July 10, 2009
And then I told Victor I thought we
were all traveling heavy with illusions. Thomas Builds-The-Fire, “Smoke
The Western world lives in linear time, time that moves in a straight line. Thus, time begins at the Creation, is intersected at one point by the Birth and again at the Resurrection, ending finally at the events described in Revelations. Indians live in a circular time, where what has gone before, what is, and what will be are all in the same place at the same time.
But those of us who are ‘Breeds live in a paradoxical world that’s even more difficult for Westerners to understand even more than it is for us to live in, if you can believe that. The linear world is a path from here to there, or if you will, from birth to death, and an eventual end of days.
Indigenous people never conceived of an end of the world. The world would go on, other people would follow, just as they themselves had followed their predecessors.
So you see the confusion. My grandfather, “educated” by nuns but taught by old Indians, eventually gave up the church. Many decades later, a new Baptist minister came to Charenton and visited him at the old house.
“Preacher,” my grandpa said, testing him as he tested everyone, “what if I told you I was giving up the white man’s religion and going back to my old Indian ways?”
“That’d be fine,” the preacher said. “You know, my Lord died for all people.”
The old man considered this and seemed to find some logic or truth in it. He started attending the preacher’s church.
He learned to walk the thin line many indigenous people can’t, and so they die of exhaustion and loneliness. Make no mistake about it, the number one killer of Indians isn’t alcohol or drugs. Those are just the criteria that form the statistics as basis for the news stories and feel-good, get-me-into-heaven charity movements. Indians die of exhaustion and loneliness by trying to be in two places at once. It happens all the time, you just can’t see it because it’s hidden on the reservations and the far slopes of mountains.
But, no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving. And don’t wear a watch. Hell, Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That’s what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is. We are all trapped in the now. (Sherman Alexie)
“My Lord died for all people,” the preacher said, and then he followed my grandfather and my father all over the southeast, talking to schoolchildren about his Lord as well as Indians and Indian ways with such respect and devotion we believed he had to be Indian himself. He did missionary work for Indians in Central America. He presided over the funerals of my grandfather, grandmother and father and wept at each.
My quest is for a way to straddle the discordant sides of this being without dying from fatigue and isolation. The difficulty I have is finding harmony, balance and peace. Yes, I hide it well. Behind the writer, behind the fisherman, the humor and the tirades and the whimsy. Except here in these words, I don’t talk about it much. My search is for a way to unite my left brain and my right brain, to conjoin gene pools evolved on two continents, and to make a treaty between clashing paradigms. I could run around declaring myself some sort of modern day Wovoka, bedeck myself with turquoise and silver. I’m not so lofty. I can’t find the balance to ascend. I guess I’ve stumbled drunkenly into my right brain and may live there until I can count coup on my left, and become whole.
It was different when I was young. On the pow-wow circuit we traveled for many years across the southeast, I did wear turquoise and silver. I knew how to put up a tipi before I could ride a bike. I hung out with other Indian kids, and though their hair and faces and voices were so much – more – than mine, they perceived no difference. Some of them were dancers, often dressed in full regalia and I envied them desperately. I met people, Indian and not, who would pass by our booth to look over my family’s various indigenous offerings, and my grandpa always had a good yarn for them, at least, even if they didn’t buy anything else. I sat at the feet of an old Seminole named Stanley, who was 104 at the time. As he sipped scotch from a plastic cup, he told stories as eloquently as Chief Joseph. Stories with words that worked wild, silver magic, opened bright tunnels between here and there, then and now, through which I could peek. I ate frybread for breakfast and watched Kachinas seem to descend from the stars on a desert mesa, then danced and gave me a huge basket of fruits, nuts and berries. They were ethereal and near-visible, and they didn’t ask me “how much” either.
That’s a white man’s concoction, a method of determining what piece of paper to put your name on before shipping you off to some desolate reservation. Later, for determining where to keep you in the file cabinet. “How much” shares its origins with a number tattooed on the arms of Jews in 1930s Germany.
I’ve been living among and hanging around with Indian people all my life, in Louisiana and Mississippi and North Carolina and Montana and Arizona and New Mexico, and maybe half of them fit the Hollywood stereotype. The words “how much” have only ever been spoken to me from white lips. It’s no use trying to explain, their minds are made up. The cowboys always win, and in my case, their victory is in the genetics.
It is enough to be raised on a reservation, listen to stories older than Europe’s oldest cities, see my grandmother cure herself of throat cancer with bahjootah; nearly denied access to a public school bus, march on the capital in Baton Rouge with the Indian Angels movement when I was five, holding my dad’s hand, marching with dozens of other Indians all in regalia. Enough to know that it is regalia, not a damn “costume.” Would a member of the clergy appreciate their robes and other accoutrements being called a costume? A soldier about his uniform? A bride in her wedding dress? Clowns, actors and Disney workers wear costumes. I also know that you don’t point with your finger, especially during a pow-wow: You motion with your chin.
When I left the little tribal school it all changed. The whole world. Suddenly I had to be card-carrying, and look like Wes Studi, Adam Beach or even Lou Diamond Phillips, who is less Indian than I am. But who’s counting?
Sometimes, father, you and I
Are like a warrior who can only paint half of his face
While the other half cries and cries and cries… (Jim Boyd)
So some nights I lie awake talking to my grandfather, and I ask him why he didn’t teach me that magic melding, the merging, the cohesion. He doesn’t answer. That part of time hasn’t come around again yet. He came to me once, though. He came to me as part of a bargain we made early on, in which he promised he’d let me know if there was, indeed, something there beyond the final closing of the eyes and last breath. He kept his promise.
If you understand none of this, don’t fret. I understand even less. I have cavalry soldiers riding through my head, shooting Winchesters into my brain. The slugs burn when they find their mark. I was born with all the drums in my ears. All the guns and the sabers. All the horseshoes and wagon wheels. They ride across my dreams, leaving hoof marks and ruts.
I’m the last casualty: Here I am, on the inside, looking out through these eyeglasses that have perched on my nose since I was two. One lens is ground into diopters; the other is smeared with war paint. I can’t see through either with much clarity.
I took my grandmother’s regalia and walked outside. I knew that solitary yellow bead was part of me. I knew I was that yellow bead in part. Outside, I wrapped myself in my grandmother’s regalia and breathed her in. I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection. Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing. – Sherman Alexie, Coeur d'Alene, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”, New Yorker, April, 2003.