History and the people who make it: Wilton Russell

Wilton Russell [R], a Bahamian woodworking artist descended from castaway Seminoles, was interviewed by Ryan Morini [M] in 2012.

This is the 36th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida, continuing last month’s story.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

R: My Grammy, when she was sick, we tried to get her to doctor and this woman wouldn’t go. Many times her children  or grandchildren sick.

“Mama, we want to take you to the doctor.”

“Child I want nobody taking me to no doctor. Jesus is my doctor. I want nobody carrying me to the old folks home. I’m in my old folks home now, my house.”

Would you believe that woman died right in that house? Two months ago we tried to get this woman out of that house to go see the doctor. I go on home. A little boy come through the back of my yard, say “Uncle Waba, you hear what happen?”

Say “mama dead.”

I drop the tools. My greatest story teller has gone. I grew up with her telling me the stories that she told the tourists. I am a story teller. I’m a song writer, explorer, bush doctor, musicianer, entertainer, Junkanoo dancer.

M: You’ve talked a lot about the one grandmother, but mentioned your grandfathers and your other grandmother. Could you tell us a little bit more about them?

R:Yeah, you mean the Russell family?

Well, Paul Nelson Russell, he was one of the biggest hand man – Seminole man –  came from Florida. This guy was like a giant. No belly. The hurricane broke up his canoe. He went deep into the forest and he build his boat out of the green pine.

Him and my other great, great, grand uncle, Josie Colbrook, those two were the two strongest Seminole Indians came from Florida. Both of them were famous fishermens. Famous boat builders.

My great grandmothers on their side Granny Great, I should say, on their side, which was their wife I talking about. They were the most outstanding shore basket makers in the Bahamas. They used to use stick for needle to sew baskets.

The two guys who build boats, they used to use rock to chop wood with. A guy take a rock and make a axe from flint rock. And that flint rock chop wood.

There wasn’t no steel around for them to use to build no boat. These guys go like ten miles in the bush. They come out with twelve feet boat on their shoulders. Wild boars, iguanas, wild roots, just like they grew me up eating those things, and it gives them plenty strength.

These are the guys who led the way for the Seminoles to Red Bay. They paddled those canoes across that Gulf Stream, all the way into Red Bay. The current, the high wave going up here like that, and you coming back down with children and wives and … oh my God, those guys have courage.

I honor these guys. I honor their sons. I honor their wives for being the greatest shore basket makers.

Now, my Grammy taught me how to make the wooden needles, sew the baskets. I’m the only person left in Red Bay that can make a wooden needle and sew a basket. Or sew your pants, or your shirt. That’s culture. Ancient culture of the Seminoles.

All those things we had to do to survive. Kill sting rays. Kill sharks. Iguanas. Wild Boars. [Laughter] Corn grits was our food then. Not no regular yellow grits from the store. Jesus Almighty, thank God them days is over. I can’t say they over, but thank God I don’t do that no more.

I hope my children don’t see those days, or my grandkids don’t see those days because, hey man, it really, really was rough.

I say Lord Jesus Christ what is come into this place? No wonder why I see some of the children so hungry. The couple dollars they have to feed the kids, they go take it and gamble it out. And then you can still say things tough? You making things tough on yourself. On the kids. That money could send a child to school. That money could put tenners on the child feet. That money could fill your child stomach.

This is what’s going on in the Bahamas and every island right now. You go to Bimini, it’s same thing. Freeport, Abaco, Eleuthra, Exuma, Acklins Island, Inagua.

People forget where they came from. They forget the real facts of lives. Okay? Stop what you’re doing. These kids, they need a chance in life. We’re the only ones that can give them that chance.

M: One thing we haven’t talked about too much is your wood carving.

R: As a boy, I started making the spinning top. You know the top? Which is wind the cord on and [Sound effect]. That was the first piece of artwork I’ve ever done. I got the knowledge from my grandfather, Bruce Marshall, showed it to me. He said “my daddy showed me this.” He say, “take this axe.” Say “go take this and cut down one tree and bring it back. Let me show you how you make the spinning top.”

There wasn’t no nail around so what he did is make the bottom part really sharp. But this is a very big one. What we were using for line – there wasn’t no nylon in those days. There was a something called construction cord. It’s a white cord, but it’s not nylon. It’s cotton.

But it’s pretty strong. You take that and we wind that around the top, and we spin it. [Sound effect] Top drops suddenly. Just sleep. Spinning sleep. That’s my first time spinning top. I go and I touch the top like that to go and pick it up and [sound effect] bop. [Laughter] I said, “Papa, you showing me how to hurt myself.”

Papa say, “no one tell you touch that.” He said, “supposed to let that spin until it stop.” I try it again. My feet bleeding. And you know how long it take me to do that? Almost two weeks practicing that to do that. [Laughter] Now, my second piece of woodwork was something to put on my feet. Because I tired of being bare feet and running them wild boars bare feet.

I running through the bushes. Sometime a stick get in my feet and I still cannot stop because I won’t catch the hog. I got big old prong stick in my hand, sharpened on the end to juke them in the neck. The clogs, you know clogs? I start making that too. I’m tired being bare feet and daddy wouldn’t buy me new shoes.

My mother took off and gone and left me. She ain’t send me new shoes back. My pa, my dad, he just donated me to my mommy and he gone. That’s why my grandmother took me on. To try and make me own tennies. I did all of that in wood. Kamalame wood. So I can run my hog much better. I’m going to stay on him. He can get tired before me because I was active in those days. But these how I started my woodworking experience. Making top. Making clogs for my feet, and everything like that.

The fourth thing that I’ve done in wood is I made a hand. I cut a piece of wood thicker than my hand, and I take the axe – the tip of the edge and I chipped that out, with the axe. When I finished the hand I said, “Papa, look.” I said “it’s a real hand, only one thing is wood.”

He say “boy, Jesus was a carpenter when he was a boy.” Papa say, “yeah, you born three days before Jesus was born. Wise men was still looking for Jesus during the time you was born. You’re going to be a very wise boy.” [Laughter]

Yeah, man, I self-praising myself. People tell me I’m wise. I don’t know what it mean when they say I’m wise. Yeah, now today, I’m all over the world as a famous wood artist, musical artist. Bush doctor. Good swimmer. Good diver. Yeah. Cultural guy.

I love my life. But most of all, my weakness is being gentle to people. Kids is my weakness. I hate to see a kid cry. I can’t take that. As I thinking back over my days, when my family left me alone and gone and leave me. Abandoned me.

Every mother out there, every father out there, please pay attention to your child or your kids. Because I letting you know, they are our future. They our doctors, our lawyers, our preachers, our teachers, our professors, our scientists, our leaders, our inspectors, policemans, presidents, prime ministers. Hey, they are our life savers.

Please pay attention to the kids of the world. That’s the reason why I sing, Papa Little Bouncing Boy. Papa Little Bouncing Girl. Bounce them up and make them happy. They the happiness of the present time and tomorrow. If you know what happiness is all about, if you know what love is all about, take care of the kids of the world.

Search for “Wilton Russell” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview; look for a second segment in the next issue of the Iguana.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.

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