32. I’m at the park with this Winnebago college student I met when she was the lone Native student in an Indian Studies class I talked to (I always tell people, “I talk about what it’s like to be an Indian living in the modern world.”). We’re on this dock, looking out over the mostly thawed lake. “Do you think I should jump in?” she asks. “It’s probably pretty cold,” I say. “If I jump in, will you?” I think of the two of us going back to my place to shed our wet clothes but then since this is our first time hanging out, or for whatever reason, my kind of real self answers, “No. But if you want to, you should. If you want to, just do it.” A look of serious consideration comes over her. “My mom would tell me to just jump in.” “Just jump in then.” “You won’t let me drown, will you?” “No.” “All right, then. I’m doing it.” She kicks off her shoes, peels off her socks, climbs up onto the railing of the dock and teeters there; she’s gorgeous but maybe a bit too young. She leaps off and vanishes down into the dark brown water, is completely gone for a long, long series of seconds, and then: “Okay! Okay! It’s freezing! Help me up!” I grab ahold of her soaked person and pull her back up, out of the water, and over the railing. She’s shivering. “How was it then?” “It was great,” she says, “but even colder than I thought. Can we go back to my place. I need to change.” I touch her shoulder, several strains and maybe even contradictory kinds of wanting present within me. “You are cold. Okay. Let’s go.”
31. About Chelsea, I told a friend, “If I could materialize my dream woman out of thin air she’d probably be Chelsea. That’s how cool and beautiful and deep and brilliant she is.”
Chelsea squats naked in the shore waters of her beloved Columbia River; I walk up wearing my shorts; she looks over at me with this innocent woman’s smile like we’re maybe somehow temporarily in a place beyond sex (and maybe she’s right); a part of me would really like to take her unclothed self in but I respect her and her partner too much so I just return her smile in kind and then put my eyes back on this indescribable river, this woman of the Pacific Northwest who was calling me over to come and meet her from the moment we all set our towels and stuff down in the sand.
Some wine in my belly, I slowly walk out, my arms lifted up like a man who hasn’t gone swimming in awhile (kind of the case), and then I make it to the beautiful fuck-it point and just dive in. Swimming to the bottom, it’s like I hear, We’ve all been waiting for you; It’s so great to finally have you out here. I surface, feel like I’m the tiniest pulse of electricity in a big loving piece of the spinal cord of this region; It’s an honor, I say back in my thoughts, It’s an honor to have found myself in such a beautiful place.
When I finally come back out of the water, a small stone in my hand, I see that Chelsea is far off from everyone else sitting and making something in the sand. I wonder what she’s thinking; I wonder what she’s feeling.
Sitting back down on my towel, Liv says, “It’s a beautiful river, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I say. “Do you think I could have some more wine?”
30. Sitting in Barbara’s jeep with Liv while her and Chelsea have run inside the Amish family’s house (which has four wood-stoves burning inside) to buy some eggs and butter from them. It took me a couple days to get a read on Liv, to really relax some, and get some of her spiritual complexity. I feel curious now, my defenses set aside, interested like a new colleague or someone hoping to become friends with this rad person they’ve just met.
“Liv,” I ask, “What’re you thinking about?”
She’s been quietly sitting in the back seat, looking out the window.
“I was looking at that chicken over there and thinking about how I’d like to offer it to Spirit.”
(Liv comes from a West African tradition that still practices animal sacrifice.)
“What’re you thinking about?”
I kind of laugh to myself.
“I was just thinking about and wondering what you were thinking about.”
I turn around and look at her.
“Oh,” she smiles and then laughs, a daydreamer come back to reality. “I see.”
29. Driving with Liv and Chelsea through Norfolk, I point out the window to where my grandma Barb lives. “She’s only a few blocks over there, behind that restaurant. Maybe on our way back we can stop and visit her, not for too long, just for an hour or so. She’s on oxygen. She’s been battling brain cancer. I don’t think she has too much time left.”
