“Are you part Indian?”
I’ve been asked this question all my adult life, especially before my hair went partly gray. No Native American would ever mistake me for a two-heart, but white people often have. It must be my earrings and silver bracelets. It can’t be my last name, because even though I’ve kept the name of my long-divorced Seneca husband for over 30 years, George doesn’t sound Indian at all. It would be different if I’d married another Indian boyfriend from my youth, boys with last names like TwoGuns or Mohawk or Nephew. But George? It sounds French. Even when I’m with my half-Native son, it doesn’t make sense, because, much to our mutual frustration, we don’t look alike. Waiting for movie tickets once, he dragged me up and down the line, accosting strangers with “Don’t this woman and I look like we’re related?” Every one of them said no. I’m really half Scottish, so I guess this could be a spillover effect from the contemporary Celtic fad, which seems to be about primal stuff and even includes words like Braveheart.
When asked if I’m Indian, I have always answered no. The questioner frequently says that I look “sort of” Indian or that there’s “some kind of Indian aura” about me—another thing any Native person would find ridiculous, because there’s nothing Indian in my speech or mannerisms or personality. My Indian friends always regarded me as a yappy white woman. But in the generic New Age, my eclectic middle-aged hippie persona passes for real Native American without my trying. I specify “real” to distinguish people of identifiable Native tribal identity and origin from all those wannabes, waiting around every corner to claim Indian heritage, usually saying that they heard their grandmother was part Indian. Ask what tribe, and they seldom know. If they do, it’s usually Sioux. (I don’t correct them, so eager am I to end all such conversations. They mean Lakota.)
When I was nominated for a Pulitzer years ago after writing a book about Sigmund Freud and the poet William Blake, local media interviewers asked me that Indian question. They liked the ostensible (and entirely misleading) humble-roots aspect of my story. They wanted to know how a woman with my background makes good, how a single, welfare mom becomes a professor of English and literary critic who writes about the founder of psychoanalysis and a wild-eyed 19th-century British visionary. But unless I decide to run for president, there’s no point in pretending I really had those humble roots. I just adopted them as protective coloration for a few years. So after closing the Indian subject, I’d usually answer background questions with a line I ripped off from somewhere: “I was born at an early age.” But even that wasn’t true. I was just this side of dead for the first 15 years of my life. In truth it still does not seem to me that my life really began until I entered a Native American world.
I am an adolescent girl. I wake every day to the same small-town life—routinized and scrutinized, with duties to be performed each day around a highly organized, middle-class household of four children and two adults: scrub bathtub; dust living room; mop kitchen floor; sew black pants. Everyone has duties, written down and planned ahead, so I never experience timelessness. I wake at 6 a.m., am in bed by 10 p.m. Even in summer we have to be inside way before the other neighborhood kids, because things get dangerous at dusk— that’s when cars can’t see you well. Music and warm air drift into my bedroom window. I ache to be out there, anywhere but in this dusty Presbyterian manse. No reading after lights out—Mom checks.
In school I am a straight-A student in the honors group, with another regimen of schedules—research paper due on Monday, literature test on Tuesday, band practice, chorus practice, meeting with the English teacher after school on Thursday. On Wednesday there’s always youth group, boring beyond description, at the white church where my father used to be minister before he died, and where my stepfather is the organist. Because Saturday is for housework, there’s little freedom on weekends, and Sunday is worse. Sunday is the worst. Church is followed by coffee hour is followed by afternoon youth group is followed by evening family prayer session, where I really get into praying aloud as street theater, sometimes working myself into tearfulness, until my stepfather tells me to stop faking all that piety. I can’t even indulge my gift for drama. Sunday never, ever ends, and it is followed by Monday.
Television is closely monitored for violence or inappropriate content. (“Sugarfoot”—yes, he doesn’t drink; “Maverick”—no, he gambles; “Rifleman”—no, it glorifies guns.) I never get to see horror movies and pass by the lines of teenagers outside the theater on Friday nights, kids my own age, excited and gloriously unsupervised. No dates allowed, even when I am 15. Not exactly true, supervised socializing is permitted, carefully monitored, with good boys from the church youth fellowship, all of whom have zits and are dorks. College, and the escape it could represent, seem a world away when I am a freshman and sophomore in high school. I think I will die, genuinely die, of boredom.
