14. Dennis told me a funny story once. “There was this one Native brother who was always in the hole; every time he got out he’d get into a fight and then go right back in. He always wore shades, never went anywhere without his shades on. One time he came up to me and we were talking and he lowered his shades, looked me right in the eyes, and said, ‘Violence is the only way, brother. Violence is the only way.’ It was fucked up. I started laughing and then later that day he got into another fight and they put him back down into the hole.”
13. Dennis and I pulled over at the edge of town that first summer that I danced. “Do you see those bushes down there, down a ways in all that gnarly brush? Those’re chokecherries. That’s what we’ll make our pegs out of. I’ll show you how. Maybe someday you’ll show your little brother how to make some. This’ll make your dad real proud.”
Over a decade later, drunk in the bar, smoking and loud, a guy my brother graduated with comes over to say hey. “I’m going to text your brother that I’m drinking with you.” He works his phone. A minute later, he says, “Haha. He doesn’t believe me. What should I text him to prove I’m with you?” Half-yelling over all the other people crushed into the smoker’s garden with us, I say, “Ask him how that virgin chest of his is doing!” A few bar seconds later, his friend says, “Fuck, he liked that. He really believes me that I’m getting drunk with you now!” We both laugh and keep on drinking.
12. Yesterday, in City Hall, my phone rang. I walked over to a quieter area by the windows. It was Liv. “The little people came to me just a little bit ago when I was driving home. ‘Call Cliff, call Cliff,’ they said. They want to talk to you.” I laughed, hundreds of Indians and others crowded behind me as a drum group filled the space with their song. “I’m kind of busy. Do you think you could take a message?”
11. A sacred woman in a dream: “Grandpa Sammy says that you can write him letters. He says that he won’t be able to reply to you every time but that he’ll be able to reply to you sometimes. He says to write him and sometimes he’ll be able to write you back.”
Denny: “When we pray to grandpa Sammy there are ties that we make. When you pray to him here are the ties you need to make.”
10. Yesterday was Indigenous People’s Day here in Seattle. We all met downtown, about a hundred of us, and then we marched through the streets to City Hall, following a drum group, carrying signs, representing our solidarity with the people of Standing Rock who’re fighting for our water, our respective tribes, and indigenous people everywhere. It was pretty cool. We stopped in the middle of a main intersection and then did a round dance, filling the air with all the beauty that has been our people’s since forever while surrounded by towering skyscrapers and all the city and modernity you can imagine. We haven’t gone anywhere, was our statement as Indian people; And we’re not going anywhere either; This is our land and we’re here to stay.
City Hall was full of hundreds more. There was so much happiness and joy moving through everyone in there. Eating some of the lunch that was provided, listening to a city council member talk about her journey from the reservation to where she was now, to being a part of getting the resolution to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day passed, this squat old grandma in full regalia, like a chummy visitor from the past, came over to me, leaned in, and asked, “How’s that frybread? Does it taste all right?” Some quick thoughts flashed through my mind. “Yeah, it’s great. It’s really hitting the spot.” “Good, good,” she said, “because I made it and I was worried some. That’s good to hear.”
The keynote speaker was Sherman Alexie. After I threw my lunch plate away and when I was coming back to the event area, a door opened, I stopped to let the person come through the narrow, crowded passage, and then saw that it was Sherman, in his suit and ready for action. I paused and immediately some people came over and asked if they could get a picture with him. He obliged without hesitation. I carefully walked on past.
As I stood listening to the next speaker I looked over and saw that Sherman was standing just a few feet away from me, unbothered, listening himself and waiting to go on. I thought about it for a second and then I was like What the fuck (with a pinch of ‘within reason’), and went over to him. There’re so many ways a person can play any given moment but maybe usually the best bet is to just play it cool and keep it classy? I just felt like seizing the moment but not doing anything more that would take him away from the talk he was minutes away from giving to the hundreds of people who were all assembled there. So, I stepped over to him, extended my hand, shook hands with him when he grabbed mine, and then told him, “Thanks for writing all of your books you’ve written.” Then I smiled and nodded and I guess he kind of saw that that was the only short little thing I wanted to respectfully say, and then he smiled back at me and we both went back to our places and thoughts. Sherman is the shit! Shaking his hand was fucking cool! (Author’s Note: Please see my essay, What The Fuck, Sherman?)
