Sherman Alexie

Inside Dachau

1. big lies, small lies

Having lied to our German hosts about our plans
for the day, Diane and I visited Dachau
instead of searching for rare albums in Munich.
Only a dozen visitors walked through the camp
because we were months away from tourist season.
The camp was austere. The museum was simple.

Once there, I had expected to feel simple
emotions: hate, anger, sorrow. That was my plan.
I would write poetry about how the season
of winter found a perfect home in cold Dachau.
I would be a Jewish man who died in the camp.
I would be the ideal metaphor. Munich

would be a short train ride away from hell. Munich
would take the blame. I thought it would all be simple
but there were no easy answers inside the camp.
The poems still took their forms, but my earlier plans
seemed so selfish. What could I say about Dachau
when I had never suffered through any season

inside its walls? Could I imagine a season
of ash and snow, of flames and shallow graves? Munich
is only a short train ride away from Dachau.
If you can speak some German, it is a simple
journey which requires coins and no other plans
for the day. We lied about visiting the camp

to our German hosts, who always spoke of the camp
as truthfully as they spoke about the seasons.
Dachau is still Dachau. Our hosts have made no plans
to believe otherwise. As we drove through Munich
our hosts pointed out former Nazi homes, simply
and quickly. "We are truly ashamed of Dachau,"

Mikael said, "but what about all the Dachaus
in the United States? What about the death camps
in your country?" Yes, Mikael, you ask simple
questions which are ignored, season after season.
Mikael, I'm sorry we lied about Munich
and Dachau. I'm sorry we lied about our plans.

Inside Dachau, you might believe winter will never end. You may lose faith in the change of seasons
because some of the men who built the camps still live in Argentina, in Washington, in Munich.
They live simple lives. They share bread with sons and daughters who have come to understand the master plan.


2. history as the home movie

it begins and ends with ash, though we insist
on ignoring the shared fires in our past.
We attempt to erase our names from the list

            that begins and ends with ash.

We ignore the war until we are the last
standing, until we are the last to persist
in denial, as we are shipped off to camps

where we all are stripped, and our dark bodies lit
by the cruel light of those antique Jew-skinned lamps.
Decades after Dachau fell, we stand in mist
            that begins and ends with ash.


3. commonly asked questions

Why are we here? What have we come to see?
What do we need to find behind the doors?
Are we searching for an apology

from the ghosts of unrepentant Nazis?
We pay the entrance fee at the front door.
Why are we here? What have we come to see?

The actors have moved on to the next scene
and set: furnace, shovel, and soot-stained door.
Are we searching for an apology

from all the Germans who refused to see
the ash falling in front of their locked doors?
Why are we here? What have we come to see

that cannot be seen in other countries?
Every country hides behind a white door.
Are we searching for an apology

from the patient men who've hidden the keys?
Listen: a door is a door is a door.
Why are we here? What have we come to see?
Are we searching for an apology?


4. the american indian holocaust museum

What do we indigenous people want from our country?
We stand over mass graves. Our collective grief makes us numb.
We are waiting for the construction of our museum.

We too could stack the shoes of our dead and fill a city
to its thirteenth floor. What did you expect us to become?
What do we indigenous people want from our country?
We are waiting for the construction of our museum.

We are the great-grandchildren of Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.
We are the veterans of the Indian wars. We are the sons
and daughters of the walking dead. We have lost everyone.
What do we indigenous people want from our country?
We stand over mass graves. Our collective grief makes us numb.
We are waiting for the construction of our museum.


5. songs from those who love the flames

We start the fires
on the church spire:
ash, ash.
We build tall pyres
from children's choirs:
ash, ash.
We watch flames gyre
and burn the liars:
ash, ash.

We watch flames gyre
from children's choirs:
ash, ash.
We start the fires
and burn the liars:
ash, ash.
We build tall pyres
on the church spire.
ash, ash.

We build tall pyres
and burn the liars:
ash, ash.
We watch flames gyre
on the church spire:
ash, ash.
We start the fires
from children's choirs:
ash, ash.


6. after we are free

If I were Jewish, how would I mourn the dead?
I am Spokane. I wake.

If I were Jewish, how would I remember the past?
I am Spokane. I page through the history books.

If I were Jewish, how would I find the joy to dance?
I am Spokane. I drop a quarter into the jukebox.

If I were Jewish, how would I find time to sing?
I am Spokane. I sit at the drum with all of my cousins.

If I were Jewish, how would I fall in love?
I am Spokane. I listen to an Indian woman whispering.

If I were Jewish, how would I feel about ash?
I am Spokane. I offer tobacco to all of my guests.

If I were Jewish, how would I tell the stories?
I am Spokane. I rest my hands on the podium.

If I were Jewish, how would I sleep at night?
I am Spokane. I keep the television playing until dawn.

If I were Jewish, how would I find my home?
I am Spokane. I step into the river and close my eyes.


