Tuesday, November 25, 2008


This is a set of the paired chapters that Tim Barrus and I are writing by alternating with each other. We don’t seem much alike on the surface, but often are in deep accord.


I do not have to name this tribe. Because I'm the one writing the story. And I already know who these people are.

What you know is incidental and not my fucking problem. I don't care what you know or don't know. You are only the reader and I am not responsible either for you or to you. I don't know you or want to know you. I will not be appearing in your local bookstore.

If you need something conventional to read, go read Sherman Alexie.

I assume he's conventional. But I really wouldn't know because I've never read one word by Sherman Alexie whoever he is. Sherman Alexie just doesn't interest me. I do not care about him.

This is not about him even if at some point he whines it is. It isn't.

I was working in a place that took in very damaged children who were from a variety of tribes. We gave them a safe place to live.

That was it.

No mumbojumbo. No Freud. It was a safe place where they didn't get beat up or murdered.

The various tribes themselves placed the children here.

I did mainly everything but one of the things I did was go get kids.

This could be a drive of thousands of miles.

If I named the tribe, all it would do would be to open up old wounds. Why would I do that. In the name of journalism. Please.

Get a life.

I drove an old jeep we had. I drove and drove and drove and drove.

Then, I got to the reservation.


The children consisted of three brothers.

Mainly, they were three normal little boys who lived on a reservation with their mom and dad out in the country. End of story, right.

Not quite.

A few days before I arrived to pick them up and take then somewhere safe, they had all been sitting down to dinner one night.

Mom had a gun. Dad had a gun. Both guns hidden from sight under the table.

Mom brought out her gun and shot dad in the head.

Before dad died, he shot mom in the head.

This in front of three little boys who were simply sitting at the kitchen table.

Mom and dad were dead.

The three boys had to wade through snow in the dark to go find help. Now, they were traumatized. Severely.

The tribe wanted them off the reservation. Because families were beginning to take sides and it was feared that the brothers would become victims of one side or the other.

Like they weren't victims enough.

They were staying at Grandma's house and Grandma wanted them off the reservation, too, because people were driving by the house and taking pot shots at it. It was my normal pickup and delivery errand. It was not the first time this sort of errand had been stuck in my inbox.

I found grandma's house easily enough.

The word I would use to describe Grandma would be terrified.

She immediately helped me pack the brothers in the jeep and we were off. They didn't have shit. Not so much as a coat.

No lunchbox. No nothing.

Not even socks.

I'm a white guy. I had credit cards.

We drove and we drove and we drove and we drove.

We came to a large American city.

We went to a five star hotel and checked in. No big deal. I have spent half my life in hotels.

Secret. Don't tell anyone. I like them.

I want to live at the Brown Palace in Denver.

We had dinner. Room service.

Then, we went shopping.

We bought cowboy boots and coats and toys and clothes and Flintstones lunchboxes.

The brothers never said a word. Not one sound.

"They stopped speaking," Grandma told me. And she wept.

I don't know if it was a community decision but a decision had been made. They would never speak again. To anyone.

And they never have. They had made their decision. They stuck with it. Since leaving the house, to wade through that darkness and the snow, leaving behind the bodies of their parents, they have never said a solitary word. And the rest is history. Even if it's not a history you would know. History doesn't care what you know. History only is.

Their house was now splattered with blood. They reached a neighbor's house (about two miles away), and all they did was point.

That night we arrived in White people Town, they slept in their own hotel room. There was a connecting door to me in case they needed me.

I did not really care if they talked or not. They would talk when they were ready. or not.

Not speaking is a kind of power, too.

It was after midnight. They came into my room in the dark in their new pajamas. They crawled into the bed.

I could have left that out. It would have been the appropriate thing to do.

It wasn't sex.

It was tears and noses and snot and hugs. That is all it was. I do not give a fuck what you or what anyone thinks about it.

I took them to the safe place. Where they lived for a while. They never spoke.

They would eventually return to their reservation. Today, they are fine. They just never speak and the rest is not history -- it is silence. -- T

<span style="font-weight:bold;">A RESPONSE ABOUT SHERMAN ALEXIE

There has been twice in my life as an adult that I broke down and sobbed with a broken-heart -- I mean, big ugly ripping sobs. One was when I graduated from NU and realized that I would never again be part of that magical community in the theatre department. The other was after the superintendent (white) at Heart Butte forced me out because he couldn’t control me. I returned to Portland again. When my mother heard me sobbing, she went to the back of the yard and smoked to keep from hearing. She didn’t come to me. She didn’t think I should have been on the reservation anyway. She didn’t believe she could comfort me. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to say I couldn’t come back to what she considered my “home.”

No Blackfeet in Heart Butte tried to oppose that superintendent. They didn’t think I was a bad teacher. They were not happy to see me go. But they thought that white people were different from them and that white people had their own agendas and resources. It never occurred to them that I was leaving into the 1991 recession with no savings. It was one of my several Barrus-type falls to the bottom.

While I was there, living on a rollaway on my mother’s sun porch, I went job-hunting every day and haunted Powell’s every night. That’s when the Native American literature renaissance was just at the top of its arc and disillusioned publishers were dumping books by Indians into the remainder bins. They didn’t really know how to market them and didn’t have the patience to wait for word-of-mouth to get around. The Indian writers themselves came through to do readings and I spoke to many of them. One of my former students, Robey Clark, who is also an Indian writer, talked me into the internet bulletin boards where they discussed Indian literature. Every time I found a remaindered “Nat lit” book at Powells in the evening, I’d buy three: one for me, one for the Heart Butte school library (there is no other library there), and one for the Browning library.

