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June 15, 2012

Joe Fehrenbacher – The Preppy Indian Chief

Claire McMillan grew up in Pasadena, California and now lives near Cleveland on her husband's family's farm with their two children.  She practiced law until 2003 and then received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College.  This is her first novel. Here, she talks about one of her father's lifelong passions. To learn more about Claire McMillan, click here.

My father has always wanted to be a cowboy or an Indian.

There is a photo of him on a tricycle as a young boy in a headdress, looking as fierce and stern as he possibly can. As an adult, he’s gone on cattle drives with my brother. He dreams of family vacations with his grandchildren at a dude ranch.

But I think his fondness for the myths of the Old West shows most clearly in his collection of Native American artifacts. He has peace pipes and coup sticks, baby cradles and walls full of beaded moccasins.

My sister is an accomplished painter and installation artist. I am a writer. When someone learns this, they inevitably say, “Oh you must have grown up with the most bohemian parents.”

Um, no.

Despite his cowboy heart, my father is traditional --- living in his 1920’s brick Tudor house in Pasadena, winning his country club’s tennis tournament, wearing his Brooks Brothers clothes, voting Republican so often that we rarely discuss politics anymore.

But his fascination with the Wild West shows up in both my sister and my work.  She has exhibited photos of his collection, and feathers and shamanistic features make their way into her pieces. I have written short stories featuring collectors and what their collections mean to them and those around them. In my novel, GILDED AGE, I gave one of the characters a collection of Native American artifacts just like my dad’s.

My sister and I ask my dad what he thinks of us using his collection, what it feels like to have that part of him show up in both his daughters’ work. He usually shrugs and makes some joke about there being worse things we could attribute to him. When we press, he pours us more wine, trying to keep the focus off this part of him revealed. My dad can be old-school like that.  But I’ve always been intrigued that for all his conventional ways, my dad displays a piece of his dreams on his walls and in his bookcases where anyone might see.