The following excerpt is taken from The Wolf at Twilight, the second book in Kent Nerburn’s award winning trilogy of journeys through Indian Country (Neither Wolf nor Dog, The Wolf at Twilight, and The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo). In it, Dan, the eighty year old Lakota elder, and his friend, Grover, talk to author Nerburn about the subject of Indian mascots as they drive together across the Dakota high plains in Nerburn’s old Toyota.
Indians and Cavemen
By the time we got back on the road, heat mirages were rising in shimmers from the highway.
“Damn, it’s getting hot,” Dan said. “Doesn’t the air conditioning in this car work?”
“It is working,” I said.
“Well, it’s not doing a very good job.”
“It’s a little car with a little engine. It’s probably a hundred degrees outside.”
I tried adjusting the knobs to increase the cooling, but the Toyota was doing the best it could. The sun beat in through the windows as if it was coming through a magnifying glass.
“Just open the windows,” Grover said. “Use Indian air conditioning. Besides, it’ll get rid of some of the smell of that shampoo on little Dog Soup up there. You really wash your hair with that stuff, Nerburn?”
I didn’t bother to answer. My exhaustion was wearing on me, and their glib refusal to give any shape to the trip was getting under my skin.
“Just give me my hat,” Dan groused.
Grover reached into Dan’s suitcase and pulled out what looked like an old khaki fisherman’s cap. Dan pulled it down over his head and tilted it toward the window so it would block the direct rays.
“Pretty sporty,” I said.
“We should have taken Grover’s car,” he grumbled.
“Or maybe Shitty’s truck,” I said. “That had a lot of Indian air conditioning.”
Grover sat back and folded his hands behind his head.
“I’ve been thinking about getting myself a hat,” he mused. “Maybe one of those Cleveland Indians baseball caps.”
“Like Delvin had,” I said. Delvin was the husband or boyfriend of one of Dan’s granddaughters we had met last time out. He had been proudly sporting a Cleveland Indians baseball cap with its caricatured logo of a leering Indian.
“Yeah. But I’d change the logo from an Indian with a big nose and buckteeth and a feather to a black guy with big lips and white teeth and an afro pick.”
“You’d probably make it about five blocks in any city in America before someone killed you,” I said.
“I don’t go to cities.”
“It’s probably just as well.”
He picked away at his fingernails with his buck knife. It was clear he was mulling something over.
“Nerburn, I want to ask you something,” he said.
“How is it that you guys get all worked up about stuff that insults black folks but don’t give a damn about all that Washington Redskins crap and the other stuff that insults us?”
“I don’t know, Grover,” I said. “Maybe because there are so few Indians and so many blacks?”
“Nah, you won’t mess with Chinese either, or Arabs, or anyone else. One bucktooth Chinaman with slanty eyes, and there’d be lawyers lined up around the block. But put a bucktooth Indian with a big nose on a baseball cap, nobody says a thing.”
“Maybe it’s because you guys are mostly off the radar, living out here in flyover country. There’s not enough of you in the big cities to bang the tin cups on the bars.”
“There’s plenty of Indians in cities.”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” Dan said, piping up from under his fisherman’s cap. “It’s because when white people think of Indians they think of guys wearing feathers and war paint and riding around on horseback. They can’t connect guys like us with guys like that.”
He hoisted himself upright in the seat, suddenly interested in the conversation. “When I was a little kid,” he said, “we used to play cowboys and Indians. I always wanted to be a cowboy because the cowboys were the good guys. I didn’t think of myself as one of those Indians with hatchets and headdresses and all those war whoops.
“Hell, we didn’t even think those were the same people as us. So, if we didn’t make the connection, why should we expect you white guys to make the connection, especially when you don’t even see hardly any of us anymore? To most white folks, Indians are just a bunch of welfare cheats and drunks getting rich off casinos.”
“I wish to hell I was getting rich off some casino,” Grover said. “I can’t even make the nickel slots pay out.”
