The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me
Late summer night on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Ten Indians are playing basketball on a court barely illuminated by the streetlight above them. They will play until the brown, leather ball is invisible in the dark. They will play until an errant pass jams a finger, knocks a pair of glasses off the face, smashes a nose and draws blood. They will play until the ball bounces off the court and disappears into the shadows.
This may be all you need to know about Native American literature.
* * *
Thesis: I have never met a Native American. Thesis repeated: I have met thousands of Indians.
* * *
November 1994, Manhattan: PEN American panel on Indian Literature. N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Gloria Miguel, Joy Harjo, me. Two or three hundred people in the audience. Mostly non-Indians, an Indian or three. Questions and answers.
"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a white woman in a nice hat. "It's so demeaning."
"Listen," I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back."
So much has been taken from us that we hold onto the smallest things left with all the strength we have.
* * *
1976: Winter on the Spokane Indian Reservation. My two cousins, S and G, have enough money for gloves. They buy them at Irene's Grocery Store. Irene is a white woman who has lived on our reservation since the beginning of time. I have no money for gloves. My hands are bare.
We build snow fortresses on the football field. Since we are Indian boys playing, there must be a war. We stockpile snowballs. S and G build their fortress on the fifty-yard line. I build mine on the thirty-yard line. We begin our little war.
My cousins are good warriors. They throw snowballs with precision. I am bombarded, under siege, defeated quickly. My cousins bury me in the snow. My grave is shallow. If my cousins knew how to dance, they might have danced on my grave. But they know how to laugh, so they laugh. They are my cousins, meaning we are related in the Indian way. My father drank beers with their father for most of two decades, and that is enough to make us relatives. Indians gather relatives like firewood, protection against the cold. I am buried in the snow, cold, without protection. My hands are bare.
After a short celebration, my cousins exhume me. I am too cold to fight. Shivering, I walk home, anxious for warmth. I know my mother is home. She is probably sewing a quilt. She is always sewing quilts. If she sells a quilt, we have dinner. If she fails to sell a quilt, we go hungry. My mother has never failed to sell a quilt. But the threat of hunger is always there.
When I step into the house, my mother is sewing yet another quilt. She is singing a song under her breath. You might assume she is singing a highly traditional Spokane Indian song. In fact, she is singing Donna Fargo's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA." Improbably, this is a highly traditional Spokane Indian song. The living room is dark in the late afternoon. The house is cold. My mother is wearing her coat and shoes.
"Why don't you turn up the heat?" I ask my mother.
"No electricity," she says.
"Power went out?" I ask.
"Didn't pay the bill," she says.
I am colder. I inhale, exhale, my breath visible inside the house. I can hear a car sliding on the icy road outside. My mother is making a quilt. This quilt will pay for the electricity. Her fingers are stiff and painful from the cold. She is sewing as fast as she can.
* * *
On the jukebox in the bar: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Freddy Fender, Donna Fargo.
On the radio in the car: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat & Tears, Janis Joplin, early Stones, earlier Beatles.
On the stereo in the house: Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison, Johnny Horton, Loretta Lynn, "The Ballad of the Green Beret."
* * *
1975: Mr. Manley, the fourth grade music teacher, sets a row of musical instruments in front of us. From left to right, a flute, clarinet, French horn, trombone, trumpet, tuba, drum. We're getting our first chance to play this kind of music.
"Now," he explains, "I want all of you to line up behind the instrument you'd like to learn how to play."
Dawn, Loretta, and Karen line up behind the flute. Melissa and Michelle behind the clarinet. Lori and Willette, the French horn. All ten Indian boys line up behind the drum.
* * *
1970: My sister Mary is beautiful. She is fourteen years older than me. She wears short skirts and nylons because she is supposed to wear short skirts and nylons. It is expected. Her black hair is combed long, straight. Often, she sits in her favorite chair, the fake leather lounger we rescued from the dump. Holding a hand mirror, she combs her hair, applies her make-up. Much lipstick and eye shadow, no foundation. She is always leaving the house. I do not know where she goes.
