Now that I’m dead it’s much easier to understand what happened. Time is changed after you die. It’s like water and you can swim in it, so that it goes forward and backwards and has waves in it but no temperature. It was night time, the coldest part of a January night before there was any light yet and the trees groan and pop. I was glad to be under the buffalo robes between my mother and father. I dreamt the horses were running so the ground shook and then it was true, but they were not our horses because there was jingling and the creaking of leather. Then the shooting began.
My father grabbed me up in his arms, and my mother scrabbled quickly to find the Peace Paper that would tell soldiers to leave us alone. She had made a little case for it that hung with the Pipe Bundle on a tripod. She pushed it into my father’s hand, between his hand and me where he held me against his chest. As he stepped out of the lodge, there was a whispering sound as the bullet pierced through the paper. Then I felt it go through me -- between ribs, through my lungs and then I couldn’t breathe. My father made a sound I can’t describe and fell. Then I heard my mother give a sound, the sound of her life leaving her. Not quite a cry. It was too fast to understand.
I only lived a little while with the big dark horses rushing back and forth and the men’s voices shouting at each other. Not our men, who were away hunting, but those white men all muffled up in heavy coats and hats pulled down but I could see that there were stripes down the sides of their legs. Their guns exploded and their sabers flashed. Panting of horses and men showed as pale vapor in light from fires set by the soldiers.
Our people, women and children and old people, were quiet. They didn’t cry out or shout because that would attract the attention of the nearest soldiers. They saved all their breath for running, dodging into shadows and through brush, pulling and carrying children. It was all over in minutes.
Then I lay on my father’s body, which was still warm, though I was cooling myself, while the soldiers went on burning the lodges even if there were people inside, the people who had smallpox and were too weak to escape. Lying there dead with my eyes open, it wasn’t until the sun came up that I could see the blood on the snow, just dark smears until there was enough light to show red. At first the light was silver except for the blood and the charred things, but then it warmed to golden and the sky cleared to blue, such a blue. By then the cavalry was gone. Everything was silent. Charred lodgepoles still fumed and flickered soundlessly, rigid triangles over the black remains heaped inside and out.
From far away came singing. The People came walking in a long procession, all the People who had died so many ways but were still somehow moving through time because there was no time now, just the place, and we were all together as a tribe. We newly dead rose. I was happy to be walking between my mother and father. The snow was sand under our feet and drifts were sarvisberry bushes in bloom.
Maybe you’ve figured out that this is an experiment to see if I could summon up a word picture of the Baker Massacre that was new. Usually battles are a man-thing with a lot of emphasis on who dominated, who had to submit. So I thought of the most unlikely point of view: a girl, a girl who is already dead, like the narrating heroine of “The Lovely Bones”. It’s known that Heavy Runner was shot while holding up his letter of protection and that the same bullet killed the daughter in his arms, so that’s where I started.
One of my premises is that death, once you cross over, is not painful but rather a kind of bemusement, transparent but not agitated -- “swimming.” It’s a strange phenomenon that understating something horrific can be more powerful than the gory details.
The librarian at BCC said that they were still having to address the problem of students with weak writing skills. They’re not stupid -- all of them can speak eloquently -- but somehow there’s something about writing that makes their brains go flat. Partly it’s because they don’t read any more than is strictly necessary, but there’s something more. I think it’s because they haven’t had the experience of falling through the words into another world, what some people call “immersive.” It’s like an addiction. What they read doesn’t “hook” them. How can it when it’s not about them? There are exceptions.
In this story I tried the trick Jim Welch used at the end of “Fool’s Crow” which was also about the Baker Massacre. Instead of letting it end on horror and injustice, he summons up a vision of the People traveling on with their travois and dogs into some protected place where the past can continue to unspool.
This is not just an invention of his own. When someone on the rez has a close brush with death, like being in a car accident that leaves them suffering in a snowbank all night before they are found, they will often report that this procession of All the People, the Nitzitahpi, passed by them and that they tried to join it. They will say that their grandmother, the most recent family member to die, was at the end and when they tried to go with her, she turned and made them go back to Life, even using a quirt to beat them into turning back -- because the suffering want to go with their Tribe but they shouldn't unless it's time. It’s an illustration of the essential truth that to tribal people it is the survival of the tribe that counts more than any individual, which is why speaking the language -- the main marker of the tribe -- is so crucial. But an individual has a story, too.
Some people, immersion readers, will not want to know the things I’ve just told about how and why I wrote this little piece. They’re the same people who never want to know how movies and sausages are made -- they cling to their illusion. But it’s like that thing about being inside the circle and outside the circle: inside, the illusion is strong and convincing; outside, it’s clear that it was conjured and can be summoned. There's skill to it. The true writer and the stronger power is to be able to call up the circle, but then also to cross its boundary and inhabit a dream. Dreams are also real.
Where it really happened