Fellow feeling would help, but my brothers and my sister do not seem to feel as I do. They study hard and plod along. At the dinner table, it’s me who breaks into hysterical giggles and is sent away from the table until I can behave myself, which I cannot. I come back to the table to my dry meat, overcooked vegetables, boiled potatoes. No spice except salt. But if I salt my food, my mother watches me and, after the second shake, says, “Put it down now; that’s enough.” When I am sent away from the table for laughing, I come back chastened because I am hungry. But I can’t control it. I begin to laugh again into my plate until it bursts from me in head-thrown-back waves. Sometimes I can get my sister to misbehave momentarily, but she is a good girl and usually looks away from me so as not to get into trouble. No one is having any fun here.
At the creek beside the house, a person might have some fun, poke around with sticks and dirt and water bugs, but we girls are not allowed on its shores unless it’s almost dried out, which, even back then, strikes me as an appropriate way to describe my life—dry and dusty and hollow. Dry like the pages of books, the only real escape permitted. Reading is also monitored for suitability, but the stuff I sneak by them because of its “classic” status, like “The Way of All Flesh,” even if not as innocent as they hope, is also not as juicy as I hope. I know perfectly well that reading about adventure is not the same as living it. And I mean to live it.
The Zane Grey novels, written in the early mid-century and right on the edge of respectability, have heaving bosoms, as well as horses and savages. “The savage had just emerged from the river, for his graceful, copper-colored body and his clothing were dripping with water. He carried a long bow and a quiver of arrows.” Oooooh, yes.
In this novel, “The Last Trail,” I’m meant to desire the white borderman Jonathan Zane, but there’s nothing interesting about him. He reminds me of those boys from youth fellowship if they’d lived on the frontier—wholesome, clueless about sex, just not that bright. The book cover shows him in coonskin cap, rifle butt raised against one of those savages with a Mohawk and a knife in his hand. In the corner of the cover cowers a blond woman, knocked to the ground and sexually threatened, whom Jonathan Zane is saving from a Fate Worse than Death. I’m looking at that savages pecs, and that Fate looks pretty damned fine to me.
When a white woman is kidnapped by the savages in “The Last Trail,” she is later returned. Though she never speaks of what she endured and carries no visible scars, we know what happened to her. She is mute for weeks, as if her tongue had been cut out, contemplating The Horror. Of course no one makes her speak of it. It is literally unspeakable. What could you expect from savages who actually point and say, “Ugh!”
The Senecas at school mock such white stereotypes by grunting like that, followed by uproarious laughter. They mix their English with Seneca words I never quite understand, like Hatagayee, an exclamation that seems to have many meanings. They hang in groups, pointing and sniggering at girls just like the white football players do, but the Indian boys are much more handsome, and wittier than the whites. They aren’t anything like the savages of those Zane Grey novels, except for their copper bodies, those pecs, that gorgeous hair, the cheekbones.
Music helps me escape a little. Rock ‘n’ roll is not approved of, though my brother plays it. We are allowed to listen to musicals, encouraged even, and I feed myself Rodgers and Hammerstein, memorizing the lyrics of every show, picking the hopelessly romantic stuff to dream on. Certain segments of “Oklahoma!” make me feel strange in the belly. The villain, Judd, is scary, therefore sexy. Curly is only cute, not dangerous enough. Then I find “Carousel” and am transported. Julie falls in love with an outlaw, Bill, a dangerous drifter always in trouble. She meets him at the annual town holiday festivities, where a traveling show with rides has been set up. He’s a carnival barker who runs the carousel. The moment she sees him, she is electrically attracted to his charm and sexiness and especially his outlaw status. She knows he’s the one she wants. She runs away with him, marries him, gets pregnant.
“My boy, Bill, I will see that he’s named after me, I will,” sings Bill, swelling with manly pride. Bill is completely unable to love Julie without gruffness, distance and detachment now that she belongs to him. It’s just that he doesn’t know how. “But what if he is a… girl?” Knowing that he’s a loser and that a girl-child will require his protection, he steals and gets caught and is killed. Julie raises the girl as a single parent, but she is always in spiritual contact with Her Man. “Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown.” Middle-aged Americans all know the dismally sentimental theme song from “Carousel,” which contains much better music, as well. “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone…” I have dreams. It’s a man like Bill I’m dreaming of, a man who lives outside the social contract, an outlaw, a rebel, sexy, untamable. A carnie. Someone who runs the carousel.
On the back lot behind the Main Street stores in my town, the carnival sets up for our annual civic celebration, called Pioneer Days. Merchants gussy up like pioneers, looking like those white folks in the Zane Grey novels. The carnies are all from out of town, and they are the complete expression and embodiment of the dangerous outsider—they swagger; they’re scruffy; their eyes are knowing slits they cover with mirrored sunglasses. Even the white guys seem as exotic as gypsies. Although it’s evident they are not well bathed, they’ve got their eyes on scoring with the locals during the three days they’re here, and they do pretty well. Desperately bored girls live in all the small towns, girls like me, and the carnies can tell who we are at a glance.
