The Yellow Slicker

At first the horseback Indian thought that the patch of yellow on the prairie was just flowers, but it wasn’t quite the right season for that size and color of flowers, so he went a little closer in order to investigate — though not close enough for the patch to be dangerous. It was some kind of garment. Sprawled. No sign of a person. Had it been discarded? Was it a trap?

He got off the horse and let it graze while he hunkered on his heels and scanned the situation. No signs of a person — footprints, other objects. He wished for a long stick to prod it. Maybe there was something underneath. There had been a rain shower earlier in the day and little puddles sat on the material, not soaking in as would happen with normal garments. If it were valuable and someone had merely lost it, that person would return and they probably would not be Indian.

Yellow was a valuable color. Only important lodges were painted yellow because the color came from a fungus that was hard to find. Therefore, this garment must have significance.

He took his horse to the top of a nearby ridge and sat watching for the rest of the day, but no one came. When it was nearly dark, he went carefully back. The yellow garment had not moved. He grabbed the cuff of one sleeve and jerked. Nothing leapt out. Nothing was underneath except a dry patch of grass. His horse snorted and pulled back, then leaned forward to smell. It seemed sceptical, but unafraid.

He counted coup on the garment, yelping. Then grabbed it and jumped on his horse, which panicked from all the flapping around and took off for camp at a run. By the time they got to the circle of lodges, the horse had settled and was content to graze with the others. By now the Indian was also more confident and rolled the garment up as though it were any robe. Except that it rustled and crinkled and had a strange crisp texture and smell.

His wife was very curious about the garment but he forbade her to touch it. They had been hoping for a baby — they had not been married long — and he was afraid that the garment would somehow affect her fertility. He asked her to make a rawhide case, cylindrical, to keep this mysterious thing in and she did a good job. Then he painted a design on it and kept it hanging at his place, across the fire from the door.

One day when he had been hunting, he returned to find that his wife was in the lodge and had put on the yellow garment. At first he was very angry, since she should have more respect for his belongings, and he went to her, grabbed her by the neck and intended to choke or shake her — but then the feel of her slender neck, the pulse in it, her delicate ears and sliding hair, all moved him so that his fingers slipped up to cup her skull and his thumbs rested more gently on her jawbone.

Then he realized that she was not wearing anything under the garment and that she had been singing a song: “Oh, pollen-colored garment, make me bear fruit.” Responding, he made love to her that afternoon while she rustled and crinkled in the yellow stuff. Now and then after that, they would take out the garment and she would wear it while they made love. When the baby was born, in the fall when the aspen were the same color as the coat, she cut a strip off the hem of the garment and sewed it onto the baby’s carrier.

Now the garment seemed to be a part of their marriage, a key to fertility. Others heard about it and asked to borrow it. At first they were reluctant, but finally they had pity and agreed to let others make love wearing it. Nearly always, it worked. The wife, who now had several children and had made space in the lodge for second and third wives who did most of the work, beaded the garment with red stripes and attached small round pocket mirrors to the front.

One day she realized that one pocket had something deep in it and pulled out an envelope with a letter inside it. Neither her husband nor anyone else could read a letter or had even handled one, though they knew what it was. They felt that it was part of the power of the coat and put it back in the pocket. The wife sewed it shut and attached duck feathers to it. Ordinarily, water animals were not used to decorate, because they are too powerful, but this material seemed to bead up water in the same way that ducks did, so there was a harmony, a relationship of function. Over the years the coat became quite splendid with embellishments.

When the oldest son of the couple was about eighteen, he was badly wounded in a rash attack on enemies. Though he was brought home, his life was in serious danger. His parents pledged that if he recovered, they would offer the yellow garment to the Sun at the annual ceremonies. Both came to pass and, with the healed son watching, the coat was attached to the big main forked trunk at the Sun Lodge, so that everyone saw it up there, bright yellow and winking with light from the little mirrors. It was not tightly wrapped and the strange waterproof material waved in the wind. Everyone agreed that it was a highly significant and efficacious sacrifice. When they went on their way at the end of the ceremony, they looked back over their shoulders to get one last glimpse.
Years later a Metis guide was accompanying a cowboy who was looking for a place to establish his own small ranch. Build a house, find a wife, start a family. That’s what life was about. “Look down there,” said the Metis, as they topped a ridge. “You see that framework, that round circle of poles with rafters tied to the center?”

“What is it?” asked the cowboy, who had grown up in New England and came to the prairie partly in search of his lost father, who had gone West and never returned.

“Sun lodge. It would have been covered with leafy branches to make shade for ceremonies. Very holy.”