I do remember sitting at her feet, rubbing my cheek against her nyloned calf, while she waited for her ride. In Montana in 1981, she died in an early morning fire. At the time, I was sleeping at a friend's house in Washington state. I was not dreaming of my sister.
* * *
"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply to your work?"
"Well," I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet."
* * *
1977: Summer. Steve and I want to attend the KISS concert in Spokane. KISS is very popular on my reservation. Gene Simmons, the bass player. Paul Stanley, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. Ace Frehley, lead guitar. Peter Criss, drums. All four hide their faces behind elaborate make-up. Simmons the devil, Stanley the lover, Frehley the space man, Criss the cat.
The songs: "Do You Love Me," "Calling Dr. Love," "Love Gun," "Makin' Love," "C'mon and Love Me."
Steve and I are too young to go on our own. His uncle and aunt, born-again Christians, decide to chaperon us. Inside the Spokane Coliseum, the four of us find seats far from the stage and the enormous speakers. Uncle and Aunt wanted to avoid the bulk of the crowd, but have landed us in the unofficial pot-smoking section. We are overwhelmed by the sweet smoke. Steve and I cover our mouths and noses with Styrofoam cups and try to breathe normally.
KISS opens their show with staged explosions, flashing red lights, a prolonged guitar solo by Frehley. Simmons spits fire. The crowd rushes the stage. All the pot smokers in our section hold lighters, tiny flames flickering, high above their heads. The songs are so familiar we know all the words. The audience sings along.
The songs: "Let Me Go, Rock `n' Roll," "Detroit Rock City," "Rock and Roll All Nite."
The decibel level is tremendous. Steve and I can feel the sound waves crashing against the Styrofoam cups we hold over our faces. Aunt and Uncle are panicked, finally convinced that the devil plays a mean guitar. This is too much for them. It is also too much for Steve and me, but we pretend to be disappointed when Aunt and Uncle drag us out of the Coliseum.
During the drive home, Aunt and Uncle play Christian music on the radio. Loudly and badly, they sing along. Steve and I are in the back of the Pacer, looking up through the strangely curved rear window. There is a meteor shower, the largest in a decade. Steve and I smell like pot smoke. We smile at this. Our ears ring. We make wishes on the shooting stars, though both of us know that a shooting star is not a star. It's just a sliver of stone.
* * *
I made a very conscious decision to marry an Indian woman, who made a very conscious decision to marry me.
Our hope: to give birth to and raise Indian children who love themselves. That is the most revolutionary act.
* * *
1982: I am the only Indian student at Reardan High, an all-white school in a small farm town just outside my reservation. I am in the pizza parlor, sharing a deluxe with my white friends. We are talking and laughing. A drunk Indian walks in. He staggers to the counter and orders a beer. The waiter ignores him. We are all silent.
At our table, S is shaking her head. She leans toward us as if to share a secret.
"Man," she says, "I hate Indians."
* * *
I am curious about the writers who identify themselves as mixed-blood Indians. Is it difficult for them to decide which container they should put their nouns and verbs into? Invisibility, after all, can be useful, as a blonde, Aryan-featured Jew in Germany might have found during World War II. Then again, I think of the horror stories that such a pale undetected Jew could tell about life during the Holocaust.
* * *
An Incomplete List of People I Wish Were Indian
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Adam Muhammad Ali Susan B. Anthony Jimmy Carter Patsy Cline D.B. Cooper Robert DeNiro Emily Dickinson Isadora Duncan Amelia Earhart Eve Diane Fossey Jesus Christ Robert Johnson Helen Keller Billie Jean King Martin Luther King, Jr. John Lennon Mary Magdalene Pablo Neruda Flannery O'Connor Rosa Parks Wilma Rudolph Sappho William Shakespeare Bruce Springsteen Meryl Streep John Steinbeck Superman Harriet Tubman Voltaire Walt Whitman
* * *
1995: Summer. Seattle, Washington. I am idling at a red light when a car filled with white boys pulls up beside me. The white boy in the front passenger seat leans out his window.
"I hate you Indian motherfuckers," he screams.
I quietly wait for the green light.
