Three generations of veterans from the James family take part in the gourd dance at the pow wow during the Choctaw Nation Labor Day Festival. Patriarch Harry James of Talihina, center, his son, Michael James of Tahlequah, right, and grandson Chad Murphy, currently residing in Fort Carson, Colo., regularly participate in intertribal pow wow dancing, as do many of Harry’s grandchildren. Teaching his children and grandchildren tribal dances has always been very important to Harry.
For tribe and country, three generations deep in tradition
By LARISSA COPELAND Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
“In Indian ways, as grandparents, you’re the teachers,” says Harry James of Talihina. “If you don’t teach them (the grandchildren), who will?”
A man of few words, Harry and his wife, Carol, of 54 years, have tried to pass on what they know of the tribal ways to their 12 children, 26 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. This was done through their actions.
Harry Clyde James was born in 1927 near Talihina, the oldest child of Cleo Patrick Johnson James and Aaron James, both full-blooded Choctaws. Along with his seven brothers and sisters, he was raised on a farm in Talihina and attended school there.
“We were mostly self-sufficient on our farm, raising almost everything we ate,” he says.
During his school days, Harry was very active in sports. “I really like sports. We didn’t have a lot of students so we all had to play to have enough for the team. That’s what you do in a small school,” he says. “I played all the sports offered, football, basketball, baseball, and ran track.” Outside of school, Harry also spent time boxing at a local club.
At the age of 19, before his school days were over, Harry decided to enlist in the U.S. Army.
“Everybody in this part of the country is pretty patriotic,” he says, including his parents. “They let me do what I was supposed to do. If they didn’t feel it was right, I’m sure they wouldn’t have let me do it. I think Indians feel different about joining the service than others do.”
Harry went to Fort Bragg, N.C., for basic training. There he was asked if he spoke any foreign languages and he said he did. “English,” he says with a laugh, knowing it wasn’t the answer they were looking for, “Choctaw is my first language.”
Upon completion of basic training he was soon shipped overseas. As an infantryman assigned to the 11th Airborne, he served his country in World War II during an occupation mission of Hokkaido, one of the northern islands of Japan.
After the war, he entered the Army Reserves, returned to Talihina and reentered school graduating in 1949.
In 1950, Harry was again called back to active service with the Army, this time for the Korean War.
Uncomfortable speaking about his experiences during the wars, he says he felt lucky that he made it home uninjured. “I try to forget about all that,” he says.
He received two Battle Stars for his service during the wars.
Never one to try to sway his children or grandchildren’s decisions, his actions, his honorable service, has made a lasting influence on some of their choices on joining the military themselves.
Harry has several who followed his footsteps into service in the armed forces – son Michael served in the Marine Corps and son Thomas was in the U.S. Army. His grandchildren also continued the path with granddaughter Kristi Durant and grandson Chad Murphy both enlisting in the Army. Chad and his wife, Jeri, have both been deployed to Iraq, Chad twice and Jeri once. Chad is currently stationed at Fort Carson, Colo.
Harry said Chad called him from Iraq when he got his CIB (Combat Infantry Badge). “He was excited,” says Harry. “He wanted me to know.”
Growing up in the James household, Michael says his father’s service wasn’t much of a topic for discussion. “My dad didn’t talk much about the military when we were kids,” says Michael. “Sometimes he’d bring up the training, the way they were taught to think, but nothing about actual things that happened to him. He grew up in a different time, a time when they didn’t really talk about the things that they experienced. It’s worked for him though, to keep it in. When we were growing up and something happened, his saying was, ‘Shake it off. Tomorrow is a new day’.”
Though Harry was humble about his service, it is one of the reasons Michael decided to serve his country. “It’s because of my dad and my uncles,” he says. “Talihina’s got a lot of veterans. It’s a very patriotic area.”
Once, Harry told Michael about Joseph Oklahombi, one of the Choctaw Code Talkers, though Michael didn’t know that about Oklahombi at the time. “He compared him to Sgt. York. That’s all he said about it though.” (Note: At the Battle of Mont Blanc Ridge Oklahombi reportedly captured more men than York did during the Battle at Argonne Forest, both similar battles. Oklahombi was awarded the Silver Star for his actions; however, York was awarded the Medal of Honor.)
