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From Clan to Tribe – The Story of a Celtic Lakota Family

 

The Watters family, the name meaning “They that dwell by loch and sea”, originally lived on the western islands and the highlands of Scotland.  Belonging to a sept (smaller family group) of Clan Buchanan or possibly Forbes, the families were farmers and fishermen under the protection and leadership the clan chief.  It is likely but nearly impossible to prove that the family was descended from the Dalriada kingdom of the 5th century.  Even now, the Watters are predominantly found in areas that coincide with the original Gaelic kingdom that was part of the Ulster region of Ireland and the Highlands and Isles of Scotland.  Being in the upper highlands and islands afforded some security during the 18th and 19th centuries, the land and climate being somewhat inhospitable and troublesome for travelers.  These people subsisted on a diet largely of potatoes and whatever vegetables might grow in the rocky soil, as well as whatever the sea would begrudgingly give up.  Life was extremely simple and often just plain “extreme.”

 

Faith had always been a mainstay of strength and community for our family and others.  The old Celtic church established by monks, (Patrick, Columba and others), was critical to the life being and morale of people who struggled to eke out a living in this country.  As time and seasons would pass, this faith would play a continual role in the life of the family.  Especially, as oppression and tyranny caused the family to uproot themselves and journey to other lands and places.

 

The 18th century finally brought insecurity to our family in the form of the notorious and often barbaric Highland Clearances.  Without going into detail in this brief history, the Clearances were England’s answer to dealing with troublesome clans, and also, to introduce sheep to the highlands to bolster their woolen industry.  Lowland clansmen were even utilized by the government to drive out, burn out and brutally displace the highland families and clans.  There are many general accounts of all this mayhem and where all the surviving families fled to, but there are always exceptions to generalities throughout history.

 

For the most part, the Watters family fled the highlands to either the outer islands or across the sea to Ireland, settling on the north shores in what is known as County Antrim. Also, many Watters were already in Northern Ireland (Ulster) so this was not “hostile” territory for those from Scotland.  Many others emigrated to North America and Oceana (Australia & New Zealand) at the same time.  James Watters (this author’s great, great grandfather) and Ann Lowery were wed there and started their family, continuing in the pattern established by generations before them; farming and fishing.  Dates and details of the Watters family are very difficult, if not impossible, to find.  Ship’s manifests and the occasional recorded birth, death or marriage document are often the only evidence of where and when the family turned up in places.

 

It wasn’t long before another “clearance” of sorts would cause the Watters to once again seek freedom and safety from oppression.  The English weren’t satisfied with colonizing just the highlands, but also earlier (17th century) wanted to displace troublesome Gaelic peoples in favor of bringing industry and colonists to the Ulster regions of Ireland.  While Scot/Irish Presbyterians were not necessarily persecuted as were Roman Catholics during this time, it was clear that troubles (“Troubles”) were to come from these occurrences.  These actions once again included military operations in what is now Northern Ireland.  Suffice to say, James Watters did not want to stick around for the potential destruction and death that seemed to be coming once again.  Making their way to a port, the family secured steerage on a ship bound for Philadelphia in the hopes of connecting with other Celtic families that fled earlier to America.

 

James and Ann settled in Alleghany County Pennsylvania after a short stay in Philadelphia.  Farming was good and the family prospered.  During this time, my great grandfather, Samuel, was born.  Again, there is not much in the way of detail about our particular family in Pennsylvania, but other histories give a very good indication of how life looked during this time in the history of the United States.  Samuel apparently thrived in this new world environment, and developed an also apparent penchant for exploration and adventure.  He eventually left Pennsylvania and traveled northwest to Minnesota, where he became employed as a fur trapper for either the Hudson Bay or Northwest companies, again, details are sketchy but those were the two major companies employing trappers.   French, Irish, and Scots made up the bulk of the work force at that time.  Like many other trappers, Samuel “took up with” a Native American woman, which was not only convenient for surviving in the land, but also brought valuable connections with the native population in terms of business propositions.  Eventually, Samuel and Isabel Marshall (her English name) were wed and started their own family.  At this time, (early 1800’s,) the Lakota people were happily entrenched as a woodland people, enjoying hunting, fishing and gathering, while also engaging in the occasional skirmish with the neighboring Ojibwe tribe.