1978: David, Randy, Steve, and I decide to form a reservation doowop group, like the Platters. During recess, we practice behind the old tribal school. Steve, a falsetto, is the best singer. I am the worst singer, but have the deepest voice, and am therefore an asset.
"What songs do you want to sing?" asks David.
"Tracks of My Tears," says Steve, who always decides these kind of things.
We sing, desperately trying to remember the lyrics to that song. We try to remember other songs. We remember the chorus to most, the first verse of a few, and only one in its entirety. For some reason, we all know the lyrics of "Monster Mash." However, I'm the only one who can manage to sing with the pseudo-Transylvanian accent that the song requires. This dubious skill makes me the lead singer, despite Steve's protests.
"We need a name for our group," says Randy.
"How about The Warriors?" I ask.
Everybody agrees. We've watched a lot of Westerns.
We sing "Monster Mash" over and over. We want to be famous. We want all the little Indian girls to shout our names. Finally, after days of practice, we are ready for our debut. Walking in line like soldiers, the four of us parade around the playground. We sing "Monster Mash." I am in front, followed by Steve, David, then Randy, who is the shortest, but the toughest fighter our reservation has ever known. We sing. We are The Warriors. All the other Indian boys and girls line up behind us as we march. We are heroes. We are loved. I sing with everything I have inside of me: pain, happiness, anger, depression, heart, soul, small intestine. I sing and am rewarded with people who listen.
That is why I am a poet.
* * *
I remember watching Richard Nixon, during the Watergate affair, as he held a press conference and told the entire world that he was not a crook.
For the first time, I understood that storytellers could be bad people.
* * *
Poetry = Anger x Imagination
* * *
Every time I venture into the bookstore, I find another book about Indians. There are hundreds of books about Indians published every year, yet so few are written by Indians. I gather all the books written about Indians. I discover:
A book written by a person who identifies as mixed-blood will sell more copies than a book written by a person who identifies as strictly Indian.
A book written by a non-Indian will sell more copies than a book written by either a mixed-blood or an Indian writer.
Reservation Indian writers are rarely published in any form.
A book about Indian life in the past, whether written by a non-Indian, mixed-blood, or Indian, will sell more copies than a book about Indian life in the twentieth century.
If you are a non-Indian writing about Indians, it is almost guaranteed that something positive will be written about you by Tony Hillerman.
Indian writers who are women will be compared with Louise Erdrich. Indian writers who are men will be compared with Michael Dorris.
A very small percentage of the readers of Indian literature have heard of Simon J. Ortiz. This is a crime.
Books about the Sioux sell more copies than all of the books written about other tribes combined.
Mixed-blood writers often write about any tribe which interests them, whether or not they are related to that tribe.
Writers who use obvious Indian names, such as Eagle Woman and Pretty Shield, are usually non-Indian.
Non-Indian writers usually say "Great Spirit," "Mother Earth," "Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged." Mixed-blood writers usually say "Creator, "Mother Earth," "Two-Legged, Four- Legged, and Winged." Indian writers usually say "God," "Mother Earth," "Human Being, Dog, and Bird."
If a book about Indians contains no dogs, then it was written by a non-Indian or mixed-blood writer.
If on the cover of a book there are winged animals who aren't supposed to have wings, then it was written by a non-Indian.
Successful non-Indian writers are viewed as well-informed about Indian life. Successful mixed-blood writers are viewed as wonderful translators of Indian life. Successful Indian writers are viewed as traditional storytellers of Indian life.
Very few Indian and mixed-blood writers speak their tribal languages. Even fewer non-Indian writers speak their tribal languages.
Indians often write exclusively about reservation life, even if they never lived on a reservation.
Mixed-bloods often write exclusively about Indians, even if they grew up in non-Indian communities.
Non-Indian writers always write about reservation life.
Nobody has written the great urban Indian novel yet.
Most non-Indians who write about Indians are fiction writers. Fiction about Indians sells.
* * *
Have you stood in a crowded room where nobody looks like you? If you are white, have you stood in a room full of black people? Are you an Irish man who has strolled through the streets of Compton? If you are black, have you stood in a room full of white people? Are you an African-American man who has played the back nine at the local country club? If you are a woman, have you stood in a room full of men? Are you Sandra Day O'Connor or Ruth Ginsberg?