When he got on stage he totally killed it. He was introduced as a National Treasure and it felt so totally true. He is a total gift from the gods to all Indian people everywhere; just as all Indian intellectuals and scholars and non-fiction writers of that bent are seen in contrast and measured in some way against the gargantuan genius of Vine Deloria Jr., so to will all Indian fiction writers, novelists, short story artists, and poets, be judged to some degree in relation to Sherman, the endlessly talented and greatest Indian fiction writer and poet we have so far had. He had everyone there laughing, taking in the complex waves of humor and depth and stories that were rolling out of him effortlessly, ingeniously, and beautifully. He was a man in full possession of and at the height of his powers. He told a story about visiting Indian park here in Seattle a few weeks back, about talking to a homeless Navajo man who asked him to come real close for a second, how he thought this old brother was going to get real deep and spiritual for a second and maybe drop a turquoise pellet in his front pocket or something, but then he just grabbed Sherman’s hair and gently pulled it and shifted it around. “Okay,” the guy said, “it’s not a toupee, I guess. I just needed to check to make sure it was real.” “You see, that’s the beauty and power of our Indian people,” Sherman said, “even a homeless old Native guy can give me shit. We’ve experienced the worst this country has to offer and not only are we still alive and here, we’re still making each other laugh, singing, practicing our cultures, and giving each other shit.”
It was the second time I got to hear the guy speak. It was a joy. His words are the best our collective Indian people’s soul currently has to offer. It was a cool, cool half hour.
Things ended a little early and so I was able to make the long walk to my job and actually get there on time. I was tired but kind of glowing. I scanned people’s groceries, bagged them up and asked all of the standard questions, made the usual fast-paced small talk; but inside I was teetering barefoot on the edge of a great cliff, blessed yet again and sure feeling that I myself was about to have a turn, that I was on the verge, that I was about to jump and fly.
9. Kermit, our Sundance Chief, is talking to the people after we’ve carried in the tree, set it down on the patchwork carpet of all the women’s shawls. It’s getting dark. A lot of us men who carried it in are standing by the warrior’s top, our long flags in our hands, resting for a second, listening.
Kermit says, “The spirits told me, ‘The people have forgotten about the Can Oyate.’” I lean over to my older brother Simon, a scar across his face, nearing sixty but still as strong as any man standing there, and in a whisper ask, “Is the Can Oyate the tree nation?” “Yeah,” he says, “they’re the trees.”
“Someone needs to cry for this warrior,” Kermit says. “He gave his life so that we could do these things, so that we could have this ceremony.”
8. Everyone at the Sundance gathered beneath the arbor behind Simon as, pierced, painted red with zigzags of lightning, he pulls and pulls from the tree, bending it, trying and trying to break free. His children and grandchildren are beside me, the drum is going, we’re all dancing, praying, tears running down our faces. Simon is such a loving man, the kind of father to his kids I’d always wished I’d had. He’s piercing for the trees, because they asked him to, last year and this year; the gigantic old Cottonwoods on our Sundance grounds told him to paint up and pierce for them, to tell the people that they loved them, that they cared for them, that they were people too. He pulls and pulls, leaning all the way back; he slips, going down, catching his breath; his brothers pick him up and help him back to the tree; he puts his hands on it and prays.
7. Sitting with Simon and Josh by Josh’s tent in our camping chairs, smoking cigarettes and talking after the dance is over.
“I was sitting by myself by the sweat last year when those two big Cottonwood trees started talking to me, asking me to pierce for them and to tell the people about their Nation. I talk to all these trees out here. All you have to do is be really silent and listen and you’ll hear them too. They want us to remember them like our ancestors did. Make a prayer and give them that tobacco -that’s all you gotta do. All these trees out here are our relatives and they love us. They want us to know that and we’ve got to remember that.”
