On Finally Listening to the Signals

The sweat gathered in glassy beads on my father’s brow as he carefully threaded the long, completely unstable fiberglass pole through the fabric of the tent it would soon support. I was with him two weeks before when he had bought this tent and I had heard the disinterested, underpaid store clerk mumble quick assurances of the tent’s “easy-as-cake” set-up. An hour spent fumbling with  fragile fiberglass pole sections, Velcro dome support straps, and a patented rain canopy that clearly didn’t fit right proved the clerk’s promise to be false.

Yet here we were, my father and I, taking part in the grand male ritual of learning how to be properly frustrated at inanimate objects that don’t perform as promised.  Some fathers impatiently snatch greasy spark plug wrenches from their inexperienced son’s hands with a grumble and a sideways glance, secretly questioning the true paternity of their mechanically disinclined offspring. Other fathers, at the behest of their picky wives, grouchily set their end of a sofa down, first accidentally on their foot and then on the floor, so that they can dramatically gesture with their arms to turn the sofa on its side, like an insane semaphore flagman.

semaphore

Which looks precisely like this to a perpetually distracted pre-teen son.


On this particular day, my father’s frustration at my inability to properly follow directions had only been inflamed by the bewildering ease with which our nearby companions had erected their army surplus tent. Finally, with the last pole in place, the squat, trapezoidal, grey dome finally resembled the picture on the box, with the notable exception of the patented rain canopy that would spend the night crammed forcefully back into its softball-sized carrying pouch. But we had done it. We had shelter. I had passed the test and managed to help him put something together.

I had been in the terrible habit of disappointing my parents in a variety of ways over the previous few years at the end of elementary school. Between the scores of detention slips and suddenly sub-par grades, I’m sure I helped to contribute to more than a few of their respective ulcers. Despite their earnest attempts to keep me out of trouble, I insisted on making such a mess of things. My enthusiasm at successfully helping with this task, of being a part of the team and not screwing up, overrode my better judgment as I dove into the tent’s open flap to see the cavernous space secured within. We hadn’t yet staked this marvel of engineering to the ground yet, so the tent naturally slid a few inches off its ground tarp, much to my father’s irritation.

“Will you get out of the tent, please, son?” he said, trying his best to not let fly a stream of profanities that would make the dad from A Christmas Story blush in shame. I was a difficult child in many ways, but none more so than my unbridled enthusiasm. If there were assignments on the task board to complete at school or SRA reading booklets to work through, I hurried my way to the head of the pack. If there was snow on the ground on a Saturday morning, I was out in it at 7:00 a.m., trying to knock stalactite-sized icicles down off the roof eaves with a broomstick. If there was a way to proceed heedlessly forward with zeal and excitement, I was there, embarrassing my parents and racking up check marks next to my name on the chalkboard.

I was surprised by how small the tent actually was inside, so I sheepishly crawled back out and zipped up the door, pinching the fabric a bit in the zipper and not telling him about the minor mistake. He explained that we weren’t even sleeping in this tent, anyway. This tent was for his second wife and her two daughters. We were sleeping in the drab army surplus tent just beside us. I moped away from the tapping sound his mallet made on the aluminum tent stakes to see the inside of my sleeping quarters for the night.

The first thing I noticed, aside from the musty, faint smell of mold and mouse feces, was a lack of a floor. The nice, new tent came with a ground tarp and a vinyl, moisture-resistant floor to keep the elements out. This tent sat cock-eyed on a barren patch of dirt that sloped gently off to the back side. I looked up at the tent’s ceiling, which was pockmarked by a virtual firmament of tiny holes, and flicked the canvas wall directly in front of me. Offended by my doubtfulness of its ability to shelter, the tent rained down several small pieces of grit, all of which seemed to land directly on my face, just for added spite.

I had never been to a powwow before, despite the fact that I had lived my entire life in Oklahoma to that point. I knew of their existence. I knew several Native American kids my age and many more who claimed to have Indian princesses in their family tree, which was assuredly bullshit. Generally, they were a mystery to me. They dressed like I did, talked like I did, played on my soccer teams, and ate the same repulsive cafeteria meals next to me. Yet every so often, their “Indianness” emerged. For example,  in my 2nd grade school play about the founding of America, the Native boys all dressed in buckskin and danced wildly around the stage as a form of greeting to the extraordinarily shy students dressed in sober black costumes and cast as Pilgrims.

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In addition to several adorable scenes with less historical accuracy than this,  our play also featured a scene with a student dressed as Peter Minuit, breaking the fourth wall to joke with the audience about how he bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24 and some beads.


There had never been a place like this, or people like this in my immediate experience. They didn’t match up the imagery from old Westerns. They were local folk, setting up tents and laying out incredibly ornate regalia on lawn chairs and blanket-covered truck beds. My father’s second wife was Native American and my visitation with him fell on Memorial Day weekend, which meant we’d spend the time here, at a pow-wow, where I immediately understood that I didn’t fit in.

