Safekeeping the Legacy of Star Eyes
We saw you come from Europe. You brought your religion. That's yours. Nobody wants to take it from you. You brought your laws. Those are yours. Nobody wants to take it from you. But we didn't see you bring any land. So, how did it become your land?
— Bruce Elijah.
Lauren ‘Star Eyes’ Roberts could not have been removed any further from her ancestral home in the Northeastern Woodlands than to the desert where she lived in Bisbee, a quaint mining town at the end of the road, before crossing the border at Naco into Mexico. That is where I met Star Eyes and her family in 1989 when I lived two hours away in Tucson, Arizona. Star Eyes is of mixed Penobscot Indian, Choctaw Indian, and European blood. With a license to kill Penobscots beginning in 1755, the colonists did their best to remove them. What happened to her people is nothing less than genocide.
I met Star Eyes on the phone after my husband, Matohikan, walked out on me, skipped town, and pleaded a nervous breakdown. He, too, is of mixed Native American and European blood. The responsibility fell on me as his business partner to call Star Eyes and cancel his speaking engagement at her upcoming childbirth conference in Bisbee. She had booked Matohikan, a home birth doctor, to speak on the safety of home birth. Michel Odent, known for introducing the concepts of birthing rooms, birthing pools, and singing sessions for pregnant women, would be the other featured speaker.
My initial common ground with Star Eyes is that we delivered our respective children at home with a midwife in the late seventies and early eighties. The distress in my voice was not lost on her when I announced the need to cancel Matohikan due to our traumatic separation. She voiced her concern not over losing a keynote speaker but for me. Star Eyes is a compassionate listener and a fierce mama of three. She didn’t let me off the hook and insisted that I bring myself down to Bisbee to receive her holding and nurturance while I let myself fall apart. The last thing I wanted to do was fall apart in the arms of a stranger. But there was something in her voice, some ancient pain or wisdom that I couldn’t discern that felt more real than my doubt or confusion. I knew she was right about needing support. I made myself go to Bisbee.
The drive south routed me through Tombstone, where Native Americans and immigrants had struggled for land and survival. The OK Corral and Oriental Saloon facades did not entice me to stop. I had put up enough of them to hide my marriage struggles with Matohikan.
I drove alone and bereft through the desert and eventually reached the tunnel that stretches beneath the Mule Mountains. On the other side, Bisbee emerged with its Victorian architecture tucked into mountains that mirrored a mule-like stubbornness and determination in me not to be crushed by defeat. If only my heart, which felt like an old abandoned mine depleted of its treasure, could believe it.
I turned my Landcruiser into the event hall’s rocky, dry, and dusty parking lot, where Star Eyes had asked me to wait for her. Within a few moments, she arrived with a child by her side. She greeted me warmly, yet hurriedly, needing to return to the needs of her conference attendees. Star Eyes reassured me there would be a break soon, and she would take me to her house where I could rest. In the meantime, she asked if I would look after her six-year-old daughter Lena, short for Magdalena. I said I would.
Lena is multiracial. She had never met her Black musician father. Star Eyes had three children from three different fathers. I didn’t know what to think about that. But when little Lena, the middle child of the three, looked up at me all nappy-headed with her dark Cancerian eyes filled with pools of deep water, I fell in love at first sight. Without saying a word, she took me by the hand and led me beside the event hall and down the railroad tracks.
“I can see that you are sad,” she said, reaching up to hug me.
I bent down to hug her or let her hug me. I’m not sure which. I suppose we merely hugged. And I let myself cry in the presence of that precious child for all the loss. And then she pulled me on as she began to sing a happy song, a child’s song, as we walked the tracks into a future I could not yet see.
Star Eyes had me follow her home that day to where she lived with her three kids at her mother’s house. Although a Licensed Practical Nurse, she chose to be a welfare mom and stay home to raise her children. They took me in at a time when I had become estranged from my own family. After Matohikan and I divorced, Star Eyes held a ceremony where I released the marriage and burned photos that had remained in my keeping.
