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Two Generations: Amos Hayes to Amos Hays

By Richard Green

August 2003 Times

In 1921, John Swanton of the Smithsonian Institution spent several days in the Ada and Tishomingo areas interviewing Chickasaws about long-held tribal cultural and religious beliefs. Swanton’s 102-page article on the subject was published in small print in one of the Smithsonian’s journals in 1928. The article, “Social and Religious Beliefs and Usages of the Chickasaw Indians,” has been one of the premier sources of information about traditional tribal life and beliefs.

In the years since, many Chickasaws, speaking about tribal culture, quoted Swanton’s article, often unconsciously. Swanton’s article also was a principle source of ancient tribal information contained in the first chapter of Arrell Gibson’s book, The Chickasaws.

The article was and still is treated almost like gospel by many Chickasaws and scholars. That being so, it follows that Swanton’s Chickasaw informants performed a service to the tribe that has only grown with time.

One of the informants was the late Amos Hayes, of Ada. His name is printed on a Swanton note card found in the author’s collection of papers at the Smithsonian branch in Suitland, Maryland. Hayes and George Wilson were identified by Swanton as the informants for fourteen Chickasaw stories about clans and “house groups.” Among them are the racoon, panther, bird, wildcat, and red fox. Except for stories about clans that families do not share with outsiders, these published stories are virtually the tribe’s only source of information on what used to be the bedrock of tribal life, clans.

Piecing the story together, it appears that Swanton made contact with Zeno McCurtain, who selected informants, persuaded them to cooperate and, as a Chickasaw and English speaker, served as translator. Hayes and Swanton met probably only months before the former’s death in 1922. Three years before that, his grandson and namesake was born. Amos probably knows more about his grandfather than anyone, but as he readily admits, he wasn’t much interested in his grandfather’s life and times until almost all of his grandfather’s contemporaries were gone. Though at 84 he is still mentally sharp, Amos bemoans the fact that he didn’t listen more carefully to the stories and anecdotes and that he did not record them in some fashion. Only bits and pieces remain; they seem like headlines from the past.

Grandfather Hayes’s knowledge of Chickasaw clans probably had been passed to him by his father, known only as Hopiatubby. The reason the family took the surname Hayes is unknown; the spelling of the surname was changed from Hayes to Hays in the next generation also for an unknown reason.

Hopiatubby probably was born in Mississippi and at some point joined the four thousand plus other Chickasaws on the Trail of Tears. Amos Hopiatubby Hayes was one of his six children. He was said to have gotten a good education, perhaps in Tennessee, and spoke Chickasaw and spoke English as his second language.

Though he was legally and culturally Chickasaw, he was a pretty good capitalist as well. He expanded his land allotment holdings and became a prosperous farmer and businessman. He also expanded quite a bit physically. Though only about five feet seven, he eventually weighed more than 300 pounds and took up the entire back seat of his surrey. In his earlier (and lighter) years, Amos Hayes was said to have been a Chickasaw lighthorseman and a tribal county judge. He was a member of the last tribal legislature before statehood and is included in the group photograph at the Chickasaw Council House Museum in Tishomingo. With such an impressive resume, it is no wonder John Swanton wanted to meet and hear from him. It is ironic that Swanton, through just a brief encounter, probably got to know more about Amos Hayes than any tribal member knows about him today.

As a young man, he married Lettie or Lottie Leader and built a log house on the southern edge of Ada. After she died, Amos married Betty McKinny. In the Indian way, they not only raised a family but also took in orphans and adopted a very young Chickasaw boy named Billie. They were all raised in the Chickasaw culture of the time. Apparently, however, Billie was not so wedded to the old ways. When he became a father, he refused to teach his son, Amos Hays, the Chickasaw language. The reason may have been because he had a white wife, Hattie Belle Newton, or because the Chickasaw Nation no longer existed functionally and this full-blood Indian aspired to be financially successful in Ada, Oklahoma. At any rate, Amos would later hold that refusal against his father.

But even with Billie’s prohibition against the language, young Amos’s life was still subject to many of the traditional powerful influences that governed the behavior of his grandfather and even his ancestors. His first guide into the spirit world was the person he was closest to, his grandmother Betty. “From an early age, she told me stories that illustrated Chickasaw life. I walked with her when she visited friends,” Hays says. “Although she knew some English, she usually spoke Chickasaw and I learned enough to usually understand the conversation.”

He also began understanding the strict rules of the spirit world. White people called them superstitions, but Amos says Chickasaws had no word to sum up the do’s and don’t’s governing thinking and behavior. “I can’t recall too many specific examples, but the impression I have is that there were rules–I guess you’d call them--of one kind or another for almost every situation. And breaking or ignoring the rules often had serious consequences. My sisters and I understood that we were never to leave our playground the way we found it. We had to change it in some fundamental way before we left. If we didn’t, the little people could gain access to it and us and do some sort of mischief. They could play tricks on us, but the tricks weren’t fun.

“We were told that some of the little people could harm us, and of course, we were afraid of them. So we were very careful about the rules. I never saw the little people, but there was no question among us that they existed. At some point in my childhood, I was told that only people born with the special powers of an Indian doctor could see little people. Though I couldn’t see the little people, anybody could see signs that they had been about.”

Doctors had knowledge and power. Amos recalls at least two instances in which an Indian doctor performed the pivotal role in a healing ceremony. During one ceremony, he recalls the doctor walking to the east for some reason. Amos wanted to follow him to see what he was doing, but his father, Billie, told him he must not. He didn’t understand the doctor’s chant, but does remember that he was “tall and gaunt. I still have an image of him in my mind’s eye.”