7. below freezing

Dachau was so cold I could see my breath
so I was thankful for my overcoat.
I have nothing new to say about death

Each building sat at right angles to the rest.
Around each corner, I expected ghosts.
Dachau was so cold I could see my breath.

Everything was clean, history compressed
into shoes, photographs, private notes.
I have nothing new to say about death.

I wanted to weep. I wanted to rest
my weary head as the ash mixed with snow.
Dachau was so cold I could see my breath.

I am not a Jew. I was just a guest
in that theater which will never close.
I have nothing new to say about death.

I wonder which people will light fires next
and which people will soon be turned to smoke.
Dachau was so cold I could see my breath.
I have nothing new to say about death.

I Would Steal Horses

For Kari

for you, if there were any left,
give a dozen of the best
to your father, the auto mechanic
in the small town where you were born

and where he will die sometime by dark.
I am afraid of his hands, which have
rebuilt more of the small parts
of this world than I ever will.

I would sign treaties for you, take
every promise as the last lie, the last
point after which we both refuse the exact.

I would wrap us both in old blankets
hold every disease tight against our skin.

Little Big Man

I got eyes, Jack, that can see
an ant moving along the horizon
can pull four bottles shattering
down from the sky and recognize
the eyes of a blind man

who told me once, The future is yours
and I believed him until he left me
without a campfire, without an axe
to chop down a tree and build myself
a chair, house, cold drink.

Jack, how much pain is thre
in the world? I think there's only one kind
and we all keep moving around it in circles
like clumsy pioneers, over the same ground
until the landscape becomes so familiar
we settle down and call it home.

Seems like everybody wants to be an Indian.
Why should you be any different, Jack?
Still, when you rub the red dirt off your pale nose
your little insanities vanish.
Listen: the proof is glass.
When an Indian looks through a window
it's like a mirror. When the Indian looks
into a mirror, it's like a window.

I know you have dreams, Jack. We all want
an acre of land, love, and a full stomach.
Without that, we couldn't listen to the wind
without anger. But I've been sitting in a cold room
watching stars through a hole in the roof.
That bright star to the north doesn't have a name
I know. Like everything else, it will break my heart.


What the Orphan Inherits


I dreamed I was digging your grave
with my bare hands.  I touched your face
and skin fell in thin strips to the ground

until only your tongue remained whole.
I hung it to smoke with the deer
for seven days.  It tasted thick and greasy

sinew gripped my tongue tight.  I rose
to walk naked through the fire. I spoke
English.  I was not consumed.


I do not have an Indian name.
The wind never spoke to my mother
when I was born.  My heart was hidden
beneath the shells of walnuts switched
back and forth.  I have to cheat to feel
the beating of drums in my chest.


“For bringing us the horse
we could almost forgive you
for bringing us whisky.”


Indian boys
Sinewy and doe-eyed
Frozen in headlights.



Poverty of Mirrors

You wake these mornings alone and nothing
can be forgiven; you drink the last
swallow of warm beer from the can
beside the bed, tell the stranger sleeping
on the floor to go home. It's too easy

to be no one with nothing to do, only
slightly worried about the light bill
more concerned with how dark day gets.

You walk alone on moist pavement wondering
what color rain is in the country.
Does the world out there revolve around rooms
without doors or windows? Centering the mirror
you found in the trash, walls seem closer
and you can never find the right way

out, so you open the fridge again
for a beer, find only rancid milk and drink it
whole. This all tastes too familiar.


Memorial Day, 1972

I was too young to clean graves
so I waded into the uranium river
carrying the cat who later gave birth
to six headless kittens.

O, Lord, remember, O, do remember me.



I know a woman
who swims naked
in the ocean
no matter the season.

I don't have a reason
for telling you this (I never
witnessed her early morning
dips into the salt) other than
to let you know that I once found
the thought of her nudity erotic

but now can only imagine
the incredible cold, how I would want
to cover her body with my coat
and tell her how crazy she is
for having so much faith
in two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.


While reading a mystery novel (I
don't remember the title), I

dropped a cup of hot tea
into my lap. Third degree burns

on my thighs, penis, and scrotum. I
still have the scars and once told

a white woman they were the result
of a highly sacred Spokane Indian adulthood ceremony.


I knew a man
who drowned in three inches of water.

Rain collected
in a tire track.

His family and friends accuse me
of making light

of his death, but I insist
on my innocence. Lord, I think

his death is tragic, possibly epic
the first and last act

of a reservation opera, and I wish
I could use his name here, make him

remembered, but I am forbidden
from doing so by tribal laws

that are more important than any poem.
But I want to give him a name

that means what I say, and I so I name him
Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Noah, Adam.


Boo tells me, "Whenever I feel depressed or lonely
I drink a glass of water and immediately feel better."


In the unlikely event of a water landing
you can use your seat cushion as a floatation device.

I worry about this.