The carnival transforms the back lot into a magic show of moving lights. Just stepping on the gravel gives me an adrenaline rush. Of course, I am forbidden to go to the carnival, frequented by all those undesirables, whom my mother rightly fears I desire. I am 15. I sneak out, heading downtown through backyards and side streets at dusk. I can see the Ferris wheel in between houses, towering over all the buildings in town, the top of its circle a bright beacon of turning lights, as I make my way to freedom. I can hear the music before my feet leave the sidewalk. I approach the wheel. What’s a Ferris wheel but a vertical carousel? More dangerous, more grownup. You could fall off the damned thing. And so my real life began.
That was several decades ago. The 15-year-old girl is in her 50s now, sitting in the glow of the television on Easter night, near the close of the century and the millennium, watching a made-for-TV movie about a bunch of nuns in late 19th-century Santa Fe who need a new staircase for their Loretto Chapel. The architects and carpenters accidentally finished building it without making stairs to the choir loft. Those dopes plumb forgot. If this sounds like implausible plotting, they were not making it up. “The Staircase” is based on a true story on which I’ve subsequently done a background check. Our main character, a hard-baked mother superior, terminally ill with cancer— the Dying Nun, I’ll call her—is determined to get a staircase built, but no one can imagine how it will happen. Yet if faith can move mountains, surely it can construct some stairs.
Sure enough, a mysterious, white, 30-something Christ figure emerges from the desert wilderness, windburned on one side of his face from turning the other cheek, and offers to build the staircase for free, without benefit of center post or nails. Apparently, this carpenter doesn’t like the sound of nails driven into wood. The obligatory fishing scene (as in loaves-and-) has occurred (followed by 300 commercials for Kraft products) and His generosity and grace have astounded even the alkies, crooks, murderers and thieves. The Dying Nun becomes increasingly lugubrious in her illness, fussed over by a gaggle of sisters, young and old, including Diane Ladd in her first non-lethal role in years, having broken out of the satanic stepmother ghetto in time to be cast as an aspiring saint.
We also have a lovable (New) Mexican kid, as well as a silent, good-hearted young Indian boy for local color. (Because it’s Santa Fe, they really should keep the various Hispanics and Anglos and Indians straight, even if in some places in the Old West the lines of cultural demarcation are not so clear.) At the dinner table earlier this Easter day, my son, a cop, did one of his comic routines about dealing with unconscious racial stereotypes in his police department. “They know I’m Indian,” he said, “and they know I don’t speak Spanish.” Long pause. “So how come every time we stop some guy and he starts talking in Spanish, whoever I’m riding with turns to me with his face all screwed up and says, ‘Wha’d he say?’” This has much in common with his routine about how people think that, because he’s half Indian, he can tell how much change they’ve got in their pockets by looking at their footprints. “Two dollars and,” he pauses, pokes at the imaginary footprint with a stick, “73 cents.”
Late in the film, with precious little dramatic tension to keep things going for two hours in a plot where all that really needs to happen is some guy builds a staircase, the threat of Indian hostility is gratuitously introduced. This being near the turn of the 21st century, the roles of the good guys are carefully diversified, and when the Christ figure goes out into the wilderness and encounters his Indian parallel, he is given safe passage just before the commercial break. But we are fearful of his being out here at the borders of the white settlement. The predictable reaction is evoked in a white audience by saying, “That’s Indian Territory out there.” In the Christian world, it’s parallel to the Wilderness owned by Satan, through which the Christ must pass.
I am watching this movie with people of my own generation, white, professional baby-boomers, and since the threat of our main character being trapped in Indian Territory is followed by several hundred more commercials from Kraft, my friends begin talking about old TV Westerns. They know I used to live with Indians decades ago and have a half-Indian son, but they are right to assume that our early television exposure had much in common. We politically correctly reminisce. Remember watching those old Westerns like “Wagon Train” when you were a kid? When they’d say the wagons were starting into Indian Territory, remember what you’d feel? Abject fear of those savages, who scalped and raped and murdered. Not when it was tough gunslingers out there who knew how to take care of themselves, but those families in single wagons or trains were so helpless and vulnerable. And how many years before it would occur to us that the reason this was called Indian Territory was that Indians lived there, that it was their home, and the whites were invaders?
