Father Christmas Packing Toys  

He's a big man with a big heart that seems to beat only to keep spreading joy

The Santa Claus | Native American Church | Indian Reader

©Joe Tennis
Bristol Herald Courier

Strawberry Plains, Tennessee
Christmas 1998 Father Christmas

Up to Morristown and south to Knoxville's inner-city goes this man, hauling black bags of goodies - not in a sleigh, but in an old, blue-and-gray van. What he drives is an aging Ford Econoline, a nearly worn-out machine - a veteran of thousands upon thousands of miles. Helpers warm the passenger seats - "Elves," this man calls them. All wear little red-and-green hats. All call him "Daddy." Meet the man's youngest daughters - Shamir, 13, Shaman, 8, and Shakti, 4. Now meet the man - Dr. MaCaki PeSheWa. He's a doctor with a degree in divinity from the Native American University in Mexico. Because his name can be tricky to pronounce, most friends just call him "Doc."

But not at Christmas.

This time of year, "Doc" goes by another name. It's not one he's trying to earn. It's not one he's trying to promote for himself. It's just one that fits. That's because "Doc" makes it his avocation to deliver toys across East Tennessee to dozens - and sometimes hundreds - of poor and misfortunate families. Every year. As long as his heart doesn't fail him. For this story, we'll use the name that fits - We'll just call him Santa...

STRAWBERRY PLAINS - It's a mildly brisk day in early December. Santa is an hour late for a scheduled appointment. Just before noon, he finally arrives, steering his old van down his own Santa Claus lane - a short gravel road leading to the Native American Church Trust building, located on the outskirts of Knoxville at Strawberry Plains. It's been a busy morning, he says, apologizing for his tardiness. He says a few last-minute stops just had to be made. This year, Santa has made about 200 deliveries of toys and goodies - mostly to children of Native American heritage, and all to poor kids who might not have seen much of a Christmas without him. Santa grins. "I tell ya, man, I live for this time of year," he says. "It's wonderful ... At Christmas, there's something about energy and stuff that heats each one of us." That feeling - a warmth, a love, a caring for others - seems to radiate from people, he says. "If people could feel that all year long and do that toward their fellow man and just carry that one little feeling alive in their head, it'd change the world."

For many years, this Santa Claus didn't carry that peace-and-goodwill feeling - not even at Christmas. Christmas meant nothing. In fact, he skipped celebrating any part of the holiday for 16 years. He figured Christmas was for other people. Or it was a plot by merchants to make money. Until 1975. That was about the time he moved to greater Knoxville. He had just recovered from a near-death experience. And he felt a calling from the Creator to make a difference on Earth. Santa got his start by delivering a big batch of fruit to some not-so-fortunate children. He's been hooked on helping little people smile ever since. Call it a twist on the Golden Rule: He's doing for others what no one could do for him.

Born in 1941 at Spartanburg, S.C., this Santa knows the pangs of poverty first-hand: "When I was younger, it was a rough world and rough for us. We grew up on the wrong side of the railroad tracks," he says. "We just were poor and didn't have stuff." As an adult, this Santa has held a variety of jobs - including being a teacher. He worked, too, as a zealous fighter for rights due Native Americans like himself. Now, at 57, this Shawnee Santa - who is also part-Blackfoot and part-Sioux - has retired. He pulls income from Social Security. "And my wife works," he says. "So I've got enough money myself." He takes and makes no money at this gift-giving thing. But that's beside the point of why and how he works against the Grinch - his former self, you might say - to ensure happy times on Dec. 25.

This Santa pastors the Native American Church in Strawberry Plains. It's located not too many miles south of the I-81//I-40 interchange. The church's architecture possesses a Southwestern motif. It's built of blocks. Real simple. And outlined this time of year with streams of gold tinsel. Outside, the place looks in need of a good grooming - the roof needs to be finished, part of the lawn needs mowing, there's bits of this, that and trash scattered everywhere. But inside you'll find a terrific toyland - a warehouse probably much like one run by the North Pole Santa. Shelves are stacked high with dolls and toys and games.

This Santa buys his toy stock with donations to the church trust - or from the profits of sales to people looking to buy toys at his bargain-basement rates. How this store works: The general public shops here, just like a flea market; any profit made at this shop goes into the next year's Christmas fund. For some, this Santa's shop is a blessing, because bargains can be found: "I try to stay open for people who, around here, really don't want to appear on a Christmas list but might have it a little rough," he says. For others, who cannot even afford to buy toys here, what's on the shelves might go straight under their Christmas tree as part of Santa's deliveries.

