|Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
DEAR JOHN WAYNE
August and the drive-in picture is packed.
We lounge on the hood of the Pontiac
surrounded by the slow-burning spirals they sell
at the window, to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes.
Nothing works. They break through the smoke screen for blood.
Always the lookout spots the Indian first,
spread north to south, barring progress.
The Sioux or some other Plains bunch
in spectacular columns, ICBM missiles,
feathers bristling in the meaningful sunset.
The drum breaks. There will be no parlance.
Only the arrows whining, a death-cloud of nerves
swarming down on the settlers
who die beautifully, tumbling like dust weeds
into the history that brought us all here
together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear.
The sky fills, acres of blue squint and eye
that the crowd cheers. His face moves over us,
a thick cloud of vengeance, pitted
like the land that was once flesh. Each rut,
each scar makes a promise: It is
not over, this fight, not as long as you resist.
Everything we see belongs to us.
A few laughing Indians fall over the hood
slipping in the hot spilled butter.
The eye sees a lot, John, but the heart is so blind.
Death makes us owners of nothing.
He smiles, a horizon of teeth
the credits reel over, and then the white fields
again blowing in the true-to-life dark.
The dark films over everything.
We get into the car
scratching our mosquito bites, speechless and small
as people are when the movie is done.
We are back in our skins.
How can we help but keep hearing his voice,
the flip side of the sound track, still playing:
Come on, boys, we got them
where we want them, drunk, running.
They'll give us what we want, what we need.
Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.
Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins.
My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys
In the reservation textbooks, we learned Indians were invented in 1492 by a crazy mixed-blood named Columbus. Immediately after class dismissal, the Indian children traded in those American stories and songs for a pair of tribal shoes. These boots are made for walking, babe, and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.
Did you know that in 1492 every Indian instantly became an extra in the Great American Western? But wait, I never wondered what happened to Randolph Scott or Tom Mix. The Lone Ranger was never in my vocabulary. On the reservation, when we played Indians and cowboys, all of us little Skins fought on the same side against the cowboys in our minds. We never lost.
Indians never lost their West, so how come I walk into the supermarket and find a dozen cowboy books telling How The West Was Won? Curious, I travel to the world’s largest shopping mall, find the Lost and Found department. “Excuse me,” I say. “I seem to have lost the West. Has anyone turned it in?” The clerk tells me I can find it in the Sears Home Entertainment Department, blasting away on fifty televisions.
On Saturday morning television, the cowboy has fifty bullets in his six-shooter; he never needs to reload. It’s just one more miracle for this country’s heroes.
My heroes have never been cowboys; my heroes carry guns in their minds.
Win their hearts and minds and we win the war. Can you hear that song echo across history? If you give the Indian a cup of coffee with six cubes of sugar, he’ll be your servant. If you give the Indian a cigarette and a book of matches, he’ll be your friend. If you give the Indian a can of commodities, he’ll be your lover. He’ll hold you tight in his arms, cowboy and two-step you outside.
Outside, it’s cold and a confused snow falls in May. I’m watching some western on TBS, colorized, but the story remains the same. Three cowboys string telegraph wire across the plains until they are confronted by the entire Sioux nation. The cowboys, 19th century geniuses, talk the Indians into touching the wire, holding it in their hands and mouths. After a dozen or so have hold of the wire, the cowboys crank the portable generator and electrocute some of the Indians with a European flame and chase the rest of them away, bareback and burned. All these years later, the message tapped across my skin remains the same.
It’s the same old story whispered on the television in every HUD house on the reservation. It’s 500 years of that same screaming song, translated from the American.
Lester Falls Apart found the American dream in a game of Russian Roulette: one bullet and five empty chambers. “It’s Manifest Destiny,” Lester said just before he pulled the trigger five times quick. “I missed,” Lester said just before he reloaded the pistol: one empty chamber and five bullets. “Maybe we should call this Reservation Roulett,” Lester said just before he pulled the trigger once at his temple and five more times as he pointed the pistol toward the sky.
Looking up into the night sky, I asked my brother what he thought God looked like and he said “God probably looks like John Wayne.”
We’ve all killed John Wayne more than once. When we burned the ant pile in our backyard, my brother and I imagined those ants were some cavalry or another. When Brian, that insane Indian boy from across the street, suffocated neighborhood dogs and stuffed their bodies into the reservation high school basement, he must have imagined those dogs were cowboys, come back to break another treaty.
Every frame of the black and white western is a treaty; every scene in this elaborate serial is a promise. But what about the reservation home movies? What about the reservation heroes? I remember this: Down near Bull’s Pasture, Eugene stood on the pavement with a gallon of tequila under his arm. I watched in the rearview mirror as he raised his arm to wave goodbye and dropped the bottle, glass and deams of the weekend shattered. After all these years, that moent is still the saddest of my whole life.
Your whole life can be changed by the smallest pain.
Pain is never added to pain. It multiplies. Arthur, here we are again, you and I, fancydancing through the geometric progression of our dreams. Twenty years ago, we never believed we’d lose. Twenty years ago, television was our way of finding heroes and spirit animals. Twenty years ago, we never knew we’d spend the rest of our lives in the reservation of our minds, never knew we’d stand outside the gates of the Spokane Indian Reservation without a key to let ourselves back inside. From a distance, that familiar song. Is it country and western? Is it the sound of hearts breaking? Every song remains the same here in America, this country of the Big Sky and Manifest Destiny, this country of John Wayne and broken treaties. Arthur, I have no words which can save our lives, no words approaching forgiveness, no words flashed across the screen at the reservation drive-in, no words promising either of us top billing. Extras, Arthur, we’re all extras.
i hated tonto (still do)
by Sherman Alexie
Los Angeles Times, June 28 1998
Commentary: Sherman Alexie recalls growing up with stereotype movie Indians — and loving them, wanting to be them. (Well, most of them.)
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.
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