W.Va. man recreates American Indian lifeREEDSVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — Like a lot of people of American Indian descent, Joe has gotten pretty adept at introducing himself with two distinctly different names.
By: Jim Bissett, The Dominion Post, The Jamestown Sun
REEDSVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — Like a lot of people of American Indian descent, Joe has gotten pretty adept at introducing himself with two distinctly different names.
Call it a handshake-squaring of society and soul.
"Joe Heltzinger," the name on his driver's license, Social Security card and college diplomas, is the one he has to answer to. Society says so.
"Joseph RedHawk," however, is the identity written across his heart. That's the name he prefers, as it is dictated by the poetry and pride of his indigenous lineage.
Joe Heltzinger (and, Joseph RedHawk), is an affable, 49-year-old with an easy laugh and mellow manner. He now lives in Reedsville, and he got here by way of his hometown of Reading, Pa., and Tularosa, N.M., where he lived and worked several years.
You'll know him when you see him: He's the guy who wears that amazing buckskin jacket with the fringes — a piece of outerwear that looks like it should be hanging in an Old West museum somewhere.
Total strangers, even, have been known to stop him and ask about it.
"Yeah, people do ask me where I bought it," he said recently from the Reedsville townhouse he shares with his wife and daughter. "I get a kick out of telling them that I didn't buy it, I made it. They say, 'No kidding.' "
Nope, no kidding. Just craftsmanship.
Craftsmanship, and care for his culture, is how he literally got his Indian name. Back home in Pennsylvania more than 25 years ago, the shaman of an Eastern Woodlands tribe bestowed him with the RedHawk moniker — "He said my heart was more red than white."
The blood ties of both course through his veins. He's English and Welsh on his mother's side. It's from his father's side of the family that he gets his Oglala Sioux and Chiricahua Apache heritage.
He doesn't know all the details, but his father's father, also named Joseph, was taken off a South Dakota reservation as an infant in the early 1900s and adopted by the Heltzinger family, in Reading.
Generations of that practice of forced assimilation, plus the isolation of Indian reservations in general, is why the "culture" part of America's indigenous culture is dying out, said Jon Reyhner, a professor of bilingual and multicultural education at Northern Arizona University.
When the language goes, the culture and heritage goes with it, Reyhner said.
The man known both by RedHawk and Heltzinger completely understands that, he said.
"Growing up, I knew I was part Indian," he said, "but that was the only thing I knew."
He knew he was good with his hands. He was a gearhead, always popping the hood and making his car purr. He was a good student and a seeker, too.
He went to college, planning on a career as a minister. He said he earned a doctorate in religion and history from a school in the east he'd rather not name. "We had a real falling out," he said.
Same for the denomination of the church he would have preached in. By then, he said, he was exploring his American Indian roots. The church disapproved, he said.
He went to work for a garage, as a mechanic and auto detailer.
'They liked my stuff — but they didn't like me'
The breathing problems he developed a few years back from his job prompted his doctor to suggest a move to a warm, dry climate. New Mexico, it was.
He settled in Tularosa, about 100 miles west of El Paso, Texas.
He went back to work on cars, but he was also tuning up a new career built on his abilities as a crafter of authentic American Indian items. He founded a trading post-type shop, turning out period-correct war bonnets, buckskin outfits and moccasins, all by hand.
Several of his customers lived on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, which was right down the road on U.S. 70.
They didn't have the best of feelings for the merchant, though, he said.
"They liked my stuff, but they didn't like me," he said. "That's because I wasn't a full Indian. But they had to buy from me, because I was the only one who knew how to make these things."
Two years ago, the family boomeranged back East, to be closer to Reading.
Now, he wants to revive his career as an American Indian interpreter, dressing in historically correct, authentic garb he makes himself as he discusses the politics and particulars of Northern Plains Indians in the 18th- and 19th-century America.
He's in the process of lining up appearances at schools and festivals.
"I don't necessarily 'romanticize' Indians," he said. He talks about the land-grabs and sneak attacks from one tribe to the other. He tempers the real stuff with respect, though. He also looks in quiet awe at a population that also had, and has, deep reverence for the Earth and its resources.
Look for him to explore another icon synonymous with West Virginia — one that isn't always accurately portrayed.
"I'm working up some things on your Mountain Man," he said. "Mountaineers in this part of the country back then weren't those big, burly guys with beards. They were pretty scrawny. And they were clean-shaven, because they were dealing with Indians. Indians hated facial hair."
"These guys didn't do pushups after touchdowns, either."