There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted, drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out. It’s called the Indian Head test pattern. It you left the T V on, you’d hear a tone at 440 hertz—the tone used to tune instruments—and you’d see that Indian, surrounded by circles that looked like sights through riflescopes. There was what looked like a bull’s-eye in the middle of the screen, with numbers like coordinates. The Indian’s head was just above the bull’s-eye, like all you’d need to do was nod up in agreement to set the sights on the target. This was just a test.
Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork.
I pulled my regalia out and put it on. I went out into the living room and stood in front of the TV. It was the only place in the house I could see my whole body. I shook and lifted a foot. I watched the feathers flutter on the screen. I put my arms out and dipped my shoulders down, then I walked up to the TV. I tightened my chin strap. I looked at my face. The Drome. I didn’t see it there. I saw an Indian. I saw a dancer.
“There is no there there,” [Rob] says in a kind of whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone… […] Dene wants to tell him it’s what happened to Native people, he wants to explain that they’re not the same, that Dene is Native, born and raised in Oakland, from Oakland. Rob probably didn’t look any further into the quote because he’d gotten what he wanted from it.
[Norma] was crying. Dene […] thought about what it might have meant to her, losing her brother. How wrong it’d been that he’d left, like it was his loss alone. Norma crouched down and put her face in her hands. The camera was still running. He lifted it, pistol-gripped, pointed it at her, and looked away.
“One of the last things Mom said to me when we were over there, she said we shouldn’t ever not tell our stories,” I said.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” “I mean having the baby.”
“It’s not a story, Opal, this is real.”
“It could be both.”
“Life doesn't work out the way stories do. Mom’s dead, she’s not coming back, and we’re alone, living with a guy we don’t even know who we’re supposed to call uncle. What kind of a fucked-up story is that?”
Jacquie kneeled in front of the minifridge. In her head she heard her mom say, “The spider's web is a home and a trap.” And even though she never really knew what her mom meant by it, she’d been making it make sense over the years, giving it more meaning than her mom probably ever intended. In this case Jacquie was the spider, and the minifridge was the web. Home was to drink. To drink was the trap. Or something like that. The point was Do not open the fridge. And she didn’t.
“There’s gotta be some reason for all this. That we would meet like this,” Harvey said, holding the elevator by putting his arm across the threshold.
“The reason is we’re both fuckups and the Indian world is small.”
But his leg. The lump that’s been in his leg for as long as he can remember, as of late it’s been itching. He hasn’t been able to stop scratching it.
We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid—tied to the back of everything we'd been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.
Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming from miles. Years. Their sound will break the water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.
Dene starts to say something about storytelling, some real heady shit, so Calvin tunes out. He doesn’t know what he’s gonna say when it comes around to him. He’d been put in charge of finding younger vendors, to support young Native artists and entrepreneurs. But he hadn’t done shit.
Opal pulled three spider legs out of her leg the Sunday afternoon before she and Jacquie left the home, the house, the man they’d been left with after their mom left this world. There’d recently been blood from her first moon. Both the menstrual blood and the spider legs had made her feel the same kind of shame. Something was in her that came out, that seemed so creaturely, so grotesque yet magical, that the only readily available emotion she had for both occasions was shame, which led to secrecy in both cases.
“Now you young men in here, listen up. Don’t get too excited out there. That dance is your prayer. So don’t rush it, and don’t dance how you practice. There’s only one way for an Indian man to express himself. It's that dance that comes from all the way back there. All the way over there.”
To get to the powwow Tony Loneman catches a train. He gets dressed at home and wears his regalia all the way there. He’s used to being stared at, but this is different. He wants to laugh at them staring at him. It’s his joke to himself about them. Everyone has been staring at him his whole life. Never for any other reason than the Drome. Never for any other reason than that his face told you something bad happened to him—a car wreck you should but can’t look away from.
He crawls out through the black curtains. For a second the brightness of the day blinds him. He rubs his eyes and sees across from him something that doesn’t make any sense for more than one reason. Calvin Johnson, from the powwow committee, is firing a white gun at a guy on the ground, and two other guys are shooting on his left and right. One of them is in regalia. Dene gets on his stomach. He should have stayed under his collapsed booth.
[Calvin] looks over to Tony, who’s bouncing a little—he’s light on his feet like he’s ready to dance. Tony’s supposed to do the actual robbing. The rest of them are there in case anything goes wrong. Octavio never explained why he wants Tony in regalia, and why he should be the one to take the money. Calvin assumes it’s because someone in regalia would be harder to identify, and ultimately harder to investigate.
She puts her hand over her mouth and nose, sobs into her hand. She keeps listening to see if it will clear up. She wonders, she has the thought, Did someone really come to get us here? Now?
Tony plays with his Transformers on the floor of his bedroom. He makes them fight in slow motion. He gets lost in the story he works out for them. It’s always the same. There is a battle, then a betrayal, then a sacrifice.