By Molly Chapple
I have always been the kind of person who kicks my shoes off at the sight of green grass so I can run through it barefoot. As a child, I often retreated to the outdoors to think and find peace. My love of nature most likely comes from my ancestors and their strong connections to the land. As Native Americans, my father’s family members were some of the first people to step on North American soil, while my mother’s family were German immigrants who farmed for generations.
My dad’s family family belongs to the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, which originated in the Great Lakes region but was relocated in 1836 by the federal government. The tribe’s reservation is now located in the small town of White Cloud, Kansas. The town was even named after my distant uncle, Francis “Frank” White Cloud, son of Mahaska White Cloud, chief of the Iowa people.
Although I have a Native American legacy, I don’t know a lot about traditional Native culture. Sure, I have attended pow-wows and whenever I hear a hoot owl — a Native American symbol of death — I worry that someone I know has died. But I don’t know the language of the Iowa people and I don’t understand all the different customs and traditions that many tribe members still practice today.
But I have always felt a connection with nature. I find even the bleakest landscapes breathtakingly beautiful. Nature is my escape when the world weighs me down, and nothing calms me like touching a living animal or walking through thick timber.
My Native American family has held many prominent positions in the tribe. According to my grandmother, Janice Ramer, her grandfather Harvey Campbell was the first tribal chairman in 1930 and her brother later held the position.
On the reservation, my family is well known. Off the reservation, we are like any other family. Grandma Janice always talks about the close-knit families and friendships that people had on the reservation when she was growing up.
“We were close to our aunts, uncles and cousins,” she said. “I can remember we were always at someone’s house visiting or they were visiting us. On Sundays, our whole family would get together for a big meal.”
Not much is known about my paternal grandfather Tom Chapple’s family, according to my grandma. He died when I was young, and I only remember meeting him a couple of times. Janice said that Tom’s grandfather was an Italian immigrant, and most of my family members have olive skin and deep brown hair to prove it.
My mom’s side of the family is very German. Both of my maternal grandparents’ ancestors came to the U.S. from Germany sometime in the late 19th century. But if there is one word to describe my mom’s side of the family, it wouldn’t be “German” — it would be “farmer.”
Fred Deckinger and Gracie Schawang, who would later become my grandparents, grew up on farms in rural Nebraska where they worked hard for their families and learned patience and strength.
Life on the farm
Grandma Gracie said she remembers picking strawberries in the summer heat, feeding chickens and collecting eggs every morning, and hauling in wood to warm the small country house in the winter. Her father, Paul Schawang, farmed until he died. He was an honest, hard-working man who would “give you the shirt off his back,” according to my grandma.
Paul grew up on a farm, and eventually owned his own land. He and his two brothers, both farmers, never lived more than 10 miles from each other. His wife, Betty was a typical farmer’s wife and a homemaker. She sewed, cooked and canned vegetables. My grandma doesn’t ever remember her mother having a job outside the home.
Fred had different responsibilities on his family farm, ranging from cutting thistles to making hay to milking cows. He has several scars from the years of hard work he put in while growing up. He chuckles when he tells his grandchildren the story about the time he was drawing back a corn knife and he sliced his ear.
“I had to get 20 stitches,” he said. “But things like that just happened sometimes on the farm.”
Love at the car races
Both Fred and Gracie attended country school until the ninth grade. Grandpa Fred always talks about how nervous he was on the first day of high school. He says he was “a geek that didn’t have any friends,” which is hard to believe coming from the guy who knows everyone in Falls City, Nebraska.
It didn’t take long for his peers to notice his warm personality and witty sense of humor and he now has more friends than anyone I know. He met Gracie Schawang at the stock car races in Dawson, Nebraska, in the summer of 1967. She was on a date with one of his friends at the time, but she says Fred “stole her away” and a year and a half later they were married.
The land is sacred to both sides of my family. My mother’s family of farmers finds beauty in the golden barren cornfields after a long harvest, while my father’s Native American family gives thanks to the Great Spirit for their crops. We all share a special bond with nature and an appreciation for the land that will never end.