New Years Eve 1979, 11:38 pm
Frances and I stood with our legs pushing into the ground, all our fingers locked in a stalemate game of Mercy. In bowling shoes, our feet slid around the barroom floor like toboggans. I had the height advantage, so I pointed my toes and came at him from the top. He kept the same pressure on, unmoved by the maneuver. I have this thing where I bite my lip when I’m straining. It gives me away.
“Ready to give up?” He asked between short, rapid breaths.
“You tired?” I shot back at him.
He grinned against the muscles of his neck. “Nah, but you are. Your face is all red,” he laughed.
“So’s yours,” I said.
“But I’m Indian,” he said, choking out the syllables, and laughed, in spite of himself, “I’m always red.” He conjured the energy to put force on me somehow, and my knuckles felt like they were pinned under a truck. We’d been at it so long that the tips of my fingers had gone past numb and now felt wiggly, like they were drooping and maybe about to fall off.
Before I knew it, my foot came out, knocked him square on the knee, and Frances toppled to the ground. My lower body acted totally independent of my will. Least that’s how I tell it.
“Hey! What’re you doing, Jippy?” Frances said, as he picked himself up. “That’s my favorite leg.”
“Sorry, man. Think I slipped,” I said, offering him a throbbing hand.
“What was that? Judo?” He got into a stance, like in the movies.
“What are you talking about?” I barked, as if I were the one with the bruised knee. “What was that sudden burst you had? There was this tremendous energy coming from you, like you were . . . possessed or something.”
Frances got quiet and sat back down at the table. We were getting looks from parents who were out for a night of family bowling. “Jippy, Jippy. Still looking for Indian magic.”
I’ve always been dark for a Norseman. Thick too. Stockiness doesn’t look right on a man my height— like someone rounded off the corners of a wall and called it a man. And I can’t grow a Viking beard, which is some kind of disappointment. My father always thought his genes would win. Instead, I’m made after my mother, sharp-eyed and round-faced— and as dark as she was.
My sisters turned out as Swedes are meant to turn out— full of fire and mettle enough to take you across the ocean on a wood tugboat. All three of them are blond-haired and blue-eyed and cut from marble— they called me Toto, ’cause I was the runt of the family, til I grew into my own body. But all the girls have since ventured out to conquer territory in business and politics, while I stuck around Iowa and made a life out of just standing around in the kitchen waiting for a stroke of genius.
Instead of some dumb-luck moment of inspiration, I got lectures from my father about all the potential I was wasting there at home, with no job and no education. He talked about this potential like it was a ceramic pot, something valuable and fragile that I kept up on a shelf that nobody used. There I was on the verge of some big thing— a revelation that would shake the world somehow— and here he was talking to me about “potential.”
The problem I had, the problem he never got around to, was that I didn’t have money. But he never worried about the fact that I was broke. His biggest concern was my potential, which maybe he was so sure of because he knew his genes were hiding in me somewhere.
So when I did run into some cash— sold away all my worldly possessions on an impulse— I bought enough psilocybin to last me until Armageddon, and hit the road in a borrowed truck. A friend had left his Ford in our driveway while he went to Vietnam, and he never came back to claim it; so rather than let it rot, I took it out. That’s not the kind of person I am, but sometimes we do things we never thought about before. Like some people find religion. Other people go live in the desert. Or write their memoirs. So in the next five years I did all those things too.
New Years Eve 1979, 9:19 pm
Frances and I were only two drinks under and already talking bullshit. Out the window all you could see was an expanse of parking lot and, at the other end, a Chuck E. Cheese lit up like a baseball stadium.
“Hey, didn’t you Vikings invent this poison?” Frances asks.
“What’re you talking about?” I said. “Nobody invented it.”
“Well, maybe not. But I’ve read that the sewage was so bad in Viking settlements all they could drink was mead, the water was so dirty.”
“What do you mean by that, Fran?” I asked. He had a peculiar sense of humor, so I was never sure when he was kidding me or not.
“Yeah, and they used to charge into battle drunk with no shirts on.” He was giving me a history lesson about my people.
“You make us sound like savages,” I said.
“Maybe you’re right. Hey, I only know what I read, Jippy.” He reached across the table and patted me on the shoulder. We took a few quiet sips.
“I tell you what, though,” I said. “We knew about this country before Columbus ever did.”
After a pause, he said, “Sure, I’ll drink to that,” and we clinked glasses.
