A Good Spirit Came to Visit Us
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
With COVID restrictions fully lifted, our work pace at Choctaw Nation has been frenetic this spring. That's left only a few hours available to do work on Nan Awaya Farm over the past few months. Most of that has gone into clearing brush - essential work, but not necessarily inspiring material for blog posts. The Nan Awaya experiment does seem to be drawing some positive notice, though. Since we last wrote, we've had a couple of crews come out to record a TV episode, two podcasts, and a news clip with us about the farm and its mission. We'll let you know when these start to come out.
Today's post, however, is dedicated to something completely different, a farm cat. For centuries, the farm cat has been an unsung hero for controlling mice and other crop-eating, disease-spreading rodents that can be a real issue for an agricultural operation or a rural house.
The title image is of Chinchas, Nan Awaya's Farm cat. Chinchas was the first animal born on our farm, and his was the first birth I had ever witnessed. His mom, a feral cat, had walked into our house on our starter farm one evening and stayed to live with us. We named her Tanchihla "Corn-Dance", because when she was content, she'd knead the ground, moving her feet in a motion that resembled the steps of the Choctaw corn dance. Tanchihla was a sweet and sociable creature with many a wild story. She was one of the greatest hunters I've ever witnessed. She could jump 5 ft in the air. She could skin a rabbit as cleanly as I can skin a deer, leaving the feet attached to the hide. I once watched in horror as a stray dog clamped its teeth around her throat. She freed herself with a lightening-quick claw gouge to its eye. She pulled that same move on me one time when we were playing. I saw extra lights from the corner of my eye for a few days.
Chinchas began his exploits at a young age. Not yet grown, he traveled 30 miles to Durant inside the engine compartment of our car. Amy's co-worker just happened to notice an animal that looked a lot like the pictures she had seen of him, walking among the parked vehicles at the old Choctaw Nation headquarters. Sure enough! Miraculously the only damage he sustained was some patches of singed fur.
"Chinchas" means "bedbug" in the Choctaw language. He got that name from a combination of his reddish color and his talent for making unusual objects into a bed: a sheet of paper, a clay bowl, a smelly sneaker, almost anything. He earned lots of nicknames that we called his "war titles". Pintvbi "Mouse-Killer" - for his mousing prowess. Yulhkanvpa "Eats the Mole" - One evening, he came into the house carrying a live mole. He'd shake it back and forth, toss it 3ft high against the wall and let it tumble down spattering blood on the light-colored paint. When I picked the mole up, Chinchas growled. I had to let him pick it up himself and then carry Chinchas out clenching his supper in his jaws. Pintosi "Little Mouse" - One day Chinchas caught the tiniest mouse I've ever seen. It was screaming for dear life, while Chinchas purred with so much self-satisfaction you'd think that he'd brought down a buffalo. I've given Chinchas grief about that ever since.
A wide variety of endearing quirks define Chinchas. We came to call him our "little red house buffalo", for his love of making miniature dirt wallows in the yard and his propensity for grazing grass. If we left a dish on the floor, he'd help us remove its contents, be they spaghetti sauce, fruit smoothie, or flaming-hot curry. One afternoon, he bit out the
numbers on a receipt for $5,000 of fence work that happened to have blown off the kitchen table. When I asked the contractor for another copy, it sounded suspiciously like the old "cat ate my homework" excuse, but it was true. One day without prompting, he typed and sent his own Facebook post (not sure what it said). He would sing for his supper, but when Amy sung, he'd clamp is paw over her mouth if he could reach it. He checked in on us when we were sick and showed concern when we were in pain.
One day, I saw Chinchas walking down our driveway. He looked back, and then was gone. After not seeing him for a span of weeks, during which our neighbors' roving pack of starving dogs killed several of his siblings, we sadly accepted that Chinchas had met his end. Four months later, we were astonished to see him walking back up our driveway, lean and on hyper alert, but very much alive.
Tanchihla and Chinchas were fantastic rodent-eating farm cats, but they were a lot more to us than that. They became a part of our household during a hard time, a couple of years after a family tragedy. They didn't replace the loss, but they brought life and light into a vacuum.
Our startup farm was in a dangerous place for cats, but it wasn't possible to bring them inside full-time. Speeding gravel trucks, dogs, boys with pellet guns - these threats eventually claimed most of the offspring that Tanchihla would deliver in our house. Tanchihla and Chinchas defied death so many times, by 2019 we were counting down the days until we moved into our new house on our new farm, where they'd be safe. Inexplicably, Tanchihla, the definition of clever and cool under pressure, ran herself in front of a truck just before the move. Her loss was horrible. We put Chinchas under lock and key until we could move.
Chinchas thrived at Nan Awaya Farm. To keep him safe, we transitioned him to living indoors with short forays outside near the house. He still caught mice indoors and out, but more importantly, he was a contributing member of our household. He brought us laughter during COVID lock down. He was good company for Amy when Tribal business called me away. No matter how bad a day was, Chinchas was there to greet us when we finally made it home in a way that helped us to appreciate the good in the moment. Easy-going and an eternal optimist, he brought a warm, positive spirit into our home.
Chinchas was one tough tomcat. It seems that he masked a terminal condition he had been suffering from for quite some time. Two days before he passed, even his examining vet thought he just had a minor health issue. Passing while we were at work, he spared us the grief of seeing it happen. His position suggested he was trying to make it through a locked door to go outside. Don't get me wrong. Had we been the size of that tiny mouse, I think Chinchas probably would have eaten us too. Yet it seemed like in his final moments he was trying to disappear, as if to leave us with a glimmer of hope that maybe one day we'd see him walking up our driveway again.
Today, we buried him on a hill overlooked by the bedroom windows, where he spent hours most days watching the pastures. We laid him to rest with a Choctaw clay bowl, the type he had liked to sleep in as a kitten, brimming with his favorite brand of cat food.
Had Chinchas, or for that matter Tanchihla, lived a full feline lifespan, we wouldn't have had to say "chi pisa lachike" to them until we were eligible for Tribal senior lunches. With Chinchas's passing, we've lost a member of our household and a living tie to our early years of marriage, our starter farm, and to family members no longer with us. It's hard not to focus on the loss. However, last week, before we had any inkling that something was wrong, I remember thinking about how special it was that the personality of this animal which was so well suited to us, had been created somewhere out there in the cosmos and come into our home at just the right time in our lives. Yesterday, as we laid this magnificent being to rest, I came to see Chinchas in a bit different way - a good spirit who came to visit us in the body of a farm cat.