“Let’s go down there and look.”

The Metis didn’t much want to — he was superstitious — but he went along, a little behind the cowboy whom he considered reckless. The cowboy was waiting for him alongside the center pole. Up in the top was something yellow.

“Look! It’s a slicker, an old yellow slicker, with a lot of stuff attached to it.”

“Better leave it alone. It’s an offering. Bad luck to disturb it.”

“Aw, I ain’t afraid.” He stood on his saddle, which made him tall enough to drag the slicker down. Then he had to jump for the ground because his horse was afraid of it. “Look at this thing! Amazing! Pretty tattered, too.”

He spread it out on the grass, properly, with the shoulders at the top, sleeves out to the sides. “Kinda short. Been cut off at the bottom. Maybe so as to be better for riding.” He saw that one pocket was torn, showing a corner of paper. The material was so rotten with age and weather that he could easily tear the slit open and take out an envelope.

The Metis noticed the cowboy’s face go white and his hands begin to shake. Looking around for lightning or a predator bird and seeing none, he asked, “What’s the matter.”

“My father’s name is on this letter. I think the handwriting might be my grandmother’s.” Slowly, he wiped the envelope on his shirt front, though it didn’t need wiping. Carefully he reached inside the old yellow envelope and drew out a sheet of folded paper.

“What does it say?”

He read slowly. “Dear son, I hope by now you have received your father’s old fisherman slicker. He won’t need it anymore since he is sick in bed and will never rise. Sure do wish you were nearby so you could be with him just one more time. But we must all seek our destiny. Please write. We’ve heard nothing from you but will send this with a man who says he’s going to the same territory. Be careful of Indians.”

The cowboy stood holding the paper to his chest. All these years it had been kept dry in the slicker pocket, but now the paper was spotted with tears as its holder sobbed.

The Metis tactfully rode off a little ways and got off to let his horse graze and to let his friend have space for his grief.

________________

On a blog I often read (2blowhards.com) there has been a discussion of creativity and where it comes from, so I thought I’d just make a record of where this story came from (as nearly as I can tell) so that others might be able to pull up a story as well.

First, I do have an authentic fisherman’s raincoat (actually, a jacket to be worn with pants) that I used to wear every day in Portland but only rarely here. So I have that sense memory in me. Second, because of the recurring controversy over NA artifacts, I’ve been reflecting about material culture in general and how one person’s ordinary object becomes something strange and therefore possibly magical/powerful to another. I’ve also been thinking about the relationship between generations and how material objects make links.

Bob Scriver and I used to have a continuing joke about Western artists whose theme painting is a yellow-slicker-wearing guy on a horse in the rain. It’s a great recipe for a striking picture. Then I began to see in the Western art mags paintings of old yellow pickups, yellow taxis, and yellow school buses — all in the rain. So I began with the idea of this yellow object alone on the prairie and what an alert, ground-scannning Indian would make of it.

Bob’s own Holy Lodge was a yellow lodge with a badger on it. When we were composing the ceremony and songs for it, the old-timers who helped us spoke of the continuity among yellow tipis. For instance, the lodge of Old Jim Whitecalf was yellow with a black buffalo jumping over the door. Of course, we didn’t have to go find fungus — we just used paint.

So, first the man would find the slicker, he would bring it home and try to protect it, stumbling onto the idea that it would make his wife fertile. The community would accept that and use it. Eventually the slicker would be sacrificed, because that was so often a theme of sacredness among Blackfeet.

But there had to be some kind of clue about where that slicker DID come from, so I invented the letter in the pocket (a hidden meaning) and the cowboy, not so different from the Indian who began the story. That created a kind of parallel, but from two points of view.

BUT I left a lot unsaid, so the reader must still guess or might (in a classroom) discuss what else the story means. Will the cowboy decide that Indians killed his father? Will the slicker end up in a museum? Anyway, what DID happen to that man with his father’s slicker? Was it just lost off the back of his saddle when he tied it on carelessly after wearing it through the rain shower? Or did he die some way and the slicker get dragged or blown some distance away? Or maybe it never got to the intended — was discarded with the letter by the messenger. Well, I love a mystery. I’ll leave it at that.

But I’ll probably embroider this story a little more as time goes on.

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Rara Avis

This boy’s name was Cedric Meerkat and he was a Blackfeet boy. Now you KNOW I’ve given him a made-up name because there are no meerkats in Blackfeet country. Not unless somebody imported one. But Cedric did sort of look like a meerkat, always sticking his head up and looking with his bandit eyes to see what was going on and whether anyone was watching him. He needed to know because he wasn’t always doing what he was supposed to. He was a skinny little guy with more curiosity than anything else.