According to my father, the redbeards landed on these shores ten centuries ago, traded stories with the natives, built a few towers of stone, then paddled back home to Scandinavia. What they didn’t do is try to live here. He claims they didn’t want the land because it wasn’t cold or rugged enough. Our people need peril like they need food or sleep.
“So how is it you never got picked for the war?” Fran asked me.
“Are you asking me why I didn’t get drafted?” I asked back, and he nodded.
I sighed twice, a big one followed by a slight inhalation of air. “Those years I was living in a church out in the desert. . . Nobody knew where I was, so my family just told the feds that I died.” I talked slowly on account of the drink. “So why didn’t you go to ‘Nam, Fran?” I asked, to take the spotlight off of me.
“I woulda’.” He said. “My father, he fought in the good war. But he told me to sit this one out. He told me, ‘It’s a man’s duty not to fight in an unjust war.’ ”
“How’s that?” I asked him.
“Well, the way I figure, us and the VC have something in common: John Wayne’s after us.” He laughed with his whole body, the way he does, which is infectious. Then Fran got up and tried out a John Wayne impression that left me chuckling so hard my lungs displaced a few other organs.
By the time I got up, we were playing cowboys, the duel scene, you know the one. Suddenly we were stumbling around wrestling, and that’s when we ended up knuckle-to-knuckle, locked onto each others hands, muscles tense all the way down to our toes.
The desert made me a believer. You’d be too if you saw that swath of church rising up from the dust like a pyramid in Egypt. The brown roof angled down like a ladle, scooping up potatoes from a pot of soup in a stew kitchen. It was a refuge for the rootless, our sanctuary. An oasis. Without it, the commune would have been just some gathering of hippies building castles in the sand. But inside those clay walls, we were God’s men and women.
And with God’s people to keep me honest, I kept off drugs easy. But after a while what difference did it make? Religion was just another high, and temperance had never been my strength. It could only turn out badly, I see now, looking back. The three ministers who ran it were trying to turn all these passionate loners into simple folk, puritans, and they had no patience for the sensual, the physical, the orgiastic abandon for the spiritual contained in us.
One morning, the two Southern guys who tended the animals, Dirk and Jared, got into an argument about who was closer to God’s light, and Dirk claimed that God had given him the strength to lift the hand-wagon when it was full of wood. Then Jared had to go and prove that God gave him the strength to lift the hand-wagon when it was full of rocks. It went on like that until evening, and they were talking about abstaining from food and sleep for a week, which to my mind would have solved their dispute handily. But these escalating feats of God-given powers was put to an end by the tall minister, who growled at the both of them to read their Bible, “for the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
The rest of us had a jolly time watching Dirk ruminating on that while Jared prayed the Lord His forgiveness. But the next day Jared comes up to me and says, “Hey, Jip. You know what hapnith means? Is it a place, like Canaan?”
And in the end I left not because I denied God but because I accepted Him too wholly to see it contained in a prayer, a book, a prostration. I knew my feeling for God was bigger than a gesture, and I went seeking a better way to slake the spiritual appetite.
New Years Eve 1979, 5:45 pm
“So where do we begin?” I asked Frances. He was quiet the whole time we were driving, his eyes following the lines of the road.
“Your choice.” He said. “It’s your day, Jip.”
When I turned to look at him, I saw him in profile, as on the side of a penny. He didn’t have the same Indian features you’d expect. His nose was flatter, for one thing, and instead of deep-cut lines for cheekbones he had big pudgy things hanging there. But then, I don’t much look the part of a Swede, either.
“I still don’t know the area so well.” I said. “You decide.”
“Sure. This is my home, right?” He might have been kidding me. I couldn’t tell.
Bumping down the reservation road, we were kicking up enough sand to trick the desert. “I thought that an Indian’s home is wherever his ancestors are buried.” I got that from the movie Poltergeist, I think, but it sounded reasonable enough.
“Well… gee… I guess that means this whole damn country is my home!” He tagged me with a knuckle, brotherly-like. He had a great, no-holds-barred laugh.
“So, seriously, why don’t you choose.” I said.
“No-ooo. It’s your big day, Jippy.” He insisted.
“But this is your neighborhood, Fran. You have to tell me what my options are.” I said, getting frustrated.
“Well… let’s see… there’s Chuck E. Cheese or Mick’s Bowling.”
The only reason I came home was my mother died. Lord knows there were enough able hands to bury her on their own, but I felt it was an omen of some kind, and I had to honor the unmistakable touch of God in my life.
