“Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.”

Felix von der Osten - Jeune garçon en tenue tribale et coiffe à plumes célébrant le Powwow, réserve indienne de Fort Belknap, Montana (The Buffalo that could not Dream)

Rolling Head

We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people. We have the sad, defeated Indian silhouette, and the heads rolling down temple stairs, we have it in our heads, Kevin Costner saving us, John Wayne’s six-shooter slaying us, an Italian guy named Iron Eyes Cody playing our parts in movies. We have the litter-mourning, tear-ridden Indian in the commercial (also Iron Eyes Cody), and the sink-tossing, crazy Indian who was the narrator in the novel, the voice of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of a copy of the image of an Indian in a textbook. All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image. Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.


Urban Indians were the generation born in the city. We’ve been moving for a long time, but the land moves with you like memory. An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. Everything here is formed in relation to every other living and nonliving thing from the earth. All our relations. The process that brings anything to its current form—chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise—doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth. Buildings, freeways, cars—are these not of the earth? Were they shipped in from Mars, the moon? Is it because they’re processed, manufactured, or that we handle them? Are we so different? Were we at one time not something else entirely, Homo sapiens, single-celled organisms, space dust, unidentifiable pre-bang quantum theory? Cities form in the same way as galaxies. Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread—which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.

Tony Loneman

Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don’t always get. I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not gonna hurt as much anymore

Dene Oxendene

Back at school Dene wrote Lens everywhere he could. Each place he tagged would be like a place he could look out from, imagine people looking at his tag; he could see them seeing, above their lockers, on the back of the bathroom stall doors, on the tops of desks. In the bathroom stall tagging the back of the door, Dene thought about how sad it was to want everyone to see a name that wasn’t his, a name written to no one, to everyone, and to imagine them looking into it like it was a camera lens. It was no wonder he hadn’t made a single friend in middle school yet.

We don’t have time, Nephew, time has us. It holds us in its mouth like an owl holds a field mouse. We shiver. We struggle for release, and then it pecks out our eyes and intestines for sustenance and we die the death of field mice.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield

“Columbus called you Indians, for us it was Teddy Roosevelt’s fault.”
“He was hunting bear one time, but then found this real scraggly old hungry bear, and he refused to shoot it. Then in the newspapers, there was a comic about that hunting story that made it seem like Mr. Roosevelt was merciful, a real nature lover, that kinda thing. Then they made the little stuffed bear and named it Teddy’s Bear. Teddy’s Bear became teddy bear. What they didn’t say was that he slit that old bear’s throat. It’s that kind of mercy they don’t want you to know about.”

Opal is on her route. Same old same old one. But she’s paying attention to where she steps. Opal doesn’t step on cracks when she walks. She walks carefully because she’s always had the sense that there are holes everywhere, cracks you can slip between—the world, after all, is porous. She lives by a superstition she would never admit to. It’s a secret she holds so tight to her chest she never notices it. She lives by it, like breathing. Opal drops mail in slots and in boxes trying to remember which spoon she’d eaten with earlier. She has lucky and unlucky spoons. In order for the lucky ones to work, you have to keep the unlucky ones with them, and you can’t look to see what you’re getting when you pull one out of the drawer. Her luckiest spoon is one with a floral pattern that runs up the handle to the neck.
She knocks on wood to cancel out something she’s said she wants or doesn’t want to happen, or even if she just thinks it, she’ll find wood and knock on it twice. Opal likes numbers. Numbers are consistent. You can count on them. But for Opal, certain numbers are good and others are bad. Even numbers are generally better than odd ones, and numbers that have some kind of mathematical relationship are good too. She reduces addresses to a single number by adding them together, then judges the neighbors based on their reduced number. Numbers don’t lie. Four and eight are her favorites. Three and six are no good. She delivers mail on the odd side first, always having believed it’s best to get the bad out of the way before getting to the good.
Bad luck or just bad shit happening to you in life can make you secretly superstitious, can make you want to take some control or take back some sense of control. Opal buys scratchers and lottery tickets when the jackpot gets high enough. Her superstition is one she would never call superstition for fear it would lose its power.

Edwin Black

I hadn’t grown up fat. Not overweight. Not obese, or plus-size, or whatever you can call it now without sounding politically incorrect, or insensitive, or unscientific. But I always felt fat. Did that somehow mean I was destined to one day be fat, or did my obsession with being fat even when I wasn’t lead to me eventually being fat? Does what we try most to avoid come after us because we paid too much attention to it with our worry?

The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it’s stuck in the past. The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn’t pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern?

Calvin Johnson

Being bipolar is like having an ax to grind with an ax you need to split the wood to keep you warm in a cold dark forest you only might eventually realize you’ll never make your way out of. That’s the way Maggie put it. She got it like me and my brother didn’t. But she’s medicated. Managed. Maggie, she’s like the key to the history of our lives. Me and my brother, Charles, we hate and love her like you end up feeling about anyone nearest to you who’s got it.

Jacquie Red Feather

“What I’m here to talk about is how our whole approach since day one has been like this: Kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think the problem is that they’re jumping. This is what we’ve done: We’ve tried to find ways to get them to stop jumping. Convince them that burning alive is better than leaving when the shit gets too hot for them to take. We’ve boarded up windows and made better nets to catch them, found more convincing ways to tell them not to jump. They’re making the decision that it’s better to be dead and gone than to be alive in what we have here, this life, the one we made for them, the one they’ve inherited. And we’re either involved and have a hand in each one of their deaths [...]

