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The Spirit of the 12th Man

Dennis Stilgar, of the San Poil tribe, was let out of jail for a short visit with his family before returning.  I don’t know what he was in for, but he was making a good time of it on the outside, racing his horse up and down the creek bareback, skidding the horse to a stop.  Unlike most riders, Dennis dismounted by throwing his right leg over the neck of the horse before jumping off.  We had known of each other for a long time, through his father Richard, who worked at the San Poil sawmill in Republic, a small town in eastern Washington.

I don’t know how it started, but Dennis was explaining the Little People to me as if I didn’t know what he was talking about.  “The Little People are always kind to you, unless you anger them and they retaliate by bringing on misfortune,” Dennis explained.  “They live in the woods and can’t be seen, unless you commit some folly and the anger of the Little People causes an accident”.

The spirit world of the Indians has been described in many ways, such as the mischievous Coyote who is known by the short rock piles he leaves on the top of high ridges, much like the trail symbols of the Boy Scouts, who leave a short stack of rocks on the trail, whose meaning is “Go straight ahead” or if it is a stack of just three rocks, “Danger.”
Jim Grinder, which isn’t his real name, was 106 years old when I met him in the old folks home in Hot Springs Montana, in 1972.  His real name in Nez Perce is Tidishmali, which is as close as I can spell it.  Jim resided in the old folks home in Hot Springs, Montana in the Winter so he “wouldn’t have to cut wood.”   In the 1920’s, he rode broncos in Madison Square Garden, NYC and talks of playing poker under the rodeo grounds and told me to beware of “Coyote” as he was a “Trickster” and could steal your radio while you slept and leave the music playing.

The spirit world of the Indians can be found in the Seahawks symbol, a Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask depicting an eagle (in its closed form) with a human face inside (revealed when the mask opens when danced).  The 12th Man, strongest in the Pacific Northwest, is a symbol of the enthusiasm we have for football.  The roar of the home team from the stands has been known to confuse the opponents so much, that they lose the game.  The term has been in use since 1900 and describes the penalty for having an additional player on the field.  

Doing volunteer work may be another sign of the 12th Man enigma. Take the enthusiasm of the six radio hams, those people who help us communicate in times of emergency.  It took these elders, some young-some old- three and a half hours to erect a new antenna on the roof of the Burton Fire Station, hoping that the Fire Chief would find no fault in their work.

Working for the benefit of those who have less than you satisfies the soul and brings the same sense of well being that comes from cooking for the homeless.  Several of our Vashon churches ensure that a person who is homeless can get at least one free meal a day.  Helping people touches a part of the soul and the individual empathizes with the needs of others, the same way the 12th Man energizes, vocalizes and is vital to the success of the team.  The crowd becomes participants rather than passive observers.  It’s the difference between merely giving abstract money to a cause worthy, but seen from a distance…and actually participating in an effort to accomplish a mutual good.  Giving money to the food bank, while worthy, is giving from the outside looking in.  Preparing meals in real time is being inside the process and the reference is like telling some crew to dig a ditch from some far vantage point, or getting into the ditch and moving the dirt yourself.

We have-totems on either side of the road, not too far apart, on the hill coming up from Shawnee.  A skillful tree trimmer has carved the 12th Man on a thirty foot Alder stump, one figure is above the other.  Obviously, the men who keep our power lines free of brush, enjoy their work.