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On the Death of Charles Eagle Plume
The Trail-Gazette’s editor, Tim Asbury, said in his editorial on the occasion of Charles Eagle Plume’s death that “Charlie may have been as close to a living legend as anyone in the Estes Valley.” Of course Charles lived in Tahosa Valley, but why quibble? As for being a legend, my dictionary defines a legend as “a story coming down from the past; esp : one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.” He’s correct there, all right, for that defines Charles about as well as you can do it in one sentence.
The summer of 1946 I was 9 years old. For five summers after that, until square dancing, which is to say, girls, became the dominant force in my life, I spent quite a bit of time with Charles Eagle Plume. By 1950, I was mouthing the words as Charles presented his lecture at the various inns and lodges in our valley and in Estes Park. I became such a fixture that I often acted as a shill, providing straight lines for him; when he was doing his sign language routine and he held one hand as a horn above his head and the other hanging and wagging under his chin, he would ask what animal he was portraying. I would shout, “Goat!,” and everyone would laugh. Charles would give me a pitying look and show the audience that the sign for goat was two fingers pointing down from the chin, and that he was giving the sign for buffalo.
I always liked the part where he made the sign for the Sioux by drawing a finger across his throat. “That was the sign for the Sioux because they were so good at it,” he would say gleefully. I also liked the story about how the Great Spirit made the Indians: “First he made a figure of clay, and put it in the oven, but he left it too long, and it came out all black. And then he made another one, but he kept peeking in the oven, took it out too soon and it was all pale and sickly looking. But finally he got one just right, and it came out perfectly: a nice, brown Indian.”
After he told stories and danced, he asked the adults in the group to give the Indian children the same opportunity for an education as the white children sitting on the floor in front of him. “If we could educate just one generation of Indian children…” he would say, and there would be a catch in his voice. The emotion was genuine, albeit practiced. Having escaped the reservation himself and having graduated from college here in Colorado, he believed education was the answer to the American Indians’ problems.
After he performed, they would pass a hat, and he often made fifteen or twenty dollars, which seemed like quite a bit to a twelve year old. But Charles always worked up a sweat, and I thought he earned the money.
I helped load his car for these performances, and it was a privilege to handle the feather costume he would wear when he solemnly announced “And now … The … Dance … of … the Eagle,” and the beautiful full headdress of one-year-old golden eagle feathers he wore when he gave “Old Mountain Man’s Last Speech to his People.” He wore makeup to darken his skin and brown glass contact lenses that made his eyes water, because Charles, although he was one-quarter Blackfoot, had very light blue eyes, and a fair complexion inherited from his French and German ancestors. As we drove to the performance, he would talk about how bad business was, and say that people didn’t want to spend money on good things; that they were too cheap to spend their money on real Indian goods. We often drove in Mrs. Perkins’ 1937 Plymouth, and he would complain that she never drove the car in anything but high gear and he was always having to buy new clutches for it.
I did various odd jobs for Charles, including the odious and odoriferous task of gluing tufts of chicken feathers to the tops of turkey feathers. These he gave, along with arrowheads, to young children, asking them to give him their friendship in return. Of course, they were with their parents, and if the parents felt obligated to return the favor by buying something, so much the better. Charles rarely missed a merchandising trick. As we drove back from lectures he would say to me, “Do you know who those children were in the front row, David?” “No,” I would say. “Future customers,” we would say together, and then we would laugh.
In those days, Charles stayed in a tiny room filled with his costumes, artifacts, and feathers, in a room attached to the back of the store, sleeping in a narrow bunk bed. When Mrs. Perkins died, he moved to an equally tiny space in the second floor of the store, accessible only by a narrow staircase next to the kitchen. But Charles’ quarters were a reflection of his life, which was pretty much on the move seven months of the year, as he lectured for the Redpath circuit, which sent lecturers of various sorts to schools and social groups all over the country. In later years, when he bought a television set, he moved to a larger room in what is now the work space of the resident artist, and finally, when he could no longer climb stairs and before he moved to the nursing home, to a ground floor addition built off the back of the kitchen.
Between lectures, Charles went to the reservations to buy goods, and he haunted second-hand stores in the big cities, looking for artifacts. In later years the traders came to him, and one could see their cars and trucks parked at the store in the winter, as he gave them a place to stay while they haggled over prices and quality. He liked to tell of the time he bought a huge and very valuable collection of old baskets at an antique store in Berkeley for $250.
But listening to Charles talk about his life (he intensely disliked being called Charlie, by the way, but tolerated it if it was good for business) was a hazardous enterprise. He told so many inconsistent stories about himself over the years that it became very difficult to know what to believe. And he was inconsistent in many other ways. In later years he loved to keep people guessing about his age, and his infirmities, coupled with probably 70 years of chain smoking, made it difficult to guess how old he was. The members of my family knew his real age, largely as a result of coincidence, but we kept his secret while he was alive.