6. Denny, me, his kids, and his house guest Josh, who was in Standing Rock for the month-long Lakota language immersion program and then just stuck around, are all gathered up in the living room. Denny clicks on Hellraiser for our family movie night. Josh is trying to wrap some stuff up with a student he’s tutoring on his laptop. “Come on, Josh,” Denny says, “because you haven’t seen this classic this is mandatory viewing for you.” “I’m sorry, Leksi Denny,” Josh says with a smile infused with the sweetness of his soul, “I’ve just never watched a lot of horror movies.” “Damn,” I say to him,“what kind of Indian are you, Josh? I thought all Indians watched horror movies to relax. Right Denny?” “Yeah, as far as I know.” Josh closes his laptop. “There’s still so much for me to learn, I guess. This isn’t too gory, is it?” Denny and I look at each other. “No, brother,” I say, “it has just the right amount of gore and that’s what makes it a classic.”
5. “When I pray I pray with a Sundancer’s heart.”
4. Amanda and I are arguing about rap music, of all things. I’d worked eight hours that night, then drove about ten hours to catch up with Denny and the other runners who were running for the descendants of the survivors of Wounded Knee; I’m now well past being up for twenty four hours straight. Where does all this stuff a person feels come from? Are we sometimes just channels for our ancestors’ feelings, their ongoing story growing within us and then our personal story layering on top of that, the whole thing then becoming the complex, pulsing assemblage of our inner life? Who fucking knows. I just feel this anger made up of so many things and I don’t want it to explode all over Amanda so, after going into a hard, clenched silence for a minute, I tell her, after telling her I wasn’t when she initially asked me if I was, “I’m going to run.”
Our caravan of twenty some cars is slowly moving along some snow-packed Pine Ridge back road; we’re engulfed by darkness, freezing, starting and stopping, doing this for hours. I pull my old war pony over, get out, don’t say anything to Amanda, start running in my jeans and winter coat, pulling my gloves on, heading towards the front. I catch up with two young men (one of whom will be shot and killed later that year) who’re currently running, nod at them and just run and take in the night, the timeless Indian landscape of the vast white silent earth, the hauntedness, the subzero winter chill, the spirit of what our Indian people are still capable of doing for what and who they love saturating our caravan and our endeavor; I huff and puff and try to keep pace with the young guys.
Then Denny comes running up beside me in his more appropriate runner’s gear. The young guy with the lead staff hands it to Denny and drops back. Denny hands it to me and an unworthiness comes out of me, followed by a sense of what an honor it is to just run for a little bit with this staff that all these true, dedicated runners have been carrying and will ultimately carry for a hundred and eighty miles in just two days. The staff feels like the arm bone of a giant from another age, adorned with hide and feathers, smoothed by time, a web of understandings crystallized and living inside of it; lightweight and ancient, a staff to lead, a staff to bring healing to those who’re invisibly running with us, crying to be heard, crying to have their pain finally go away.
Denny and I run together in silence, our breath clouding and peeling away in front of us. To have a brother like this means everything.
3. A dream-
I’m with my grandpa Taylor in his house. In real life he’s dead so I know that this is his spirit. In my arms, cradled and swaddled in cloth like a baby, is a bundle of sage, its bushy head close to my chest. My grandma Barb, who is still alive in real life (this dream is from years ago), comes into the kitchen where we’re standing; she has two similarly swaddled and wrapped bundles, which she holds carefully, one in each arm; one is of corn and one is of rhubarb. It feels good to be with my grandparents. I’m not sure what’s going on but then all these spirits come in from the west and the energy of the space and the dream changes. I can feel all the power of the beings who’re now invisibly there with us and I can tell something sacred is happening, can feel that holy power moving like lightning in our midst. The bundle of sage starts talking to me, telepathically, its thoughts coming into my mind like directed smoke. My grandma hands me the bundle of corn and the bundle of rhubarb. Holding all three in my arms, the sage tells me, “We three plants want to come back to your tribe. Plant us. Grow us. We three plants want to come back to your Ponca people.” “Okay,” I say, feeling like a humbled kid given a special job to do by his parents. “Okay.” The sage and I keep talking and then I wake up.