My brother hadn’t come with me, as he could drive and was thus allowed to choose if he wanted to stay for visitation weekends or not. Had there not been two middle-school boys, just a few years older than myself, I would have likely spent the entire two days sitting idly on a sun-bleached wooden grandstand, with all of the other non-Native attendees. Instead, I’d spend the time fifth-wheeling it behind two older boys who managed to smuggle squirt guns and fake cigarettes, which blew out a chalky, surely carcinogenic dust when you exhaled through them.

Because I had no money, no fun gadgets, and I was much smaller than they were, it didn’t take long before they grew tired of me. Our primary activity had simply been to walk around the outer circle of the pow-wow and bother people, sometimes venturing off into the blackjack and post oaks that further encircled the powwow campgrounds. I followed both of them virtually everywhere, desperate to mimic their mannerisms, words, and generally cooler demeanor.

This was going to be an impossibility, primarily because of what I had chosen to wear that evening. Growing up, my kindly mother had frequently dressed my brother and me in colorful clothing. Soccer uniforms were worn well past the end of the season simply because the separate pieces matched. Garish, brightly colored swim trunks that ended mid-thigh were paired with technicolor dream tank-tops. She loved colorful outfits and because we had little say in the matter, we always stood out from crowds. I had internalized the deep commitment to polychromatic couture and this was acutely evident here at the powwow.

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FIERCE.


This particular evening, after having dirtied up my only pair of jeans in a water fight earlier in the day, I sported a bright orange soccer jersey, resplendent with a multicolored sash across its front and my first name on the back, and a pair of kelly green sweatpants from my middle school. My enthusiasm about hanging with the older boys allowed me to completely overlook the fact that I very clearly resembled an inverted carrot, running about without an appreciation of where I was.

Night had fallen and the dances being performed had evolved from contests for cash prizes to much more somber, serious affairs. There were fewer people milling about in the pow-wow’s outer rings and despite wearing an outfit that could be seen from space, my father had to do quite a bit of searching and backtracking to finally catch up to me. He explained that his new wife and her oldest daughter were about to do something called a “war dance,” in honor of tribal members who had died in combat. Because of the heaviness of the moment, I needed to sit right next to him and be extremely quiet.

To that point, I hadn’t truly sat and taken in the experience. Equipped with the attention span of a fruit fly, I vaguely knew that this was an important social and cultural gathering, the precision of the stately, elegant steps the dancers made, in excellent coordination with one another, bore witness that I had not fully appreciated the proceedings. Questions percolated from every corner of my juvenile mind about these incomprehensible people and their captivating culture

The drum circle, filled with men beating drums with a kind of intensity that I hadn’t comprehended, drove the dancers’ steps around the circle. The deep, resonant quality of the single drum’s thunderous booms, when paired with the singing that echoed above all other sounds, fascinated me. A grateful smile crept across my face, proud to have been there to observe a ceremony that I imagined to have been repeated annually for centuries prior. I wondered to myself if the first white men to encounter this tribe had seen roughly the same dances and I was both terrified and entranced by what I believed to be the timelessness of the scene.

My eyes began to dart around the arena, memorizing steps I saw dancers making. My left knee, absolutely awash in adrenaline, began bobbing up and down, synchronized to the drum’s beats. I leaned forward, antsy to move and almost completely unable to sit still. My father’s heavy, enormous hand seized my shoulder, freezing my revelry in place. He leaned down to where my vibrating, fidgety body had moved, to whisper in my ear “Cool your jets, bub.” I wanted to behave. I truly did. So, I grabbed the wooden bleacher plank with my fingers and squeezed as tightly as possible, hoping that I could restrain myself into submitting to better judgment.

As the beats descended and the dancers began dispersing from the center of the arena, a voice informed the audience that anyone was welcome to join in the next dance, if they liked. My head turned supersonically around to flash bright, hungry, enthusiastic eyes at my father. He had to have heard what they just said. I could join in. I could dance to the drum beats. I could be a “real Indian”.

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Like me, not a “real Indian.” Also, not a real tear streaming down his cheek.


My father rose from his seat and tried to keep pace with me as a skillfully leaped down the grandstand bleachers like a mountain goat descending a nearly sheer cliff face. I came to a halt when I hit the arena floor, where I knew we would meet up with his new family so that we could dance as a group. He and his wife took a few steps ahead of us and she turned her head back to bark out orders to her oldest daughter to walk beside and hold hands with her little sister. Her eyes fell on mine and, confused by the inferno she undoubtedly encountered there, said “You. You just stay… just stay by them and don’t act crazy,” pointing with her chin to the two older boys whose every waking moment I had shadowed for the better part of the day. It was a signal that I should have heeded.

Much like the grey dome tent I had helped construct earlier, I ignored good judgment and threw myself into the dance heedlessly. At first, I tried to do exactly what the boys next to me were doing. They exhibited short little steps in various, seemingly random directions while bouncing up and down on the balls of their feet. Their feet seemed to almost float above the grass and dust, while I couldn’t accomplish the same moves without raising my knees up so much that it looked like I was doing warm-up calisthenics for a football game.