Outside of his rubber-necking, he was a lot like Napi, who is the trickster figure of the Plains tribes. Napi could just about do anything and he did — usually the wrong thing — and so part of him is also considered a kind of creator. A lot of creation seems like a mistake at first. And Napi was always trying to create babies — or at least you-know-what that leads to babies. But mostly he just made trouble. Cedric didn’t so much MAKE trouble as he just got INTO trouble.

So Cedric was in my English class and he was always writing, but it was never the assignment. And his writing was pretty weird, often mirror-writing. In those days we didn’t know anything much about dyslexia. Nowadays I would say that his brain development was simply atypical. Instead of writing words, he “wrote” pictures. All day long he drew, but he didn’t draw horses like the other kids. He drew snakes.

They were amazing snakes, not just generic reptiles, but “real” snakes that he knew about from books, since there aren’t many snakes on the high and dry prairie. Some people around here become rattlesnake hunters, looking for them in order to kill them, and even dynamiting snake dens in early spring before they untangle themselves from their hibernation balls and come out to lie on the jumble of stones to warm up. Cedric treated snakes as a design problem. But then he began to understand what a “symbol” was and I became important as a source of information. He could see what a snake looked like, but he was a terrible reader, being dyslexic, so he’d just ask me.

“What’s this?” he asked. It was a picture of a bracelet that was a snake swallowing its tail. Ouroboros. I explained about the ancient history of the snake that was “creating itself” and how it meant renewal and sometimes rebirth. I tried to explain how decay in existence — the eating — then became something new — the snake. I talked a little about how a snake sheds its old skin, emerging bright and new, and about how multi-cultural and how deep in history the figure was: Norse, Hindu, Greek, and Egyptian. Big concepts for a junior high kid, but Cedric seemed to understand.

His “back story” was tragic, like many reservation stories. When he and his sister were small, the family had been in a car crash that killed the parents and badly injured the children. Both of them received life-saving transfusions but that was long enough ago that there had been no reliable way to separate blood donations carrying HIV virus from those that were not. The chance gesture of the nurse hooking up blood from one donation to the sister and another to Cedric determined their futures. It was the sister who received the virus-infected blood. She died rather quickly over the next few years, her eyes becoming bigger and bigger until they swallowed her up. Cedric sat with her during that time and drew her face, growing up and dying at the same time. Ouroboros he knew from recognition, experience.

One day we read Rikki-Tiki-Tavi and he was worried until I found a biology book that showed both a mongoose and a meerkat and assured him that he was not a mongoose. But I jokingly warned him to watch out for mongooses. Or is that “mongeese?” English is not logical.

Then one day he came to me to ask what a phallic symbol was. While I explained, I saw that his face was changing. The hormones of adolescence were thickening his bones, sharpening his nose, deepening his voice. He would not grow a beard — he was American Indian — but there would be night changes. His dreams would change.

I blushed as I explained, but he didn’t. His lack of embarrassment was not because he had no sense of propriety, no understanding that some things were private, but out of an impatience with false modesty. What was something like sexual maturity in the face of death, especially the deaths of loved ones? And yet over the next months, he didn’t gravitate to girls. I began to realize that he was probably gay.

What future was there for a dyslexic, gay, American Indian young man with no immediate family? But he did have a larger family of cousins, uncles, grannies, aunties, and so on. They didn’t reject him or classify him. Just accepted that Cedric was Cedric.

Then one day he disappeared and I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. I wondered if he would seek out HIV on purpose, to follow his sister, or whether he would take precautions so as to survive. Or maybe he would reject sex, pull into himself, avoid relationship. None seemed like very good options. I hoped he’d develop his art.

Years later I was driving from Montana over to Seattle to visit my sister. I was tired from the end of school and had already had way too much coffee, so maybe that’s why I stopped at that Snake Pit on the Idaho border that I usually passed up. It was touristy and sensational. I’d been told that some people stopped there just to see the snakes eat, because they ate small live mammals. That snuff film mentality seems to be everywhere.

“Are the snakes being fed now?” I asked when I bought my ticket.

“Naw, you’ve missed it. They don’t eat very often,” said the bored young woman.

The exhibit space was a sort of barn with a lot of glass cases around the edge, rather like an aquarium. In the middle was an open pit, sure enough, and in it was a huge boa constrictor or python — I can’t tell those big squeezing snakes apart. It made me think of Cedric. I looked across the pit and there he was.

