21. Denny’s mom telling us a story in Selfridge- “And then he said, ‘Mom, am I going to be the only Indian in my class again?’” We all start laughing, Denny just shakes his head and continues combing his son’s hair. (In middle school watching Loveline on MTV with my friends, the guest, Poe, wearing a tight t-shirt that says, “Mommy, What’s a Sex Pistol?”)
20. In high school I had an Asian friend named Sui. His parents had arrived in Columbus from China after seven years of living and working in restaurants all across America as illegals; they eventually got their citizenship, bought the Chinese restaurant they were working in, and brought Sui, their youngest son, over to America. After I graduated high school I started working full-time at their restaurant. I was the only totally fluent English speaker there. Sui and I would have these long conversations about movies, history, philosophy, and culture. They kind of got Sui’s dad, Mr. Wong, pissed. “Talky, talky, too much!” he’d say, scowling, like we were butchering his business. “Work! Work!” Sui and I had plans to go to Tibet someday, to travel, stay with relatives of his, visit temples, check out everything we could over there for a couple of months. He worked six days a week, worked out fanatically every day at the YMCA, saved every cent he made. Along these lines, to make a buck and save for these future plans, he bought a tiny, shitty, rancid trailer in the trailercourt where he, his parents, and another worker of theirs all lived together. He planned to fix it up, sell it or rent it out. He asked me if I’d help. I said sure. For two weeks, almost every night after work, I put in some long hours helping him with this completely trashed little trailer. There was carpet on top of carpet. When we ripped one layer off we found tiny toys, cat litter, an even worse smell of piss and God knew what else. Everything had grease on it, was coated with gross sticky shit, was stained, ruined-looking. After these two weeks, I told him, “I think I’m going to have to take a break for awhile. Working at the restaurant and then coming here to do this is just leaving me wiped out. I think I need a couple days off.” Sui got pissed and, riding in his SUV in the dark out in the country, we got into an argument. “You’re going to become just like your dad,” he said, “a loser, spending the rest of your life working in a factory, making no money, living in a shithole, unable to take your kids places and do things!” “I’m not going to become my dad,” I said, getting angry. “Not even fucking close.” “If you’re not willing to go the extra mile you are.” “I’m just fucking tired, Sui. This is like working two jobs and I need a break.” The argument hit a lot of nerves for the both of us and our friendship not only did not recover but ended kind of roughly, both of us stubborn, full of hurt, without the mature adult tools needed for sorting through such an unfortunate escalation of differences. I quit the restaurant and moved to Lincoln to go to college. Sui kept working at his parent’s restaurant and lifting weights. People saw him around and then no one saw him around anymore, knowing nothing about where he went or whatever really happened to him. But for me that was the thing that was too much for my eighteen year old self, too much to hear from a guy I considered a close friend: “You’re going to become just like your dad, you’re going to be a failure just like him.” Back then if I was sure of anything it was that I was not going to become my dad, not going to be just like him when I got older. Back then I wasn’t sure of much but I was sure of that. One time in the kitchen I asked Sui, “Well, what’s the meaning of life then?” “The meaning of life is that you’re alive,” he said, flipping food in his wok. “What’s the meaning of life? To live, that’s the meaning. To live.” His answer was so frustrating to me. I wanted more, something epiphany-producing, the secret revealed. But maybe he was right: maybe the meaning of life is just to live, to live.
19. A few months ago I went to this three day ritual in Oregon that Liv and Chelsea were doing. Just having moved to Seattle, I would be in the area, jobless I had time to attend, but really I felt like maybe I could in some small way pay them back for the unexpected help their visit to Nebraska a few months earlier had generated for me, like maybe I could add my prayers to the mix as a small, completely insufficient first, beginning payment to start to return the favor of the immense help and healing their stop in Nebraska had heaped upon my wounded, ailing system -or something like that. One morning I woke up early, crawled out of my tent and saw that no one else was up and moving yet, and decided to go down to the creek to wash my hair. I grabbed my shampoo and set off. I wove through the campgrounds, passed the big ancestors’ altar we’d all constructed, and went down the little path that led to the creek. I walked the strip of shore till it thinned out, artfully stepped across the bigger rocks that stuck out of the creek, hopped onto the other shore, walked that, crossed the flowing creek once more, and then came to the edge where the creek dropped off and deepened and there was only wilderness around, with no place left to really walk any further. I knelt down, took my shirt off, felt how absolutely cold the water was, prayed to the water and the beings who lived there, felt the vitality that the sunlight gave to me with its warmth in that hidden place. I leaned over, lowered and then dunked my head and face into that freezing, clear water. It pinched my consciousness into a pure wakefulness, like I was some groggy cartoon character suddenly knocked in the head with a large waking-up mallet. It was invigorating. I washed my hair, soaped it up, rinsed it and rinsed it, being thorough, maybe almost masochistically dunking my whole head into that startling cold water again and again. It was a walk of love and gratitude on the way back, keeping my shirt off so that I could keep feeling that warm sun, creek water dripping down my back, the creek shining bright and transparent at my feet. I prayed as I walked, asked the Great Spirit, the spirits and ancestors, the beings who walked with me, to help me see how I could help this community of non-Indians, this great group of people who at first seemed to be so far away from what I was used to experiencing in our ceremonies back home, but who, like Liv and Chelsea when they came through Nebraska, seemed to be quite clearly winning me over more and more with every conversation had and each passing day. Help me to have a good experience, I asked, so that I know what to do in these new situations. Help me to learn how to use what you’ve given me to help everyone, Indian, non-Indian, whoever. Help me with this relatives; Help me. I put my shirt on and walked back up to camp. A couple people were stirring. I went over and got right to the point. “Do you think we should maybe get the coffee going? I don’t know about you but I think I’m ready for a cup.”