She always finds it funny, or not funny but annoying actually, how much people in recovery like to tell old drinking stories. Jacquie didn’t have a single drinking story she’d want to share with anyone. Drinking had never been fun. It was a kind of solemn duty. It took the edge off, and it allowed her to say and do whatever she wanted without feeling bad about it.

Big Oakland Powwow

In the Oakland Coliseum parking lot, for the Big Oakland Powwow, there is one thing that makes many of our cars the same. Our bumpers and rear windows are covered with Indian stickers like We’re Still Here and My Other Vehicle Is a War Pony and Sure You Can Trust the Government, Just Ask an Indian!; Custer Had It Coming; We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors, We Borrow It from Our Children; Fighting Terrorism Since 1492; and My Child Didn’t Make the Honor List, but She Sure Can Sing an Honor Song. There are Schimmel Sister stickers, and Navajo Nation stickers, Cherokee Nation stickers, Idle No More, and AIM flags duct-taped to antennas. There are dream catchers and tiny moccasins, feathers and beaded miscellany hanging from rearview mirrors.
We are Indians and Native Americans, American Indians and Native American Indians, North American Indians, Natives, NDNs and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nations Indians and Indians so Indian we either think about the fact of it every single day or we never think about it at all. We are Urban Indians and Indigenous Indians, Rez Indians and Indians from Mexico and Central and South America. We are Alaskan Native Indians, Native Hawaiians, and European expatriate Indians, Indians from eight different tribes with quarter-blood quantum requirements and so not federally recognized Indian kinds of Indians. We are enrolled members of tribes and disenrolled members, ineligible members and tribal council members. We are full-blood, half-breed, quadroon, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds. Undoable math. Insignificant remainders.

Thomas Frank

Before you were born, you were a head and a tail in a milky pool—a swimmer. You were a race, a dying off, a breaking through, an arrival. Before you were born, you were an egg in your mom who was an egg in her mom. Before you were born, you were the nested Russian grandmother doll of possibility in your mom’s ovaries. You were two halves of a thousand different kinds of possibilities, a million heads or tails, flip-shine on a spun coin. Before you were born, you were the idea to make it to California for gold or bust. You were white, you were brown, you were red, you were dust. You were hiding, you were seeking. Before you were born, you were chased, beaten, broken, trapped on a reservation in Oklahoma. Before you were born, you were an idea your mom got into her head in the seventies, to hitchhike across the country and become a dancer in New York. You were on your way when she did not make it across the country but sputtered and spiraled and wound up in Taos, New Mexico, at a peyote commune named Morning Star. Before you were born, you were your dad’s decision to move away from the reservation, up to northern New Mexico to learn about a Pueblo guy’s fireplace. You were the light in the wet of your parents’ eyes as they met across that fireplace in ceremony. Before you were born, your halves inside them moved to Oakland. Before you were born, before your body was much more than heart, spine, bone, brain, skin, blood, and vein, when you’d just started to build muscle with movement, before you showed, bulged in her belly, as her belly, before your dad’s pride could belly-swell from the sight of you, your parents were in a room listening to the sound your heart made. You had an arrhythmic heartbeat. The doctor said it was normal. Your arrhythmic heart was not abnormal.

The name of your drum group is Southern Moon. You joined a year after you first started working at the Indian Center as a janitor. You’re supposed to say custodian now, or maintenance person, but you’ve always thought of yourself as a janitor. When you were sixteen you went on a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit your uncle—your mom’s brother. He took you to the American Art Museum, where you discovered James Hampton. He was an artist, a Christian, a mystic, a janitor. James Hampton would end up meaning everything to you. Anyway, being a janitor was just a job. It paid the rent, and you could have your earphones in all day. No one wants to talk to the guy cleaning up. The earphones are an additional service. People don’t have to pretend to be interested in you because they feel bad that you’re taking their trash out from under their desk and giving them a fresh bag.

You walked into the room and, just as you did, they started singing. High-voiced wailing and howled harmonies that screamed through the boom of that big drum. Old songs that sang to the old sadness you always kept as close as skin without meaning to. The word triumph blipped in your head then. What was it doing there? You never used that word. This was what it sounded like to make it through these hundreds of American years, to sing through them. This was the sound of pain forgetting itself in song.

Before getting to the Nineteenth Street Station you pass a group of white teenagers who size you up. You’re almost afraid of them. Not because you think they’ll do anything. It’s how out of place they are, all the while looking like they own the place. You want to run them down. Scream something at them. Scare them back to wherever they came from. Scare them out of Oakland. Scare the Oakland they made their own out of them. You could do it too. You’re one of these big, lumbering Indians. Six feet, two thirty, chip on your shoulder so heavy it makes you lean, makes everyone look at it, your weight, what you carry.

The chip you carry has to do with being born and raised in Oakland. A concrete chip, a slab really, heavy on one side, the half side, the side not white. As for your mom’s side, as for your whiteness, there’s too much and not enough there to know what to do with. You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.

Orvil Red Feather

“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. You learn that dance to keep it, to use it. Whatever you got going on in your life, you don’t leave it all in here, like them players do when they go out on that field, you bring it with you, you dance it. Any other way you try to say what you really mean, it’s just gonna make you cry. Don’t act like you don’t cry. That’s what we do. Indian men. We’re crybabies. You know it. But not out there,” he says, and points to the door of the locker room.
[...] He knows what the guy said is true. To cry is to waste the feeling. He needs to dance with it. Crying is for when there’s nothing else left to do. This is a good day, this is a good feeling, something he needs, to dance the way he needs to dance to win the prize. But no. Not the money. To dance for the first time like he learned, from the screen but also from practice. From the dancing came the dancing. 

Tommy Orange - There there (Knopf, 2018)