Dan continued undeterred. “We don’t look like we used to. We don’t dress like we used to. We don’t talk like we used to. So white folks don’t see any connection. With black people, you see the connection every time you look at their faces.”
“Interesting theory,” I said. “But that doesn’t explain the big blind spot. It would seem obvious that we shouldn’t have teams named the Washington Redskins and do stupid things like that tomahawk chop.”
Grover held his hand up and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the universal gesture for money.
“It’s deeper than that,” Dan said.
“Hey, old man, this is America. You never have to look any deeper than money.”
“Maybe so, but I’m going deeper anyway. Here’s what I think it is. America feels guilty about slavery. But they never had to give anything back to black people that was hard for them to give. What they’d stolen from the black people was their freedom, so they just said, ‘We’ll give it back to you.’ That was easy. Let them go to the front of the line now and then, let them do everything white people can do, and America could stop feeling guilty.
“But it wasn’t that easy with us Indians. Look what you stole from us. You took our land, our houses, everywhere we lived. The only way you can make it right is to give the land back to us, and you can’t do that, because all of America’s our land.
“If you wanted to give us back what you stole from us, you’d have to give us all of America. Here, here’s New York. Here’s San Francisco. Here’s all of South Dakota.”
“Here’s Nerburn’s house,” Grover said.
“Hell, here’s everywhere,” Dan said. “But you can’t face that. So you have to say, ‘Those were different people, that was a different time.’ Instead you tell us, ‘You can have some chunks of land we don’t want, and here’s some casinos so you can make some money to shut you up.’ Then you just go on your merry way doing what you want.”
“That’s a little simplistic,” I said. “We did a lot more to black people than just take their freedom. Besides, I still don’t see what that has to do with bucktoothed Indians and tomahawk chops.”
“Look,” Dan said. “If you see a black person and someone tells you all the slaves were black people, you see the shadow of slavery every time you see a black face. But we Indians, we mix up pretty well. There’s been lots of intermarriage, there were lots of rapes in the old days.
“You see an Indian who looks almost white and is driving a pickup truck and shopping at Wal-Mart, you don’t make the connection to someone who looked like Sitting Bull or Chief Joseph. So the Washington Redskins and that bucktoothed son of a bitch Cleveland Indian don’t connect in your minds with us today. Those are old Indians, and we’re supposed to be new Indians. We’re supposed to not care. What you don’t see is that those old Indians were our grandmothers and grandfathers.”
He shifted in his seat. “It’s just like the cavemen,” he said.
“The cavemen?” I said. “What do cavemen have to do with it?”
“Just wait,” Dan said. “I’m getting to it. You got to be patient. Now, let me explain it to you this way. If you see a picture of a caveman all hairy and hunched over carrying a club, do you say, ‘Hey, that bothers me. Those are my ancestors’? Of course not, because you don’t feel any connection to that.
“That’s how most white people think we should think of all those images of Indians with headdresses and tomahawks. They don’t have any connection to Indians today, so we shouldn’t be bothered by them.
“Well, you know why they don’t have any connection to today? Because the white man stole our children, cut their hair, made them learn English, wear white man clothes, and worship the white man’s god. They did everything they could to break that connection. They wanted to make it so we didn’t see any more connection between us and those old Indians than you do between yourself and a caveman. But we do. Those are our ancestors, our great-great-grandparents. Those are our heroes in our history.”
It was a classically odd Dan argument — at once absurd and insightful. My amusement must have shown, because Dan shifted upright in his seat and poked me several times in the bicep.
“Now, I’ve got some more stuff to say, too,” he continued. “There’s no way you can feel it’s okay to bring folks over from another country in chains. That’s wrong, and you know it. But with Indians, you can say, ‘We beat you in a fair fight. Get over it,’ or you can say, ‘You signed those treaties. You made the deal.’
