AS A Swindon bus driver Jeff Starr’s route regularly took him to all corners of the borough but as he ferried passengers through the estates of Penhill, Freshbrook and Moredon his mind was usually elsewhere… around 4,000 miles away on the Great Plains of North America where his forefathers once hunted buffalo.
Although Wiltshire born and bred Jeff was a living, breathing, ceremonial pipe-smoking Native American. Or, to use a more universal description albeit one that he understandably considered disrespectful, a Red Indian.
With his flowing iron grey hair, leathery complexion and lean, angular features he could hardly have been mistaken for anything else.
“I’ve always wanted to have grey hair and no teeth so I can look like one of those weather-beaten old chiefs” he told me in 1995. “I’m gradually getting there.”
In full tribal gear – flamboyant headdress, intricately-beaded jacket, fringed buckskin trousers and, when the occasion demanded, full-on tribal war-paint – Jeff could scare the hide off most people (not intentionally, of course.) Chatting to him once in his double-decker bus at Old Town’s Eastcott Road depot while he was smartly attired in the jacket and tie uniform that his day job required, it was impossible not to envisage Jeff bareback on a horse, a bow slung over his shoulder, galloping across rivers and plains.
Father-of-six Jeff, who by delicious coincidence worked for Stagecoach Buses, liked to be known by his Native American moniker, Spotted Eagle. He believed he was one of only a handful of UK nationals who had mastered the Lakota language.
For the best part of four decades he strove to cut loose from the humdrum of modern urban life to live in a tepee and immerse himself in the culture and philosophy of his ancestors.
Jeff’s ambition was to set up a Native American village as tourist/visitor attraction whereby he would impart the true ways of the Sioux people – their art, beliefs, practices and history – to interested parties.
Several times he appeared on the verge of achieving this dream – at one stage Swindon was set to have its own tepee camp at Coate Water under the aegis of Spotted Eagle – but red-tape and financial issues invariably scuppered his best intentions.
Over the years Jeff discovered that – in the age-old tradition of Native Americans being sold down the river by the powers that be – businessmen and civic chiefs who he was forced to negotiate with often spoke with forked tongues.
But he never relinquished hope of creating an American Indian settlement, right up until his sudden, untimely death aged 66 at Great Western Hospital after a short illness eight years ago this Friday.
Jeff’s father Bert Gleed was a full-blooded Sioux Indian – a member of the Lakota people whose numbers included the twin-scourges of George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Bert came to Britain as an American GI during World War Two and stayed on, marrying a local girl Emma and raising five children in West Wiltshire.
It wasn’t until after his father’s death, however, that Jeff became interested in all things Native American. Living in Melksham during the mid-70s he found himself unemployed after the collapse of his woodcraft business.
His wife Jill had a bright idea. As a Native American with the eye-catching looks to match why not hire yourself out at parties, fetes and functions, she suggested before adding: “Your dad was an Indian – you should know all about it.”
A newspaper advertisement generated an encouraging response and – with Jill and their three children dressed accordingly – they hit the trail as the Famous Starr Family in full Native American regalia.
“I’ll always remember the first time we put up a tepee in the garden. It was an uplifting experience, almost a spiritual act,” Jeff recalled. Jeff’s rapidly burgeoning enthusiasm was further fired when he met a great grandson of Sitting Bull, Ted Blackmore (Slow Buffalo.) After a couple of years blazing around the UK the Starrs’ made camp at the Littlecote House Wild West Town near Marlborough but found themselves increasingly pressed to take part in demeaning Hollywood-style shoot-outs with cowboys.
So they upped tepee and made for Dodington House near Bristol where for two years the family was a popular attraction, espousing the ways and wisdom of the Native American lifestyle.
As Jeff was fond of telling people: “We even got name-checked on Coronation Street.”
Burying himself in the folklore and traditions of the Sioux, he resided full-time in his on-site tepee while the family spent most of the year in Wootton Bassett, although they “went native” on weekends.
Jeff remembered: “It was icy outside in the winter but it didn’t worry me. It was lovely and warm in the tepee.”
The venture collapsed when Dodington was sold and Jeff’s marriage went the same way. Working as a Swindon bus driver in the early 90s he concocted a novel scheme to create a permanent, authentic Native American village at Coate Water Country Park.
Featuring a dozen or so tepees – each around 20ft tall – the aim of Camp Dakota was to combine education with entertainment. It captured the imagination of Swindon councillors who gave it the go-ahead.
But the same authority then demanded that, as several events took place during summer at Coate, Jeff would have to dismantle and re-build the entire two-acre village every few weeks.
Swindon’s Native American Adventure was suddenly dead in the dust. An inspiring scheme butchered by bureaucracy. Nice one!
Around this time I visited Jeff at his terraced home in Heywood Close, Penhill which he called Lakota Lodge. He and his Filipino wife Vicky were in the process of hand-sewing thousands of beads onto their elaborate costumes.
Just to make it interesting the already complex patterns had to be worked out in multiples of seven and four, “the Sioux way.”
For a couple of summers Jeff, Vicky and their three children took part in the United Tribes camps at Weymouth – a prime pow-wow that brought together leading UK practitioners of Native American culture.
But this proved to be something of an Indian Summer for Jeff.
He wrote to me on June 24, 1999 saying: “After 30 years the United Tribes (UK) Native American Experience 2000 is soon to become a reality.”
A 100-acre rural site in Cornwall had been found for regular pow-wows, tepee camping, replica sun lodge, totem poles, artefacts and crafts etc – along with the rider of “no drugs, no alcohol.”
A tepee time-share (great idea) was to be unveiled.
It didn’t work out as envisaged and a similar initiative, to create the UK’s first Native American village near Plymouth, never quite happened, either.
He was cool dude, Jeff – a genuine character and a gentleman, too. One of the last times I spoke to Spotted Eagle, this is what he said: “I think we can learn a lot from the Native American. They were at one with nature, they respected Mother Earth.”
- During the 90s Jeff’s teenage daughter Freda became adept at the Native American hoop dance.
The Headlands schoolgirl expertly jiggled up to 18 hoops to create the body patterns of eagles, snakes and other creatures sacred to the tribes of North America.
Having taken two years to perfect Freda, then 14, performed the dance in front of 2,000 people at the Birmingham exhibition centre in 1998.
Fetes and functions in and around Swindon, helping to raise cash for charity, also witnessed Freda’s singular dance.
At the time she said: “You create body patterns which represent animals, birds and flowers. The dance is very old, it goes way back. It’s nice to keep it alive – and it makes my dad happy.”