Many of the Native people in these territories were displaced in the Trail of Tears, which gave them even more reason to treat the coming of whites as a threat—they’d already been displaced from their original homes, and it was happening again. None of this was ever mentioned, and now the revised textbooks and multicultural treatments of the theme notwithstanding, those of us brought up in the early days of Westerns still have this threatening prototype in our heads that is impossible to completely dispel: Until the cavalry comes or the white travelers arrive at the fort, we think of them as being at the mercy of inhuman beasts. Almost half a century later, the term Indian Territory is still used to trigger what it did when we were kids—fear.
“Not me,” I say at the next onslaught of commercials.
I contemplate my lack of fear in the face of the Indian menace, sharing, as I do, the white cultural past of my friends. It’s Easter, after all, and we are watching a wretched movie about a Christ figure, and I have always had difficulty differentiating between the words Cavalry and Calvary. Galloping crosses and crucified militiamen occupy my unconscious; I can’t keep them straight. I would have been a white woman, a daughter or a wife in the wagon train, setting out with her father or husband and children for new lands, attempting to find or build a new life. I realize, perhaps for the first time, that I never did feel what other white viewers felt when they watched the old Westerns. What did you feel, my friends want to know. I reach back to those fantasies fueled by the kidnap scenes in Zane Grey novels.
I wanted the Indians to come riding across the horizon. I wanted them all wild with war paint, their long hair whipping in the dust or the wind. I wanted to go with them. I wanted to be the white woman scooped up onto the back of an Appaloosa by a strong Indian brave. I wanted to feel my arms around his waist, corded with muscle, as I hung on for dear life, his hair in my mouth, the sweat of him soaking into my heaving bodice as we rode over the grassy plain or the sand-baked desert, it didn’t matter which. I wanted to be taken to their camp, where there were many people like this nameless man, who, as he came to a stop in the center of the village, would take me down from his horse and give me one wild-eyed, desirous look that had something tender in it, too. He would say nothing to me, absolutely nothing. This pure embodiment of the strong, silent type would give me over to the chief, who would assess me with his eyes and then turn me over to the women, who would take me to the women’s tepee—or, um, lodge, or longhouse or whatever—and do womanly things to me. Maybe they’d braid my hair?
The Indians would converse in a language I couldn’t understand, deciding what to do with me. Afraid at first, I soon know that I will not be killed or tortured or mistreated. They have decided to adopt me. They will teach me everything. I will be given to that young brave, undoubtedly the chief’s son, who took me onto his horse. He looks at me now from across the encampment. I am his. Yes, I will be proud to bear his children.
Eventually I become that archetypal ghost who appears now and then in the collective dream of the genre, a lost one, a white woman who has lived with the Indians so long that when they rescue her, she no longer remembers English. She does not recognize the husband/ father/brother with whom she is reunited at the fort, and she runs away, back to the Indian village, the moment she has a chance. For she has been the woman of the chief’s son for many years now, and she loves him. There is a wild, almost crazed look in her eye, like theirs. Yes, she has become one of them, and there will be no reasoning with her; she is beyond mere reason. She knows things that make all the comforts of her old life entirely irrelevant, without value. She lives in a perpetual state of wild peace, or peaceable wildness, who knows, for she is beyond anything I know, and I won’t know her secrets until I become her.
Oh, say my friends. Then the movie conies back on.
The Pueblo leader our Christ encounters in the wilderness is not dressed to look threatening. He’s got on some sort of vest-like affair and could be a white businessman, except for that long, black hair. He’s extremely civilized while guaranteeing his guest safe passage. The Indian guy and the Christ guy instinctively understand each other. At the end of their little scene together, an Indian brave, a bit wilder in the eyes, brings the pudgy Mexican kid to the Christ guy—the kid was knocked cold on a rock when he ventured out in the wilds of Indian Territory following his buddy, the carpenter. So we’ve got all the lost, wild Innocents out there together in a touching, desert moment, multicultural as all get-out.
Which would be corny but not too contemptible, except for what follows. Even today, a Western has to present the Red Man as a sexual threat. In her deathbed confession of why she has been prejudiced against Indians, the Dying Nun explains it all to the substitute Christ: When she and her community came from Kentucky to bring Christ to the savages (white and Indian) in New Mexico, they had to cross— you guessed it—Indian Territory. And you know what those savages did? They captured her and two others nuns. The two others were raped and tortured horribly, then killed. She describes, in loving detail, their horrid screams—nothing could have been worse, except the silence that followed. For some reason, being entirely arbitrary in their choices, the Indians decided not to torture or kill her. They just fucked her. Though, of course, the Dying Nun didn’t say that; she just let a decent silence and a faraway, pained look serve to let us imagine what licentiously depraved sexual stuff they did to her. Like the mute woman in Zane Grey. The horror, the horror.