I had to do something to let them know right away I wasn’t staying, so I bought a cross and a robe in the novelty shop and told everybody at home I’d become a priest. My father wrung his hands over the fact that I had turned Catholic, but I sensed some pride too when he asked me, since I made the spirit my calling, to speak some healing words at my mother’s ceremony.
Back then, my understanding of the Catholic faith was that they did what other Christians do, but with more ritual and solemnity. So I stood soberly over my mother’s body and mumbled in what sounded to me like Latin prayer. I gave myself an ablution of wine, just a few drops on the forehead, right where my brow breaks into a widow’s peak. I made the sign of the cross on my chest, four quick taps on the body— up, down, right, left— and allowed my two fingers to stay suspended near the heart, as if for the National anthem. But if my liturgy was poor, at least my sense of performance prevailed.
It was windy outside, and every time the door opened a gust would whistle in the vacuum-quiet of the church. A few coughs punctured the atmosphere of death. I read the scrawl from the back of a crumpled flyer I’d written on:
Lord, stay in heaven.
My mother is on her way to you.
She brings a smile that can ease eternity.
This earth, which you made
In weakness, for want of company,
Is not such a welcome place for the sacred.
Rather, it is a world
Where everything is profane,
All living things full of sin, as you made us.
Once, I thought I’d found
Something holy in the desert, a key
That, as it turned out, locked the church at night.
So, I’ll no longer wait
For a coming, a resurrection,
But I send my mother to bring you word of this life.
I must have fooled somebody, because a chorus of “amen” sounded in the room after I finished. I looked down at my mother, wanting to kiss her, but not wanting to reveal myself as the son in grief, rather than the spiritual Father. Instead I pressed the back of my hand against her forehead, something that looked vaguely ceremonial and pious— a laying on hands. It was a gesture she made famous in our house, every time one of us complained of sickness, of reaching out her wrist with her hand turned back toward her, as if offering something but keeping it away from us at the same time.
“Father?” Someone said from behind me. I was still unused to this address. When I turned around, my grandmother stood there fitted out in a black gown, the only time I’d ever seen her dressed that way. She called me father. “I found your eulogy very strange.” The area around her eyes was pink and raw from use.
“Hey, Grandma!” I called out, maybe too excitedly, considering the occasion, but seeing her there made it almost like my mother had come back to life. She folded me into a long embrace.
Grandma used to live out East. My memory of her mixed with that of the ocean, old houses, and a thousand mile drive across the country. I hadn’t seen her since I was young, and while she hadn’t changed much, I’d grown from fishing boat to whaling ship.
“I’m sorry, you didn’t like the ceremony?” I asked.
“Well, no one likes their own daughter’s funeral…” A troubled silence. “But your mother would have liked to see you in your robe.” She smiled. “I want you to meet your great-aunt Oma.” There beside her, a woman with brown skin and gray hair stood wearing a dark shawl. She wore a long braid, just like a movie Indian. “My cousin.”
“Grandma? I thought Ma’s family was from Iceland.” I stood stunned.
“No, Oma’s not from Iceland. She’s from North Carolina.” She clarified.
Feeling like I swallowed my Adam’s apple, I put out my hand to shake. Oma brushed it away and hugged me, saying something comforting about my mother’s early death— funeral talk.
But inside of me, something clicked. Like it was something I’d known for years, but couldn’t name— like I kept waiting to hear it from someone else. Indian.
New Years Eve 1979, 1:12 pm
“So, where’d you get this idea that you’re Indian?” Frances finally asked me. We were in the gymnasium, playing cards, even though some kids had come in to shoot a few baskets.
I smiled because I had an answer to this one. “My mother’s grandfather was a Cherokee.”
Frances laughed in the way he does. “Hell, everybody’s mother’s grandfather was a Cherokee. My mother’s grandfather was a Cherokee, and I’m Lakota.”
“I’ve met the Indian side of the family. Trust me, they’re real Indian.” I said.
“You know, I have a theory‘bout this. You want to hear?” I didn’t. “Three generations ago there was one old Cherokee that loved the wasicun very much, and every chance he’d get, he’d invite some wasicun woman into his lodge—”
“Anyway, it’s not about blood. I just know in my heart that I’m Indian.” I dared him with a stare, but I felt my eyes wavering like two fish in a glass bowl.
“Well, there are two kinds of Indians, you know. Maybe your heart is telling you that you’re from India. Hey, Columbus got it wrong; you wouldn’t be the first…”
“I may not have been raised Indian, but I was born Indian.” I countered.
