Old Stories From the New World
Do you know what it’s like to be a sliver of the census pie in your own land, the numbers at the bottom of every statistical list, if you’re listed at all? This is what it’s like to be Native when you’re born in Chicago in1961: you exist in the mirror, in your mother’s face, you exist in the angry poems that drizzle from the clutch of your pen, all your words upon words upon words, your exhibit, your proof of life, shouting with ink – We are here! Rose Maney who dances with cloud feet, Lizzie Wells, half blind with poverty, Big Tom who is only pretend-fierce, and loves Albert who wears his hair in a pompadour like Elvis. You scour the TV Guide for Little House on the Prairie mention of an Indian Episode. You see Little Big Man, Billy Jack, on the big screen, even cheer Anthony Quinn playing Flap in a show called Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian because it’s slim Pickens to find some small shade of who you think you are. God help you if you read Books! They haven’t published Vine DeLoria yet or Louise Erdrich, or Sherman Alexie, So you’re stuck with Peter Pan’s girlfriend, Tiger Lily, who may be courageous but can say little more than “ugh,” or James Fenimore Cooper’s savages, lethal Magwa, if they’d been that vengeful we wouldn’t all be sitting here now.
Teachers applaud my promise, my chick of talent, but not my subject matter: the Indian ghetto in Uptown, the Indian bars on Clark Street, how we have our own Columbus Day parade – the roaches march amid Relocation debris, a swirl of broken promises and day Labor. Why can’t I write about pretty things they ask, don’t my people like the natural world? And I don’t know where to begin the biology-history-theology lesson of how far apart our idea of :natural” is. So I memorize Shakespeare from old recordings I discover at the Public Library, this mesmerizing snake charmer so Indian in his careful turns of phrase, his golden eagle tongue of grace. I chart my own backwards forward-forwards progression of resistance, write my own little girl syllabus of everything I think I should know. Fill notebooks I will never bring to school with a voice persistent and wild as weeds, which I think is mine and mine alone until I learn better, wear glasses, and can finally see behind my shoulder all the ancestor ghosts who keep slipping me stories, tucking them into my hands and my pockets in that humble, unobtrusive way that makes you feel you’re not their charity case.
In school I am shy bookish, polite. I sit on my hands until the Indian in me erupts from her wooden post in the back of the room. Sometimes it’s just too much, and I wave my hand in the air and hear myself speak with a vigor so unexpected it turns every head. They’re praising Custer again, and his Shirley temple-like curls of gold; it’s the gold we should talk about now, his metal fever. They say we crossed the Bering Strait in a chilly migration from Russian lands when all of us know we grew from this ground like corn or fell from the sky like ripe seeds in the pocket of our mother’s dress. They tell me our women were oppressed, worked like mules by lazy men, and they don’t want to hear my Grandma’s name or write it down; Josephine Gates Kelly, tribal chairperson, head of the Standing Rock Sioux in the 1950’s when other women are trapped in the kitchen baking pies, martini-perfumed, with those red mouths and cone sharp breasts chewing tranquilizers like mints to keep them still, help them like Ike, they fall into the laudanum bed of their day. It’s Hopi, not Hoppy, I gently say, but I do not mention that as far as I know there’s no tribe of giant rabbits in this land. And every November the gobbler art, turkeys and pilgrims and pumpkins, and Indians too, naked beneath their one stiff feather, cut from construction paper, unzipping the Thanksgiving myth that we ever broke bread. My religion teacher Mrs. Burns, says Puritans suffered the grim voyage from England to the black scars of Plymouth Rock because of persecution. And I know the intolerable weight of condemnation, where a ruling order declares that your God is not God, and your prayers are worse than futile, they are the sweet stink of burned flowers – a devil’s foolishness. Yet she will not acknowledge my hand, Mrs. Burns when it peeps in the air, wilting ignored. She already knows the questions I’ll raise, why the sins of th4e fatherland are played out in the old new world by folk who should have known better.