According to my parents, who knew him as well as anyone here, he came to the Perkins’ What-Not Inn that summer because Ray Silver Tongue had written him a letter, telling him that the Perkins were good people who had a soft spot for Indians. O. S., Mr. Perkins, had been a sheriff in Topeka and liked to be called “Sheriff.” Mrs. Perkins was a teacher. In the following few years, Charles lived with the Perkins in Topeka when he wasn’t going to college. Ray, according to Charles, “met a rich tourist from Texas, and remained happily married to her the rest of his life.”
By 1932 Charles had a college degree and had bought several Indian items he brought to the store for sale. As he began to lecture and gain a reputation for his knowledge of Indian goods, they slowly replaced the antiques, and tea was no longer served. Before Mr. Perkins died, sometime during WWII, the name was changed to “Perkins Indian Trading Post,” and that is how it remained until Mrs. Perkins died and left all she had to Charles.
He immediately made quite a few changes. He put in a pay phone, and remodeled the kitchen with a gas stove, (He sold Mrs. Perkins’ wood kitchen stove to my mother for $25. He found a customer who had a truck and offered to take something off his bill if the customer would help him move the stove. Together they wrestled it into her tiny kitchen, where it remains to this day.) put in electricity and in general modernized the place in areas the public couldn’t see.
It was in the late 1950s that Charles became more or less obsessed with his health, and he began telling people he had MS. He tried a number patent medicines and for several years swore by wheat germ as a panacea, but his health slowly deteriorated, much of it probably attributable to his addiction to tobacco, which he claimed he used only to “kill the pain.” The last time he came to our house for Christmas dinner, in 1984, he was living at the nursing home on and off, and was using a walker. He thanked Mary for the dinner and told her that it was much better than the previous year, when he had accepted an invitation from a Seventh Day Adventist. I had a video camera and I taped a conversation he had with my mother, as they swapped stories about the old days. I was fairly certain he was sticking to the truth, because my mother often corrected his recollections. He had often been a guest at our place, and he signed our guest book, at first with his name, (not his real name, of course, which was Charles Burkhardt) and later with just a pictograph. Here are two examples:
My older brother, Hank, had lived at the store and worked for Charles in earlier summers when he was in college in the early 50s. He lived in Charles’ old room out back. He and his new bride worked at the store in the summers of 1956 and 1957. Charles wanted them to stay on permanently, but Hank went to graduate school instead.
In 1984 my younger son, Richard, worked at the store and met most of the people who are now the owners. By that time Charles’ preoccupation with security had turned the store into a small fortress, with bars on all the windows and security cameras. Charles purchased two Doberman pinschers trained as attack dogs and which cost a small fortune, but one was run over and the other had a similarly short life. Employees knew better than to mention the dogs. And all the security did not prevent a substantial robbery a few years later, which many thought hastened Charles’ decline.
Richard remembers Charles’ convertible (he had a fondness for convertibles, dating back to the early 30s) which Rich said reminded him of Charles: it was long, low and slow and its top took several minutes to rise into place. He also remembers Charles’ preoccupation with sales and his urging the employees to produce “thousand dollar days.” When Rich left at the end of the summer, Charles gave him a beautiful concha belt buckle as a parting gift, plus a small cash bonus.
Charles could indeed be generous. He found a magnificent needle-point squash-blossom necklace for Mary which was a 25th wedding anniversary present, at a very good price. It was the last thing I ever bought from Charles. He was gentle with children, and he took wonderful care of Mrs. Perkins until her death. But he could be mean and vindictive, as well. He had a quick temper, and could become almost violent if someone changed the kitchen radio from its designated position on KOA. Like many bachelors, he was strongly bound by routine, and anyone who varied from routine without permission could count on a talking to, or sometimes even dismissal. Up until the last few years of his life when he took on partners, he often accused employees of stealing from him. Sometimes it was true, and sometimes it wasn’t. Still, he bore grudges, and didn’t hesitate to speak ill of those he felt had “taken advantage of him,” as he put it. Like his genetic background, Charles was a complex person, often inconsistent, and very difficult to know well.
My mother didn’t see Charles in the summer of 1992, and it was the first time she had not done so in many years. He was at the nursing home in Estes Park, and she just couldn’t force herself to go. She didn’t say so, but I suspect it was because she didn’t want to see him in that place, totally dependent on others. It’s something she dreads for herself, like most of us. But for Charles, born on a reservation, who had, by good luck in meeting the Perkins and his own hard work, become so independent, dependency must have been a terrible and terrifying experience. She didn’t want to see it.
Charles and my mother were born, you see, on very nearly the same date in March, 1908, and both came to this valley for the first time on nearly the same date, in August of 1927. They had known each other for 65 years when he died on September 8th at the nursing home.
He always ended his lectures the same way, by reminding us that we were not the first to travel this way, and it is a fitting way to remember Charles. I cannot recall the language he said it was, probably Blackfoot, Arapaho, or Sioux, (or maybe he made it up) but I can remember the words: “NEcko gay EES gay unDA,” which he sometimes translated as “Other people have built their campfires here before us,” or “Others have pitched their teepees here before us,” or “Others have been here before us.” How inconsistent.
And how very like Charles.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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