For a minute I thought I’d imagined him. I wasn’t even that sure he was Cedric. He was with a few other fellows, dressed in metal-studded leather motorcycle outfits except that Cedric’s wasn’t black: it was dark purple and the sleeves were missing. His arms were covered with tattoos of snakes, coiling around and around his arms and each other. His hair was bright blue and stuck up in a spiky crest, more like a tropical bird than a snake. He had a pierced nose, lips, eyebrow, and ears — and he was wearing black lipstick.

I remembered that I’d seen a short row of motorcycles outside, each of them airbrushed with amazing designs, many dragons with iridescent scales or fiery birds, maybe phoenixes. The young men seemed happy but other-wordly. They laughed and pointed out the lump where the big snake’s last meal was digesting inside it.

I wasn’t sure it was really Cedric until I saw that he’d recognized me. The other men turned away to leave, but Cedric lingered just a moment. He didn’t come over — just raised a hand in salute and I saw he was wearing a silver bracelet shaped like an ouroboros. He grinned, a strange effect in a face with black lipstick, and then he left. I heard the motorcycles kickstarting outside.

The rest of the drive across eastern Washington went quickly, as it always does if you have a lot to think about. I wondered how he got a motorcycle helmet on over that spiky hair or whether he even wore one. Maybe he dared death to come get him, like a warrior.

The Dump Ground Lady

They call me the “Dump Ground Lady” but not to my face. Actually, I’m the second one. My job is to stay at the roll-off site all day and record what people dump. It’s not even a dump ground because in this day and age we’ve finally realized that you can’t just throw stuff away in a huge toxic heap that catches on fire. It has to be processed, recycled as much as possible, and then buried in a huge pit without burning. So now we have “roll-off sites” where there’s a ramp so people can drive up level with the tops of huge containers that fit on the back of a semi-truck. The truck drives them off to the landfill, which is not really where you can see it, even though a lot of trees have been planted there to make it nice. It’s miles from town and serves the whole county.

On a good day the roll-off site is pretty nice except for the smell. It’s not that the garbage smells, but the town sewage lagoon is not far away. And a rancher on the edge of town runs a little feedlot operation where he fattens steers. They eat in a pen and then when green-up comes they roam in a field until they’re ready for slaughter. In summer that field grows alfalfa, which does pretty well because of the steer manure. Seagulls and canada geese love picking around in that field and even in the pen.

The hauling containers have a big fence built around and over them, like the backstop on a baseball field. When the wind blows hard, the wire sings an eerie chord that has no words. We’re a three-container roll-off — used to be only two at first. I can never figure out why there the trash keeps increasing when the town is always shrinking. Part of my job is to manage the big wire covers attached to them and the gates that bar access so that people will fill one container before using the next. I pick up what they spill and get them to put their cans in a barrel and their cardboard in a big wire cage the high school shop class made. We need some way to collect grass clippings, which we have a lot of in summer because this is a lawn-proud town like most droughty little places with a lot of Scandinavians. The tricky part about saving grass clippings is that some people like them for compost. Others, of course, worry about what toxic weed-killers their neighbors have been using.

I don’t have to stay in the open all day, thank goodness. I have a little shed with an electric heater and a table, even a window so I can watch for arrivals and get my gloves on soon enough to be out there to meet them. Last year they even provided me with a biffy, but it’s not heated so no lingering. I have a radio but the real advantage of this job is that I can write. Actually, I get quite a bit done in the quiet times.

At home writing is a little problematic because I live with my mother, who’s a little bit demented and wants to see everything I write, and my sister, who thinks I never do my share of the housework. Isn’t it enough that I bring in a paycheck? It’s not a big one. Before they turned to hiring women the commissioners tended to hire alcoholic old men too frail to herd sheep, but the fatal flow with that type, of course, is that they drink. Out here it’s easy to sneak a bottle.

The woman before me started a lot of fights. She was a college-educated divorcee from back east and thought she was actually supposed to enforce the rules. Another dummy with a degree. In every situation there are two sets of rules: the one that’s official and written down somewhere and the other one that people expect and enforce with their behavior. She only lasted a few months before she took off. One of the guys brought out a big load of stuff from a house he was gutting and she tried to charge him $5 for dumping the water heater. That’s the rule, but this guy was the mayor’s cousin.

Sometimes there’s a lot of traffic and some days hardly anyone shows up. There’s a kind of pattern to the days, depending on what people are doing and what the weather is like. In spring women come out in cars, getting rid of their spring cleaning debris. On weekends it’s the men bringing brush they’ve cut. The Hutterite colony has a big truck they store garbage in, all sacked up, and they keep a sort of schedule, three old guys and one young one crammed into the cab. The young one is to actually do the work while the old guys tell him stuff. I don’t know what, because they speak German.