Driving back through Norfolk after a couple of densely packed days up on Santee and in Niobrara, I look out the window to where my grandma’s house is. I think I kind of know that if we don’t stop I’ll probably never see her again in this life. Neither Liv nor Chelsea bring up stopping, having most certainly forgotten my one comment in the sandstorm of everything that’s been said and that’s happened since then; I hate inconveniencing people, or is it something else? When my grandpa Taylor died, our whole family lost its center and just fell apart. One uncle in a homeless shelter in Lincoln, an aunt at the homeless shelter in Norfolk, another uncle brain damaged and in an assisted living center because of drugs, another aunt sentenced to seven years for dealing meth just a few months earlier. I think at some point everyone just quit going around each other because it was just too painful to be faced with the reality of what life was for all of us, of what it used to be when I was little and they were all younger, and of what it was now, with everything narrowed and dark, unchanging and just getting worse. I spent my twenties Sundancing and trying to save my family. Now I was clawing my way back to trying to feel like I just even wanted to live at all anymore; now I was just trying to feel like living was what I still really wanted to do.
My grandma’s house passes behind us and I just look forward, hearing the door close behind me, sensitive to my complicity, vaguely sad but not too much; another moment of poor human weakness, tossed behind me and added to the rest.
28. Drunk after work at this single mother’s apartment who I’ll date for about a week before what I know about her makes me bail. Her daughter’s out in the front room entertaining herself, watching a movie, watching herself.
She goes down on me and then I buckle and come and slip away and then come back, several pleasure-soaked versions of myself cooling back down into a single drunken man.
She comes up and starts kissing me. She looks at the scars on my chest, closes her eyes and slowly kisses the biggest one. No woman’s ever kissed my piercing scars before. She regards them for a second, like a woman who can see that a deformity is not really a deformity, and then she nuzzles in close, holding me like I’m the tree that she wants to hold onto the next time a big storm comes through.
I hear her daughter playing out front, talking to herself, and then I doze off.
27. A dream-
I’m walking through some near-abandoned old-time tourist town on the edge of a National Park. I walk past a hippie store, other empty shops with no one in sight. I walk until I exit the town and then start to follow a road into the park, walking on the side, checking out the gorgeous big old trees as they grow thicker and fuller all around me.
Then a big bus pulls up beside me. It’s a tourist bus. Down a little ways past where this road terminates there’s this sacred site that the park has respectfully preserved and apparently set up a tour around. Tons of people disembark and start walking in the same direction as me. An African family dressed in long white ankle-length clothes comes over to me. The patriarch knows me and happily introduces me to his wife and kids. They’re like sacred, spiritually empowered Christians. “Cliff is holy,” the patriarch says with a big smile. “He has visions, like our prophets do.” His kids embrace me, one grabbing one of my hands, another grabbing the other. We hold hands and walk together, following everyone else to the sacred site.
The site is a huge stone wall at the foot of a butte that everyone sits in front of like people picnicing in front of a drive-in movie screen. It’s dark and night out now. Huge ancient symbols appear like projections on the stone and old extinct civilizations are discussed. Then I look up in the sky and, away from the stone, floating in the air, there’s a crackly, black-and-white spirit-movie that’s begun playing. I look around to see if anyone else is seeing it but it doesn’t look like it.
The movie shows a long line of old-time Indians standing in their full regalia, waiting to get their picture taken by this white guy with an old-style camera from the 1800s. An Indian sits in a chair in front of the camera, the man takes his picture, and then he gets up and leaves and then the next one sits down. This is basically what’s going on except I can feel what’s happening inside all of these old warriors’ spirits. They all look defeated, wrecked, in terrible, pitiful pain, husks, barely holding it together. And I can see that every single one of them is standing there with their spirit broken in half because they failed utterly as warriors, as men, being ultimately unable to protect and defend their women and children and elders and tribe from the enemy, from the government, the soldiers, the life-taking evil of America. They’re ashamed and broken inside as deeply as they can be; everything is lost; they failed who and what they existed to protect; overcome, decimated, rolled over. A current of total heartbreak is moving through them and pouring down out of them and into me, filling my heart, making me feel with my spirit what they’re feeling in theirs, showing me that this brokenness goes so deep that it’ll travel down through all of our Indian men for generations and generations, filling them with this story of total failure and then half the time virally turning their own personal life into another permutation of that exact same story; their pain echoing forward, crying itself out through the material of the generations, the sobs passing from father to son, and then father to son, and then father to son.
