"You Boss, Huh?"

by Grace Verne Silver

Old John didn't like to have his cronies tell him, "You're almost a native."

To call a white man a native in modern Alaska is equivalent to calling him an Indian, and to call him an Indian is worse than the quaint custom of referring to his mother as a lady dog. It isn't done.

Because he had been thirty-five years in the country Old John was an Alaskan; his wife, known to both races as Grandma, was a native and proud of it. John brought no race prejudices to Alaska. Almost his first discovery upon his arrival in the North was that he needed dogs and missed women. His second was to discover a comely Indian girl who also owned a fine team of dogs. Dogs cost money, and because many other white men coveted the girl, or dogs, John married her and did it in proper missionary fashion. After that, through fat years and lean, she drove dogs and cooked, and bore sons to this strange outlander. She was just a Mary at first, then Mother, then, more affectionately and very respectfully, Grandma. If at times she found the union irksome, as all Indian women married to white men must, she bore the inconvenience philosophically, and behaved with discretion.

John had plenty of cronies, hangers-on, friends, for he was rich in his old age. Grandma was loved by whites and natives alike, for after the custom of her people she fed the hungry and sheltered the cold. To many, Grandma was neither native, nor Alaskan; she was in a class by herself. Her five sons were in a class by themselves, too, -- just five breeds. The eldest had distinguished himself by going outside to the states to school. When he came back, he brought, to the scandal of the community, a white wife. She had been a schoolteacher in Washington, but had traded her low paid job, and her racial caste, for a home, a gold mine, and a half-breed husband whom she loved devotedly. She thus acquired the contempt of her new neighbors, and a personal interest in Grandma.

Old John, like many another sourdough, was getting old and "touched." He was suffering from too much civilization. How could he avoid it? Civilization was blanketing Alaska like a plague of mosquitoes. White women brought caste along with low-necked dresses. They imported race hatred along with silk panties, replaced sensible reindeer ski parkas with sun-backed sports suits, muk luks and moccasins with high heels and frozen feet. Tourists overran the country like a caribou's migration. The whites from the south presented tuberculosis and influenza to the "natives" and under this double white man's burden, they lay down and died. All of this, added up, means that Old John was tired of being referred to as a squaw man.

Besides, there was politics. You who bewail the filth of big city politics know nothing of the slime of politics in a small town of less than four thousand persons, whites, natives, breeds and children. North of 63, politics suffers from no inhibitions. John wanted a commissioner's job; the President was coming, and how could a mere squaw man hope to meet him socially? He took his troubles to his favorite bar and consulted his friends. He got advice.

"Why don't you kick her out?"

"She's a chief's daughter and she's got pride. Beat her up good and she'll leave you."

"Plenty of California girls coming up on the boats. What's a rich man like you want with an old squaw?"

"You don't need her to drive dogs and make camp any more."

Yes, John got advice; worse, he took it. As someone said when he left, "Looks like Grandma saved the old skunk's life once too often."

Jeers, cheers, good wishes and curses followed his exit.

A half-hour later, when John entered the front door of his very comfortable home he had the worst jag and biggest grouch that Grandma had ever seen. He ate his supper and threw the dishes on the floor. He stormed and raved and slapped her. Through all his drunken flow of language ran repeatedly the words.

"I'm boss, see? Get out!"

And steadily, calmly, with now a questioning, again a doubting, again a scornful inflection to her voice, Grandma repeated the words,

"You boss, huh? YOU boss, HUH?"

Ultimately poor Grandma was thrown forcibly out of the house without even her coat. She made her way as quickly as possible to Bill's house and poured out her troubles to Bill's white wife, Nelly. Nelly was a smart girl. All she asked was,

"Grandma, do you want old John back?"

For an answer she got an explosive "No."

Nelly proceeded to cook a very large banquet. Bill went after his brothers and all their friends. They came, and ate, and talked of this and that. In the small hours of the morning they adjourned to the home of a lawyer who also happened to be Old John's worst political enemy. The lawyer took in the situation, and took the whole gang in to breakfast. Later, very discreetly, he used the telephone. A number of legal papers were drawn up.

"We may as well have everything ready for the judge to sign when he gets down to court," said the lawyer.

Promptly, when the court convened especially for the occasion, Grandma's divorce petition was filed. Ten minutes later Old John was brought in by a police officer, the judge having desired him to personally defend himself. The court was nothing if not fair. Very cheerfully John admitted having profanely, abusively expelled his wife from the house. Never was he more cheerful than when he saw his Indian wife receive her signed and sealed divorce papers. He was happy, she was happier; it seemed to be a happy ending. John and his cronies retired to celebrate. Grandma, her sons, her friends -- including the judge, the lawyer, and a couple of policemen -- went home.

In the course of time Old John went home also. He was met at the door by his former wife, flanked by her five sons, and in the background were many familiar faces. Grandma spoke first, and to the point,

"Get out of my house, and stay out."

The two police officers stepped to John's side.

"The old woman's right. The judge sent us along to look after things. You must have forgotten that she owns everything you ever had."

Old John started to rave, but he was interrupted by the Judge himself, who had to see the case to a finish.

"Don't you remember, John, how you deeded all your property to your wife over twenty years ago, to avoid paying your debts? John, you're broke and you're homeless unless Grandma will have you back again."

The same of it nearly killed John. There is no political future in Alaska for a squaw man; there is less than none for a man whose squaw has kicked him out and discarded him. The cronies left him when he could no longer buy the drinks. Grandma gave him an old log hut far out of town, and a third rate team of dogs. That was all he got from her. Grandma and the boys still live in the comfortable house. She often goes out of her way to meet her ex-husband on the street. Invariably, when she meets him, she greets him with a rising, questioning inflection,

"You boss, huh?"

Just as invariably, her parting goodbye is expressed definitely, with dignity,

"ME BOSS, NOW."

 

Proceed to Story Four

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