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Striving to Keep `Old Way' Alive

Full-blooded native American tribal elder saves and shares the heritage of his people

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THE old way.

Carl Butler knows he is the living presence of the heritage and culture that is as old as fire.

The old way.

His Indian name is Bear Gnawing on a Tree. As a full-blooded native American, born in 1910 near Cushing, Okla., and raised in a family that spoke only the language of the Sac and Fox tribe, Mr. Butler knows that what he is, and what he represents, is disappearing.

``My grandparents were just as it was at the beginning of time,'' he says, seated in a workroom in his small brick home on a side street near a new Wal-Mart store. In the living room, his second wife, Sophie Good Chief Butler, watches wrestling on TV.

``They were the old way,'' this tribal elder says, ``and I am the old way disappearing.'' Changing image of elders

No one knows exactly how many full-blooded Indian tribal elders are still alive in the United States.

Always respected in Indian culture and religion, the stature of elders has elevated in recent years as more and more younger Indians seek to preserve their heritage, customs, and language.

But the number of elders who lived all or most of the old ways is as rare as Bear Gnawing on a Tree.

Many tribes now accept tribal members with less than one-quarter Indian blood.

``I grew up as an Indian,'' he says in a voice that blends a touch of Oklahoma drawl with the short, powerful, bunched cadences typical of older Indians. ``We hunted to survive - squirrel, possum, skunks, lots of fish - day to day. The streams were good then.... [Indian] kids go to Pizza Hut now. They don't know how to say `hello' in Sac and Fox.''

Butler has 32 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. ``I can't remember all the names,'' he says.


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