Since I left the reservation, almost every room I enter is filled with people who do not look like me. There are only two million Indians in this country. We could all fit into one medium-sized city. Someone should look into it.
Often, I am most alone in bookstores where I am reading from my work. I look up from the page at white faces. This is frightening.
* * *
There is an apple tree outside my grandmother's house on the reservation. The apples are green; my grandmother's house is green. This is the game: My siblings and I try to sneak apples from the tree. Sometimes, our friends will join our raiding expeditions. My grandmother believes green apples are poison and is simply trying to protect us from sickness. There is nothing biblical about this story.
The game has rules. We always have to raid the tree during daylight. My grandmother has bad eyes and it would be unfair to challenge her in the dark. We all have to approach the tree at the same time. Arnold, my older brother. Kim and Arlene, my younger twin sisters. We have to climb the tree to steal apples, ignoring the fruit which hangs low to the ground.
Arnold is the best apple thief on the reservation. He is chubby, but quick. He is fearless in the tree, climbing to the top for the plumpest apples. He hangs from a branch with one arm, reaches for apples with the other, and fills his pockets with his booty. I love him like crazy. My sisters are more conservative. Often they grab one apple and eat it quickly, sitting on a sturdy branch. I always like the green apples with a hint of red. While we are busy raiding the tree, we also keep an eye on our grandmother's house. She is a big woman, nearly six feet tall. At the age of seventy, she can still outrun any ten-year-old.
Arnold, of course, is always the first kid out of the tree. He hangs from a branch, drops to the ground, and screams loudly, announcing our presence to our grandmother. He runs away, leaving my sisters and me stuck in the tree. We scramble to the ground and try to escape.
"Junior," she shouts and I freeze. That's the rule. Sometimes a dozen Indian kids have been in that tree, scattering in random directions when our grandmother bursts out of the house. If she remembers your name, you are a prisoner of war. And, believe me, no matter how many kids are running away, my grandmother always remembers my name.
My grandmother died when I was fourteen years old. I miss her. I miss everybody.
"Junior," she shouts and I close my eyes in disgust. Captured again! I wait as she walks up to me. She holds out her hand and I give her the stolen apples. Then she smacks me gently on the top of my head. I am free to run then, pretending she never caught me in the first place. I try to catch up with the others. Running through the trees surrounding my grandmother's house, I shout out their names.
* * *
So many people claim to be Indian, speaking of an Indian grandmother, a warrior grandfather. Suppose the United States government announced that all Indians had to return to their reservation. How many of these people would not shove that Indian ancestor back into the closet?
* * *
My mother still makes quilts. My wife and I sleep beneath one. My brother works for our tribal casino. One sister works for our bingo hall, while the other works in the tribal finance department. Our adopted little brother, James, who is actually our second cousin, is a freshman at Reardan High School. He can run the mile in five minutes.
My father is an alcoholic. He used to leave us for weeks at a time to drink with his friends and cousins. I missed him so much I'd cry myself sick.
I could always tell when he was going to leave. He would be tense, quiet, unable to concentrate. He'd flip through magazines and television channels. He'd open the refrigerator door, study its contents, shut the door, and walk away. Five minutes later, he'd be back at the fridge, rearranging items on the shelves. I would follow him from place to place, trying to prevent his escape.
Once, he went into the bathroom, which had no windows, while I sat outside the only door and waited for him. I could not hear him inside. I knocked on the thin wood. I was five years old.
"Are you there?" I asked. "Are you still there?"
Every time he left, I ended up in the emergency room. But I always got well and he always came back. He'd walk in the door without warning. We'd forgive him.
Years later, I am giving a reading at a bookstore in Spokane, Washington. There is a large crowd. I read a story about an Indian father who leaves his family for good. He moves to a city a thousand miles away. Then he dies. It is a sad story. When I finish, a woman in the front row breaks into tears.
"What's wrong?" I ask her.
"I'm so sorry about your father," she says.
"Thank you," I say, "But that's my father sitting right next to you."