The first of Barrus’ Nasdijj books didn’t come out until the year after I’d returned here to Valier at the edge of the rez, so I didn’t find them at Powell’s. Instead I ran across “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” in the Daedalus remainder catalogue. Highly recommended, many prizes. Must have been about 2004. I read it and loved it, never thought much about whether it had been written by a Navajo but it sounded authentic. Identity politics were pretty worn out by then. But when I began to try to find out more about Nasdijj, I ran into the controversy. Not only was he not Navajo, it was declared, he wrote porn. Well, there’s porn and porn. Like, not “is it about spanking or leather” but is it well-done or just pulp truckstop porn? Porn can be highbrow, even literature.

On Abebooks I ordered some of the Barrus “porn,” which turned out to be about two men, one taking care of the other. I know now where that kernel-story comes from: a little boy trying mightily to save his father. Sometimes trying to save a beloved friend or brother. He writes it over and over. It’s not salacious and in-your-face so much as it’s flesh trying to real-life redeem much-loved flesh. But you have to listen for that. Then on my computer I was watching the melodramatic soap opera blog of the chase across the continent by Barrus and his boys, sending guerrilla messages -- often in shocking images -- on a war-correspondent’s cell phone parabolic satellite hookup. Suddenly it stopped.

Barrus had been so thoroughly vilified and indicted-without-trial that his books were off the market and his career was ended. He moved to Europe. What no one seemed to know was that he’d also suffered from avascular necrosis, had done much of his book promotion in a wheelchair, and used the proceeds to get his hips replaced. The third Nasdijj book, “Geronimo’s Bones” (2004), was written while he was recovering from both the surgery and the drugs necessary to survive it. When he was awarded the PEN prize for the best minority-written book, he was flattened in a borrowed cabin, trying to stay alive post-op with the help of Tina, his wife, and Navajo, the dog. His publisher (who knew he was not Indian and not named Nasdijj) had proposed him for the prize (authors can’t do it), and accepted the $1,000 award in his name. The publishers had made a great deal of money by promoting “Nasdijj,” but as soon as the jig was up, they abandoned him.

In 2006 Sherman Alexie, the only Native American writer many readers know -- usually because of his movies rather than his books -- wrote a nasty little attack essay in Time magazine. He said, “As a Native American writer and multiculturalist, I worried that Nasdijj was a talented and angry white man who was writing as a Native American in order to mock multicultural literature.” Sherman was right about the “talented and angry” and even the “white” but why can’t a white man be a “multiculturist?” Sherman was following the lead of a story in the LA Times “unmasking” Nasdijj. He’d evidently forgotten that in 2003 he participated in a Museum of Tolerance project. I’m sure he remembered that Oprah had him on her program in 2003 and I’m sure he thought he was following up on Oprah’s sensational witch hunt of James Frey, whose crime was not pretending to be Indian but pretending to be more wicked than he really was.

In 1999 I saw Sherman on the “Lehrer News Hour Dialogue on Race with President Clinton,” where Sherman was the soul of discretion and respect. I was on the early Nat Lit bulletin board when Sherman was on it and remember that he quit with hurt feelings because someone (might’ve been me) mocked his intention to write like a best selling author. I saw him speak in Portland and went backstage to meet him. He’s a great stand-up comedian.

Sherman is an assimilated Indian. Maybe he had it tough as a kid, but not anymore. He’s doubly ghettoized by being an “Indian writer” and by his Hollywood-style “Falls Apart” operations (see the website). At age 42 he has turned to “youth literature” to re-energize his career. “NA Lit” is said to be worn out, kaput. (It’s NOT really. Just out of sight.) Sherman always wanted to be mainstream anyway, but his Seattle noir novel mocking Hillerman went nowhere. I’m the only person I know who likes it, but then I have a very broad concept of what NA writers ought to write.

I could write rather a wicked little piece comparing some NA lit to pornography: voyeuristic, sensational, promising a world “never dreamt of,” forbidden to most, shamanic -- in short, “tomahawk sniffing.” People want the imagined privilege, and all that.

In my opinion Sherman’s best short story so far is one that got him into trouble. (Good writing will do that.) Called “The Toughest Indian in the World,” it seemed to be about an old prize fighter Indian who attaches himself to a young male Indian journalist and even goes to bed with him. He is “beautiful and scarred” and he wants to be “inside” the young man. But he can’t “cum” as Barrus would spell it. He leaves, walks down the highway, rises into the sky and becomes a constellation. He is the spirit of Indian, the 19th century glorified, impossible, poetic and still existent Indian that just won’t die. The barefoot young journalist follows up into the sky and the last sentence is one Sherman has used more than once: “If you had broken open my heart you could have looked inside and seen the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.”

No feathers. No horses. Sherman is a fish Indian. I like him best when he’s not joking around. Everyone thought he’d gone homosexual. That will haunt him now for the rest of his life, though he’s married with two sons. He could tell Oprah about it. For sure Barrus doesn’t care to hear about it. And I’m only vaguely interested. I’m home again, just off the Blackfeet rez, which has come to join me. My neighbors next door, across the street and across the alley are Indians from Heart Butte. The woman who runs the Title 5 Indian program was a toddler when I taught there. She says they have now acquired the “entire works of Sherman Alexie.” She hasn’t read them. She has a baby who keeps her busy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A note on style. The faux dramatic is straight out of Jim Bishop, the 50s newsman and magazine writer who employed it so well.

Richard Wheeler