I wonder if the puny cushion can possibly support
my weight. I am a large man. In the unlikely event
of a water landing, you can use your seat cushion
as a floatation device. Of course, we don't crash.
We land safely. We always land safely. And Ha! Ha!
the flight attendant tells the disembarking passengers
to drive safely away from the airport because driving is
so much more dangerous, statistically speaking, than flying.

I want to slap her across the mouth, statistically speaking.

In the unlikely event of a water landing, you can use
your seat cushion as a floatation device. I am suddenly afraid
of gravity so I take my seat cushion off the plane. I steal
the damn thing and run through the airport, chased
by an ever increasing number of security people,
men and women, so I'm glad this airport has progressed
beyond an antiquated notion of gender roles. But wait,

I have no time to be liberal, I have to run fast, so I do run fast
with that seat cushion pressed tightly against my chest.
I cannot run fast enough in such an awkward position
as I am a large man with large hands. I cannot easily hide.
I cannot blend into the crowd. I cannot duck behind
the counter of the Burger King and ask for your order, your order, your

Oh, in the event of a water landing, you can use your seat cushion
as a floatation device, and here I am, running, and praying as I run,
every step shouting Lord, Lord, Lord, every other step whispering

amen, amen, amen.


At the restaurant, I ask the waiter to leave the pitcher of water
because I drink lots of water.

I can't do that, he says.

Why not? I ask.

Because we never leave the pitcher, he says.

Not once? I ask.

Never, he says, have we ever left a whole pitcher of water, not once
in the entire history of this restaurant. It is impossible for us to do so.
It is inconceivable for us to even consider such a thing. Who knows
what would happen if we set such a precedent?


When I was seven, I took swim lessons at the YMCA
from three beautiful teenagers who all seemed like women to me.

They hugged me when they saw me waiting in line
to see JAWS at the Fox Theater in downtown Spokane.

Where are those girls now? Somewhere, they are being women.

Do they remember teaching me how to swim? Do they
recognize my face when they pick up the local newspaper
or see my photograph on the back of my latest book?

Oh, strange, strange ego.

Here, I've decided I want them to love me from afar. I want them
to regret their whole lives because they were once sixteen years old
swimmers who never stopped to passionately kiss
the seven year old me, as I floated
from the deep end of the pool back to the shallow.


My brother, the big one, says, "It ain't water
unless it's got some Kool-aid in it."


My wife, the Hidatsa Indian, grew up in Southern California
with a swimming pool. Wow!

Her father, the trickster, called relatives back home
in North Dakota. Called them in late December
when trees were exploding in the high plains cold.
Called them and said, He held the phone up to the air, toward
the empty pool, because it was too cold to swim in December, even
in Southern California, but the North Dakota Indians didn't know
any better, so they were jealous and happy at the same time.

My wife, just a child then of five or ten or eighteen years old,
heard the slurred laughter of her father, the drunk, and
maybe he would laugh and get off the phone and be charming
or maybe he would be the cruel bastard, but there was no way
of knowing until he got off the phone, so she'd sit in her room
with a glass of water on the windowsill, oh, she'd be praying
to that glass of water, oh, she'd be praying
like everything was two parts broken heart and one part hope.


Why Indian Men Fall in Love With White Women

"This is how it is," says the white woman in the donut shop (it wasn't
a donut shop but something else entirely) and then she laughs
a melodious, joyous noise, and she smacks a hand, her left one
I believe, to her forehead in mock-Lucy exasperation, and then says
again, "This is how it is," but then adds as an afterthought, or

considering the use of the pun, perhaps had planned on saying it
all along, saying, "This is my job," except she doesn't say job, as
in work, she says Job, with a long vowel, as in the guy from the Bible.
Of course, this makes me love her, because if she said it
as an afterthought, then she is bright, but if she had always planned

to say it, to say Job, like the Job in the Bible, who had the worst job
in human history, then she is disciplined. She sais "This is my Job,"
as an afterthought, or as part of her daily script, I don't care which.
She says Job with the job, the job belonging to Job, Job possessed
by his job, the Job, the job, the Job, the job. Is the white woman

in the donut shop really that clever, and let's admit it, the pun
is not truly that clever, but clever enough, perhaps too clever
for a woman working in a donut shop (but it wasn't really
a donut shop), but I don't really care to guess at the exact level
of her education, because she laughs so joyously, because her eyes

are blue and alive with happiness and intelligence, so I decide
right there in the donut shop, that she is indeed too clever to be
working in a donut shop, that she is, in fact, a scholar who turned
her back on her academic pursuits, that she was a theologian
a blessed and gifted woman who wanted to be a priest, a Jesuit

an Ignation, of all things, but was turned back by the Catholic Church
and its antiquated notions of gender. She is romantic and novel
and more than a little sad, but she disguises her sadness so well
behind her blue eyes, though I am sensitive enough to see enough
of her sadness to guess at the whole of her sadness, even as she laughs

even as she takes my sympathetic order for a dozen donuts, as she gathers
the donuts into the appropriate container, as she hands it to me, as
our hands touch, as the tips of her fingers brush against the tips
of my fingers, as we briefly share a moment, and by "moment," I mean
a segment of immeasurable time, and in that moment, I feel forgiven

or perhaps I am merely aroused sexually and/or spiritually, but
in either case, I take a donut (maple?) from my appropriate container
and offer it to her, and she takes it with delight (she still loves
donuts, despite the Job-ness of her job), and she bites into it
and chews it without suggestion. She chews simply

with and without grace. She chews like a monk. She is that flour;
she is that egg; she is that sugar; she is that water. She is that flour;
she is that egg; she is that sugar; she is that water; She is the whole
of the donut; she is the hole of the donuts. She is the blue tear
balanced on the lower lid of her left eye. She is Job, my dear Job.


