Russell: A Cherokee view of high finance

Steve Russell
4/9/10

About the time the hot water hit the mocha java hazelnut coffee beans, cousin Ray Sixkiller showed up. That would be “cousin” in the Indian sense, because Ray came up with this really complicated story about the long-standing relationship between the Sixkiller and Teehee families about the time I took up grinding my own coffee beans. I gave up understanding the whole thing, and it doesn’t matter anyway because my mama taught me to offer coffee to everybody who comes to your door.

Since the factory moved to China, Ray’s been out of regular work. He’s an accomplished brushhog, a journeyman carpenter, a fair plumber, and he can do stuff with electricity I’m scared to even think about, but I’ve been telling Ray he needs to get some tribal retraining money to learn a useful skill, like dealing blackjack.

‘Let me get this straight.
I won the bet but I have to pay
YOU five bucks because of all
those promises you made?’

“No way, man. I don’t want to live off gambling.”

“But Ray, back when you were working we played poker every Monday night. You get saved again?”

“It’s different when you have the house odds on your side. Takes all the fun out of it.”

“I didn’t think you were having fun when you cleaned out the Mouse family septic tank last month?”

“True, but it needed cleaning. Anyway, I’m taking up high finance.”

“High finance? How’s that?”

Ray got real quiet for a long time, and I refilled his coffee.

“I’m thinking about how to explain it. It’s complicated.”

“Take your time. I’m retired.”

“Steve, you need to consider the money involved. What would you do if a load of money dropped on you right now?

“Well, my eldest granddaughter graduates this year and she has her eye on a college her parents can’t afford. …”

“Right. That’s the kind of thing I thought you would say. OK, the highest paid hedge fund manager last year got four billion bucks. That’s billion with a B. The number two made 3.3 billion. The fourth spot was worth 2.5 billion. We got to learn to think like those guys!”

“We?”

He called my attention to two humongous icicles hanging from the roof outside.

“Which one do you think falls first?”

I thought about it and picked the one in the middle over the one near a corner.

“Bet you five dollars?”

“OK, Ray, but I get a retirement check and Social Security. Can you afford to be gambling?”

“Come on, man! You have to learn how these high rollers think. How can we not gamble?”

It would have been easy for me not to gamble but it didn’t seem fruitful to argue with him.

“Now, Steve, that icicle you say won’t fall, you just bought a five dollar insurance policy on. But it’s not really insurance. It’s a ‘credit default swap.’”

“I kind of see what you mean by insurance being a bet, but what’s a credit default swap?”

“Very important, Steve. If it’s insurance, then the government makes you prove you have the money to pay if you lose. If it’s a credit default swap, you don’t have to prove nothing. And if it’s insurance, you have to have what the law calls an ‘insurable interest.’ If it’s a credit default swap, you can just bet, and bet as many times as you want.”

“So where’s the credit?”

“Pay attention, man! It’s a metaphor! I’m using the icicle to represent a loan. You remember when old Haney Terrapin got the restrictions removed on his allotment but the bank wouldn’t give him a mortgage? Well, suppose the bank had given Haney a mortgage. You could place a bet on whether Haney would pay.”

“So I could bet on whether Haney would pay up without lending or borrowing any money? I’d take some of that action.”

“That’s the spirit! Oh, it looks like my icicle fell first.”

“Sorry, Ray, but it looks like you owe me five bucks.”

“No, that’s not the way it works.”

“Why?’

“Well, I promised Ellie Deerinwater I’d give her back the five bucks I borrowed off her last month. And I owe George Teehee five. And I told my nephew I’d chip in five for the Band Boosters over at the high school.”

“Let me get this straight. I won the bet but I have to pay YOU five bucks because of all those promises you made?”

“No, you have to pay 15, minimum. But making it an even Jackson would be the right thing to do if you don’t want the whole town to go broke. You got any more of that mocha java hazelnut?”

I was thinking Ray already had too much caffeine, but it seemed cheaper to refill his cup, before he started teaching me about the costs of doing business.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at swrussel@indiana.edu.

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