Muhammad Ali and Rich Family Memories

André Cramblit

Last week “The Greatest” was laid to rest. Seems to be happening more and more as the oldest of the Baby Boomer generation begins to shuffle off this mortal coil.  Seeing Ali go down for the 10 count got me waxing nostalgic.

The pugilist formerly known as Cassius Clay was always a favorite in our family. My Aunt Violet liked his sassy mouth, although he would was never in her league. My Uncle Leonard liked his powerful yet poetic punches and also his punch lines. I can still hear him yell at the TV “Go, fancy pants!” referring to both his silken style and smooth wardrobe.

As children my brother and I would wrap towels around our hands and start sparring. Being the five years older he always got to be Ali and I was always Frazier or Foreman. One time my brother bet me a million dollars that Ali would beat Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila.” Always the underdog, I eagerly took that bet. Little did I know that the fight had already taken place across the international dateline and my brother already knew the outcome. When I woke up Joe Garagiola announced my ignominious defeat on the Today show. That’s how big brothers will do ya. But in the long run I came out ahead since I never paid up on that bet.

If I ever did atone for that owed obligation my brother would be a prosperous man indeed. When we were small boys we pondered philosophically what it would mean to be rich. Coming from the typical Native background we were poor in western terms of money and luxuries. On the other hand we were "NDN" wealthy with family, culture and the abundance of the bounty found in the natural environment of our ancestors, as our tribe were never relocated by force unlike so many others. In our youthful naiveté (ok, more like cluelessness), we decided that being rich meant we could buy a Big Mac whenever we wanted or never having to get a haircut from that dreaded $2 barber that our parents took us to.

As adults I guess we have become rich by those meager standards. I am the Operations Director for a Native American Non-Profit and my brother is an independent consultant. Neither of us are opulent by the standard Wall Street definition. We enjoy our modest prosperity dining at restaurants more frequently than we were able to in our early life (albeit Mickey D’s is never high on our gastronomical list of favorites). As far as hair goes I choose to keep mine long and my brother has his neatly cropped, by someone who I can only assume is someone higher up the ranks of stylist than what we experienced in our younger years. Ironically I have influenced my son to go to Rocky, an American Indian barber, who charges a mere $12 but is far better than the two-buck hair butcher. Like many Native coiffeurs, Rocky learned to ply his trade with training obtained at one of those dreaded boarding schools.

As time has seen us get older, due to a having our own full personal lives, my brother and I have grown somewhat distant as many siblings do. Fortunately we are still able to share a lunch of a pricey deli sandwich now and again. We also like to reminisce about the shared experiences of our childhood that have molded us into the men we are today. We are both blessed with wonderful families of our own. I think that we are who we are due in a large part to the wisdom and guidance of our mother and Auntie Vi and Uncle Leonard, who as our surrogate grandparents, helped raise us. We are now rich in our Karuk tribal traditions and both participate in tribal ceremonies and work hard at keeping the language alive. Upon the passing of the one who could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” I can still grin about welching on that debt.

Just my two dentalias’ worth.

André Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal Member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers in northwest California and the Operations Director of the Northern California Indian Development Council. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle in Arcata, California.

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