That the doctor was physically imposing to Amos was one thing. But on some level, he also understood that doctors played a vigorous role in the constant battle between good and evil. Often, people got sick because a witch cast a spell on them. Only the doctor had the power to undo the damage. Amos says his father once arranged for a doctor to come to the family’s house to protect it and the family against evil. Whether this was a general precaution that families employed or to counter a specific threat, he never knew. But the doctor cautioned everyone in the family not ever to circle the house without stopping. Something terrible would happen.

Something did, says Amos. “One day, a relative in an automobile did circle our house without stopping. I was there and saw it, but don’t think it was intentional.” Amos will not elaborate, as though discussing the event will bring him bad luck.

Like everyone he knew, Amos not only believed in the spirit world, he inhabited it. “I feel that I had contact with the spirits or they had contact with me. As a child, I’d seen things happen that couldn’t be explained. I felt their presence around me. Sometimes I sensed that they were evil, sometimes not. My grandmother and father had talked to us about the unseen world, pain, suffering and death. The seeds were planted, so to speak. When I was 7, my grandmother had a stroke and was partially paralyzed. The family kept vigil at her house, waiting for something to happen. The house had a porch on two sides. My father and several others were on one side; I was on the other, by myself, staring out at the field. “

A stranger dressed in a black suit and large hat walked into the yard and began talking to me. He said he’d come to see about my grandmother. He continued talking to me and then left. It didn’t strike me until later that we were talking face to face. But the yard, where he was standing, was four or five feet below the level of the porch. Since I was maybe four feet tall, that would make the stranger at least, what, nine feet tall! “

A little while later, someone said that my grandmother had passed away. I believed that the man had been sent from the spirit world to come after her. Later, I was thinking that the man was a dream or my imagination. Many times, I’d go from waking to a dream state [or vice versa] just like that, so that it was impossible to know if what I’d seen was a dream or real.”

Often, however, dreams were like a sixth sense, in that dreams could be a portent of bad luck coming. Amos relates one story that may or may not have been a dream. One evening, when he was about 11, he was laying on his iron cot reading when he sensed someone outside the house. He looked over at his mother to see if she had noticed, but she was still sewing. Then with a start, he sensed that his 16-year-old cousin, who had recently died during childbirth, was walking on the dirt path toward the front door. “I realized she was coming to tell me something, but she was dead.

Frightened, I tried to get my mother’s attention, but she was still sewing and I found I couldn’t get any words out. Though it was dark and I hadn’t moved off my cot, I could see my cousin outside very clearly walking up the path. She stepped onto the porch. As she was reaching for the door, I finally got my mother’s attention and it ended.”

The dream ended? “All I know is that it was very vivid and was just as real to me as you sitting there. I’ll tell you that shook me up good! And I didn’t like the feelings that were associated with it. I told myself I had to change, had to stop thinking about all these rules. I was getting increasingly fearful in my life.”

It may be no coincidence that this new resolve in Amos’s life happened about the time of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. His father, who had been relatively prosperous, lost everything except his land. And land without money was worthless. If Amos couldn’t control his father’s financial situation, he could control something that was upsetting him. So with a great effort of will, he began to wean himself away from the spirit world.

He could never escape it entirely, but he didn’t let dreams and sensations bother him as much. Later in life, he drifted too far the other way. Amos’s motto became: “live it up today, for tomorrow you are gone.” But he met and married in 1945 a good Christian woman, Anna Louise Thompson, and after eleven years of quiet persistence as the Lord’s instrument, she succeeded in getting Amos to stop drinking and living it up.

They lived on Hays’s 13 acres in the house built by Billie in the early 1930s. Amos worked for 38 years as a printer for the Ada Evening News. Just after he retired in 1985, Anna’s health “started going downhill,” says Amos. She contracted meningitis and spent almost a month in intensive care. When she was discharged, Amos says, she had also acquired a heart condition and diabetes and was never really well again.

With Anna’s illness, Amos was obliged to return to work. He was hired by Lt. Gov. Bill Anoatubby to set up an in-house print shop in 1986, a job he still has today. In the next years, Anna and others encouraged Amos to run for the Chickasaw Legislature. Amos thought it over. He was interested in tribal affairs. He once drove to Gov. Floyd Maytubby’s office in Oklahoma City to discuss some matter he cannot now remember. And he was mindful that the federal government had tried to terminate Indian tribes in the 1940s, and he was grateful to young Indian people who had worked for the revitalization of tribal government.

After considering a run, he declared himself to be no politician, and dismissed the idea. Besides, taking care of Anna took up all of his free time. After eight years of chronic illness, Anna died in 1994. Though he continued to work, Amos stayed to himself for about two years. His anger at God gradually ebbed, but his bitterness over what he describes as people abandoning them during Anna’s illness has taken longer to dissipate.

Lately, Amos Hays has spent more time thinking about his youth and the spirit world, and he realizes that to some extent, he still dwells within it or maybe it dwells within him. “Just this morning, I had a very vivid dream. This car was coming down the road toward me. As it drew near, I was stunned to see that my deceased mother and sister were inside staring at me. I was in turmoil, trying to figure out how this could be or what it meant when I woke up.”

Was it a dream, or was it a sign? Only time will tell.

Postscript: Amos Hays died on April 20, 2004 in an Oklahoma City hospital.