This town is next to a lake where they stock fish, but there’s a fish-cleaning station the Wall-Eye Club provided, so we don’t get that stuff, thank goodness. On days the meat processor in town has been butchering, the containers look like the scene of a crime. The seagulls hang around hoping to grab fat scraps. Nowadays all the fat gets trimmed off carcasses. I keep thinking maybe it ought to be rendered and recycled, but there’s not enough of it from one small operation. It’s not efficient in that way. But it’s good to buy local meat from a guy you know.

I’m writing a story about the guys who come out here more for something to do than because they have much to dump. Some of them are on disability; most are retired. There’s not much going on now that the bars have mostly closed. Their doctors don’t want them to drink, but the bars had pool tables. They like to pretend they pick up women, but I don’t know who those women would be. Dina was the barkeep — picking her up would be ridiculous and anyway they were already around her all day.

The secret to these guys is that they don’t want girl friends or even wives. I always wonder where their wives went — some got cancer and some just left, I think — but there isn’t a lot of girl friend material around here once you get past high school age. This is no town for a lady. It’s mannerly enough, but no education, no money, no scope for improvement. As my dad used to say, “them as have get up and go, got up and went.” What these guys really want is a mother: someone to cook and wash and clean. Only the ex-military seem able to keep house by themselves.

We have our little dramas. Once I watched two brothers meet on the spur road out here. They stopped with their windows even and probably talked for a half hour. Their wives hate each other and they never got a chance to see each other any other way. Everyone had to drive out into the alfalfa field to get around them, but we all understood and we didn’t mind. Once there was a fistfight, which was a problem because the commissioners won’t put in a phone line and that’s before I sold a story for enough to buy a cell phone. Once there was shooting, but it was only the town maintenance guy picking off the muskrat that kept digging holes in the dike around the lagoon.

What I wait for is the rich rancher’s wife who brings out her little weekly bag of trash in her big old white Caddie. She’s old but very elegant and drives about five miles an hour. Her three little poodles bounce around in the car like yapping popcorn while she gracefully gets out, takes that bag out of her trunk, tosses it, and waves before she leaves. She always comes on Saturday. When her door is open, I can hear over the yammer of the dogs that she, same as me, is listening to the opera. Not too far away a meadowlark sings its aria.

Both Sides Now (First Encounter)

It was fifty or sixty years ago that she’d swung down off the train in East Glacier with the other tourists, carrying her paint box because she didn’t want to let it out of her sight. She had a bit of money, enough to live for the summer in this vast east slope place which she only barely realized was a reservation, and she had assumed she would paint landscapes, the mountains — so glorious. But then she had met the anthropologist, much older than she was, confident and knowledgeable. When he discovered that she could draw, he asked her to come along while he interviewed Blackfeet, usually elders. They charged money for photos and took poses in front of a camera, because they thought that’s what was wanted. He paid them to talk, not pose, but wanted a visual record as well. One more natural and unguarded.

In the end she hardly painted anything that summer but filled tablet after tablet with sketches of faces and figures: dark, complex, expressive. Indians were supposedly stoic, but these old Blackfeet were full of emotion and as soon as they got used to her they paid no attention to her. At least the men paid no attention. The women paid close attention and kept the babies from crawling on her while she drew. They kept up a steady chatter in Blackfeet among themselves, with occasional directives to the men, who ignored them.

“Tell me about the way horses were managed,” the anthropologist would ask. The old men didn’t always agree and if more than one was present, they would interrupt to argue, which the anthro coped with by simply putting down both accounts and noting who said what. Clearly he knew he wasn’t getting some kind of revealed knowledge, an ultimate truth.

A small storefront had been rented for the summer, so the light flooded through what was normally a display window, at least on the bright days, but the overcast days were also good with evenly subtle light that revealed detail instead of drowning it in light or shadow. There was a big work table and some straight chairs. The anthro slept on a daybed behind a screen at one corner and hung his clothes on pegs on the wall. On a little wood stove he cooked his meals and made tea through the day.

Clare remembered this always as one of the best times of her life, partly because of the sensory experience — wood smoke, the smell of sweetgrass which the anthro invited the old men to smudge on the stove, and the smell of the people themselves, rich and funky, at the same time exotic and familiar. She often caught a whiff of Ben Gay or Vicks. Then sometimes pine pitch or earth. The slightly hooded eyes, the thin gray braids, the men’s bits of innocent decoration (shell earrings, a woman’s brooch, a rosette of ribbons, bright neck scarves), the restlessly competent hands that needed to do something all the time, copper bracelets to ward off rheumatism, and sometimes a little gathered-up bag of something mysterious hung around a neck. They wore “citizen’s dress,” meaning not buckskins but mostly second-hand suits, mismatched.