2. In elementary school I always walked myself both to and back from school. I watched myself. I’d walk home and then hang out alone until either my mom or dad got home from work. One time a video I liked came on MTV when I was home alone and I cranked up the volume as loud as it would go and started dancing crazily around the room, really getting into it just like the people in the video. Then, my dad came home. “What the hell are you doing?!” he yelled. “Don’t ever listen to the TV that loud! You’ll break the goddamned thing!”
When I was back in Columbus I walked from the lot where our apartment house used to be (it had been burned down years ago; arson) to my old elementary school. It was just three short blocks. The route was run through with memories: the poor smelly kid who lived with his trashy family in that house, the yard where I beat up an older bully, him biting me, drawing blood, and then running away, the bachelor schoolteacher who’d turned his whole yard into a secret garden, getting lost in there once with a girl who would later give me my first kiss in Mrs. Luchsinger’s second grade class. The whole neighborhood had shrunk down and lost all of the grandness it had had in my childhood. It was plain, real, full of decades of accrued real life that I couldn’t see, that was all beyond me, behind closed doors, had and held by people who were all strangers to me, who I didn’t even know anymore. After rewalking that childhood route, I just kept walking and strolled out of there. The town itself was like this, no longer my town, an incarnation of it now purely made of memory nested inside of it belonging to me, but the physical town itself moved on, the property of other people, no longer mine to argue with, to yell at, to express my grievances to. We spoke different languages now because of the time that had passed. Did it remember me like I remembered it? Who knows; who knows…
A few weeks ago my roommate went back there for the first time in five years.
“I’m at Pawnee Park,” he texted me. “Visiting the Loup.”
I looked at downtown Seattle, through the window of the coffee shop I was in. He was the one who’d invited me to Seattle, kind of out of the blue, calling me up, asking me if I wanted to move in to the room his other roommate had somewhat abruptly vacated. “What’s the timetable we’re looking at?” I asked him. “Like next month, the month after that at the latest.” I’d spent my whole life in Nebraska. I still hadn’t yet seen the ocean. My whole being was saying YES. Eternally slow in my big decision-making, I said, “I think I know my answer but give me two days so that I can be sure, so that I can think about it.” In less than a month I’d liquidated my apartment of fourteen years, my job of ten years, everything, and I was on my way, driving across the country to Seattle, deeply ready for something different, for something new, to find love, publish a book, to find some happiness and put my loneliness behind me, to just get MORE of what it seemed like I’d been starving for for so long back in Nebraska.
I texted him back. “There’s no place like home…”
The next day he sent me another text. “Nebraska: a landscape at war with its own beauty?”
I didn’t text him back. I thought of the Nebraska we both carried around in our hearts, maybe even the very psyches of so many we knew, maybe America itself; I thought of so much and so many and wondered how much and how many that line described, that line pinpointed. What were we doing to ourselves and why? What kind of culture had we created for ourselves? What was at the root of all these horrors we were doing to ourselves and our planet? Were we all just so fucking broken up over what we’d become through our accumulated decisions when we compared it to the primordial beauty of our nature and souls that we just fucking lost it and decided to launch a war against all that goddamned beauty that was constantly making us remember all of this shit that was all so bad now that we just wanted to forget it because we considered that our only solace at this point, the only thing we had left, our only reprieve from the madness and monster we’d created, to forget, to fucking forget, if just for awhile, or as our delusions would have it, maybe for fucking ever?
I looked at the text again, “a landscape at war with its own beauty?”, and then I kept on and carried on with my day.
1. Coming back to my shitty apartment in Lincoln in my late twenties after a long night with friends, rain-soaked, my inner being vibrating with a delicious fullness, everything overlapping perfectly to form a beautiful single core. I take off my coat, take off my shoes, and go to the kitchen, strip a stalk of sage and roll it up into a sage ball like I learned from Joe Bad. I light it and start pulling the smoke over myself, breathe it in, and start praying. Thank you, I say; Thank you. I close my eyes and go deep into the fullness that has grown inside of me. This is all I want for my whole life, I say; Time with friends; Time with people I love. I run the smoke over myself. I wish every night could be like this.
Seattle, November 2016
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