18. Leaning on the back of the bleachers at the powwow talking to my great aunt Debbie. My grandpa Clifford has just passed. She was his youngest sister. “When Clifford came back from the war I was a little girl. I remember he opened his suitcase and gave me a whole jar of pennies.” She smiles. Everything is throbbing with the drum. People are strolling behind me, eating vendor food, packs of young kids shyly on the prowl. The images from her stories pass into me like cut out pages from a sacred book I will never get to read the entirety of, that I will never get to actually hold in my own hands; but I do get these pages and so I treasure them. “When Clifford went out on his first date with your grandma Barb they went and rode horses. Clifford didn’t like to ride but Barb wanted to go riding and so he took her out.” We both laugh. I imagine my grandpa as a teenager, meeting my grandma, how much he must’ve liked her, their shadows cast behind them as they ride across the old grasslands of Niobrara at sunset. “I really miss your grandpa,” she says. “We have horses out in Winnetoon. You should come out sometime. We’ll teach you how to ride. You’ll love it.”
17. For years every summer when I went up to the powwow I’d stop in at the Ponca Tribal Museum and spend a couple hours visiting with my great uncle Sandy, our tribal historian and the guy who ran the place. Sandy had a brilliant mind, a deep memory that carried probably more Northern Ponca history and knowledge than anyone else in our tribe, easily. He would greet me warmly but with a tiredness that came with his age, start telling me about some of the work he was doing, what was going on with the tribe, and then he’d get out an album of donated photos from tribal members from all over, going back as far as pictures went, and he’d start telling me family stories, catching me up on a hundred plus years of intricate family history. “Now have you ever heard of so and so?” he’d ask me as I listened intently and politely, like a sincere transfer student who’d already missed most of the semester. “No,” I’d say. “Hmm,” he’d say, “you don’t know much of your family do you?” The last summer before he finally retired (dying less than a year later when his cancer came back and he decided he didn’t want to go through treatment again) I visited with him in his office when I was in the area for the powwow. “Who’s going to replace you here then when you’re done?” I asked him, sitting across his desk with its mountain of stuff on it. “I was always hoping that you would take over,” he said, somewhat distantly. “I always wanted you to get this position after I left.” I always felt great humility around my uncle Sandy, every word he spoke was coming from a place where the most important things lived, from the awakened realm of our Ponca ancestors; every word he spoke was one worth remembering. I didn’t know what to say. In another life what he was saying would’ve been my dream job. In this life I was just disappointing all these older people all the time by not becoming what they wanted me to for our tribe and Indian people. “Man,” I said, shaking my head, declining with my manner and air, “I just don’t know if that’s in the cards for me.” Sandy continued talking and I continued feeling bad for the void that was slowly forming in our tribe as he wrapped things up and made his transition out of there. For years my aunt Debbie would tell me, “You should talk with your uncle Sandy and make some recordings of what he has to say. Pretty soon he won’t be around anymore and then everything that he knows will be gone from us.” I’d always just listen and smile and nod my head, knowing myself and knowing that I wasn’t going to do it for reasons of shyness and fear and other things I couldn’t explain, getting what she was saying but helpless because of stuff in my own character to actually get it done; and then he died and was gone.
16. I was at a ceremony one time when the Ponca Old Ones came in. The moment they came in everyone there just burst out crying, sobbing and sobbing. I started silently crying, too. What was there was something I felt all the time, the grief of the Old Ones for the state our people were in, that felt pain of everything that was impairing and destroying our people, that sadness for all of our relatives’ unending suffering. Now, everyone in the room was feeling it. We cried and listened to what they had to say.
15. After my other grandma died, my grandma Julia, I stopped at my grandpa Zach’s grave in Belden, set some sage and tobacco down on his tombstone (her name was engraved there as well but she wound up buried somewhere else for complicated reasons), and then sat down in the grass and visited with them both for awhile. I just hung my head and prayed, talking to them about everything. I missed them, just wished I could see them again, be young and be hanging out with them again in their old book-filled house. So, I was praying/talking to them, my eyes closed, when suddenly something touched/grazed the hair on the top of my head. I looked up and saw this little yellow bird zooming away, flying off and taking a perch on a branch in a somewhat nearby tree. I was like, What the heck?; Did that bird just fly past me and touch my head while I was praying?; That was weird. I’d never had a wild bird touch me before. I looked at it for a second and then went back to praying. Then, my eyes closed again, that bird did it again, a second time; it flew down while I was praying and touched the top of my head, moving my hair and everything. I opened my eyes and watched it retake its perch, not knowing what to make of it but knowing that it must’ve been a sign. I prayed to the bird some. It flew off. I went back to talking with my grandpa and grandma and finished up without it happening a third time. Back on the highway, I thought to myself, “Touched on the head by that bird twice as I was there praying to my two deceased grandparents? There’s no way that was just coincidence. There’s no way that was just chance.”
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