“Them old timers loved to throw a cougar-skin over their saddles. Best ones had a red border on. That was really showin’ off.”

“What kind of saddle was that?”

“Oh, we made good saddles our own way. Sometimes a prairie chicken saddle, not with high front and back like a woman’s saddle, but with a frame. Not just a pad.”

“Did you ever use a regular white man’s saddle?”

“When I was a boy, not many of ‘em around. But you needed ‘em for cows. For ropin’, you know.”

They say that people always want newly met cultures to stay the way they were at first contact and this was true for her. All the rest of her life she thought of “Indians” as necessarily being like these old men and their families — even though she knew logically that even after they’d begun to go to grad school and come back to the rez as M.D.’s and Ph.D’s, they were still just as Indian. Late in life, listening to them, she wondered what Blackfeet had been like before any white contact, maybe even before horses — nearly impossible to imagine. Dog days. A hard time, but they thrived until they met the white man’s germs, long before they met any white men. The horse, the gun, and the germ. Deceptive advantages followed by disaster and deep changes in the ways of the People.

When she had grown old herself, she reflected about this all the time. Some argued that if one traced the history of the Blackfeet back far enough that they weren’t Blackfeet anymore, but what was that supposed to mean? That they weren’t like the First Contact people? That they weren’t like the horse-and-gun warriors that everyone admired so much in the movies, which was most peoples’ first contact? Would they have been genetically different? Surely the land was the same clear back to the time of the glaciers and mammoths — but if an asteroid killed all the woolly mammoths, what did it do to the people? The anthro had said that people came to North American from Asia in three waves: was one of them necessary to repopulate the prairies after the Clovis people disappeared?

That first anthro in her life — she continued with him as his wife until his death, trying to help him save what he said was a vanishing people. But to her it seemed that they had not vanished, while he had. Everything was changed over time: identity individual or communal.

She knew the evidence of Indian origin was genetic and sometimes it seemed to her that the Blackfeet were almost some kind of northern Chinese, in some deep patterning of temperament and ritual that people took for granted. But what exactly? Respect for elders and love of formality? A kind of Taoist understanding and fatalism? She had seen photos of people around Lake Baikal who looked very much like Blackfeet.

What did it mean to be defined as “Blackfeet?” Where was the center and where was the edge? Was “tribe” just a made up concept? A cookie cutter coming down on a continuous sheet of prairie people? She knew she was not the only one to wonder about these matters. When she got to know the young folks, esp. in the Sixties and Seventies, they wondered a lot — but then they took the militant stand that THEY were the definition. By then the old people she had sketched so many times — their worn faces and hands — were gone. The young folks, whose hands were idle and who stayed indoors most of the time, didn’t look the same. Their hands and faces were smooth and pale. It bothered them sometimes. They seemed to swell up.

And the anthro’s work, which they both had thought was eternal and would guarantee his importance down through all the ages to come, did it mean anything? Or had the theories and the discipline of anthropology itself changed so much that the work they had done that summer was essentially meaningless, transient? Just a personal experience that was mildly interesting, no more.

Both Sides Now (Doogie’s Plan)

CLARE

It was a bit awkward to be a survivor for so long. She’d outlived Clive for a decade now but their relationship was still intense and she had no desire to start another. What she wanted was time to think, alone, but in a place and with a people she had known and cared about. That was NOT the campus where they had spent so many years — she couldn’t leave quickly enough. She didn’t like the way things were going there — the corporate taint, the left wing bullying, the pernicious reliance on theory with no connection back to the reality it was supposed to address. She wanted the Blackfeet reservation where they’d spent so many summers.

Now painting was exactly the right thing for her: color, shape, distillation and elaboration, just enough pressure to observe and interpret to keep her mind occupied — which seemed to be the best way to keep her emotions under control. She didn’t want to admit how much depression had crept over her like a gray shawl, somehow gray and sheltering. It took away the sharp edge of reappraisal that had begun to fray her understanding of Clive’s work, for one thing. And it kept her from thinking about whether she’d given up her own life and goals for his — for no good reason. She’d had such a high regard for academic achievement and such a love for the raw encounter with a unique culture. That was what she had thought was the point of anthropology. Wasn’t the idea to interpret them so that they would be respected, protected, and willing participants in the future?