Owl Dancing with Fred Astaire

During a traditional Native American owl dance, the woman asks the man to dance. He is not supposed to refuse. However, if he does refuse, he must pay the woman whatever she wants and then tell the entire crowd at the powwow exactly why he refused.



I met the Indian woman who asked Fred Astaire to dance.
He politely refused her offer.
“He was so charming,” she said, “even when he rejected me.
But I kept wishing it was an owl dance.”


An owl dance is simple: two steps with your left foot forward,
one step with your right foot back, all to the beat of a drum
currently being pounded by six Indian men in baseball hats.
They sing falsetto. Many non-Indians wonder what they are singing but that is too complicated to explain here. Let’s just say
they are singing an owl dance song. It is not necessarily romantic. I mean, sisters owl dance with brothers
and sons owl dance with their mothers. Yet, at every powwow, there are beautiful Indian women
who owl dance with beautiful Indian men, all hoping for love/sex/a brief vacation from loneliness.
I must emphasize, however, that our love lives are not simple.There are Indian men who have never been asked to owl dance.
Alone in the powwow crowd, those men tap their feet lightly
along with the drums. They sing softly under their breath.
Perhaps they secretly wish they were Fred Astaire.


Fred Astaire is gone now.
He is dead.
He will not be coming back.
However, if you watch his movies
you will notice
that he often smiles.
What was he thinking?
Was he merely pleased with himself
for being Fred Astaire or was he completely unaware
of the camera and crew?
Was he dancing simply for the love of dancing? I don’t know
and you will never know either.
Only Fred Astaire knew
and he was very good at keeping a secret
or so I am told
by the people who helped keep his secrets.


In my dream, Fred Astaire stumbles (yes, stumbles)
into the powwow and is shocked by the number of Indians
who have survived
the smallpox blankets, U.S. Cavalry, relocation, etc. He smiles because, well, he is a good man prone to smiling.
(I must emphasize, however, that there are also bad men who are prone to smiling.) Fred Astaire loves the drums.
He is pleasantly surprised by the quality of the singing. Such pitch! and timbre! and range! and projection!
Fred Astaire taps his foot. He is wearing a tuxedo. He is the skinniest white man in the history of the world.
Can you see him? He is not all that handsome but he looks like a dancer. A great dancer.
In all cultures, women will choose a homely great dancer
over a handsome non-dancer. Fred Astaire is confident.
He waits for the next owl dance to begin.


Ask yourself this: How many times in your life
are you going to be asked to dance? Take that number
and divide it by the number of men and/or women
who have expressed deep affection for you.
If that number is X, then Y = heartbreak + X.
And, or course, Y is always equal to Fred Astaire.


At Navajo Monument Valley Tribal School

from the photograph
by Skeet McAuley

the football field rises
to meet the mesa. Indian boys
gallop across the grass, against

the beginnings of their body.
On those Saturday afternoons,
unbroken horses gather to watch

their sons growing larger
in the small parts of the world.
Everyone is the quarterback.

There is no thin man in a big hat
writing down all the names
in two columns: winners and losers.

This is the eternal football game,
Indians versus Indians. All the Skins
in the wooden bleachers fancydancing,

stomping red dust straight down
into nothing. Before the game is over,
the eighth-grade girls' track team

comes running, circling the field,
their thin and brown legs echoing
wild horses, wild horses, wild horses.


The Farm

1. Jonah

All of us, the Indians, know exactly where we were
when scientists announced that they had found the cure

for cancer. I was eating lunch in the Tribal Cafe
for the third time that week and was only halfway

through my fry bread when the national news broke
into the local news: a white man in a lab coat

stood at a podium porcupined with microphones
and quietly spoke. "We have found that the bone

marrow of Indians, synthesized with a few trace
elements, form a powerful antiviral agent named

Steptoe 123. This agent, when taken orally, will
stop the metastatic growth of tumors and kill

cancer cells. Steptoe 123 has been 95% effective
in ten years of research under the direction

of Dr. Miles Steptoe at the Center for Disease
Control. We have prepared a detailed press release

which will give you more information on Steptoe
123, Dr. Steptoe, and all that you need to know

at this time. The President, with a clear vision
of the future of Steptoe 123, has made a decision.