He scowled, like he was angry, but I can’t know for sure because Frances is hard to read. “You come here to live and all you do is drink and play poker and tell lies. You think Pine Ridge needs another lousy drunk?” He said. His voice echoed in the gym, repeating his words back to him, as if for effect.
The air quickened. The high roof amplified the quiet.
“Hey, I’m sorry I made a fool of myself last night.” I said, though I could hardly remember the details. “I need help.”
“Yep.” He concurred. “You need help.”
“Maybe I should join a twelve-step program or something.”
“Nah. Twelve steps is too many for you. We’re gonna put you on the Two-step program.” He said, and though his tone was serious, I caught a faint glitter in his eye.
“Would you do that, Fran?” I said, feeling awake for the first time all afternoon.
“Not for you.” He said, “Just so I don’t have to hear about you and that Shaman crap anymore. . . . Besides, it’s New Years. Time for new resolutions. Mine is to set you straight for once. What’s yours?”
I thought about it for a while. My years had always felt full of accomplishments, built upon moments like this, promises and dreams. But now the things I’d built felt hollow and unstable. “I think I want to be… honest.”
He leaned in toward me. “That’s a good one. I wish I’d thought of that one.” He lifted a briefcase strap onto his shoulder and helped me up to my feet with his other arm. “You know, it was three years ago you first showed up here.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I really made a mess of things.”
“Nah, you were already a mess. I can’t even imagine why we let you in.” He said, as we moved into the hallway and started out to the parking lot, which was empty except for his old Lincoln. Out there, I asked him what the two steps were.
“Okay.” He paused. “Step one is, just for tonight, you’ll be whoever it is you think you are. Then tomorrow and the rest of your days, go on and be your damn self.”
“ ‘To thine own self be true?’ That’s not very Indian advice.” I said.
“Shakespeare was Indian,” Fran said, and I laughed indignantly, “which is why he always wrote about crazy white people killing each other.”
Believe it or not, I started with the truth, and then the truth changed on me. Memory is an old banana; all the facts in it turned to mush— something others could mold. Publishers and agents, editors, audiences; everyone took a piece of the life I remembered, and in its place they returned a slice of their own imagination. Suddenly I wasn’t just a Cherokee, I was a warrior, a prince, and a medicine man too. I had a keen sense of sight, a way with animals, and conversations with the spirits.
But the visions were real, or at least my memory of them is real. Some people think that a liar is a liar; but liars are of two kinds— those who lie about facts, and those who lie about dreams. I never lied about dreams. I only knew what I wanted to be true: instead of the world in my sight, the one on the insides of my eyelids. And it was the visions that mattered to me. All my lies are biographical.
I never imagined that others could become devoted to my dreams, as well. That some printer out in LA would pick up my manuscript and make me a shaman overnight. Soon I’d appear in full Indian regalia, my face air-brushed to suit the clothes, on the cover of a bogus memoir sold in backward new age shops all over Orange County— my painstaking pose courting the credulous to believe in a spirit both sacred and saleable.
New Years Day 1977
“Wannabe” was the first word I heard when I woke up that morning. My head felt like it was full of more blood than brain, bloated and top-heavy. I felt my temples, rimmed with feathers and strapped to a headband. They throbbed and ached, and the slightest pressure felt like a constriction. I pulled off the elastic head-dress, and soon as I did I noticed my stiff neck. My cheek pressed into the gymnasium floor.
I had to pull my eyes open and wipe off the salt that almost crusted them shut. Had I been crying too? A couple of men in collared white shirts had been sitting in foldable chairs, at a foldable table, talking; my noisy awakening interrupted them.
If I’m this hung-over it can only be New Years. “Rabbit.” I said, and it echoed.
“Hey, is that some kind of Indian thing?” One of the men asked. I looked up. His face was brown and pock-marked, his hair like a helmet. He was short but compact— “dense” is the word that comes to mind. He had his button-down rolled up to the elbows like a science teacher ready to handle beakers and bunsun burners.
“No. It’s something my family used to say on New Years. It’s supposed to bring you good luck.” I struggled to sit up, bone-sore.
The other man, skinny like a lizard and pony-tailed, spoke through the side of his mouth. “Well, I ain’t superstitious.”
Helmet-head looked confused. “Family? But I thought you were raised by the Wolf Spirit? Yeah, it’s right here in your book. Memoirs of a Medicine Man.” They both laughed, I can only guess at me.
“You read my book? Hey, where are all the… people?” I just realized that the gym was empty— my bus, my glory, gone.
