Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from Dropout to Professor

By Steve Russell

Abandoned by his Cherokee father to be raised by his white mother, Stephen Teehee was abandoned again to the care of his 75 year old grandfather and 60 year old grandmother in the fading oil boomtown of Bristow, Oklahoma The Russells did the best they could with what they had.`

The Russells met in Indian Territory, the western terminus of the Trail of Tears. They told their Cherokee grandson the truth about his origins and offered up the most famous writer and speaker of their lives, Will Rogers, as a Cherokee role model as they read their grandson the newspaper every day and assured him that he was a smart boy who should “go to college,” something nobody in his family had done.

What followed were ten years of failure and misery that included three high schools. The attempts by the Russell elders to light the fire of curiosity in the boy were countered by an indifferent mother, a hostile father, and public schools that offered Indians “shop” or art.Stephen Teehee chose a side when he changed his name to Russell and vowed to make his grandparents proud, a vow that would have to be kept posthumously. Steve Russell talked his way into The University of Texas on the second try and was admitted with no high school credits and no test scores. He graduated magna cum laude and went on to take a law degree from Texas and a graduate degree from Nevada.

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Excerpts from the Rave review from Bill Meacham of The Rag Blog

Regular Rag Blog readers know Steve Russell as a witty and insightful commentator on current events with particular expertise in Indian affairs. Oh, and prolific as well. I tried to count his contributions to this fine platform and gave up at around 89 because I got tired of scrolling through pages and pages of them.

Russell wanted to be a writer from an early age, and has succeeded admirably. I know of his youthful ambition because I have just finished his memoir, Lighting the Fire. My objective in this review is to convince you to acquire and read it, for two reasons: 1.) I expect you will thoroughly enjoy it, as I have; and 2.) it is an inspiring testament to grit, determination, character, and the power of love, compassion, and community.

It’s a series of stories, and boy, can Steve Russell tell stories.

The book traces Russell’s life from his dirt-poor origins in Oklahoma through a varied career as paperboy, musician, high-school dropout, airman, data processing operator, student, lawyer, judge, and finally, professor of criminal justice, with writer liberally interspersed throughout. It’s not a full autobiography; lots of details are left out. Instead, it’s a series of stories; and boy, can Russell tell stories!

Russell is a master of wry understatement and succinct commentary. I read a few chapters to my wife, and we both burst out laughing (and occasionally crying) more than once. (This is a great book to read aloud, by the way.) Many of Steve’s remarks are just out-and-out hoots. Here are a few examples.

A number of themes recur throughout the book, among them motorcycles, cars, dogs, musical instruments, romance, sex, and social justice. And overcoming adversity in the form of low expectations and racist stereotypes. Contrary to stereotypical opinions of Indians at the time, he is about as far from shiftless, lazy, and dumb as a person could possibly be. Nor is he, as his father complained, unmanly and “useless as teats on a boar hog.” That phrase occurs more than once in the book, and one gets the impression that the effort to prove his father wrong has been a driving force in his life.

College and writing were his ambitions, drilled into him by the grandparents who raised him after his father disappeared and his mother couldn’t handle him. At the time, none of them knew quite what college was all about except that it was a ticket to a better life, and none of them knew how to attain that lofty goal, having no money and no experience in the matter. It took a lot of scrimping and saving, a fair amount of fast talking, and many hours of concentrated study finally to meet his goal of graduation. It helps that he is wicked smart.

Cherokee culture and the culture of other tribes pop up throughout the book. Cherokee by birth, Russell was raised in Muscogee (Creek) territory and had lots of contact with other tribes. Customs differed, but there was something shared among tribes — perhaps a feeling of solidarity that comes from mutual oppression, perhaps an acquaintance with the Spirit that moves in all things, perhaps both — that allowed him not only to appreciate but to participate and be welcome in others’ observances.

Case in point: the reconstruction of an abandoned medicine wheel on Fort Hood property in Killeen. “My people are not of the Plains,” he says, “and we did not build medicine wheels, but we would keep a medicine wheel from harm because it is sacred to other peoples.”

If I didn’t know Russell’s disdain for “monotheistic patriarchal desert cults,” I would call these actions fine examples of Christian charity. I guess they are fine examples of Cherokee charity, but it’s clear that being a decent human being transcends religion and culture. Russell is more than just decent. Aristotle would call him a man of great soul. That greatness burns brightly throughout Lighting The Fire.

Lighting the Fire is available on Amazon. If you would like a copy signed by the author, send your mailing address and $25 to 127 Blazing Star Drive, Georgetown, Texas 78633. Or send $25 on Facebook Messenger to Steve Russell with instructions on where to mail it.

Allison Hedge Coke, Dan & Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals, University of Hawai’i

This book is like a Texas/Oklahoma control burn prairie fire. Once ignited, the life unfurled could go anywhere the wind blows without careful tending. This work kindles life’s stacked challenges with complex precision, takes memory’s smoky roasted embers back to full flame. Russell delivers a heck of a story and keeps levity checked for the very moment of need for a spot of fresh air.