Therefore, under the authority of Executive Order
1492, we have closed all of the reservation borders

within the United States and will keep them closed
to any and all unauthorized traffic until further notice."

Silence. Then I turned to Charlie the Cook, who was really
the dishwater. "Jonah," he asked me. "Is it real?"

"It's real," I said. Charlie looked at me, looked|
at Agnes the Waitress, who was really the cook.

"Why is it real?" asked Charlie, but it was too late
for a history lesson. We all needed to escape

before the borders were completely shut down.
"We've got to go," I said. "We've got to go now."

So Agnes, Charlie, and I jumped into my old car
and prayed it would save us like that famous ark

but we didn't even make it past
Cold Springs before we heard the first dissonant

music: the helicopters played ragtime as they fell
from Heaven, as one descended on us with propeller

I drove the car off the road and into a field

where everything stopped
as Sam the Indian, who

was really white, suddenly stepped onto the road
with his hands out, palms open, just inches below

that helicopter, as Charlie asked, "Where did he
come from?" I just remember Sam was whittled

to bone as he helicopter dropped down onto him.
(Did you know you can play a gospel hymn

on a flute carved from human bone? I heard
the hymn once, in a dream, but have since learned

to play it on a hollow femur.) The soldiers came
for us then, dragged us from the car, asked for our names

and tribal affiliations, demanded to know if the guy
killed under the helicopter was Indian or white.

"He was white," I said. "Fully white?" a soldier asked
and I told him that Sam the Indian might be the last

fully good white man in America. "The dead guy ain't Feeder
or Breeder," shouted the soldier. Sam wasn't needed

because the scientists couldn't use his bone marrow
so the soldiers left Sam's body to the crows and sparrows.

"What am I?" I asked the soldier as he tied my hands behind
my back with soft cotton twine, but he did not reply.

"What am I?" I asked the soldier as they carried
me to the helicopter. "Are you single or married?"

asked a soldier. "I'm a bag of bones," I said.
"Do you have any children," the soldier asked again

and again, but I kept telling him I was all alone
in this new world, that I was just a bag of bones.

2. Sam the Indian

When the blades fell upon me
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When the blades fell upon me
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When the blades fell upon me
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When the blades fell upon me
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When the blades fell upon me
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When the blades fell upon me
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When the blades fell upon me
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.

3. Charlie the Cook

After we were captured by the soldiers, they took all of the Indians to a place called the Farm. My history became their history. They took notes. They tattooed my forehead with a B for Breeder, because I was young and pure-blood. They keep the Breeder men and women together. In each cell, there are five women and one man. We are rotated often, never allowed to develop relationships. We are not allowed to talk. We are never in the same cell with a member of the same tribe. Bright lights wake us at 6 A.M. We eat breakfast only after we procreate. I'm supposed to have sex with five Indian women a day. I have fathered dozens of children since this all started. Half of my children became Breeders and stayed at the Farm, while the other half became Feeders and were sent to the Kitchen. The Feeders have it much worse than the Breeders. The Feeders have their marrow taken from them. They are hooked up to machines that suck it out. Sometimes they survive. Sometimes they die. It happens to children, too. There is no age limit. When they need the marrow, they take it. There's constant demand. Each cancer patient needs a year's worth of Steptoe 123. Late at night, in the cell, I reach my hand out into the dark and I feel another hand reaching out for mine. I cannot see who I touch. We cannot speak. But we hold each other's hands lightly, ready to release our grips at any moment.

4. Agnes the Waitress

When the Indian men come to me
I try to smile.

I lift my tunic
and part my legs

with as much honor
as I can manage.

I try to love the Indian men
who are forced to enter me.

It would be easy to hate them.
Some women do.

Some women refuse
to acknowledge the man's body.

Some women close their eyes
and imagine a new childhood.

Some women weep constantly.
They don't last long.

But I hold the men close
and kiss their necks.

That always surprises them.
They stare at me

and I wonder if
I am beautiful.

I have forgotten
what that means.

I cannot tell the difference
between a beautiful man

and an ugly man
because it makes no difference.

We do not have the luxury
of such a decision.

We are Indian
and that is all that matters

though it is rumored
that white guards sneak

into bed with Indian women.
I have heard the rustling

of blankets late at night
when Indian women crawled

into bed with Indian women.
An Indian woman once kissed me

and I felt her hands on my breasts.
I reached for her, too

but the guard rushed in
and took her away.

I never saw her again.
I dream about her

though I cannot tell you
if she was beautiful.

I want to believe
my babies are beautiful

though I have learned to let them go.
I give birth.

I heal.
I am pregnant again.

Pregnancy is the good time.
Pregnant women share a cell.

We eat well.
We are not touched.

We are allowed to speak
to the body inside our own

and pretend it is our mother,
father, sister, and brother.