My divorce from Matohikan, as devastating as it was, launched my music career. Out of financial necessity, an emotional need to heal, and a passion for making music, at age 35, I took to the road as a singer-songwriter. Over the years, I played many gigs in Bisbee, including the historic Bisbee Grand and The Copper Queen Hotel, best known for its regular guest John Wayne. Star Eyes almost always came out to hear me play.
One slow night at the Copper Queen, and with an empty tip jar, I sat down with Star Eyes on my break. She looked into my eyes with her wise blue ones and said, “This is your giveaway.” And she was right. I worked hard, drove far, and spent so much for such little recognition, lucky to break even.
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Each time I played in Bisbee, I stayed with Star Eyes and her family, sleeping on an air mattress on the floor. They didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford to fix the roof leaks, but they still fed me eggs from their backyard chickens as we sat around the oval table and laughed. On special occasions, Star Eyes’ “beatnik” mother would give me a Tarot reading, which helped the future look more clear.
Star Eyes loved the beauty of nature, and she loved to dance. One of her boyfriends owned a local dance hall where we would go dancing. And that is how I met Lavell Evans, who booked me to do a concert through his production company, IMSUNSTAR, at his performance space Kilimanjaro Cultural Exchange Center, backing me on conga drums.
Lavell was a native of Brooklyn and a talented drummer. He describes himself as an artist, poet, designer, architectural coordinator, and producer. Lavell developed a unique drumming style after losing the full use of one hand from a shrapnel injury sustained in Vietnam. He played the conga head with his good hand while holding a drum stick in the other, which he used against the side and rim of the conga for rhythmic and clave-like accents.
Lavell and I became good friends, and after his performance hall was closed when a group of developers came down from San Francisco with the vision of transforming the interiors of the turn-of-the-century building into luxury condominiums, he became a gourd artist. And a very good one at that whose gourds sold for over a thousand dollars in Bisbee art galleries.
One day I walked in on Lavell as he finished burning a design onto one of his large gourds. He had stained the interior a deep, bright, blood red. Most of his gourds included his signature of brightly painted designs. That unfinished one only had the burnt brown lines of his design contrasted against the golden glow of gourd skin. He handed it to me. I gazed into her red interior.
“This looks and feels like a womb,” I said, rolling it back and forth between the warmed palms of my hands. “Please don’t do anything else to it. It’s perfect,” I pleaded.
“And who are you to tell me how to do my art?” he said, shaking his head and acting offended. “How can you form an opinion before I have even finished it? I have plans for this one,” he said somewhat sternly, taking the large, round gourd from my hands.
“Maybe one day I can afford one of your gourds,” I said, backing off with a sigh.
The following month, on my birthday, a notice arrived in my P.O. Box for a parcel pickup. The postal clerk brought out a large box and handed it to me across the counter. In my excitement, I opened it immediately to discover that it contained the gourd, which Lavell had finished burning and burnishing, but left unstained. He had honored me by giving me the womb gourd, a medicine gift with a story all its own.
We lost Lavell the following decade, the shrapnel in his body killing him when it dislodged and went to his heart. I treasure that gourd to this day.
I did not give birth to my sons for them to war against other human beings, to send them as fodder for a patriarchal power machine, god bless them and all who fight the good fight. I have deep respect and empathy for the common soldier.
– Star Eyes
Star Eyes partnered with another man after Lavell, a rather famous photographer, Richard Byrd, who moved to Bisbee in the 70s to open a downtown gallery. The downtown area known as Old Bisbee had become a destination for artists, herbalists, hippies of the counter-culture, and later, folks priced out by the gentrification of places such as Aspen, Colorado.
Richard Byrd, the great-nephew of the famed arctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, began his photography career in 1966, going on a brief tour with the Beatles. He has produced numerous photographs, many of them intimate photos of early rock stars. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame accepted his photograph collection for inclusion.
