Issue 130, Spring 1994
Father La Frambois was anxious to baptize me in the Missouri River, to change my name from Cuwignaka Duta, or Red Dress, to the holier appellation, Esther. He was an energetic old man and vivid in color; his cheeks so brightly red they looked slapped, and his eyes a dark blue like the night sky, although sometimes dimming to black in moments of anger. I would not be coaxed into the Missouri, not even to repay him for the hours he spent teaching me to read, to write, recite, to form my thoughts into plain, desolate English until I could speak in terms more lovely than the priest. He bribed me with stories of heaven and eternal life, told me it was within my power to transform my soul from a black crusted thing into a white snow goose with silken wings. When that failed, he bribed me with sugar and silver crosses for me to wear dangling from my earlobes. I wore the crosses to test their potency, expected Christ to whisper his message directly into my ears. And when he was silent, I knew that the silver crosses were really symbols of the morning star, the same image we painted on our buckskin clothes. But I did not tell Father La Frambois, because it isn’t polite to point out to an elder person that he is mistaken.
The missionary priest traveled alone throughout Dakota Territory, perched on a tall American horse that routinely charged our ponies and had to be led through the village with a blanket covering its head. The priest arrived year after year in the fall, noticed first by Šunka Gleška, Spotted Dog, who would race in circles around my father’s lodge, occasionally pausing to howl. This clever companion was a pumpkin-colored dog with wiry fur and white speckles on his muzzle. He could respond to commands made in either Dakota or English, which greatly impressed my father. Once alened by Spotted Dog, the village would turn out to welcome Father La Frambois, moving towards him like an errant wave from the river. We became accustomed to his annual arrival at our winter camp, familiar with the heavy black dress he wore falling awkwardly from his crooked shoulders; he resembled a turkey vulture with broken wings. He would remain with us until spring, drill me in my lessons and study my careful penmanship. He taught me to write the name Esther so that I would be ready to claim it once I had saved my soul, and although I refused the name, I liked to draw it; managing the ink so that it would flow gracefully without bleeding, and fashioning the “E” with dramatic flourishes, curved into the shape of a lush bear heavy with winter fat.