who can still be recalled from within living memory.
On the southern plains in 1857, the world of the Kiowa people teetered on a knife’s edge between the divine and the apocalyptic. That summer was marked by a miraculous happening: a man named K’aya’nte (Falls Over a Bank) recovered a chinaberry staff that he had thrust into the ground after a ceremony a year prior and found that it had since grown roots and sprouted leaves, despite the wood being very old. The incoming winter would bring an epidemic of whooping cough throughout the tribe’s camps, a sign of things to come. It was in this maelstrom that Tso-Odle (Packing Rocks), my great-great-grandfather, was born.
He inherited his light eyes from his mother, a white captive raised by the tribe after being taken from her family of Irish settlers. His father was T’Doh Goole (Red Tipi) and one of his older brothers was Satanta (White Bear), the famous war chief who fought in the First Battle of Adobe Walls against Kit Carson. Satanta would later be one of the parties among the Kiowa and Comanche to sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867: an agreement with the federal government that brought an end to their war against the United States’ rapid encroachment and active theft of their traditional lands. It also enforced the cessation of their nomadic lifestyle on the plains, their religious practices, and buffalo hunting. Furthermore, the accord obligated the tribes to surrender more than 60,000 square miles of their territories in exchange for reservations in the southwestern corner of Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. This period saw the collapse of society as the Kiowa knew it, and its chaos shaped Tso-Odle’s youth.
It was an evening sometime around the end of the spring of 2018. I was sifting through some of Netflix’s more obscure corners of programming in the hope of finding something I hadn’t seen, and preferably to zone out to. It had been a long day. A title that caught my attention was The Daughter of Dawn, a feature-length silent drama from 1920, once lost and rediscovered in 2005, with a new restoration completed in 2012. It had been shot in western Oklahoma and boasted an all–Native American cast, many of them from my own Kiowa Tribe. I’d known about the film peripherally for some time, mostly due to its association with my people. As the preview video kicked in, my sight locked in on an extra in the near background. As I remember it, at that exact moment my perception of time began to blur like a slowed shutter.
With his braids wrapped in long otter skins and his eyes cast to the ground, this was a familiar face, one I had seen throughout my whole life, forever hanging on the wall above my grandmother’s chair in her living room. The background actor’s gaze rose to the screen, and it was in that moment that I realized I was looking at my great-great-grandfather, Tso-Odle, staring back into the camera. An ocean of time and family history melded into each other in that thirty-second clip, instigating some kind of psychic shift within me. In the time since, the closest I’ve been able to come to articulating this experience is through an excerpt from an 1895 review in La Poste of the Lumière brothers’ film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory:
When these devices become available to the public, when people are able to capture their loved ones, not still anymore but in motion, in action, in their ordinary movements, with their own words, death will cease to be absolute.
As this vertiginous state stabilized, it hit me that this film and Tso-Odle’s appearance in it had never appeared in any of our family lore. It could be chalked up to the film’s lost status for nearly a century, but it seemed like at least a mention of him appearing in a movie, any movie, would have been something of note to be passed down. I’d built a career in devotion to my cinematic obsessions, and yet somehow this was a complete unknown. The sheer odds of it all were too dizzying to wrap my mind around. There had always been photographs of Tso-Odle within our family’s possession to pin our stories to, but to witness such an unexpected moving image of him made me feel his historical presence in a new way. My grandmother, Tso-Odle’s granddaughter and the last of her generation within our family, was the only person I knew with firsthand memory of this ancestor and who might have some answers.
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