“What you don’t say is that there was never any fair fight because you were beating us with smallpox and other diseases, and we made those deals with cannons pointed at us, or with some interpreter lying to us, or with you calling some guy a chief who wasn’t a chief and bribing him to sign a treaty by promising him money and a big house.”
He rolled down his window and expelled a large wad of spit. It flew back and attached itself to Grover’s window in a long string.
“Jesus, old man,” Grover said.
Dan shook his hand to shut him up.
“But none of that really matters. What matters is that you’ve got a way to lie to yourselves about what you did to us, while you don’t have a way to lie to yourselves about what you did to black people. Do you follow me?”
“I do, Dan,” I said. “But there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I’m not giving my house back to the Ojibwe any more than you’re giving your country back to the Cheyenne or the Crow or whoever lived on that land before you moved onto it. What good is feeling guilty going to do?”
Dan slammed his hat against the dashboard. Bronson scuttled off his lap and crouched on the floor.
“Let’s get something straight, Nerburn. We didn’t take over anyone’s land because we wanted it. We were pushed onto it by all the damn boat people from Europe filling up the east and pushing us west. We didn’t try to take other people’s land. Stealing other people’s land is a white man’s invention.
“Besides, I’m not telling you to feel guilty about it. I’m saying to take responsibility for it. Guilt’s just an inside-out way of feeling good about yourself by saying how bad you feel, and I don’t have any time for it. Taking responsibility is something different. It’s saying that some of the good you got is because of some of the bad that you did and that you’re going to do something to make up for the bad that was done.”
His self-righteousness was starting to irritate me. “Okay, that’s fine,” I said. “But what am I supposed to do? Sit and listen to you beat up me and every other white person for things that General Custer did a hundred and fifty years ago?”
“Well, you could start by telling the truth about what Custer did. You could start by stopping people from naming towns things like Chivington when all that son of a bitch did was shoot down little girls and women and come riding into town with their private parts stretched over the pommel on his saddle. It’s like naming a town Hitler.”
I didn’t know where Chivington was, or even if there was such a town.
“I didn’t name any town Chivington, Dan, just like you didn’t scalp any settlers.”
He seemed to sense that he was pushing his argument too far. He took a deep breath and stared out the window. From his place under the dashboard Bronson thumped his tail as if to ask if the coast was clear.
“Okay, let me try to lay this out straight for you,” Dan said. “I’m not saying any of this is your fault or even that your grandparents did any of it. I’m saying it happened, and it happened
on your people’s watch. You’re the one who benefited from it. It doesn’t matter that you’re way downstream from the actual events. You’re still drinking the water.
“I don’t care if you feel guilty. I just care that you take some responsibility. Responsibility’s about what you do now, not about feeling bad about what happened in the past. You can’t erase the footprints that have already been made. What you’ve got to do is take a close look at those footprints and make sure you’re more careful where you walk in the future.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
“You could start by speaking up a little. No one listens to us anymore when we complain. They just call us whining Indians or some kind of radicals. Think about what Grover said. What if you had a baseball cap with a bucktoothed Chinaman or a black guy with big lips and white teeth chomping on a chunk of watermelon? You’ve got to start making people see us as human beings, not cartoons. It’s seeing real Indians, not wise men or bucktooth savages on baseball caps.”
“I do my best, Dan,” I said. “I really do.”
My conciliatory tone had begun to soften him. I thought for a moment he was actually going to put his hand on my shoulder, but he drew back.
“I know that. And I don’t mean to be pointing my finger at you. But something’s wrong when white people twist themselves into knots to keep from making black folks mad but keep calling sports teams the Washington Redskins and putting big-nosed Indians on baseball caps. It’s telling us we don’t matter, or that we don’t exist, and it makes me damn angry.”
Grover pulled himself up in the backseat and leaned in between us. He had obviously been enjoying the discussion he had started.
“You got it wrong, old man,” he said. “They’re honoring us with all that stuff. ‘Warriors,’ ‘braves,’ tomahawk chop. Those are signs of respect. They’re keeping our memory alive.”
