Believe it or not, Iím not much of a people person. Itís not that I donít like people, itís just that I get really uncomfortable when thereís more than two around me.
I have, over the years, because of this job and the necessities of it, learned to get through it. Sometimes I fear I overcompensate for it, but mostly, I get by.
Iím really still that little Rez kid at heart. Isolated, kinda secluded by my parents. When I was growing up a trip to Franklin was only for shopping and to visit the kinfolks on my momís side. I always laugh when I watch the movie Smoke Signals, when Victor and Thomas are leaving the Coeur De Alene reservation on a trip to Arizona. They hitched a ride to the bus station with two fellow Coeur De Alene members, one of which asks:
"You two got your passports?"
Thomas looks confused. "But itís the United States."
"Damn right it is," she replies, "thatís about as foreign as it gets! Hope you two got your shots!"
Thatís kinda how it was for me. Another world. A place where we went to get groceries and visited the kinfolks on the Gaudet side of the family. My father sent me very mixed signals that, for much of my life, I had trouble sorting out. Though he was raised in Ft. Worth and didnít move to the Rez until he was 23, he had a gnawing mistrust of non-Indians. He warned me, much in the same way Victor warned Thomas in the movie that "you canít trust anybody," yet non-Indians would come over and play music with my father, fish with him, work in the shop with him. When I brought my first non-indigenous friend home from Franklin Junior High School, my father was quiet but his face darkened, and he turned his eyes west.
He overcame all that in later years, but thatís the way I grew up.
So when itís time to publish books and do book signings, thereís still a part of me thatís a little reservation kid who wants to turn his eyes down and cross over to the other side of the street.
You gotta understand, thatís why I turned my back on all this native stuff for a large chunk of my time on this earth. I didnít want to be Chitimacha and wasnít, for about a decade. This caused my family considerable pain, for which I can never atone. Circles always come back to where they were, of course, and in a tremendous stroke of luck before my father left to join our ancestors, mine came back to where it began. We sat in his living room, drank a beer together, and watched Smoke Signals, laughing and nodding our heads in empathy.
There was a time, a couple weeks before his guardian spirit came and retrieved him. He had a bad spell and spent a couple days in Foundation Hospital.
Upon returning home at last, he sat me down at the house. "Lots of people asked me if I was your grandpa," he grinned. It was always that way. I, the only child, came along late in their lives, and they were considerably older than the parents of my friends.
"Seems to me like you got a pretty good reputation down there," he said. He had never been really supportive of this whole writing and journalism thing. My father earned his living with a strong back and callused palms and fingertips. He didnít think much of my chosen career. Heck, sometimes I agreed with him. Still do, now and then.
In his last decade, he was tribal historian. People came from all over to see him, and he traveled all over to speak to them. To groups, to crowds. To strangers. His mistrust had faded, somehow. He was interviewed by journalists. Journalists like me. He was named one of Louisianaís Living Treasures, and in no small way, my father became magnetic. People congregated around him, took in his stories, held them in that place close their bones where such things are kept.
But as near as he could for a half-Indian kid who was toughened by street fighting in Ft. Worth alleys; the man of the family responsible for his mother and little brother; hardened by cutting marble tombstones, throwing carbon black bags onto railroad cars and, in his world, underlayments of suspicion, as near as the could, my father had said he was proud.
So I stood in The Cellar at Politoís last Wednesday night, with my friend and collaborator Gary Drinkwater. There were, what, 20, 30 folks in the room? Some had been at the private organization membership book signing we had two weeks earlier, obtained their copies of Chasing Thunderbirds, and yet, came to wish us well again.
Outside, rain was falling in stinging sheets. Thunder rolled, making the foundations of downtown tremble. I thought that was fitting. These things donít surprise me like they did when I wasnít Chitimacha. Jim Northrup, Ojibwe, once told how during an interview the reporter asked him the ludicrous question, "How long have you been Indian?"
"Fifty-one years," Jim said. "It would have been 52, but I was sick a year."
I was sick for a decade. Now Iím healed. Itís because of many things. Because of writing, which heals me of scars so deep they are in my marrow. Because of the kindness Iíve been shown by folks here. Because, in the end as Iíve always said, it really doesnít matter if you believe in something, so long as something believes in you.
So thank you. At the one level, thank you for hearing my stories and holding them close. Thank you for helping me become what I always wanted to be Ė for better or for worse Ė a writer. Thank you for being there.
But most of all, thank you for making my father proud. Our relationship wasnít always smooth. What relationship is? We were often at polar opposites of everything and anything imaginable. I am blessed. We overcame that, in the end. Before it was too late. Thanks, in part, to people like you.
Smoke Signals ends with a verse by poet Dick Lourie, "Forgiving Our Fathers," a part of which reads:
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?
I remember I feigned a trip to the front of Politoís for another drink, but first slipped quietly out the front door. Rain splashed at my face, and thunder growled, rolling, tumbling, a beat of black wings. I let the rain sting my cheeks a moment, then went back inside, reassured that though unseen, my father was with me.