 

It wouldn’t be long, however, before yet another sort of “clearance” would threaten the Watters family.  Now, a little cultural history on Lakota family is probably necessary here?  The Lakota people had a somewhat matriarchal society, not so much that women were in charge, but that whenever a man married, he became part of the wife’s tribe/family.  Tribes usually consisted of several family groups led by a chief, hence the “clan to tribe” transition of my family.  During this time, settlers were pushing westward seeking their own “manifest destiny”.  And, often the settlers were accompanied by government military forces who would establish forts in the frontier.  The forts provided protection and a sort of town where people could gather, obtain goods and services, and in general maintain a sense of community.  Needless to say, the native population was often a hindrance to this new colonization westward.  All sorts of “arrangements” and coalitions were established between various people groups; unfortunately for the Lakota these coalitions didn’t include them.  Eventually, the Lakota people sought another place to live in peace, and this saw them leave Minnesota traveling southwest into the Dakota territories.  Samuel and his family were part of this migration, at least what little evidence that exists seems to lend credence to that movement?  (Later evidence such as death certificates and gravestones would provide further hints to the movement of the family.)

 

During the time of life on the Great Plains, the Lakota nation thrived.  The new lifestyle of hunting and moving with the great Buffalo herds seemed to suit them well.  Horses added another advantage to the growing nation of tribes, and the often glamorized life of the Indians began to be developed among white America.  Sadly, the “good days” of the Buffalo and plains life would also be short-lived for the Lakota and our Watters family.  Further westward movement of settlers and forts (cavalry) continued to desecrate both the land and the indigenous people; disease, massacre of the North American Bison (Buffalo), and environmental damage (yes, believe it or not it had already started,) among other things.  The government felt compelled to intervene on behalf of settlers and deal with the “Indian uprisings”.  Again, I won’t belabor that history here, but suffice to say our family was once again feeling the need to move.

 

Establishment of reservations (areas of isolation for the various tribes) by the government heralded a clear signal to Lakota leaders that something must be done.  Several skirmishes among cavalry and Indians alarmed Washington and prompted further escalating military intervention.  Notable among these campaigns was Custer’s debacle at the Little Bighorn River (the Greasy Grass our people call it.)  While Lakota people did have some effective efforts against the government troops, it was clear to all Native American leaders that they could never outlast the numbers and force of the government.  Most leaders chose to comply with treaties and move their people to reservations, (which sadly was the beginning of “social genocide” of Native American culture and people.)  Our family chose to flee to Canada with other Lakota, accompanied by Cheyenne tribes.  Sitting Bull, chief of the Hunkpapa tribe of Lakota, had made this choice while Crazy Horse (a relative and also chief of the Oglala tribe) finally decided to stop fighting and return to the reservation, (he was later tragically murdered there.)

 

In Canada, the government had taken a much more amicable approach to native populations, ceding large tracts of land and granting citizenship to their indigenous tribes.  This looked like a very good choice for the Lakota, but the Canadian government took the position that only existing indigenous Canadian tribes could be granted this status.  Once again, my family was a people without a country.  Staying in Canada was useful for a time, but Lakota people wanted to be with other families (tribes), and eventually Sitting Bull decided to return to the reservations, and many different tribes followed.  Sadly, this choice would also end Sitting Bull’s life in similar fashion to Crazy Horse.  This became a critical turning point for my family.

 

My young grandfather, James, chose to return with some Lakota back to the U.S. via Montana (west of the path of other tribes.)  Those Lakota joined cousins of the Assiniboine tribe at the Fort Peck Agency in northeastern Montana.  This was also a time of deeply emotional decisions by members of our family.  Samuel Watters chose to take his family and separately move back to Minnesota. Details of that move and whatever happened to he and his family are once again scarce, except for a death record of Samuel in Ottertail, Minnesota.  His son, James, on the other hand decided that he must begin to hide his Lakota heritage if he wanted to own land and have a future in America.  James met and married Eliza Coffey, an Irish woman whose family lived in that area of Montana at the time.  James homesteaded near the intersection of the Missouri River (Big Muddy) and Milk River.  There they raised their family of eleven children, farming and hunting (but all the while being very cognizant of hiding any Lakota connections.)  The children were an interesting mix of clearly Lakota looking people (much like James), but also with fair skinned and even some red-headed ones!  When asked about the darker character of some members of the family, James explained that we were descended from “black Irish” lineage.  The ruse worked and my family thrived in the Fort Peck area, but never associated with relatives on the reservation there.  Some of my uncles even went so far as to deride “the lazy Indians on that reservation.”