5. Charlie the Cook

We have developed a highly complex and subtle sign language. Through slight gestures, such as brushing the hair from our faces, we can talk about the past. The volume of a cough can change the tense of a sentence. A woman can sit up in bed, scratch her cheek, stand quickly, shuffle across the room to a water fountain, take a big drink, swallow loudly, and we'd all know she was telling a joke. Indians always find a way to laugh, though each of us laugh in a different way. I laugh by crossing my arms. I cry by tapping my left foot against the floor.

6. Agnes the Waitress

I try to find the soldiers beneath their masks.
I try to find the doctors behind their sorrow.

The white people never thought to ask
if we would voluntarily donate the marrow.

7. Jonah

We've been planning the revolution for years.
We have weapons and white friends, but I fear

Indians have forgotten how to survive.
It's a complicated song and dance. Late at night

we practice. We pound invisible drums. We sing
with our mouths closed. Silence is the thing

we must learn to fear. This is the plan.
One night, we will slip from our beds and stand

together. We will stamp our feet in unison
and sing the same song loudly with strong lungs

and hearts. We will sing the old songs.
Cousins, this is not where we belong.

Way, ya, hi, yo. Way, ya, hi, yo.<
Way, ya, hi, yo. Way, ya, hi, yo.

Cousins, remember how we sang and danced back then.
During the revolution, we will find our music again.

8. Sam the Indian

When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.
When I fell into Heaven
I was closer to being Indian than I had ever been before.

9. Charlie the Cook

I have not seen a black man in years. Not a black woman. Not a Mexican man, though their blood is often mixed with Indians, too. I have not seen another Indian man. I have seen only white men and Indian women. There are rumors. The Indian women have refused to procreate, and instead, they are killing the Indian men. It would be easy. In each cell, five women to each man. There are rumors. Indian men are becoming sterile. We have fathered too many children. There are rumors. The revolution is about to begin. Indians will rise against our jailers. We will never touch each other again. We will allow ourselves to die as a people, rather than live as we do now. There are rumors. A large army of sympathetic outsiders, white, black, brown, and yellow, are preparing to storm the Farm. They will free us. There are rumors. All of the cancer is gone. It has been completely destroyed. Our jailers will soon open the doors and let us free. They will give us medals of honor as we leave.



Defending Walt Whitman

Basketball is like this for young Indian boys, all arms and legs
and serious stomach muscles. Every body is brown!
These are the twentieth-century warriors who will never kill,
although a few sat quietly in the deserts of Kuwait,
waiting for orders to do something, to do something.

God, there is nothing as beautiful as a jumpshot
on a reservation summer basketball court
where the ball is moist with sweat,
and makes a sound when it swishes through the net
that causes Walt Whitman to weep because it is so perfect.

There are veterans of foreign wars here
although their bodies are still dominated
by collarbones and knees, although their bodies still respond
in the ways that bodies are supposed to respond when we are young.
Every body is brown! Look there, that boy can run
up and down this court forever. He can leap for a rebound
with his back arched like a salmon, all meat and bone
synchronized, magnetic, as if the court were a river,
as if the rim were a dam, as if the air were a ladder
leading the Indian boy toward home.

Some of the Indian boys still wear their military hair cuts
while a few have let their hair grow back.
It will never be the same as it was before!
One Indian boy has never cut his hair, not once, and he braids it
into wild patterns that do not measure anything.
He is just a boy with too much time on his hands.
Look at him. He wants to play this game in bare feet.

God, the sun is so bright! There is no place like this.
Walt Whitman stretches his calf muscles
on the sidelines. He has the next game.
His huge beard is ridiculous on the reservation.
Some body throws a crazy pass and Walt Whitman catches it
with quick hands. He brings the ball close to his nose
and breathes in all of its smells: leather, brown skin, sweat,
black hair, burning oil, twisted ankle, long drink of warm water,
gunpowder, pine tree. Walt Whitman squeezes the ball tightly.
He wants to run. He hardly has the patience to wait for his turn.
"What's the score?" he asks. He asks, "What's the score?"

Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles. Walt Whitman shakes
because he believes in God. Walt Whitman dreams
of the first jumpshot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily
from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks.
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman closes his eyes. He is a small man and his beard
is ludicrous on the reservation, absolutely insane.
His beard makes the Indian boys righteously laugh. His beard
frightens the smallest Indian boys. His beard tickles the skin
of the Indian boys who dribble past him. His beard, his beard!

God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat
and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny.
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.


The Powwow at the End of the World

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.


Superman and Me

I learned to read with a Superman comic book. Simple enough, I suppose. I cannot recall which particular Superman comic book I read, nor can I remember which villain he fought in that issue. I cannot remember the plot, nor the means by which I obtained the comic book. What I can remember is this: I was 3 years old, a Spokane Indian boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state. We were poor by most standards, but one of my parents usually managed to find some minimum-wage job or another, which made us middle-class by reservation standards. I had a brother and three sisters. We lived on a combination of irregular paychecks, hope, fear and government surplus food.

