Reflection: In Remembrance Of A Tribal Elder
A few weeks ago, I received a message and saw an image on social media that announced the departure of Jack “Flying Duck” Nealefrom this world to the next. My mind went immediately to his family, and praying for their loss. Travel prevented me from attending his funeral, and my pace of life has prevented me from writing about this loss to the world until now. What follows are some of my memories of Flying Duck and times with him.
Most who knew him, knew him as Jack, but I only really ever called him by his Shawnee name, Flying Duck. Flying Duck was 89 years young, and had lived an incredibly full life. He was among the people responsible for the construction of the 470 by-pass near Wheeling, West Virginia, and had served in the United States Navy along with his brother. He spent the majority of his life living in the family home that had been occupied for generations near the Ohio River. I had the privilege of visiting him a few times over the last 20 years in that family home. He and his brother were great storytellers, and Flying Duck had some pretty amazing stories he had amassed through a lifetime of experiences within our tribal community and the native community at large.
Each time I visited, we would sit in the dining room and share stories about what was happening in our lives. He would, without fail, gesture to the dining room table, which was his grandmother’s and had been kept in the family for generations. He would say, “Billy, there have been some pretty amazing Christians who have sat at this table for generations. Everyone from my grandmother, to my mother, to my brother Raincrow, and guests from all over the world. Including Dr. Alexander Reed, a missionary to Africa. And now, Billy, you are continuing that tradition.” I always considered it a privilege to sit in his dining room and catch up, and talk about life, tradition, and faith.
Flying Duck was also a silversmith. In fact, he and his son Barry, were among the few remaining silversmiths in our tribal community. For generations, Shawnee people have worked with silver. And back in 2010, I visited Flying Duck with my best friend in the whole world Willie to ask for his help in creating an engagement ring for my future wife. I showed him a few photos of us on my phone, and shared stories around how we met. He listened, and told me he felt honored that I would ask him, but that he was not able to do smithing with that level of detail anymore. While I was disappointed that he would not be able to help with the ring, I was grateful for being able to sit and share stories together one more time.
Back in 2013, one of his grand-daughters, April, was getting married, and Jamie and I were invited to attend. Sadly for me, this was the last time I was able to spend time with Flying Duck. At the same time, I was grateful to be with him and his family to celebrate a special day, and I was grateful to be able to finally introduce him to the wonderful lady who I asked to marry me a few years prior. As per our tradition, we shared stories and laughter during this window of time we were given.
Long before any of these moments, there was a moment when I was much younger that I remember sitting and listening at the doorstep of our tribal council house as Flying Duck and some others discussed their shared faith, our historic traditions, and navigating life in a fast-changing world. Flying Duck saw me sitting on the stoop, and invited me into the conversation. He invited me to share perspectives, but really all I wanted to do was listen—and so listen I did. The moment was pretty magical for me; I was sitting and listening to the wisdom of elders that had been passed along for generations. Flying Duck and a handful of others gave me such incredible gifts during that time, gifts that helped me grow in my faith as well as in my own sharing of stories.
Because of Jack Neale, there are many in this world whose lives have been altered. I am just one of them. Now that he has departed this world, may those who knew him savor the good times they were able to spend with him, and may each of us savor the time we have with those who are close to us.