Steve Russell has been Lighting the Fire since first spark. For those of us who took a roundabout to get where they least expected us in life, the voice is pure, accurate, familiar and too good to miss. Indulge and be prepared to Phoenix-up in the transformation.

 

Stacy L. Leeds, Vice Chancellor for Economic Development Dean Emeritus & Professor of Law, University of Arkansas

Cherokees are remarkably diverse, but frequently share two common attributes: (1) gifted story-tellers (2) who tend to arrive at the positive, even in the most dreadful of circumstances.

In Lighting the Fire, Steve Russell’s Cherokee light shines bright. An endearing, raw and sometimes edgy take on navigating life and love in middle America, without the requisite handbook.

 

They tell me I was born there, but that’s hearsay, as far as I’m concerned. That puts me in a tough position because I’m told a memoir has to be told from memory. I’ll do the best I can.

My earliest memory not aided by a folk song was a sojourn to the oil patch in Pampa, Texas, where my mother made a futile effort to mother me. I was about 3 years old. I remember snowdrifts in Pampa taller than me, and traffic signals of such bright reds and greens I could not look away from them. Bristow had no traffic signals at the time. I remember visiting a doctor. I remember my mother beating me with a belt on several occasions, and, when I cried, telling me that if I did not shut up she would “give me something to cry about.”

My mother’s attempt to play mother did not work out. Aside from the beating and the illness, I don’t remember the details. She left me with her parents back in Bristow, Oklahoma, where I became a major disruption of their golden years. In my first memory after being returned to Bristow, I’m harassing my grandmother: “Wake up, Granma! I need you to read it to me.”

“It” was the word balloons in the Tulsa World comics.

That obnoxious Indian toddler was lucky I can’t time travel back to 1951 and grab my younger self’s attention for a talk about how children should treat elders. “Granma” was Bessie Russell, my mother’s mother. I could not see beyond the entertainment I wanted right then to understand she was nodding off because she had washed dishes all night at one of the cafes on Route 66, or “Main Street,” as we called the MotherRoad in Bristow.

With superhuman patience, she would shake off the fatigue and pronounce each word in the cartoon strip as she related it to something in the drawing. And she would always remind me: “This is something you need to learn to do for yourself. You’re a smart boy and you don’t need somebody reading to you.”

Sure enough, if the World hit the front porch before Granma got home, I was moved to pull off the rubber band that held the newspaper together, dig out the funnies, and I would be making my best 4-year-old effort to learn the words. Easy ones first, like “Pow!”

I didn’t care much for Mary Worth, but I would sometimes get into Steve Canyon or Little Orphan Annie and be in an unseemly hurry to catch the next six inches of the story. I lacked the insight to see myself in Dennis the Menace or The Katzenjammer Kids, but I did place myself in The Lone Ranger, at least when I caught the story when the comic strip moved to live action on the radio. That series contained the only Indian character I remember from those times who had a name. In my imagination I rode with the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion, Tonto,” the sidekick’s sidekick, and we were much more practical than that white dude with the funny-looking mask that was supposed to be a disguise.

I slowly learned to read the funnies, and then Granma started pushing me to read the front-page news, headlines first. That was not as hard as reading the funnies because we listened to the news on the radio several times a day. I knew the president was named “Truman” and there was trouble in a place called “Korea.” It would be a while before I learned to recognize a word longer than “Eisenhower.”

I knew the sounds of the letters from reading the funnies and I knew the major news stories from listening to the radio every evening before The Lone Ranger. I confess I got more upset when The Adventures of Superman went off the air than I did about the bad stuff on the evening news. They were all stories to me, and I did not give any thought to whether they were true in the same sense the live music broadcasts were true: “This is KVOO, the Voice of Oklahoma, bringing you, live from the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Leon McAuliffe and the Cimarron Boys. Take it away, Leon…”

McAuliffe would take it away with pedal steel guitar licks he had perfected with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Wills still toured up and down the mother road, and he would stop in Bristow to eat at a restaurant called Hamburger King, a choice dictated by a dirt and gravel parking lot big enough for the tour bus. The radio news and the radio stories were roughly equal to 5-year-old ears, but the music was as real as Bob Wills’ tour bus.

The school year I was to turn 6, Granma tried to enroll me in Edison Elementary, the closest to my home of three grammar schools in Bristow. I did not understand one of the three was for black kids only. Edison would not take me because my sixth birthday did not come until February and the argument that I already knew how to read was fruitless. Granma briefly got me in a kindergarten run by the Catholic Church, but I got kicked out for treating those Bible stories the nuns claimed were true as just like other stories, and therefore up for debate. I had apparently given some thought to the story of Jesus, and my expression of skepticism about how the story ended was the last straw.

A year later, I finally got admitted to Edison. When I showed up in that Oklahoma public school, I was fresh off years of being told by my grandparents that I was smart, a mantra that would soon be replaced by regular reminders that I should go to college.

