Thomas Frank speaks mysteriously and poetically about how he came into the world. Born with an arrhythmic heartbeat, Thomas grew up with an insatiable desire to drum on things, and learned quickly that the world was “made of sound.” Some sounds, he found, were full of sadness.
Thomas Frank’s innate love of rhythm and music shows that there are cultural inheritances other than trauma and strife—but also sets up the fact that sometimes, these forces can invade a life and turn things upside down.
In the present, despite having quit drum classes, Thomas has been invited to perform at the Big Oakland Powwow with his drumming group, which he joined a year after taking the janitorial job at the Indian Center. Initially, Thomas was insecure about the singing portion of the drum group, but with the help of the best singer in and de facto leader of the group, Bobby Big Medicine, he gained confidence and patience.
Thomas Frank is a dedicated and involved member of his community—but his lack of self-confidence has caused him to question whether he truly deserves to be a part of its traditions and celebrations.
As Thomas walks towards the BART station to take the train to the powwow, he passes a group of white teenagers and fights the urge to scream at them and scare them to try to get them “out of Oakland.” Thomas thinks of his “one thousand percent Indian” father, a recovering alcoholic medicine man for whom English was a second language. Growing up as an Urban Indian, Thomas was embarrassed by how “noticeably Indian” his father was—now, Thomas regrets being cruel to his father. Thomas’s mother was white, and he often thinks about how he is “from a people who took and took […] and from a people taken.”
As a young man, Thomas felt embarrassed and isolated by his family’s culture and his father’s dedication to enacting and preserving their people’s traditions. Thomas always felt conflicted about his identity, and now, later in his life, has only just started to accept the duality of his cultural heritage and search for how it fits in with who he is at his core.
Thomas started drinking in his twenties to alleviate the constant itching and irritation he felt all over from a lifelong struggle with eczema. Drinking calmed him down at night and stopped him from scratching. Drinking became both “a medicine [and] a poison,” and now, Thomas has just been fired from the job he’s held for a long time at the Indian Center for showing up to work drunk. On the BART train, Thomas remembers the first powwow he ever went to—one his father took him to. Thomas longs for his family, scattered after his parents’ divorce many years ago. He thinks of his older sister and her experimentations with drugs, of his father and his drinking, and of his own use of alcohol as “medicine,” and wonders if substances are what have torn his family apart.
Thomas’s struggles with substance abuse in order to dull a physical ailment have derailed his life and threatened his connection to his community. Looking back on his life and his family, he sees how this pattern has affected them all—and understands the ways in which they are generationally linked by pain, trauma, and the desire to escape the harsh realities of their lives.
As Thomas arrives at the coliseum, he feels a flutter of excitement. He both wants to be heard drumming and is afraid to be—at the same time, he’s nervous to see people from work, and encounter again the shame of being fired. Inside, Thomas joins the drumming circle—he is late—and Bobby Big Medicine leads them in their first song.
Thomas is determined to make amends, and arrives at the powwow full of hope that he can find a way to somehow stand out and blend in at the same time.