I start bawling with grief as all of those old-time Indians’ hearts pour out of that spirit-movie and down into mine. I turn to the people around me, almost in a kind of panic, “Can you see this?! Can you see this?!”
No one pays me any mind. I continue to look up at these men moving along in their line, getting their picture taken (the final blow: to have their spirit taken?), broken inside for what feels like will be forever.
I cry and cry, all of their pain taking me over, and then I wake up.
26. I had a high school friend who worked and lived on a farm for years after we’d graduated. Sometimes on the long drive coming back from Santee I’d crash at his place. If I forgot to roll up my windows my car would smell like cow shit inside for days.
One night I showed up and there was a possum sitting in the front yard, its eyes shining.
I knocked, told my buddy about the possum.
“Hold on,” he said.
He disappeared inside, came back out with a gun, took aim, and then shot and killed the possum at point blank range.
“Jesus,” I said.
Another time he was working on my car in the shop he used on the farm. There were all these cute kittens running around our feet, little loving furballs hanging out with us and meowing all day.
When I came back a few weeks later and we were in the shop again, I asked him, “Where are all the little kittens at?”
“They’re all dead,” he said.
“Yup, winter’s here. They all froze to death.”
“You let them all die?”
“They’re farm cats,” he said. “I can’t take care of them all. If they can’t survive on their own then they die. That’s the way it is on the farm.”
“Jesus,” I said again, thinking about all of them, their fur and eyes, their scampering. “Man…”
25. I have a dream with Liv. She and I are talking at the campground, she’s telling me things the little people are relaying to her. “When they ask you to sing a song, Cliff, they’re not just asking you to sing for the hell of it. They’re asking you to sing because they need that song, they need that song to help them with what they’re doing.” I listen and nod in understanding. In a vision off to the side of her I can see the little people behind this tree, me singing, and them gracefully and kinetically making medicine like a crew of master cooks all perfectly coordinated and whipping up a bunch of dishes in the kitchen. “You’ve got to learn to sing, Cliff, so that when they ask you for a song you have one. They want you to learn the songs. They want you to sing for them.”
24. In another dream the next night Liv tells me, “Some people are here at this ritual because they’re looking for healing and then some are here because they’re on a journey to recover lost things.”
23. Ten years old, standing in line behind the best player on our soccer team, the assistant coach’s son. “Back up, half-breed,” he says. No one’s ever called me that before but somehow I get what he’s talking about. I don’t say anything back to him but all the way into my twenties I remember the insult and think of beating the fuck out of him every time I see him.
22. I had a friend whose parents were very rich when I was in elementary school. His dad was part owner of Glur’s Tavern, the longest continuously running bar West of the Mississippi. Sometimes he’d give us all arcade money for picking up cigarette butts from the bar’s outdoor seating area; a dime a butt, and there were hundreds.
I remember sitting in the living room with my friend, Beau, and overhearing a heated exchange in the kitchen behind us about how Beau’s dad didn’t want him hanging out with me, going into all these ugly reasons about my family and how poor we were but really, as my perceptive mind caught it back then, because of something to do with my skin color and my being Indian. Beau’s mom stood up for me, tried to hush him. It must not’ve worked, because after that Beau told me I wasn’t allowed to come over to his house anymore, and then after that we kind of quit hanging out altogether.
A few times when I was a lost, depressed teenager and then early twentysomething, Beau’s mom pulled over and asked me if I needed a ride when I was out walking. I always told her I was okay but to me I could see this guilt in her face, like she was offering to help me because she remembered what her husband had said about me just like I did, like she felt bad and wanted to make up for that.
She was so nice. I don’t hold anything against her. If I bumped into her today I’d have any conversation she wanted to have with me. If she offered me a ride, I’d probably take it.
Read “66 Things I’ve Experienced As An Indian part 1” here
Cliff Taylor is an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He has written a book on Native spirituality, The Memory of Souls, a book of short stories about the stand for water in Standing Rock, Standing Rock Stories, and a memoir about coming-of-age in Nebraska, Special Dogs, all of which are unpublished. His dream is to see those books in print and to use his words to help his people. He currently resides in New Orleans, where he is hard at work on his next book. Contact Cliff @firstname.lastname@example.org