A Ghost Of Christmas Past

Written by Troy Howard

23 December 2005

Note: A work of fiction, originally written for The Salem Monthly Newspaper

Dear reader, I would like, if I may, to relate a story to you. It's a story you may not believe, and to be sure, if it had not happened to me, I would not believe it myself. I am not a man who is usually given to flights of fancy, or other whimsical excursions of the mind. So, please consider the tale that I tell now to be the truth, as far as I can measure it.

Having completed my work for the night, I closed my books, turned off the lights, and left out the back door. It was unseasonably warm this year, and as I opened my umbrella, instead of snow, I was treated to the steady, lazy rain that defines an Oregon winter. I walked north along the sidewalk, the chill seeping in through the seams in my jacket, in a familiar but nonetheless unwelcome way. It was Christmas Eve, and I was in no hurry to return to my empty flat above the tavern on the corner of Liberty and High streets.

I found myself on a bridge, on Winter Street, looking down at Mill Creek. I stared at those quickly moving waters flowing beneathe me, and thought of Hamlet's Ophelia, and how she must have felt, shortly before tossing herself into the river, her eyeballs wild, with a crazed desire to end her life. For a moment, I leaned over the edge of the railing and considered how easy it would be to resign myself to the same fate. But as I said, I am a serious man, and after only a moment of dark desire flitting through my mind, I pulled back from the railing, and composed myself, preparing to continue my walk home.

Just then, I head a noise to my left. It sounded like men, shouting and laughing, yelling "Hoia hai" over and over again, in a melodious way. I turned, and found myself face to face, eyeball to quivering eyeball with a very large white owl. I let out a stifled scream, and stumbled backwards, dropping my umbrella. I felt my feet slip from beneathe me, and my midriff hit hard, as I crashed into the bridge's stone railing. I tried to stop the inevitable. With arms flailing, I felt my weight shift the wrong direction and my stomache knotted up as I fell backwards, grasping at the slippery rail, plunging into the swift, cold waters of Mill Creek.

I remember the owl staring down at me as I fell, "Hoia hai" echoing in my ears and a blinding flash of light as my head hit a rock and my body thudded against the muddy bank. When I awoke, I was frozen solid and could barely lift my arm to wipe the mud from my eyes. A light snow had begun to fall, and to my surprise, I could no longer see the bridge I had fallen from. I climbed the slippery bank, and found myself in a forest, no houses or streets in sight. I looked at the direction that the water in the creek was flowing, and I know it was flowing towards the river. So I followed the creek downstream, knowing it would bring me to the centre of town.

As I walked, I again heard the sounds of mean laughing and roaring, speaking in a strange and foreign language. I came to a clearing in the woods, and through the sparse Yew trees, I saw a structure of some sort. The building looked suspiciously like a gigantic ice cream cone, turned upside down, and smashed into the ground, with smoke gently rising from the tip of the cone. I recognized the building from high school history class as a Native American building called a "wickiup", though I'd never seen a real one before. I approached the building and the voices became louder. Just as I was coming from the rear of the building, I saw a man walking up a small path through the woods with a lantern in his hand. He marched directly to the front of the building and yelled, "Quinaby! Quinaby, damn you, come out here right now!" A small aging man, with long black hair and bright shining eyes, dressed in a hat and waistcoat, poked his head out of the door and said, "Hey, hey, Bill Waldo. Quinaby glad to see you. Why you here on such a cold night?"

"Mr. Quinaby, you are too loud! My family and I are trying to sleep. You and your no-good tribe of gambling drunks are making such a racket, it'll wake the dead! Now quiet down, or I'll get the police!"

The little man straightened up and said, "Bill Waldo, this is a special night for celebration. Quinaby always noisy on this night. Go home. Go to sleep. It is too cold for arguing. "

Bill's lantern flickered in the wind, and he said, "I don't have to let you stay on my land Quinaby. In fact, I think it's time you leave."

Quinaby stood tall and proud, like a statue. If was a scene fit for the brush of a great painter, and the lines that followed should be recorded in history books everywhere.

Quinaby said, "Bill Waldo, you say Quinaby can no more have his camp! When white men came, they were few, Indians were many. Now white men many, Indians few. When white men came, Indians owned all the land. Now white men claim all the land, and Indians must herd into one place, and hide back in the mountains. When the white men came, Indians could kill them all. Some wanted to kill them, but Quinaby became white man's friend. He told the white men what Indians planned. He told Dan Waldo, and Bill Waldo. They were glad. Quinaby had their thanks.

"Now Quinaby comes. He wants only what he has had, only what has been his right. Quinaby wants only his camp on a little piece of land no one else has a use for.

"Bill Waldo, you say Quinaby may not have it any more!" Waldo could not resist. He turned without a word, and started down the path to his home. Quinaby went back inside and the gambling went on, and the chant, "Hoia hai, Hoia hai…" went ringing across the area.

I was a little nervous, but desperate, as I crept around the side of the building, and stuck my head in the door. Four Indians turned in unison, instantly quiet, palming the small sticks in their hands.