My father, who is one of the few Indians who went to Catholic school on purpose, was an avid reader of westerns, spy thrillers, murder mysteries, gangster epics, basketball player biographies and anything else he could find. He bought his books by the pound at Dutch's Pawn Shop, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Value Village. When he had extra money, he bought new novels at supermarkets, convenience stores and hospital gift shops. Our house was filled with books. They were stacked in crazy piles in the bathroom, bedrooms and living room. In a fit of unemployment-inspired creative energy, my father built a set of bookshelves and soon filled them with a random assortment of books about the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Vietnam War and the entire 23-book series of the Apache westerns. My father loved books, and since I loved my father with an aching devotion, I decided to love books as well.

I can remember picking up my father's books before I could read. The words themselves were mostly foreign, but I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn't have the vocabulary to say "paragraph," but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States. My family's house was a paragraph, distinct from the other paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south and the Tribal School to the west. Inside our house, each family member existed as a separate paragraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us. Now, using this logic, I can see my changed family as an essay of seven paragraphs: mother, father, older brother, the deceased sister, my younger twin sisters and our adopted little brother.

At the same time I was seeing the world in paragraphs, I also picked up that Superman comic book. Each panel, complete with picture, dialogue and narrative was a three-dimensional paragraph. In one panel, Superman breaks through a door. His suit is red, blue and yellow. The brown door shatters into many pieces. I look at the narrative above the picture. I cannot read the words, but I assume it tells me that "Superman is breaking down the door." Aloud, I pretend to read the words and say, "Superman is breaking down the door." Words, dialogue, also float out of Superman's mouth. Because he is breaking down the door, I assume he says, "I am breaking down the door." Once again, I pretend to read the words and say aloud, "I am breaking down the door" In this way, I learned to read.

This might be an interesting story all by itself. A little Indian boy teaches himself to read at an early age and advances quickly. He reads "Grapes of Wrath" in kindergarten when other children are struggling through "Dick and Jane." If he'd been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy. But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity. He grows into a man who often speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it will somehow dull the pain and make him sound more modest about his talents.

A smart Indian is a dangerous person, widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and non-Indians alike. I fought with my classmates on a daily basis. They wanted me to stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers, for volunteers, for help. We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectations inside the classroom but subverted them on the outside. They struggled with basic reading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs. They were monosyllabic in front of their non-Indian teachers but could tell complicated stories and jokes at the dinner table. They submissively ducked their heads when confronted by a non-Indian adult but would slug it out with the Indian bully who was 10 years older. As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world. Those who failed were ceremonially accepted by other Indians and appropriately pitied by non-Indians.

I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky. I read books late into the night, until I could barely keep my eyes open. I read books at recess, then during lunch, and in the few minutes left after I had finished my classroom assignments. I read books in the car when my family traveled to powwows or basketball games. In shopping malls, I ran to the bookstores and read bits and pieces of as many books as I could. I read the books my father brought home from the pawnshops and secondhand. I read the books I borrowed from the library. I read the backs of cereal boxes. I read the newspaper. I read the bulletins posted on the walls of the school, the clinic, the tribal offices, the post office. I read junk mail. I read auto-repair manuals. I read magazines. I read anything that had words and paragraphs. I read with equal parts joy and desperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. I was trying to save my life.

Despite all the books I read, I am still surprised I became a writer. I was going to be a pediatrician. These days, I write novels, short stories, and poems. I visit schools and teach creative writing to Indian kids. In all my years in the reservation school system, I was never taught how to write poetry, short stories or novels. I was certainly never taught that Indians wrote poetry, short stories and novels. Writing was something beyond Indians. I cannot recall a single time that a guest teacher visited the reservation. There must have been visiting teachers. Who were they? Where are they now? Do they exist? I visit the schools as often as possible. The Indian kids crowd the classroom. Many are writing their own poems, short stories and novels. They have read my books. They have read many other books. They look at me with bright eyes and arrogant wonder. They are trying to save their lives. Then there are the sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me with theatrical precision. The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist. "Books," I say to them. "Books," I say. I throw my weight against their locked doors. The door holds. I am smart. I am arrogant. I am lucky. I am trying to save our lives.



I Hated Tonto (Still Do)

I was a little Spokane Indian boy who read every book and saw every movie about Indians, no matter how terrible. I'd read those historical romance novels about the stereotypical Indian warrior ravaging the virginal white schoolteacher.

I can still see the cover art.

The handsome, blue-eyed warrior (the Indians in romance novels are always blue-eyed because half-breeds are somehow sexier than full-blooded Indians) would be nuzzling (the Indians in romance novels are always performing acts that are described in animalistic terms) the impossibly pale neck of a white woman as she reared her head back in primitive ecstasy (the Indians in romance novels always inspire white women to commit acts of primitive ecstasy).

Of course, after reading such novels, I imagined myself to be a blue-eyed warrior nuzzling the necks of various random, primitive and ecstatic white women.