The singer’s voice, like it had before, began to fill the air above the dance, impregnating the atmosphere with meaning in a language I didn’t understand. The drums felt as though they were shaking the very earth on which I was now gracelessly shucking and jiving behind my companions, twirling my torso and raising my knees ever higher as well. Every time my body would make a rotation back around, I’d look at the other boys for clues as to what to do.

I didn’t know that they both earnestly wanted to be fancy dancers when they were old enough and that it was inappropriate for me to emulate them. I didn’t know that the people directly behind me in the dancing circle were agitated by my increasingly wild dancing. I only knew how much fun I was having. How thrilling it was to give myself over to that moment in time. How desperately I wanted to be a part of the collective celebratory spirit present in that arena.

My enthusiasm at what I perceived to be a sublime diversion blinded me to how it must have looked to a small community who knew each other very well — to see me out there making a mockery of their dance. My steps slowed as I noticed a man hurriedly approach my father’s wife and whisper something in her ear. Still dancing, but also straining my ears to hear, I could tell that his voice was angry and upset. Her face turned sharply at me and it was her eyes which now raged with the greater, more unstoppable inferno.

She hissed my father’s name into the warm night air, something I had never heard anyone do, which triggered him to turn about face and quickly clamp his hand on my shoulder once again, which stopped my dancing immediately. A few minutes ago, the hand’s weight was bearable and instructive, even patient. Now, it felt like unyielding iron crushing my collarbone as he moved me to his side and maintained the vice-like pressure of the oppressive grasp.

We walked, not danced, until we came back around to our seats. He walked me out of the circle and through the grandstand’s portal, to the empty outer ring. I looked back over my shoulder, deeply regretful for what I had done and for what I was clearly no longer going to be able to do. My lungs felt like they were about to implode and I felt my breath evacuating my body. A surge of bright, unbounded anger rolled up from within my gut like a violent volcanic explosion, as I violently jerked free of his grip.

I looked up to him with hot tears starting to flow from my eyes. I knew what I had done and he could see, by the blazing recognition I flashed at him, that no words were necessary. We retreated into the musty army tent, where without being prompted, I unfurled my bedroll and collapsed into it, deeply ashamed. I knew better and I had been caught up in the moment without considering how it affected others.

What would be the purpose of telling anyone about anything like this, if not only to further ensconce in my friends’ minds that I am a true, dyed-in-the-wool asshole? Why share this with anyone, be it friends or a group of strangers at a writing workshop? I’m sharing this because of something that’s been in the news lately, but has fallen out of the novelty-obsessed news cycle.

The NFL’s Washington Redskins lost their patent and trademark protection for their team’s nickname, based on the claim that the term “Redskins” is an offensive racial slur and should thus not be protected. Naturally, the question fell to the media for shrill discourse and debate. Both sides offered claims on the matter, most of which overlooked the voices of Native Americans in general unless the three second sound bite specifically confirmed the proffered narrative the media outlet wished to construct.

It’s obvious that hundreds of thousands of Native Americans are deeply offended by not only the nickname, but the endless scores of morons who wear faux ceremonial Native American headdresses, and the appropriation of Native cultural elements for fashion, mockery, or diversion. No matter how much fun you think you’re having, like I did as an eleven year-old at a powwow, and no matter how much sporting tradition is tied up in a team’s nickname, no culture should be mocked, appropriated, or caricatured for our amusement or diversion.

A case could be made that I was just an innocent, hyperactive kid acting up. That was my father’s position on the matter later that night, when I could overhear him arguing with his wife about whether or not I needed to go home right then. I was an outsider, an unwanted step-son in a place full of strangers. Perhaps I was only trying to fit in and got carried away by the moment? That’s what most sports fans would likely say in their own defense. I surely didn’t intend to offend anyone. A quick and decisive correction from my father corrected the notion that what I was doing was acceptable or even a valid form of fun.

But what of those adults, teams, and organizations to whom the offense has been made clear? It’s been thoroughly broadcast that Native Americans are, by and large, offended by the nickname, as well as the multitude of other appropriations that reduce their culture to the level of an exotic animal or a fashion accessory. I stopped as soon as it was clear that my desire to fit in and have fun did not supersede someone else’s right not to be mocked. Adults can do so as well. The signals have been sent and unlike paternal directions for moving a sofa, they’re very clear.

It’s one thing to unintentionally offend someone’s culture or person. They can voice their displeasure and you, a rational adult, can choose to not replicate the offense. It’s quite another thing to insist that we have the right to put our fun, our diversion, or our merchandising contracts ahead of the glaringly obvious cultural denigration that we’re passing on to the next generation as acceptable and valid. Especially when the next generation is right in front of us, watching us for clues on how to behave, as they themselves try to learn how to build something and how to pass the test of being a respectful, decent human being.

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