Shrunken heads and buffalo
One of my uncles was a security guard at a popular museum and wildlife refuge just north Tulsa called Woolaroc. Many of my weekends were spent there growing up. Occasionally, my mother would get a wild desire to see the buffalo and she’d keep me home from school and make a day of it. We would make the long, beautiful drive and my uncle would let us in for free (that was important because we were very poor), and we would go see the buffalo that resided on the refuge that was about 4,000 acres big. We went often enough to see the calves grow up. We would talk about the buffalo and how we hoped they would grow more numerous. They smelled awful. We didn’t mind. We found them fascinating. We would go on days the park wasn’t busy and instead of driving though, we’d park and eat powdered donuts. The refuge felt very different from a zoo. Zoos made me sad, but at the wildlife refuge the animals were free to roam and seemed more content. We loved the other animals too, but the buffalo were special to us. We couldn’t imagine why someone would hunt them for sport. We’d eventually move on to the museum and my mother never rushed me. She let me ponder the shrunken heads as long as I liked. I would stare at the heads with so many questions. There were probably about half a dozen on display and I couldn’t fathom why a person would shrink a head. The little plaque didn’t provide answers, instead it just read for “ritual purposes”. What kind of rituals? What could a shrunken head possibly do for a person? Their mouths and eyes were sewn shut. Their skin looked stiff and tough. Their hair was dry and brittle looking, with a fine layer of dust settled there. Their expressions always seemed miserable to me. I felt so sorry for the heads. The display always activated my empathy and I’d need to spend more time with the buffalo to shake off my sadness. The museum had so much to offer, an impressive display of native american art, artifacts and world famous paintings. I saw my first Charles Russell painting there. His sunsets are seared into my memory. Later, when I was old enough, I’d walk through the reserve park alone while my mother had coffee with my uncle. I never got into trouble or tested my boundaries, just made my way to the buffalo and then the shrunken heads to pay my respects. It’s not often a kid is let loose like that. I guess they figured I was sensible enough, and it’s true, I was. Sometimes, a sensitive kid just needs to spend quality time with sacred animals and think about life and shrunken heads.