"Mr. Quinaby, can you help me?", I said quickly, hoping to engage in conversation before my chest sprouted an arrow. Quinaby's thin laughter wheezed out and ended in a serious bout of coughing. He looked at me and said, "I like it when men say Mr. Quinaby. What do you want white man in the snow?"

"I am lost. Can you please help me find my way back to the city?"

Quinaby peered at me through wrinkled eyes for a moment. Finally he said, "You look very sick. Quinaby does not want you to die at his camp. Other white men will blame me. Come inside. Sit by the fire. "

I walked inside slowly, and the steady hard eyes of the men around the fire held me firmly in their gaze. They moved a little and made a space for me to sit down. Quinaby walked to the back of the room, and returned shortly with a plate of meat and some bread.

"Eat this. Today is a special day. Today we have much food."

I thanked him and took the plate. I did not realize how hungry I had become until the warm and rich aroma of the meat tickled my nostrils. As I began to eat, Quinaby quietly muttered something in a strange language and the other men stood up, made a sign of respect, and left the building.

Quinaby sat staring at me while I ate. After a few minutes, he said, "Your clothes are very strange. I do not know you. What is your name, and where are you from?"

"My name is John," I replied, "and I live in Salem."

Quinaby nodded once and said, "Ok, John. Finish your food, and we will go to Salem."

After I cleared my plate, Quinaby walked over with two hand woven blankets in his hand, gave me one, and said, "Wear this!", then wrapped his blanket around himself. I did the same, and as he walked towards the door he said, "Follow me."

We headed down the thin path through the Yew trees, while a light flurry of snow fell all around us, our feet crunching as we walked.

I am not a very social person usually, but the silence was making me a little nervous, so I asked, "What tribe are you from, Mr. Quinaby?"

Quinaby chuckled to himself and said, "Molalla. Quinaby is the last chief. My mother was Chemewa, and my father was Chemeketa. We are all Kalapuya". He was quiet for a moment, but then shook his head and said, "When Quinaby was a little boy, all the Kalapuya familes would meet at this time of year. Where the creek meets the river. We would share food, tell stories, and laugh by the fire. Sometimes, there would be very little food. One year, half the people died. Now that time is gone. White men came, and now there are buildings in that place. Many Indians died from sickness the white men bring. Now Indians very few. White men give me some food, so Quinaby is white man's friend".

After some time, we came across a small house with glowing windows and smoke coming from the chimney. Quinaby said, "Wait here, Mr. John. I will go get some more food".

He walked up to the house, knocked on the door, and then disappeared inside. A few minutes later, he came crunching back through the snow with a bulging flour sack over his shoulder, and a huge grin on his face.

We started down the road again, and before long the road widened and a number of buildings lined the street on either side. Finally, we came to a small town. To my surprise, I recognized the street names. This was Salem, but not the Salem I knew. There were very few buildings and many trees. The roads were made of dirt, and there were no street lights. After a while we came to the intersection of Winter Street and Mill Creek, where I had fallen earlier that night.

Quinaby could see my confusion and said, "Yes, it is very different here now. Let's sit down and eat".

We climbed down to the muddy shore of the creek and sat down. We ate and ate, and talked and talked. Quinaby told me many stories. He told me of the special "Chikamin House", where white men can go to get free money. He told me of a man named Kylus who had married his sister, bore three children with her, and then killed her. Quinaby said, "I wanted to cut him into four quarters, and hang him on each corner of the town, but instead, I go to his house, and take everything he own". He told me of rivers full of salmon and forests full of deer. He told me of the long march to Grand Ronde Reservation.

Finally, our sack of food was empty. He stopped talking, laid back and fell asleep. I yawned and felt the warmth of my blanket, my full stomach, and I laid down and drifted away.

I awoke with a start to a nudge in the side, and a light flashing in my eyes.

"You ok there, mister?"

I looked up to the familiar face of a police officer, and realized I was slumped against the rail of the bridge. I got up, mumbled that I was fine, thanks, and headed down the road.

I am still unsure whether the events I experienced were a dream, or something more mysterious, but now, as I sit and write this story, on a lonely Christmas Day, I think about Quinaby and the people who lived here long before. If Quinaby were alive today and knew someone was going to be writing about him, would he have tried to live a better life? What makes a chief become a beggar, gambling, drinking, and eating until he fell down dead by the side of the creek? And I wonder why, 120 years later, the only memory we have of this man is a train station and a street with his name on them. His modern descendents, living in trailer homes and running casinos, are not so different than he was. When a way of life is destroyed, there is no way to bring it back. But in a way, Quinaby was still living in the same way he always had. He was living off the land, but now there were strange fruit in the form of white men. He picked fruit from their plentiful trees and tried to avoid the poisonous parts. Bill Waldo knew the shame of what his people had done, because he saw it first hand.

So now, during this season of giving, I feel strangely aware of everything I have, and what was necessary to obtain it.

Thank you, Chief Quinaby, for a memorable Christmas Eve, full of laughter, food, good conversation, and the enjoyment of life despite all odds. I hope that everyone can be so lucky during this coming winter season.