What happened to that idea? Was it wrong from the beginning? Now it seemed as though people were full of hatred, paranoid about any inquiry, demanding money and demanding control though they had no idea what was going on. They wanted “this” — but when you gave them “this,” they said they had really wanted “that,” and if you showed them a paper contract or even a tape recording, they claimed they were tricked. But they had no idea of what academic rewards were: tenure, publication, respect from one’s peers. They had no idea about the definition of a discipline, like anthropology — and now the whole field was morphing so quickly — both in response to the changing world and in response to more sophisticated methods (but were they?), how could anyone get sense out of it?

So she backed off to not looking for sense, though a friend of hers had once remarked that painting was the most cerebral of the art forms. One had to constantly think about the focus, the implications of using a warm color here and cool there, how to make a brush stroke that caressed, delineated, illuminated… It was true. If she didn’t keep focus, the painting was no good and at the end of the day she scraped off as much paint as she could so she could re-use the canvas.

Was that what was happening to intellectual disciplines? Was this a time in which paint was being scraped off the canvas? Who was doing it? Which thinkers?
A knock on the door of the studio. It was Doogie. His buzz cut was growing out and he’d gained a little more weight so his t-shirt crept up from his belt, exposing a brown belly. He wanted to ask her some questions.

“What kind of paint should I use on buckskin?”

“What are you doing, Doogie?”

“I want to paint on this piece of deerhide I have.”

“Commercially tanned or Indian tanned?”

“My auntie brain-tanned it a long time ago. Want me to get it from the pickup?” He didn’t wait. In a minute he was back with it rolled up under his arm. It was dark and smoky. He threw it out over the old wicker chair.

“I dunno, Doogie. The smoke might interfere. The best thing to do is to test a little corner, see what works. It’s so dark that you might have to use thick paint to get the image to show.” They bent over the supple hide.

“Maybe I ought to use it for beading — cut it up.” She didn’t answer but she didn’t like the idea. “But I do a lot of body work, you know, on cars? And I got a LOT of car body paint left over.”

She had a sudden flash of what metallic paint might look like on this old soft hide. What would gold or silver look like? “What are you going to paint? Old-style horses and warriors? A war story?”

He looked at her, balancing the risks of telling her the truth. “A Thunderbird.” She looked surprised. “You know Thunderbird?”

“The huge bird that lives on top of Chief Mountain and comes in spring thunderstorms.”

He relaxed a little. “That one. You know that Thunderbird fought the Water Monster, the one that lives at the bottom of lakes and swallows our people? I want to paint that battle on here.”

“It’s a beautiful myth, Doogie.”

“Not no myth — it really happened,” now Doogie was alarmed again. Danged white women never REALLY understand. “I’ve seen the bones, really I have.”

Clare was silent, thinking about the concern and frustration in his face. “It must have been quite a battle. Good against bad.”

“Yeah. Water Monster is evil but Thunderbird ROCKS.” In her mind she saw “rocs” as in Sinbad the Sailor. She stroked the leather. Just accept his reality, she thought. “Doogie, I think if you tried a little lacquer thinner on a scrap off the edge, just to get rid of oil, and then painted a little bit, it might work for a good test.”

“Thanks, Missus.” He rose with dignity, rolled up his hide and left. His old pickup hammered and smoked its way down the hill.

That night Clare dreamt of the battle between the Water Monster and the Thunderbird, the surging up with gaping jaws like a shark, sending shock waves of water flying — the Thunderbird coming down out of a cloud with outstretched huge flapping wings, grabbing with outstretched claws like grappling hooks. Strangely there was a soundtrack — “Rites of Spring,” the Stravinsky sequence that Walt Disney made famous.

Of course! How many times had she seen Fantasia? Dinosaurs! Doogie’s Thunderbird and Water Monster bones were fossil bones from dinosaurs. He HAD seen them, the bones eroding out of the Montana prairie as they did all the time. Had he seen “Fantasia?” She’d ask him. On campus it was fashionable to watch that movie while high on acid.

Poems on a Sleepy Afternoon

I meant, innocently enough, to bring some boxes into the house and do a bit of sorting. I brought in THREE boxes and soon had piles everywhere. And finally I found the poems I wrote — the ONLY poems I’ve written.

On a quiet afternoon at Heart Butte School, we were working on poetry. We were really in the right mood for it. I’d say, “Let’s write a poem about horses!” And we’d do it. “Let’s write a poem about grandmas!” And we’d do it.

Then the kids said to me, “You’re always telling US what to do. Let us give you subjects and YOU write ‘em.” Okay.