Thank God for my mother’s Sacajewea-like sense of direction she points north, this Gathering-of-Stormclouds Woman, her needle forever set magnetically on activism, trouble, people rise up and chase the money changers from the Temple, dash their scales upon stone floors! She helps me carve a space for myself and my voice in every white world I encounter from year to year, and grade to grade. This is how my head is patted, my face held in a brief gesture of hopefulness, by Martin Luther King when I am three. This is how I find myself reading my middle school poems at age eleven and twelve with a lineup of literary angels like Tumbleweed, our Black Creek friend with her pom-pom braids, and Dennis Brutus, just released from prison in South Africa, bearing his colored card, his B.I. A-like determination of how much blood makes you more than white in Johannesburg.
For the past twelve years or so I’ve had a recurring dream about my country. I see our great cities underwater, the Statue of Liberty tipped from her pedestal, not Planet of the Apes-like buried in sand, but swallowed by the great ocean that washes her face with salt. Life is spent on long boats shaped like canoes, longer even than the imagination, and natives man the oars, not rowing slave-like to a beaten drum, but purpose driven all the same, bent by compassion. We travel this world of water to save our drowning relatives, black white, we pluck them from the waves and sit them in the center of our boats where They huddle, stunned and chastened, ultimately grateful. I used to think this was a fiction Of the mind, allegory, metaphor, or the less elegant labours of a brain churning the day’s thoughts into a dull, confusing mush. But the glaciers melt and super storms, monstrous as Grendel, smash our houses and our lives, I see us rushing towards the future of these boats.
Listen to what Joy Harjo said in a book of poems: “Oh sun, moon, stars, our other relatives peering at us from the inside of God’s house – walk with us as we climb into the next century naked but for the stories we have of each other. Keep us from giving up in this land of nightmares which is also the land of miracles.”
We were saved by stories – our crop that never dies, through every drought and Dust Bowl, every Himmler-like policy of death, every cultural root canal suffered in a boarding school. Don’t you know we are the people of tinitus? We cannot sleep for all the ringing in our ears: the ghosts of our ancestors sing us songs to keep us awake, awake, awake. Nosier than television, sirens, their voices gather in a crescendo of Wisdom that bursts through time – a sonic boom to spill you on your ass. E have no Choice but to listen eventually, remember who we were before the pain and the painkiller, the firewater and the diabetes, the bingo palaces and welfare programs, the Ivy League schools and pow wow circuits, the American Dream. The strongest stories are home-grown. They didn’t travel from another world. They weren’t filtered through a Test tube microscope, Bible injection, calculus equation symphony of black quarter notes trapped on the page. Our stories surround us, whether we’re rez or urban, whether our tribe was forcibly removed or stubbornly hid in the hills, in the woods, in the swamps. They twist inside us, remarkable as DNA, insistent, generous, a lifeline thrown to each generation. What’s more they are true, no matter how inventive, preposterous, no matter how much so-called magic is involved. How do I know? Because they peeled me down to the core, sloughed off stories I’d learned in school, crim law with Dershowitz, con law with Larry Tribe, Stendahl and even Walker Percy, a kind of exfoliation of the intellect and spirit where I find myself saying what I mean and meaning what I say. Where I forget how to double-talk, bullshit, logic my way into a righteous corner justified by footnotes citing evidence.
Our sovereign stories lead us to freedom. We make it through the Looking Glass world Of all upside-down half-assed Indian policies that trot through history like a roll call of childhood diseases: the Allotment Act, the Indian Reorganization Act, Termination, the Indian Wars that never really ended but just changed venue. We emerge from madness and arrogance, prejudice and ignorance, our stories intact, stronger for the test of fire, the forge. We share them in cars, at kitchen tables, poetry slams, and art exhibitions, medicine lodges, funeral parlors and bars. Soon you will hear us too, buzzing hotly like bees. We will haunt you with our tales though we are not ghosts, we are not finished, exterminated, we are not conquered, we are not lost, we are not at the end of our trail or the end of our rope, we are not a problem, a fad, a guru, a channelling queen, a pet or a mascot, a jumble of bones in a drawer. We are old stories groping forward into every new world. We made it here by the skin of our teeth. No one can stop us now from telling and telling and telling. It is our turn to run the schools and teach you the anthem, the pledge of allegiance to every other being on the planet, pull down the pyramid with a human face on top ( no that’s already happening without our intervention). Don’t you see we are already building the long boats with these words.