In this piece by filmmaker Mat Hames, we get to know more about Eastern Shoshone tribal elder Philbert McLeod, one of the stars of Hames’ Independent Lens film What Was Ours. Philbert had an incredible breadth of knowledge about his tribe’s history, and received a Purple Heart fighting for America in Vietnam. He believed an old beaded charm passed down by an elder helped protect him in combat.
- There were some Shoshone up in the mountains.
The cavalry couldn't get 'em down
because it was too rough for 'em.
So, they just left 'em alone.
I always say that's one part of the Shoshones
that never was conquered, you know.
I'm part of that clan.
I am a mountain Shoshone.
I was born in 1944.
I remember around five or six,
the only English I heard
was we had a radio, battery radio
and they were speaking English and all
to listen to 'em sat there
trying to pronounce the words (chuckles).
That's of course when I was growing up.
It's the only English I heard.
Only time I run into English
was when I went to grade school.
It was a chore because I couldn't speak English,
I couldn't read.
Had a hard time in grade school.
If a student was caught speaking Shoshone,
the teacher would tell him, "Get on the blackboard
"and put I will not speak Shoshone again,
"500 times on that blackboard."
Or then we'd get spanked on the palms
with a ruler or you get, you know, your buttocks,
you know, you get your, being whipped.
They wanted to be more civilized.
I blame it on the government.
The government put us on this reservation to be farmers.
We weren't farmers.
We were roamers.
We roamed where the game is.
We roamed where the berries grow ripe.
I was drafted in the Army.
I didn't know where Vietnam was.
I just heard on the radio, we know.
The only thing that I heard that there was communists
moving in there to take over the place.
So, we was there to stop that communism
from coming into Vietnam.
In Vietnam, I carried a good luck charm.
I wore that thing every day.
I was assigned to a helicopter.
I was drafted, so they could put me anywhere they want.
I heard gossip from the people around me
that the life expectancy of a gunner is 12 hours.
We was escorting some ground troops.
Sniper put a bullet right through our hydraulic line.
We were coming down.
We crash landed.
And, there was all jungle, thick jungle.
Being a gunner, our duty was to set up a perimeter
for the chopper to protect it.
About five minutes after we landed,
I could hear voices.
They were talking Vietnamese.
They were soldiers trying to get to us.
I admit, I just made up my mind as I was setting up
my machine gun, I'm not gonna go
to no prison camp.
And, I tied my good luck charm along with my dog tags
on my neck.
My great, great grandmother taught me,
boy it's a long time ago, you gotta pray for your enemy.
So, right then I started praying.
Help me survive and pray for my enemy
that we won't see each other
and we won't hurt each other.
And I prayed that way.
I'm praying to the Creator, I wanna live, I told him.
(chuckles) That's what I told the Creator.
And, a chopper come by and hovered near us
and we jumped on it, got out.
'Cause items have power as long as
the Creator's involved with it.
I've come through some dangerous situations
and this has kept me safe.
Sergeant over there told us, "Kill or be killed."
He indoctrinated it to our heads.
There'd be some orders for us to shoot all the houses
'cause there ain't nobody supposed to be there.
Once you started shooting, you don't know
what you're gonna hit.
But, you're either shooting at a hooch or you're shooting
at somebody running.
My machine that I emptied, she was all solid tracers
so you can tell where you're shooting.
It grips you.
Machine gun's more dirty, but
it sure put those hooches on fire, those tracers.
I hate to do that.
It kinda messes your mind up a little bit, sticks to you.
(ethereal music) (wind whistling)
When I got home, when I come back from the war,
my mind was messed up.
The war messed me up.
I've lived with death every day.
That's what caused my divorce.
She was right.
It wasn't the same man that come home.
I still feel that way, you know.
Always being prepared to die any day.
I never left the reservation
because of that reason, that fear.
- [Interviewer] Do you think you have healed
from those things?
- I think I have healed.
You know I think about better things, you know.
Think about bad things or sorrow,
and I turn it into better, here, today
that we should be doing, you know.
And a lot of things, you know, like this.
Talking about history, you know.
I don't try to break history down, you know.
I try to make it better for all of us,
you know, the rest of us,
the children, 'cause you know it's gonna be,
one day it's gonna be important.
Looking outside into nature is like a museum.
Look at the mountains, timbers, wood, water.
It's a museum.
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