Being ahead of my classmates in reading felt good, but there was one downside. I was in love with my first-grade teacher, Miss Daniels. Her long, shiny black hair reminded me of my mother, and she shared my mother’s first name, Wanda. I would see my mother twice or maybe three times a year. I considered her wealthy because she always had a car—always a Ford until she got really prosperous and acquired a Mercury—and she always seemed to have important things to do where they had more oil than was left in Bristow. I’m not sure I would have recognized my mother if I met her on the street, but I always remembered her beautiful hair, black like Miss Daniels’. I very much wanted to impress Miss Daniels.

The major group reading exercise was called “reading circle.” The teacher would call on a student to start reading and that student would go until they made a mistake, which the teacher would correct and then pick somebody else to continue the story. Early in the year, Miss Daniels quit calling on me. I was crushed. Also bored, since there is just not that much story for listening pleasure in Fun with Dick and Jane. All there was to do while other kids read was to imagine Puff and Spot getting into a big fight. Like cats and dogs.

Miss Daniels did not appreciate it when I would whisper to others what I imagined was going on with Puff and Spot. I later saw her reasoning—calling on me would break the reading circle because I would not make a mistake. But, placed outside the circle, I lost the opportunity to impress Miss Daniels.

In spite of my conduct, I did pretty well in the first grade, and even better in the second, but I got knocked off the public school rails in the third grade, when we were assigned to copy whole pages of one cursive letter.

I would copy the letter until I could make it to my satisfaction and then I was done. No further copying interested me, and I’ve never been willing to do tasks that did not interest me. This trait steered me toward eventually becoming the typical Indian public school student: a dropout. The third grade was when I became no longer the hotshot but just another troublesome kid who would not take orders.

Indians were not just the most numerous minority at Edison—about 20%—we were the onlyminority, because black kids were still segregated in Oklahoma schools and the folks from the Middle East (Lebanese and Syrian people) were Christian and capitalist and so did not stand out. Most of the Indian kids would peel off from the public schools before high school graduation to become part of those dismal Indian dropout rates that persist to this day. In the third grade, I entered on the statistical path Indian students were expected to follow, but I physically remained in dear old Edison long after my brain checked out.

The teacher was ordering me to waste my time making many copies of letters I knew how to make and I was determined not to obey that order. It was a simple contest of wills, and I quickly learned that after a certain amount of arguing with the teacher, I would get kicked out of class. That was more than just tolerable, because wherever they put me, there always seemed to be a book nearby aimed at a higher grade level than the one I was supposed to be studying.

Books were the kindling for the fire lit by my grandparents, a secret entrance to a world that, unlike rural Indian Territory after it became Oklahoma, knew no boundaries for Indian kids. Reading could take me places I had never even heard rumors about and confer powers to fly over, under, or through the many constraints of my mundane life.

My childhood was generally defined by the limitations on what Indians could become and things I could not have, but there was one big exception. Very early, I learned the magic words that would always open the money spigot and even cause my grandparents to borrow if the cistern was dry:

“I need it for school.”

The other kids got the cardboard folder; I got a faux leather briefcase.

The other kids got a box of eight or maybe sixteen Crayolas; I got sixty-four.

The other kids got ballpoint pens; I got a fountain pen.

My clothes may have been second-hand, my shoes often fell apart while I was wearing them, buttons were missing on my shirts—I could have answered a casting call for Oliver Twist. But if I could utter the magic words to my grandparents, all things seemed possible.

They paid too much for a Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Encyclopedia because the fellow selling it door to door claimed I would “need it for school.”

When I wanted to play in the band, my grandparents signed a note to buy a clarinet on time. I really wanted to play in a rock ’n’ roll band. The band director sold me on the clarinet by claiming that if I learned clarinet I could play saxophone as well.

The sax was too expensive, even if I did “need it for school.” Most of the hit records in those days contained a raucous sax solo and Elvis had only begun to pare records down to guitars and a drum.

The clarinet, like the encyclopedia, cost far more than my grandparents could rationally afford, but that was the magic of the claim it was “for school.” I did not lie, but I stretched my school supplies list so thinly that my grandparents must have understood I was dashing to the end of the leash.

My grandparents made every effort to feed the fire of curiosity. Their two most effective measures cost nothing. One was that we had no television until the fourth grade and the other was that they told me regularly I was smart.

I’m ashamed of sitting at the feet of one grandparent or the other whining, “Read it to me…read it…”

The money disappeared by my broad definition of “school supplies” does not fill me with similar shame. They made a judgment about how to light a fire in me, to keep my attention on education if not on schooling. Like most of my peers, I would drop out—the first time in the sixth grade—but unlike most of my peers, I still made it to college.

My opinion of my grandparents’ judgment now is reflected in my conduct. I have nine grandkids, and if they want anything from me all they need to do is repeat the magic words: “I need it for school.”

- Steve Russell

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