What's for sale? Well, there's no Furby. But there are dozens of Beanie Babies and some tiny, talking Taco Bell dogs, as well as creatures that whistle and others that dance the Macarena. Stores shelves are about one year behind toy trends. And that's due to this Santa's economics. Each year, after the Christmas hub-bub has expired, Santa goes a'marching to Wal-Mart and similar discount stores to rack up during springtime clearance sales. "I bought over $5,000 (of toys) at Wal-Mart during those periods of time, because they were giving it 80 percent off," he says. That's how he puts away toys for next year's run. He finds bargains so low that it would make any shopper want to dance up on the housetop. So far, spreading cheer to the poor this year has consumed more than $17,000, Santa says. "And we'll recover some of that. But, just a lot of it, comes (by donations and sales profits) through the year."

Out on the road, this Santa zooms all over East Tennessee. Sometimes he goes to Kentucky, ho-ho-hoing in mining towns. But none too often. Not anymore. "I'm gettin' to where I can't travel much. My van's sorta messed-up - the front end," Santa says. "I've run through four vans doing this stuff. Four vans since '87. Pile that mileage on there." Santa has made home deliveries in every kind of neighborhood - including a scary section of Knoxville's inner-city where house numbers were missing on front doors and drunks roamed the streets. In situations like that, he tells his tag-along elf daughters: "Not everybody who has it rough and doesn't have money are bad people. And this is what Santa does the best - he tries to help people who truly have a hard time helping themselves." Besides his young daughter elves, more help comes from Santa's 16-year-old son, Shanti, and his 15-year-old daughter, Shakre.

Santa points to Tom Wilkinson, an old friend from Oak Ridge, as his "No. 1 elf." He also works with a couple of Cherokee from Bristol - one's called Nighthawk; the other is Blackfish. One year, Santa delivered presents to 1,000 families with funding help from the Native American Indian Media Corp., and the Native American Indian Historical Society. He receives lists of children who need help from churches and social workers. "Most of our input," he says, "is from Indians or Indian groups."

The tales of the people this Santa has met - and their poverty - could fill every page of this Sunday newspaper.

One of his favorite stories is a simple one - when Santa made an impromptu delivery to a couple of little boys in the parking lot of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in downtown Knoxville. It was several years ago, just before Christmas. Dressed up as usual, this Santa was packing some stuff in his van - toys and other goodies - when the mother of the two young boys approached him and asked if he was selling something. He said no, he was making deliveries. He recalls having "two little, old fuzzy rabbits sitting out there. And that little boy reached over there and grabbed one of those fuzzy rabbits ... And the other little boy grabbed the other. "She looked at me, and I said, 'Well, we're going to have a rough time prying that out of that kid's hand, ain't we?' And she looked at me and says, 'Yes, we are...' Santa surrendered the bunnies to the boys. He also packed together a sack full of other goodies. And the woman told him of how much she appreciated him. Years later, Santa met the mother again. "She said, 'I've still got those rabbits ... That Christmas made it for my boys. I was gonna have to tell 'em Santa didn't love 'em ... I was gonna have to tell 'em Santa missed the house.'

Wherever he goes, kids call this man "Santa." "But I tell 'em I'm more like 'Father Christmas,' he says. "And the older I get I'm more like 'Grandfather Christmas.' Often, he speaks of himself as old. And tired. Today, after two dozen years of helping people, this man prays each Yuletide season that his history of heart attacks - and recovery from a 1989 bypass surgery - won't stop him from making just one more year of deliveries. "I'm gonna do this as long as I live," he says. "And, I reckon, if people don't like that, then they'll just have to do whatever they do."

This is no Santa with an ego.

Jolly? Indeed.

Robust? Certainly.

Big? You better believe it: Nearly 300 pounds. He's a giant bear of a man.

But an ego? Well, just listen:

"I'm bull," Santa says. "I'm full of it all the time ... And I'm not everybody's cup-of-tea. I don't intend to be."

Still, what he does intend is to make kids smile. Which he does - including his own. "Really, the purpose of Christmas is children - and the spirit alive in children." To him, this upcoming holiday boils down to three simple things - "fun" and "enjoyment" and "family."

Anything else?

"What else is there?"


{WHAT:} Native American Church Trust
{WHERE:} Strawberry Plains, Tenn. Church building is located off Strawberry Plains I-40 exit near the intersection of Sunset Heights Drive and McMillian Road.
{WRITE:} P.O. Box 53, Strawberry Plains, TN 37871
{PHONE:} (423) 933-1456.

The Santa Claus | Native American Church | Indian Reader