“Matilda Bear” was an unusual name, so my hopes were high for an interesting person. I should note, however, that I’ve yet to meet my first uninteresting person; I think some just hide their uniqueness better than others.
As I waited for Matilda at the airport, I overheard a young mother who was sitting across from me responding to a question from her son, a tyke of about 4: “Well, honey, you’ve actually been to the hospital twice — once, as you said, when you split your lip, and then the time when you accidentally got the staples in the back of your head.”
The little man solemnly nodded his head, as if to say, “Of course — the staples. How could I have forgotten that?”
The plane landed, and the arriving passengers streamed through the gate. The sign I held read “M. Bear,” and the woman who approached me was tall and slender, with a broad face and dark, wide-set eyes above high cheekbones. Her skin was reddish brown and seemed to give off a warm glow, like a rocky desert at sunset. Add to that her graceful bearing, and I found myself thinking, This person is one sterling representative of the human race. If and when the extraterrestrials finally arrive, I’d place Matilda Bear front and center in the welcoming party. She wore her beauty lightly, though — if you weren’t paying attention, she might slip past unnoticed.
“Hi, Matilda,” I greeted her. “I’m Jernigan, and I’ll be taking you to your hotel in Stowe.”
“Great,” she said. “These are my bags, so I’m ready to go.”
The day was breezy, sunny, but not too hot — summer’s glorious third act. Matilda sat quietly composed in the back seat, notably not fidgeting with any digital device — a rarity in 2011. A spokesperson for my generation once wrote a book titled Be Here Now, and this woman seemed to be doing just that.
As we turned onto the Interstate, Matilda asked, “Do you know anything about the hotel I’m going to?”
“Oh, yeah — it’s gorgeous,” I replied. “As is Stowe this time of year. Well, that’s pretty much true any time of year. I gather you’re attending a conference?”
“Yes. It’s an association of nonprofit educational organizations. I do that kind of work, mostly teaching English as a second language. I’ve had positions all over the world.”
“That’s very cool. Do you speak any languages other than English?”
“I do. I speak two Native American languages. My mother is Navajo, which is the largest tribe in the country, and my father comes from a very small tribe called the Yavapai. There’s less than a thousand members.”
“Wow. It seems remarkable that your father’s tiny tribe — the Yavapai, did you say? — has maintained its language. Must be some powerful elders leading the way.”
“Well, there are issues,” Matilda said with a smile. “Let me put it this way. In my mind, there are basically, like, two kinds of tribes. There are those like the Navajo who, historically, have strongly fostered and maintained the old ways, and those like the Yavapai, I’m sad to say, that have let things slip. Some of the elders, while completely respected, may not have made wise decisions. In recent years, there’s been a big push to revive the language, but I fear it may be too late.”
We motored past the Williston rest area. This brought me back to a Grace Potter concert in early August, where I ran into the man who owns the company that built it. He told me that the rest area’s design had a dual goal: evoking the old-timey feel of Vermont and providing modern amenities. Blending the old with the new, he explained, is no easy task.
“So, where do you call home?” I asked my customer.
“I’ve lived the last few years in Boulder with my husband and our 4-year-old daughter.”
“Nice. I have family in Boulder myself. You know, our Church Street Marketplace, which is the center of downtown life in Burlington, is based on Boulder’s Pearl Street. Might even have had the same designer, though I’m not 100 percent on that part.”
“That’s cool — I didn’t know that. I’ve never been to Burlington. This is my first visit to your beautiful state.”
“So, could I ask you — is your husband also Native American? I wondered if there’s community or family pressure to marry within the tribe.”
“Well, to answer your first question, my husband is Mongolian. We met when I was running a program in his country. As to the second question…” Matilda paused to chuckle. “You better believe there’s pressure to marry a Native American. But my family has grown to love Ganzorig. He’s a very sweet man.”
This blew my mind, which doesn’t get blown so readily these days. Perhaps younger folks take our shrunken, global world for granted. Not so for me. In the world in which I came of age, Native Americans just didn’t meet, let alone marry, Mongolians. Heck, an older cousin of mine married a Canadian, and we all thought that was pretty exotic.
I said, “Your union is interesting — I mean, like, anthropologically, if I got the right discipline. Because, when I saw you, I wondered if you were perhaps from Central Asia. Am I wrong; isn’t there some connection between that part of the world and Native Americans?”
“No, you’re right. My Mongolian family firmly believes this. The Navajo, particularly, physically resemble Mongolians, and both cultures raise sheep. There are other similarities, as well, like the prevalence of medicine men or shamans. Scientifically speaking, the anthropological record suggests that mankind moved through Asia into the Americas relatively recently. But the Navajo reject this. Our creation myths describe our people emerging from the earth. The idea that we migrated from some other place in the world would be impossible.”
“Jeez, Matilda, your little girl is growing up with one amazing family heritage.”
Matilda laughed, bringing her right hand up to her mouth. Shaking her head, she said, “That may be true, but you know what my daughter really cares about right now? Gummi Bears.”
?“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.