The two men looked at each other. “Oh, I imagine they’re following Howard around by now, looking for some of his Indian magic, since yours is spent for now.” That was pony-tail talking.
“How does it feel to be back on the rez, wise man?” This was helmet-head again.
“I don’t feel great.” I said, honestly. “I need something.”
“Yeah, you need something.” He agreed. “Listen, Sam. Why don’t you get some coffee, and let me and the wise man talk?” His friend stood up and patted him on the shoulder before heading through the double-doors into the high school hallway.
I suddenly realized where I was, and I had a brainstorm. “Wait a minute. You’re Indian, right?”
“Hey, you’re good. Maybe you do have premonitions.” He said. He reached out his hand to help me up. “But then, I don’t have to tell you that, wise man.”
“Right. But I’m from a different tribe.” I said, defensively.
“Of course you are.” He said, slyly. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“What do you do around here?” I asked.
“At the school? All kinds of stuff. I teach, I coach, I do counseling for the kids.” He acted proud, like the life he’d settled for was anything.
“Do you serve lunch and clean up too?” I asked, feeling well enough to act smart.
“Sometimes, yes.” He said. “And what do you do?”
When I didn’t answer, he took the hint.
Something in the air called for a change of subject.
“Hey. I’m Frances. Two-step.” He put out his hand, and I took it.
“Jorgen.” I said. “Or Jip, for short.”
“Jorgen the Indian?” He looked amused.
“My Indian name is Silverwolf.” I explained.
“Oh, jeez.” He said, as Sam strolled back in our direction, a cock-eyed grin on his face I wanted to ask him what for.
New Years Eve, 1976
On the cult circuit, you need to know your audience. Like I know that people from California are easy to amaze. Minds are so full of drama that awe to them is a regular emotion, like tenderness. They think miracles just happen; they don’t know how each miracle is crafted carefully, meticulously, by the hand of some would-be Lord over their souls. Half the people I took in, when I passed through San Francisco, had come out of a starvation cult and would’ve taken a slice of watermelon as a sufficient miracle. They looked to me for proof that their old master was an idol, and that I was the only one capable of making true miracles happen. It was really like that.
So I had a bus full of ‘49ers and we were headed east for the next gold rush— off to collect the sap of the ancient bristlecone pine. From it we planned to brew gallons of Indian medicine, stuff so potent it healed scars you’ve carried on your body all your life. If you took it every day for a year your memory would crystallize, like a lens coming into focus, so that you’d even begin to recall the moment of your birth. Some people under its influence remembered past lives.
There wasn’t any medicine to be had, of course— only one great American placebo. For the bristlecone pine is a majestic tree, more ancient than a redwood or a baobab, and maybe the oldest living thing on the planet. It is an ancestor tree, which somehow lived to see its youngest descendents cut down by centuries of industry.
I didn’t need to look so far for a miracle to impress this particular bus of believers, but they were paying a good sum and, hell, I did it for the glory. While other shamans were giving lessons for five bucks a pop with their drums and rattles in rented basements, I was in a bus bound for death valley with the souls of seventeen men and women trailing behind me, and their sense of fate filling me.
Lost in an American wilderness, I kept telling myself I knew where I was headed, that if we just kept moving eventually we’d make it to somewhere worth arriving at. But time wears on the restless like sandpaper on Styrofoam. There wasn’t much of us left after a while, and even I fought the urge to give in.
One thing a shaman cannot endure is doubt. Certitude is the only real currency we have. When I felt an aura of complaint in the air, I quickly put the followers on a vow of silence. We rode. I drove for two days straight, dropping uppers like a kid dropping Smarties the day after Halloween. I don’t know if you’d call it fate or what, but I kept steering that bus with my foot on the pedal until somehow we were drawn into Pine Ridge, South Dakota, like an asteroid caught in centripetal orbit. We fell in after making a few circles on the map, falling toward it like a turd in toilet water.
I kept telling myself, man, Pine Ridge is a poor-ass place— a blot on the map, somewhere even highways avoid. But inside, I imagined, a congregation of souls was waiting to feast at my table. And hungry folks like these can stand to eat a little white lie.
I swear I never meant to end up there, but when we landed I saw the light on in some cement-block public school, people milling around looking happy, and went up to knock on the door. I stood there feeling dizzy, as if, after driving two days, the landscape was still shooting by on the periphery. Then I put my fist to the door, rapping lightly, not knowing whether I wanted to be let in, or left out, or what.