Richard also photographed his toddler son from behind, climbing a stairway nude. Eric Clapton purchased a large print of the photo shortly after his child tragically died in an accidental fall. He told Richard that the photograph reminded him of a child climbing the stairway to heaven and thought having it would help his grieving process.
I met and had coffee with Richard and Star Eyes on many occasions. The photographs he shot of her in full regalia tell a powerful story. Released only now, Star Eyes did not want them shared publicly. They made her feel too exposed. But she wanted me to have them and gave me the two 5x7 color photos for safekeeping. Thirty years later, I am left holding the photographs she entrusted to my care.
Star Eyes passed away on July 15, 2022, on my birthday. Shortly before she passed from a long battle with cancer, she released a torn and stained copy of the photo she titled Ceremony on Facebook. I had the only remaining copy in pristine condition. I sent both photos after she died to Magdalena, her daughter, the family historian, now a grown woman with a baby of her own.
Star Eyes gave herself that name because the fractal patterns and golden ratio pulses in stars awed her. Others may have called her a half-breed, a term considered offensive in the Native American community. But those who have known trauma and shame also know there comes a day when you name yourself as a sacred being.
Half Breed, a song by John D. Loudermilk written in 1959, was covered by Ricky Nelson. Richard Byrd tells a story about photographing Nelson entitled When Ricky Nelson Came to My Garden Party. Half Breed is about the struggles of a man whose father is white and whose mother is Indian. Cher also covered the song and faced all manner of criticism over it.
Both sides were against me since the day I was born…
— Half Breed
I had married a Half-breed. Matohikan’s father was Indian, and his mother was white. He grew up in poverty. I did not understand the shame he carried, and it destroyed our marriage. Growing up with Indians taught me many things, but it did not teach me a language for the emotion of shame. I, too, carried shame. I felt ashamed of being white, privileged, and adopted.
Star Eyes gave me a brief glimpse of what it might be like to have been raised as a poor half-breed. As a child, she went to church in handmade dresses with her grandma and tried to imagine a heaven and a hell while drawing the sermon as the minister preached. Her grandma talked to bristlecone pines and listened to Mahalia Jackson. Star Eyes also came from a lineage of Choctaw bone-pickers. They were the medicine people called to come and pick the bones clean and distribute them to family members for safekeeping. The photos of her are like that, exposing the medicine woman that she is in her bones and giving them to me, as family, for safekeeping.
I am the granddaughter of the Chah-ta (Choctaw) People of the Sun. I am Sun and the Moon and the Warrior and the Bone Picker and the Self-Sacrificing Lover of the Dead.
— Star Eyes
My free-spirited friend, Star Eyes, will be remembered for all the love she gave. She honored the ancestors and taught her children to do the same. Now she is an ancestor. She was all about the love and treated everyone like family. The keeper of many stories, she believed in the Native American proverb: “ We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
Being of mixed blood, she traveled between the two worlds of the European and Native American. Her European side saw ruinous wars and the sickness of materialism, greed, and selfishness that swallowed up The People, their language, spirituality, and children. And she had friends like me, who cared about Mother Earth and the sacredness of all things.
Eventually, Star Eyes left Bisbee after her mother died and moved to California, where she inherited a trailer home that belonged to her grandmother. That is where I spoke to her last. The raging California fires destroyed the forested mountains surrounding that home where her grandmother once communed with the bristlecone pine. Star Eyes had to evacuate, once again removed from her ancestral home. Armageddon is the word she used to describe the thick yellow smoke and devilish red glow like the distant gunfire of an ancient war. It’s Armageddon!” she repeated. And then one last undefeated “I love you.”
Sharp, D. Penobscots don’t want ancestors’ scalping to be whitewashed, AP News; 2021
Cummings, J. In Arizona Mining Town, It’s Yuppies vs. Hippies, The New York Times; 1985
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