 

Anyway, fast forward to all of my father’s family getting older, going away to college, starting their own families and moving to one coast or the other, (Montana winters had taken their toll on their collective psyches.)  Many of us ended up in Sacramento, California, and life went on for the Watters, the Irish Watters.  The only conflicts of note were the occasional bout between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the family, but those usually boiled over harmlessly, (unlike things back in Ireland.)  Most of the families gathered every summer back in Montana to visit the grandparents and Uncle Arvie (the sole member who stayed on to ranch and farm.)  Us kids spent those summers hunting, riding horses, learning how to drive the farm trucks, working the harvest and more.  I always recall the “tack room” my Uncle Arvie had on his farm.  It was loaded with the most wonderful collection of leather goods; saddles, bridles and more.  And, there were many handcrafted bows and arrows among the weaponry in that room.  I suppose I should have suspected some Indian connection in my family, what with all the prowess in hunting and horseback skills, but again, no one in the family ever brought up Indians in conversation.  Then, one summer when we were much older, and apparently with the blessing of my now very old grandfather (James), my own father pulled out an old sepia tone photograph of a Lakota woman.  The resemblance to my grandfather and my own father and a couple of his brothers was uncanny.  It was then that I first knew of our Lakota heritage, and yet still it was a secret between my father and me.  Sadly, the family still harbored fears of being “found out”, even though at this point it would not have mattered.   I guess my father felt a deep need to recognize this heritage with me?  We had done Boy Scouts for many years, and my father always emphasized the Indian lore aspect of Scouting.  In fact, we both joined the Order of the Arrow, a subgroup of Boy Scouts dedicated to Native American culture.  His own skills as a Lakota warrior became very apparent; horse whisperer, wonderful worker of leather and natural materials, an amazing hunting eye and skill.  That time passed too quickly for me, and especially for him.  I went on to playing football and forgot all about those Order of the Arrow days.

 

Fast forward again, I have raised my own family and “retired” from regular work.  All the years of being a park ranger, environmental biologist and father now seemed to be speaking to me of something deeper in my spirit.  I had also become a Christian in the truest sense, a disciple of Jesus.  That new identity seemed to be calling me to look back, to seek my roots.  This new journey led to expanding our family tree, which had been mistakenly “altered” at the point of Samuel and his alleged wife in that tree.  Thus this story was born, and it has given me a deeper understanding of who I am, not only as a Lakota Celtic, but as a follower of Jesus, and through Him of the Great Mystery, the Holy Trinity.  It has given me a loving and compassionate attitude for other people groups and religions; it has made me a better person.  I realize I am on a journey with still more seasons to experience, but now the journey has a destination, even if I don’t know where the next step leads.  I have found purpose, God’s purpose, in my life as a disciple.  I have found identity in my heritage as a holy man (shaman, priest, etc.) but also as a heyoka (clown in the Lakota sense.)  Henri Nouwen would call it “wounded healer”, or one who takes his own story and struggles, and uses them to give comfort and healing to others.  Not that I have “arrived”, but I have a more clear path . . . the Narrow Road, the Good Red Road of Jesus Christ.  From Patrick and Columcille, to Nicholas Black Elk and Crazy Horse, I have found relatives and spiritual mentors from the past who continue to “speak” to me today.  They point me to the Way, they affirm my path and guidebook, the Bible, and they join me in the Journey.

 

Mitakuye Oyasin, Bennacht De Ort, (“All My Relatives” in Lakota and “God Bless You” in Gaelic, the language of the Celtic peoples)

 

Patrick Perching Eagle Watters, Lakota and Celtic

 

 

[Among resources that have provided both physical and spiritual “evidence” for this story are; Nicholas Black Elk – Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic by Michael F. Steltenkamp, and Stories of the Celtic Soul Friends – Their Meaning for Today by Edward C. Sellner.  These two books, among other written forms, have been instrumental in seeing my family history in a spiritual light, as well as providing some vital physical history.]

 

 

NOTE: updated and revised to correct some errors and inconsistencies – Oct 2013

He gone . . .

October 25, 2013

He gone . . .

Moose on walkabout . . .