Dan snorted in derision. He had no time for irony.
“It hurts the little kids,” he said. “It tells them they don’t matter and that they don’t have any say, just like it’s always been. Then we wonder why they kill themselves.”
“Well, you know what the white people always told us,” Grover said. “We’re supposed to become like them. So maybe we could get one of those rich tribes out east to buy a baseball team and name it the New York Jewboys. Put a logo on their hats with a grinning Jew with a big hook nose, just like that Cleveland Indian. You could have the Jewboys against the Redskins. It would show that we’re learning the American way.”
Grover had moved into territory that made me extremely uncomfortable. I wanted out of this conversation, and he knew it.
He leaned closer until his head was only a few inches from my ear. “What do you think about that, Nerburn?” he said.
“I’m not touching this, Grover,” I said.
“Too hot for you, huh?”
“Six million Jews got killed, and you give them a country. Twenty million ’Skins get slaughtered, and you put big-nosed Indians on baseball caps. You think that’s fair?”
I didn’t want to question his numbers, and I didn’t even want to get near the issue of how many of those deaths had been the unintended result of diseases to which the Native people had no immunity. I just wanted to put an end to the conversation. Grover had made his point, and so had Dan. I think Dan realized this, too.
“I don’t think Grover’s saying that you should start putting cartoons of black guys or Jews on baseball caps,” Dan said. “That would be as bad as what they’re doing to us. Those folks have had plenty of suffering. We understand that. Hell, we understand suffering better than anybody. Indian people aren’t about dragging other people down.
“But here’s what you’ve got to understand. When you look at black people, you see ghosts of all the slavery and the rapes and the hangings and the chains. When you look at Jews, you see ghosts of all those bodies piled up in the death camps. And those ghosts keep you trying to do the right thing.
“But when you look at us you don’t see the ghosts of the little babies with their heads smashed in by rifle butts at the Big Hole, or the old folks dying by the side of the trail on the way to Oklahoma while their families cried and tried to make them comfortable, or the dead mothers at Wounded Knee or the little kids at Sand Creek who were shot for target practice. You don’t see any ghosts at all.
“Instead you see casinos and drunks and junk cars and shacks.
“Well, we see those ghosts. And they make our hearts sad and they hurt our little children. And when we try to say something, you tell us, ‘Get over it. This is America. Look at the American dream.’ But as long as you’re calling us Redskins and doing tomahawk chops, we can’t look at the American dream, because those things remind us that we’re not real human beings to you. And when people aren’t humans, you can turn them into slaves or kill six million of them or shoot them down with Hotchkiss guns and throw them into mass graves at Wounded Knee.
“No, we’re not looking at the American dream, Nerburn. And why should we? We still haven’t woken up from the American nightmare.”
Excerpted from the book, The Wolf at Twilight. Copyright © 2009 by Kent Nerburn. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.
Kent Nerburn is an author and educator who has been deeply involved in Native American issues and education. He is widely recognized as one of the few American writers who can respectfully bridge the gap between Native and non-Native cultures. He developed and directed an award-winning oral history project on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. In addition to being a program evaluator for the Minnesota Humanities Commission and serving on their selection board, he has served as a consultant in curriculum development for the American Indian Institute in Norman, Oklahoma, and has been a presenter before various groups, including the National Indian Education Association and the President’s blue-ribbon panel on Indian Education. He holds a PhD in both Theology and Art and lives with his family in Minnesota. His website is www.KentNerburn.com, where autographed copies of his books can be purchased. His latest book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo is the final volume of his outstanding trilogy, which began with Neither Wolf nor Dog and continued with The Wolf at Twilight. Both of these books won The Minnesota Book Award, and each one in the trilogy stands on its own as a beautifully crafted story.
Contact: Monique Muhlenkamp / New World Library
800-972-6657 ext. 15 / Monique@newworldlibrary.com