Write one about love!

Love is a silver fish
Leaping in my heart.
It lives in another world
Liquid and cool and sometimes blue.
If love is dragged out into the light,
It dies gasping.

No, no! One about TEENAGED love!

I was only a trembling leaf until you
came like a wind
and sent me sailing.
Now I lie over your heart, green and tender
and ready to grow.
Your heart is thumping under me, as red as
I am green.
Our tender time togther will grow to a great
branching tree of love and shelter.

Now write a SEXY one!

I was hanging out the wash.
He handed me the pins.
I shook out his worn workshirt
and he put his arms around me.
The wind slapped the wet shirt against us
and we both laughed.
It took both of us to spread the sheets out in the sun.

Now one about love ending.

This morning the world died.
The sun plunged into a coal mine.
Now I hardly remember how it was —
only that I loved you
and you loved me.
But what could it have meant?
The world is dead.

Now write one about how it feels to be me, to be us.

Unseen, I mingle with you —
tip-toeing through your lives.
What are you about?
What do you have that I could take for mine?
I hear your secrets and see your skins —
You don’t seem so different from me.

But I’m invisible.

Both Sides Now (Bundle Opening)

Following is part of “Both Sides Now,” which is what one might call filtered autobiography since it uses me (a 70 year old woman) but as a painter rather than writer, an Indian man (a composite of a dozen Blackfeet I know, often former students who are still friends), and a sort of archetypal anthro/professor who has more to do with my Unitarian world than rez life. This is an argument about the huge shift in academia that left not only individuals but whole disciplines high and dry — a sea change entirely invisible to people on reservations and yet affecting them deeply in terms of how they think of themselves and what resources they might find. The painter is an observer, a conduit. “Clive” is an example of a type. These are all things I think about all the time. I do NOT think of publishers. They are indeed a pain in the ass.

CLIVE AND BUNDLE OPENINGS

The first time they had gone to a Thunder Pipe Bundle Opening, she had had no idea at all what to expect, what to wear, what to take along. Clive didn’t seem to have a very clear notion either, though he’d read a great deal about it. The accounts were all historical. No one in the Sixties seemed to be aware the ceremony still lived — it was below the perception of even the anthropologists. She had taken a dance shawl, the kind with a long silk fringe on it, thinking that it might be like church where one was supposed to cover up, maybe even cover one’s head. But it turned out to be so very warm and humid — late spring, which is a rainy season, and many people packed into a small house — and they sat so long on the floor that she ended up folding it into a cushion. At least she was against the wall where she could lean her back and there was an open window with air coming in, but the drawback was that restless small children climbed in and out over the top of her, sometimes spilling their pop on her. Once a little girl reached through the window, patted her bright springy hair, then shrieked and ran off. Women sat on one side, men on the other.

They were the only white people there. Clive had been given a folding chair, since he was older, and he was clearly having a wonderful time. What she called his “James Willard Schultz side” was showing, though he usually tried to suppress it as too romantic for a professional anthropologist. Still, it explained his overwhelming love for this particular group of people and his deep desire to understand everything, no matter discomfort or resistance. She herself was not interested in being an active participant in such ceremonies, preferring to devote all her attention to absorbing the sensory richness of faces, light, smudge, drums and voices. She wanted to be what Emerson called “a transparent eyeball” — seeing but unseen. But Clive would be taking mental notes and long into the night would be putting them onto paper. It was, of course, forbidden to write or draw during the ceremony.

The old people, in their eighties, were more inclined to be like her, just present and absorbing, than like Clive’s effort to be both “in” the ceremony and reflecting upon it. He would have loved to have “become” a faux Indian and could probably do a convincing job of it with his beak of a nose and tendency to tan easily, but he was also watching himself and everyone else, trying to be a camera/recorder. He wanted to be part of the “in-group” he was observing while still preserving his status as a professional, his refuge in an ivory tower.

After that first time, they knew to bring old sofa cushions to sit on, bowls for the berry soup, and lots and lots of dollar bills to hand out. Clive was careful to explain to her that these ceremonies were meant to distribute wealth from those who had it to those who needed it. This was not a matter of greed, but there were also elements of compliment — one gave money to a particularly evocative dancer — and competition — the Canadians showed off by giving away more money than the Americans. Little rivalries developed where one man gave another a bit of money, only to have the second man give it back with interest the next time one of his relatives danced. The money exchange was accompanied by eloquent speeches, but they were in Blackfeet. Clive had not mastered Blackfeet so he get an informant to explain in the coming days. There was no way to find out how accurate the interpretation would be.