When they returned her to her camp the next morning, she said that she was no longer fit to be the bride of Christ, that she was now impure and defiled, for she had never before “known a man” until those stinking Indians put their multicultural things inside her. This explains why the Dying Nun is so hard, bitter and filled with self-loathing. The Christly carpenter explains to her that none of this is her fault and offers her absolution before finishing his staircase and riding off into the desert from whence he came. She dies while crawling (literally) up the staircase, collapsing into the arms of the Indian boy she has treated badly all this time. I believe we are intended to draw some conclusion about how the races are now united.
Later I look up the historical account, figuring that if indeed this stuff happened to the good sisters on their way from Kentucky to New Mexico, there’d have been some justification. Apparently they struggled with weather and difficult travel conditions—the written accounts even specify broken wagon wheels. No Indian raids. No rapes. Yet even now it’s apparently asking too much for Hollywood to pass up a chance to gratuitously evoke white America’s sexual fears about dark-skinned peoples.
Ron Howard’s “The Missing,” released in December 2003, adapted from a novel by Thomas Eidson, is about a good, Christian woman (Cate Blanchett) whose daughter is stolen by an Apache brujo (witch or supernaturally evil being) to be sold into sexual slavery across the Mexican border. Blanchett’s own deadbeat dad (Tommy Lee Jones), a white man who, of course, knows Apache ways, helps her track this monster, played by part-Inuit actor Eric Schweig. New Yorker film critic David Denby finds director Ron Howard’s use of a terrifying Indian “depressingly practical” because the Indian is “the primal villain of the movies.” Denby wondered if such a sex slave trade by Indians actually existed, so he checked with Yale historian Howard Lamar, who confirmed that “it probably did not.” So “extravagantly repulsive” is the brujo that Denby proposes he is “an expression of white guilt— a projection of the destructive passions of the Indian wars.” It’s no coincidence that the brujo’s evil, religious magic is defeated by Cate Blanchett’s firm, Christian faith, as well as by the good-Apache medicine dispensed by Tommy Lee’s token Tonto.
In a newly and terrifyingly fundamentalist country, where Christian hate-radio rules, we could do without such misleading distortions of historical probability. But we don’t want to. White people like to feel sexually threatened by dark people. It’s how they have fun. It’s certainly how I had fun.
Those archetypal fears and desires, half created and half reflected by television, were of monumental consequence in my life. I pursued that absurd fantasy from my Western-watching days, and I got what I asked for, except the part about his being the chief’s son. Well, you can’t have everything. None of what happened resembled in the least what I’d hoped for—nor did it resemble what I might have feared. The world I entered was full of daily courage and also of frequent tragedy. Reservation life was powerfully sad, misshapen, in part, by white America’s myths about both the nobility and the savagery of the continent’s indigenous peoples, myths internalized by many Indians. I hate to see this bifurcated innocence/corruption nonsense about Indians acted out in my line of sight. I’ve seen people literally die of its consequences.
My own story of living with Indians ended on a final irony. Years later, my hapless, mythic love, my Indian brave, revealed himself to be a knife-point rapist of white women, until someone finally stopped him. Though it had been years since I’d seen him, he called me from jail the night he was arrested and asked for my help. I went to see him, knowing there was really nothing I could do for him. I knew there would be a white jury predisposed to thinking of him as a naturally criminal sexual predator. By that time, I’d gotten an education in race relations and power politics, and I had no illusions that could offer him comfort or hope. He said he was framed; he claimed he was innocent. I knew too much about him to believe he’d done nothing wrong. Still, if I’d had any money when he was put on trial, found guilty and sent to Attica and Auburn, I’d have hired him a good defense lawyer. He was doing and being exactly what white culture told him to do and to be. Anglos manufacture an icon of sexual danger and primal desire, purvey it for a couple of centuries, hang onto it even now whenever we want free titillation. But when a person acts upon our instructions to his psyche, we imprison him.
I know that if this Indian man I once loved was a rapist, he needed to be put where he could not hurt any more women. But I also know he did not obtain a fair trial, that he could not have obtained one. I believe that he was found guilty before he or the witnesses against him spoke a single word. I know that he was not the only one guilty of rape. I am, ever belatedly, the witness for his defense.