Awash in Soapstone


Decided to try my hand at carving soapstone after a routine visit to Jerry's Rock & Gem shop. Great place, check it out. Started with my animal vibe as of late- the buffalo [Figure 1]. After writing up my go-to story from the field, I've been really feeling the buffalo. Even picked up a tooth and leather thong to wear the thing around my neck. I love bones, I don't know if I've mentioned my taste for body parts yet but it's something I share with many grave-robbing scientists throughout Western history. If you share the impulse to collect and catalog skulls and bones, might I recommend Severed by Frances Larson. It's delightful, insightful, anthropologically refreshing, and best of all, it is a book about severed heads.

Anyway, it just so happens that there is another story related to buffalo that, presently, affects my choice to sit down and free a lopsided buffalo from a bit of dendridic soapstone [Figure 2]. For clarification, soapstone is just talc. Basically, hot volcanic water prevented the material from forming hard crystals and so it's got a hardness of 1. You can busy yourself chipping away with your fingernail of you so choose. I chose a pocket knife [Figure 3].

We're gonna get off the adulthood train for just a second, here, and go back to kindergarten. The Adulthood Train/Bus/Ferry/Mountain of Life is one that I tell myself I am a friendly passanger on. Really, it's closer to being kidnapped by the conductor and I'm gagged under the floor boards while the cart with ice cream and beer passes overhead and I watch through the cracks as the rats of poverty and debt creep in from the shadows. #being25in2017

Pocahontas was big when I entered K-12 at Blades Elementary. Every little kid I played with partook in what I still think of as "playing imaginary" at being Indians and settlers at least once a week. Pretty basic stuff. So, it's Halloween week at Blades, and I'm in Mrs. Gorecke(?) (Goereke(?) I pronounced it Gor-eh-kee)... Mrs. G's full-day class. A decent portion of this cohort would go all the way through high school and part of college together. South St. Louis is like that, are most public schools. And private I guess. And everywhere. That is definitely a universal thing.

Anywho, it's time for one of the many holiday-themed activities. Topic: let's all say what we're being for Halloween. Indians. Let's all listen to Mrs. G read that book about the prairie tribe with the kid who uses magic paintbrushes to paint the sky with sunsets and sunrises and then leave his brushes to become wildflowers. Great. Good stuff. Next up, let's go around and say *which* Indian we are being for this game. I was somewhere in the middle of the group. The answers, as I recall them, were almost unanimously Pocahontas & John Smith or Kocoum. When Mrs. G looked at me and asked what my "Indian name" was (let us remember this was the '90s) I paused in thought. I feel like the teacher was used to this because I was often on the outlier of cooperation in activities where the group's judgement loomed over me. Looking up, I said, "My name's Dancing Buffalo!"

The look of disapproval from the other girls was evident and the confusion that I had not jumped on the Pocahontas train also stopped Mrs. G. I had chosen this name because I adored Native cultures (as most whites in urban are aught to America do) and loved the story of Sitting Buffalo. In all the movies and stories I had seen with Indians, their names always invoked something they liked to do (a verb) and an animal they liked (a noun). This was how my brain translated the messages of the media: I want to be an Indian hero like Sitting Buffalo (I later checked my facts and hero yes but not a pacifist), and I also loved to dance to anything at any time.

Dancing Buffalo just felt right.

I had (still have) this terrible habit of saying things I believe with absolute resolution. It infuriates people. After I continued to smile up at Mrs. G (who I adored but looking back I was probably not her favorite pupil) and ignore the looks of the group, the teacher resigned herself and gave in to this oddly adult answer to the question.

"Ok then, Tori, if you're going to be Dancing Buffalo, you're going to have to show us a dance," she said. The jury is still out on whether she intended this to inspire or dissuade me from being different. I remember the fear flooding my face with potential embarrassment and then, in my trademark resistance, shot to the center of the room. I announced, "I am Dancing Buffalo, and this is my dance!"

I then threw my arms in the air alternatively, and bounced on one leg, in a small circle and making "Indian" sounds with my other arm. Patting my flat palm against my open mouth, as I'd seen on the tv, I made, "Hoy-oi-oi," calls and shook my hands and feet as I did so. This could only be kept up for a few seconds, as my furious jumping and waggling of limbs was made further exhausting by the growing fear that I was doing something wrong. As I did my Buffalo Dance, no one said anything. I expected laughter, good laughter, or at least some level of interaction from my audience.

Nothing. When I quickly ran out of breath and stood still and gasping in front of the sitting group, I hurried pushed my way back to my place sat down. Smiling broadly to combat the embarrassment of being told to do something no one else was, the rest of the activity wrapped up without my noticing.

Truly, I have no idea of that's what actually happened. The synaptic pathway created that day has been revisited so many times since I was 6, it could have been something entirely different. I do remember looking at Mrs. F when I had finished and waiting for praise, then the confused look on her face, then the kind "good jobs" and "wow"s I got from my cohort when I sat down among them. It was a great day. I'm pretty sure I told my parents about it that night.

What's funny is that, every time the topic comes up on Native American names or childhood Indian games, that's my go-to memory. At that second, when asked, I decided Ia was Dancing Buffalo. I was different. I didn't want to be another Pocahontas, I didn't want to fit in like that. I wanted to follow Sitting Buffalo. Be a of the Indians, fight the white man, and go down fighting. I wanted to be able to dance in front of my kindergarten class wildly and unashamed.

What happened what racially historically insensitive. Privilege has taught me that much. And after checking out a book on Sitting Buffalo from Bookmobile in 4th grade, I found that out. I don't know anywhere near enough to make a statement about Native naming systems or what meaning of a spirit animal is. The buffalo is not such a symbol to me. Instead, it is a comforting image reminding me of loss in early American settling, rebellion, tranquility, constancy, and my own calling to the field of conservation.

Little did I know years later I would be speeding away from an angry old bison in Tetons as a field technician, or that I would ever bother to carve soapstone with dull pocketknife. It doesn't matter. I like buffalo. I think they are cool and so I collect odd sentiments to evoke what inspiration I can. I won't be able to wear a tooth necklace in a normal, day job. But out here, in the , doing good work and knowing I was bred groomed to do this, it comforts me. We've all got things like that. I think it binds us together. I'm terrible at carving soapstone, but it's something to do and presented an opportunity to delve into why I like buffalo.

I wonder what you've got that does this for you? How different and similar are we?

There are places in Washington to collect soapstone. This is definitely on my list. It wasn't until I came across these in Jerry's Rock Shop. I literally saw that collection requires a saw instead of my geo hammer and skipped those pages altogether. I have since changed my tune. Will it be more rewarding to fiddle with a hunk I freed myself? Does the world need more lopsided figurines of animals made by lonely scientists in the field [Figure 4]? Let's find out.

Happy Hounding!

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