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The Money Story
By Marshall Jack

When I was very young, the only way I could communicate was with the words of the Piaute language. It was very easy for me to understand because all the elders spoke the native tongue. When I was old enough, my mother and father told me I had to go to school. I had no concept of what that was as there was no word in the Piaute language for school. The environment I grew up in was a small town in the high Sierras named Bridgeport. It was a small environment of about 300 people. I lived with my parents and other relatives on a very small reservation. There were fourteen families who lived there.

My Mom took me to this place they called the “school”. She told me I would have to go there each morning until the afternoon. When I was done with school, she said, I must come straight home. Again, I had no idea why I had to go to this place. It took me away from all the trees and my animal friends. Not knowing much about the English language, I had a very difficult time understanding what they called the teacher. The only time I had any fun around this place was what they called “recess”. I still don’t understand what that word, “recess” means. During this time, we got to go and play with the plants and animals. This was fun for me, as it was the natural thing for me to do. Many of the young children were amazed at the animals that would come to me. There were lizards, horny toads, and snakes. They watched as I made braids out of the grass.

Every day I would go to the school very confused. At the school I had made a couple of friends that were non-Indian. The mother of these friends worked in town inside this building they called a “store”. I was never allowed to go to the store without my parents or grandmother. I had no reason to go there, as I did not know what it was. One day, while playing at the schoolyard, my two friends came to me chewing something strange. They were blowing pink bubbles out of their mouth. I did not know what this was. I thought it was some sort of tree sap we chewed but our tree sap didn’t make bubbles. I gestured with my hands trying to ask what they were chewing. One of my friends reached into his pocket and brought out a small square item with a covering on it. When he uncovered the item, he gave it to me and gestured with his hands to put it in his mouth. I thanked him in my way and put this thing in my mouth. It was very sweet. I wondered to myself as to where this thing came from. I had never seen anything like it on the Mother Earth.

Later on that day, when we were released from this thing called “school”, I walked back toward the reservation. My two little friends came and asked me to join them to go where their mother worked. I gestured in my way that I couldn’t do that. I had to go home. They replied that it wouldn’t take long. I looked around to see if anyone I knew would see me. When no one was seen, I took the chance and went with my two little friends to where their mother worked. When we got to the building where their mother worked, they asked me to come inside. Again, I was very hesitant to do this, as this was not what my parents would want. I entered into this place and saw many things placed everywhere. I was amazed as to the number of things that were there. Yet, I was confused having never seen most of these items before. As I walked around the store, my friends called to me from where their mother was standing. On the table next to where their mother was, there were these glass containers holding weird looking things. There was one glass container that caught my eye. It had the square pink things with covers over them. One of my friends showed me how to reach into the glass containers to reach those square things. Being very shy, I grabbed one of the square things. My friends gestured to take more, but I thanked him saying one would be enough. I stood next to my friends next to their mother. My little friend reached into his pocket and handed some little disks to his mom. His mom took these disks and went over to this big clankety thing. She looked as though she were pushing on some buttons and grabbing a handle. This big thing made a lot of noise and a shelf popped out. I looked into the shelf. There were many of these colored disks my friend had given to his mom. There were other things that looked like flat feathers. His mother had places his disks into this clankety things and gotten a few more of these strange disks and gave them to her son. He placed these disks back into his pocket. I was amazed as to what was going on, but it didn’t make any sense to me as to what they were doing. I thanked him for the square pink thing they had given me and ran home with it.

At home, Grandma was sitting making a basket. She asked me where I had been. I told on myself and said I had been to the store with my friends. She began to chew me out. Since I was a brave little boy, I accepted the chewing out but began to ask questions. I was curious as to what had happened between my little friend and his mom. I asked Grandma what were these little disk things. She was puzzled. In Piaute, there were no words for these things. I pointed at her small medicine bag and said that these disks the boys had were in her medicine bag. She reached over and grabbed her small bag, opening it and poured out the contents. I excitedly pointed to the small disks that fell out. I asked, “What are those things?” In the Piaute way, she began to explain these things and where they had come from. I told her I had never seen these things on the mountain where I played or anywhere on Mother Earth. Her explanation still leaves me even today with a have a lack of understanding of the purpose of these items. She said back then there were people who dug holes in the Mother Earth. When they do, they find rocks that have the colors that are in these disks or coins. I interrupted and declared that I had never seen rocks that looked like this. She explained that they take the colored rocks and mash them up. They put them in big machines to make the mashed rocks look flat. In my puzzled little mind, I was thinking what she was saying and I asked her, “Why do they need to crush up the sacred rocks? We never had to do that. We use the rocks for cooking and for ceremonies.” Grandma replied she didn’t know either. I asked her if it would be easier to pick a rock off of Mother Earth, ask permission and to exchange these rocks rather than crush them and make the disks. She said that would be better, but, “This is the way they do things”. It didn’t make sense to me then in fifties and it still doesn’t make sense to me today.

I, again, continued with my questions. I asked about the flat looking feathers in the drawer at the store. Grandma was very confused as to what I was asking. I pointed to her big medicine bag and told her she had the flat looking feathers in her large bag. She reached over and grabbed the big medicine bag. She retrieved a smaller bag from within that had the flat feathers I was looking for. She reached in and pulled out the flat feathers. I asked, “What are those things?” as I had never seen these things on Mother Earth. She tried to explain in a way I might be able to understand. She said this is what they call “money”. I wondered, “How do they make money?” She said that they go out to the woods and cut down our trees. They collect berries and take them to a place with big machines. They smash up our trees and our berries. The trees that went into the machine come out like this thing she called “paper”. She picked up another piece of paper with green markings from her big medicine bag. She pointed to the green markings and said this was made from the juice of the berries and placed on the paper. This is what they call “money”. Again, my brain was struggling to understand what Grandma had told me. I asked her why can’t they just make an offering to the sacred trees and ask permission to use a branch to give to one another instead of destroying the trees. Then they wouldn’t have to crush up the berries to mark the paper, I explained. Again, Grandma could not explain why the white people did this. To this day, I have a very hard time giving any value to those pieces of paper or colored disks. It kills our trees, our berries and our rocks to produce these items that we put a value on. It didn’t make any sense to me then and as an adult, it still doesn’t make sense. Aho.

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