||In early 1998, I talked on the phone with the Jolly Rogers’ historian, Wiley O. Woods, Jr., and he asked me if my dad had ever mentioned Captain Leaford Bearskin, who was a pilot in my dad’s squadron. “If you’re writing songs about the Jolly Rogers,” Wiley said, “You may want to talk to himhe’s got plenty of stories. Here’s his phone number in Oklahoma.”
Wiley was right; Leaford Bearskin was a treasure trove of adventures, and his life was a song just waiting to be written. All I had to do was make it rhyme. Bearskin had been born a Wyandotte Indian in the territory of the Wyandotte Nation in northeast Oklahoma. Right after high school, he had joined the Army Air Corps (it would become the Air Force after the war). “I always wanted to fly,” he told me when I called, “and I always wanted to serve my country.”
To picture the mindset of America in the early ’40s with regard to their impression of Native Americans, all you have to do is check out a black-and-white Western movie from that time period. The Indian warriors were so indispensible that Hollywood would often kill some of them multiple times during the course of a single battle with the U.S. Cavalry or heroic (if foolhardy) settlers. All you needed was a different camera angle and spliced together footage.
So, you can only imagine what kind of obstacles and prejudices Leaford Bearskin must have had to overcome to be able to command a B-24 warship. But he came from a tribe of warriors. Bearskin’s people, the Wyandotte, were sometimes known as the Huron, and they had been fighting for their very existence hundreds of years before the war that he fought in. They were initially settled around the north shore of present-day Lake Ontario. Although they shared elements of their language with their New York neighbors, the Iroquois, there was definitely bad blood between the two entities; the Iroquois spent quite a bit of time trying to wipe their neighbors from the face of the earth.
The Wyandotte numbered in the tens of thousands when they first encountered the French in the early 1600’s. However, they were soon decimated by European infectious diseases, such as measles and smallpox, to which they had no immunity. It’s estimated that anywhere from half to two-thirds of their population died, and many of the survivors were forced out of the region and into the Midwest by hostile tribes. The Wyandottes were pushed westward to Michigan and Ohio and then, after the Civil War, even more westward to Kansas and Oklahoma. By then, their numbers had decreased substantially. In fact, there were only a few hundred that successfully sought reinstatement as a tribe in 1867.
Leaford Bearskin was born in 1921. When he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939, he was initially assigned to Alaska as a crew chief, but after World War II broke out, Bearskin entered flying cadet school, received his pilot wings and went into heavy bombardment training. The war took him to the South Pacific, where he flew in the same squadron as my dad, the 321st of the 90th Bombardment Group (Heavy), the “Jolly Rogers.” He and his crew called his plane, “Big Chief.” Like the other pilots and crews, they never knew if they would return from any given mission.
“There was one particular mission over Wewak in December of ’43,” Bearskin told me during our phone conversation, “Not only did we lose planes and crews, the flak was so thick, that I felt like I could just get out and walk on it.” Fortunately, the “Big Chief” survived that mission, and Lt. Bearskin decided to stay in the service after the war and to make a career out of the Air Force. Leaford Bearskin retired from the Air Force as a Lt. Colonel in 1960 and then began a second career in Federal Civil Service, where he served until 1979. After returning to Oklahoma, his tribe elected him chief in 1983.
Once the album about my father was completed, I sent the Chief some copies of the CD, so he could hear the song about himself, obviously entitled “Big Chief.” (Click here to hear the song, "Big Chief")
“That was a good one,” Chief Bearskin told me, when I followed up by phone. “I like the part about carving into stone.”
He was referring to the bridge:
“Through broken promises and about three hundred years, they have stood the test through all their trials and tears. But the Great Spirit of the Wyandotte people never disappears; Blood and tears in stone reliefBig Chief.”
A few years ago, my architect friend Ken Pritchard called me with a request. He was helping to design the new football stadium for the University of West Georgia, and they had hit a snag. The university was in the process of changing their nickname from “The Braves” to “The Wolves,” and they needed something to commemorate the transition. The school had been built on land that had formerly been home to Georgia’s Creek Indians, hence the initial nickname to honor the tribe, but UWG was moving their teams up into the NCAA, and that organization was concerned about the “insensitivity” of using a native American as a mascot.
The solution that we came up with was a bas-relief sculpture commissioned by UWG supporter Bob Stone to go over the entrance of the stadium. However, the relief wasn’t going to be in stone; we chose aluminum with a “bronzed” effect. Also, it didn’t exactly feature blood and tears; we went with wolves against a clouded sky emboldened by an etched face of a noble Creek warrior to depict the old and the new, the future against the backdrop of tradition. I created the design on my little 12-inch Macbook; the digital illustration would then be used to engrave the various layers of the 20-foot relief sculpture.
There was one last request from the university. They wanted the illustration/design to be approved by a native American, one who was recognized and registered with a documented native American tribe.
“Who could do that?” the university representative asked me frantically. The clock was ticking on the completion of the stadium.
“Would a Chief work?” I asked him.
When I sent Chief Bearskin a print of the design, he was impressed and pleased to be part of the process. “It brings honor to a brave people,” he told me, “It’s good that they won’t be forgotten.” True to his word, he signed off on the sculpture and it now adorns the entrance to the University of West Georgia’s new stadium.
That was the last time I spoke to Leaford Bearskin, this World War II hero turned tribal leader. He served as Wyandotte Principal Chief until his retirement in 2011 and passed away the following year at the age of 91, like so many warriors of his generation (we’re losing a couple thousand WWII vets each day; in fact, as I typed this, I heard of the death of “Band of Brothers” hero “Wild Bill” William Guarnere, a month and a half shy of his 91st birthday).
Chief Bearskin made a difference, whether it was the office positions and agencies in which he served, or his B-24 crew (he always managed to get them home safely). But most importantly, perhaps his biggest impact was with his own people. Under his leadership, the tribe grew to over 5,000 citizens, secured self-governance, initiated cultural renewal and achieved economic success unlike any other time in Wyandotte history. I truly believe that the Big Chief would have been gratified to know that his legacy will be remembered for a long time, just as the legends and deeds of the great Wyandotte warriors have been shared by flickering campfires for centuries long gone.
David Ray Skinner