A Tribute to John White
This, the second week of July, 2006, marked the passing of fellow storyteller, John White. John was of Cherokee and Scottish descent, and he and his wife Ela worked to preserve his heritage through their Ancient Lifeways Institute in Michael, IL. He built Scottish and Indian villages where students from around the country came to learn the crafts, foods, language, and stories of his ancestors. Visitors were transported to another time while walking the hills that John called home. John was a visionary with many skills - pottery, flintknapping, quill working, primitive technologies, sheep herding, history, languages, and storytelling.
John and Ela, 1997
How did we know John? It was in the early eighties, when Larry, my husband, and his friend Dave were ask to do some flintknapping in Kampsville, IL where the Center for American Archaeology is located. Whenever visitors came into the stockade, he and Dave made a big show of loudly knapping the rocks. John came in with a tour of people and, when they started to knap, John yelled, “Stop that racket! Can’t you see I’m talking!”…from those auspicious words, a friendship was forged. Over the years, John and Larry shared their love of flintknapping. Whenever Larry went by Michael he’d stop and leave off some flint for John. Sometimes he just came to visit.
I knew John as a storyteller. He told at the First Capitol in St. Charles, MO and at a storytelling festival I organized at Cahokia Mounds called “The Cahokia Story Celebration.” He held to the traditional way of telling a story. To this day, Larry says he was his favorite teller. One day, John shared with me some of his research on the Illini language. He wrote down words and phrases for me to learn. He was anxious that others pass on this knowledge.
At one time, on his land, he built a cave and had students sit around the fire. As the fire brightened, images painted on the ceiling slowly revealed themselves and made the stories come alive. He told stories following the traditions of the ancient people...especially the Tamaroa, one of the tribes of the Illiniwek Confederacy. When he told stories, he wore the traditional dress of the Tamaroa.
John was buried on his land. Larry and I went to the wake. There are so many impressions of that day, it is hard to put down on paper, but I will try.
How Did You Know John?
It was raining a gentle rain - a much needed blessing during a dry summer. Friends and family from near and far away arrived. What an eclectic mix of people - the clan of the Scottish Red Coats in full regalia, Native Americans and reinactors dressed in ancient costumes, little girls in colonial dress, Scottish kilts, and many in modern dress. John's family was there - Ela and their four grown children - Karlie, Jonah, Mark and Waddy. Tears, like the gentle rain, flowed freely as they related John's last days as he accepted the ravages of pancreatic cancer. He passed only 21 days after his diagnosis.
As we waited for the viewing, I sought refuge from the rain in John’s shed. Everywhere I looked were artifacts of John’ life – a loom, a large, white sign “John White Pottery,” a civil war cannon, buckets of flint, tools of every sort, pieces of wool, even an old Illinois license plate with the letters “TAMAROAN.” This is where John’s visions took form.
The bearers carried John's plain wood casket to the back porch of the Scottish house as bagpipes played “Amazing Grace. “ The roof was made from cattails that Ela weaved years before. The line of people, framed by various flowers, formed from the house clear back to John and Ela's home. In line, we saw and talked to many of John's friends. "How did you know John?" - archaeologists, potters, former students, fellow craftspeople, writers, sheepherders, family, neighbors, and many grandchildren.
When we arrived at the casket, light filtered through the cattail mats providing dappled light and the occasional raindrop...gentle rain both inside and out. John had on his traditional Tamaroan dress - his barrel chest was tattooed with feathers and adorned with his bear claw necklace. Instead of flowers around the casket, there were the faces of his many grandchildren. Every now and then, one would reach down and touch Paw-paw saying their silent goodbyes.
After the viewing, we made our way to the cookhouse that was filled with John's favorite foods - especially desserts – homemade with fresh-picked fruits. Again we sat down and made new friends...How did you know John?
The rain stopped and blue sky tried to peek through the gray as we settled ourselves back on the hill overlooking the Scottish village. A priest from Kaskaskia Island was there. He told how John and Ellie came to the rescue of the Church of the Immaculate Conception after the flood over a decade ago. After I told "Once a Good Man," the priest said some farewell words to John and asked if anyone had a story to share.... how did you know John?
Jonah, his son, had asked John what his favorite year was. 1978 - that's when they moved to Michael from Chicago. They arrived in a yellow school bus with their sheep corralled inside the bus. The bottom of the bus was covered with hay. They made quite a stir in Michael when they came filing out of the bus.
A former student told how his life was changed as John became his surrogate father.
A neighbor lady told how John helped her family survive the last few years.
Funny stories, sad stories, stories of hope, family, events, love, strength. Every once in while I glanced at the back porch. I imagined John standing in the doorway with his arms grabbing onto the roof. He had a big smile enjoying the stories. This was what he had envisioned.
By the time the last story was told, twilight took hold of the sky. As we left, the bagpipes started at the top of the hill. We heard them until we reached our car. On the drive back home we realized that, before that night, none of us really knew John. It was the stories that pieced together a complex man - his life and his passion for living.
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