Michael, who today is a nurse at the W. W. Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, joined the Marine Corps in 1979. Since he was only 17 he needed a parent’s signature to enlist. Harry reluctantly signed the papers allowing him to join. Michael sensed that it troubled his dad that he was signing up but he never tried to talk him out of it, only offering advice. Michael remembers his dad telling him, “Nobody wins in war.” Harry took the day off of work when Michael shipped off for his training.
After attending boot camp in San Diego, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton where he worked in the communications field and completed two extended overseas training missions. His first deployment was to Japan and the Philippines, conducting numerous training missions on different islands, at one point spending over 30 days on a small Filipino island. His second trip over focused on helicopter operations in Japan, and he also spent time in Korea.
“I learned a lot from those trips, about how people are around the world,” says Michael.
Michael returned back to Oklahoma and he began nursing school after receiving an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in 1983.
Though military service throughout family lineages isn’t too uncommon, the James family stands out for many other reasons as well. Three generations deep in the armed forces, the family is also steeped in the traditions and culture of their tribes. “As Indians, we do a lot of things out of respect,” says Michael. “I learned a lot about respect from dancing; my parents made sure of that.”
“I started war dancing in 1957 at a pow wow in Binger, Okla.,” says Harry. “Carol was dancing long before that though.”
According to Carol, being raised among many different tribes, immersed in the cultures, is where she found her love of dancing. “I grew up with the dancing,” she says, “the culture, just learning it. I’m still learning. You never stop.”
Together, Harry and Carol raised their children engaged in the tribal dance cultures, taking them to pow wows, and continuing the tradition with their grandchildren. As a family, they attended and danced at pow wows and social gatherings.
“Carol and I always took our kids with us everywhere we went,” including pow wows and Choctaw social gatherings, says Harry. “That’s how they learned, they just got out there and danced. Now, we take our grandchildren when we can.”
Along with intertribal dancing at pow wows, Harry and Carol also took their family to meet with other families in Talihina as part of the Indian Club for Choctaw social dancing and other traditionally native activities. “I remember my older friends playing games of stickball with the other kids, too,” says Michael.
This is something Michael is grateful for. “I’m glad mom and dad recognized how important our culture is and that we needed to participate in it and know it,” says Michael. “We were always around the dancing.”
It was at a pow wow in Talihina where Harry began gourd dancing. Gourd dancing is believed to have been started by the Kiowa tribe and revived in Carnegie, Okla., in the mid-1950s.
During the gourd dances, they sing and dance, usually holding in one hand a fan of feathers, in the other a gourd rattle, usually a metal can or salt shaker rattle.
“It’s very spiritual,” says Michael. “Like a prayer in movement, the positive vibration, the drumming. It’s like singing a hymn in church. I feel a connection to earth and sky, like it’s all interwoven during the gourd dancing.”
Michael says his dad has no pain when he dances.
Both Harry and Michael have been asked to be the head gourd dancer at the Choctaw Nation Labor Day pow wow, with Michael performing the duty this year. “I was very honored to get to be the head gourd dancer at the pow wow,” says Michael. “It’s like we came full circle with my dad being able to be there after he’d been the head dancer before. It was awesome to be able to have my nephew, Chad, there too,” who, with his family, was visiting Oklahoma while on leave from the military.
Speaking on his nephew, Michael says he’s a lot like Harry. “He’s an impressive young man,” he says. “His mannerisms are like my dad’s.”
Chad’s young daughters also took part in the pow wow dancing.
With the children grown and not being one to keep still for long, Harry has stayed busy over the years working in the art and trade of silversmithing. Harry retired from the Choctaw Nation Health Care Center in Talihina in 1982 after 28 years, with 33 years total in civil service. In 1980, knowing his retirement was soon approaching, Harry sought out a skilled hobby to keep him busy during his retirement. He was taught to be a silversmith by fellow Choctaw silversmith Jerry Lowman. “He’s been at it ever since,” says Carol.
What started as a hobby has turned into a small side business. Harry sells his jewelry pieces at art shows, fairs, festivals and pow wows. He focuses on jewelry and often incorporates symbols of Choctaw culture.
The Choctaw social dancing still has a place at the James’ family get-togethers during the holidays. Michael usually plays the role of Santa Claus at the family Christmas gathering, much to the delight of the children and leads some of the social dances. “He comes in and does a war dance,” says Carol. “The kids just love it.”
“It’s good to see that it’s moving forward with this generation too,” says Michael. “Our parents taught us that our culture, like anything good, will endure.”