And I just as often imagined myself to be a cinematic Indian, splattered with Day-Glo Hollywood war paint as I rode off into yet another battle against the latest actor to portray Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

But I never, not once, imagined myself to be Tonto.

I hated Tonto then and I hate him now.

However, despite my hatred of Tonto, I loved movies about Indians, loved them beyond all reasoning and saw no fault with any of them.

I loved John Ford's "The Searchers."

I rooted for John Wayne as he searched for his niece for years and years. I rooted for John Wayne even though I knew he was going to kill his niece because she had been "soiled" by the Indians. Hell, I rooted for John Wayne because I understood why he wanted to kill his niece.

I hated those savage Indians just as much as John Wayne did.

I mean, jeez, they had kidnapped Natalie Wood, transcendent white beauty who certainly didn't deserve to be nuzzled, nibbled, or nipped by some Indian warrior, especially an Indian warrior who only spoke in monosyllables and whose every movement was accompanied by ominous music.

In the movies, Indians are always accompanied by ominous music. And I've seen so many Indian movies that I feel like I'm constantly accompanied by ominous music. I always feel that something bad is about to happen.

I am always aware of how my whole life is shaped by my hatred of Tonto. Whenever I think of Tonto, I hear ominous music.

I walk into shopping malls or family restaurants, as the ominous music drops a few octaves, and imagine that I am Billy Jack, the half-breed Indian and Vietnam vet turned flower-power pacifist (now there's a combination) who loses his temper now and again, takes off his shoes (while his opponents patiently wait for him to do so), and then kicks the red out of the necks of a few dozen racist white extras.

You have to remember Billy Jack, right?

Every Indian remembers Billy Jack. I mean, back in the day, Indians worshipped Billy Jack.

Whenever a new Billy Jack movie opened in Spokane, my entire tribe would climb into two or three vans like so many circus clowns and drive to the East Trent Drive-In for a long evening of greasy popcorn, flat soda pop, fossilized licorice rope and interracial violence.

We Indians cheered as Billy Jack fought for us, for every single Indian.

Of course, we conveniently ignored the fact that Tom Laughlin, the actor who played Billy Jack, was definitely not Indian.

After all, such luminary white actors as Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors, Burt Reynolds, Burt Lancaster, Sal Mineo, Anthony Quinn and Charlton Heston had already portrayed Indians, so who were we to argue?

I mean, Tom Laughlin did have a nice tan and he spoke in monosyllables and wore cowboy boots and a jean jacket just like Indians. And he did have a Cherokee grandmother or grandfather or butcher, so he was Indian by proximity, and that was good enough in 1972, when disco music was about to rear its ugly head and bell-bottom pants were just beginning to change the shape of our legs.

When it came to the movies, Indians had learned to be happy with less.

We didn't mind that cinematic Indians never had jobs.

We didn't mind that cinematic Indians were deadly serious.

We didn't mind that cinematic Indians were rarely played by Indian actors.

We made up excuses.

"Well, that Tom Laughlin may not be Indian, but he sure should be."

"Well, that movie wasn't so good, but Sal Mineo looked sort of like Uncle Stubby when he was still living out on the reservation."

"Well, I hear Burt Reynolds is a little bit Cherokee. Look at his cheekbones. He's got them Indian cheekbones."

"Well, it's better than nothing."

Yes, that became our battle cry.

"Sometimes, it's a good day to die. Sometimes, it's better than nothing."

We Indians became so numb to the possibility of dissent, so accepting of our own lowered expectations, that we canonized a film like "Powwow Highway."

When it was first released, I loved "Powwow Highway." I cried when I first saw it in the theater, then cried again when I stayed and watched it again a second time.

I mean, I loved that movie. I memorized whole passages of dialogue. But recently, I watched the film for the first time in many years and cringed in shame and embarrassment with every stereotypical scene.

I cringed when Philbert Bono climbed to the top of a sacred mountain and left a Hershey chocolate bar as an offering.

I cringed when Philbert and Buddy Red Bow waded into a stream and sang Indian songs to the moon.

I cringed when Buddy had a vision of himself as an Indian warrior throwing a tomahawk through the window of a police cruiser.

I mean, I don't know a single Indian who would leave a chocolate bar as an offering. I don't know any Indians who have ever climbed to the top of any mountain. I don't know any Indians who wade into streams and sing to the moon. I don't know of any Indians who imagine themselves to be Indian warriors.


I was wrong. I know of at least one Indian boy who always imagined himself to be a cinematic Indian warrior.


I watched the movies and saw the kind of Indian I was supposed to be.

A cinematic Indian is supposed to climb mountains.

I am afraid of heights.

A cinematic Indian is supposed to wade into streams and sing songs.

I don't know how to swim.

A cinematic Indian is supposed to be a warrior.

I haven't been in a fistfight since sixth grade and she beat the crap out of me.

I mean, I knew I could never be as brave, as strong, as wiser as visionary, as white as the Indians in the movies.

I was just one little Indian boy who hated Tonto because Tonto was the only cinematic Indian who looked like me.