In the Hall of Dead Red Men
“It’s a traumatic experience,” I try to explain, “to come into these places for people like”—I pause here, my brain scurrying over words—“them.” I swallow too quickly and wonder if these chiffon-swathed academics noticed the pause. Them not me.
I am, afterall, one of the good ones. One of the ones who believes in reconciliation and renewal. One of the ones who has reached a middle ground. One of the ones who is apologetic about herself. One of the ones who looks, sounds, and mostly thinks white.
“At least, that’s what [ ] says,” and in those brackets I say his name. The words spill out easily, pearlescent guts on the pristine marble floor. As these words bounce off the marble, I hear them echo. In the museum halls, they sound equal parts betrayal and reverence. A blood money prayer or chatterbox hymn. Something much larger than myself and the four women who surround me.
The four women nod, concerned. They know. They’ve thought of this before. They’ve probably thought about it more than I have. They’ve probably read more. Seen more. Done more. Been more [ ] than me. Where [ ] is what he is, and what I only pretend to be.
“He says,” and I keep rambling on, because I need to fill the space before it fills me, “that it’s… it’s oppressive.”
Oppressive like fog.
Oppressive like sadness.
Oppressive like guilt.
Oppressive like the vomit I force up everytime I’m scared he’ll leave.
Oppressive like no-longer-sacred tobacco smoke winding its way through a crazy boy’s lungs.
(These are the things that bind me to him: a haze of guilt wound around our own inadequacies, wrapped up in sadness for things that happened to the people who, while not us, made us.)
“He says”—and I try not to repeat his name, because he never filled out a consent form. “He says it makes him sad.”
But sadness means anger for him, and he pretends he never mourns. As far as I know, he only cries when the tiny animals he feeds die. We joke, when we’re both sane, that he sheds a single tear every time he buries them. But I know he likely sobs silently, piling public park dirt over all those little rat body caskets.
“I mean, [ ] says,” and I’ve offered his name to these nice white ladies again, and even they seem anxious that I keep saying it, “he says that these sort of museums… he wonders how the collections got here. And it makes him… confused, I guess.”
My mother’s mother’s mother has one of the family’s “Indian names.” (I hate that it’s matrilineal, because white myths are always about great-great grandmothers.) I sometimes wonder, looking at my mother’s face, if who we are is a fantasy—il était une fois. I stare past her coal-black eyes, now improved with robot implants, and past her coal-black hair, now improved with golden highlights, and search for a Seventh Fire. Or a totem. Or one of those spirit guides the New Age whites are always finding. (Finding faster and better than I can.) Or something. I usually give up, because I wish I looked more like my mother. Darker. More angular. Older. Exotic. Less white. My mother’s mother’s mother’s name was L’Ecuyer. Nearly Ecuyer, as in Simeon Ecuyer. No one knows the name Simeon Ecuyer or the Siege of Fort Pitt, but everyone knows about Native babies swaddled in disease-ridden blankets.
Ecuyer, not L’Ecuyer, but they’re very, very close.
I have always wondered how they (not me) infected the smallpox blankets. Did they rub them on corpses? Did sick people spit on them? Did they, like witches, go out into a cemetary and howl incantations, asking for the craters of the moon to ooze out illness?
Did they, in museum halls, give an Indian boy’s name to nice white ladies with beautiful earrings and heavy bangles and kind, practiced eyes?
These nice white ladies nod comfortingly. “Of course,” they say, “of course.” And I wonder if they actually believe me, or if they know I’m unsure, even though I’m trying.
I’m trying really hard to please everyone.
I really am.
“I mean, I love museums,” I say, and I can’t tell if I’m lying. “I love them, and I think we can do better.”
These nice white ladies nod more. Lovingly. Maternally. Busily, because they have better things to do than talk to a milk-white Red girl.
Walking home four hours later, I fidget with my engagement ring. It was too big when he found it, so we bought a silicon spacer. Sapphire and white gold, looted from a pile of broken scrimshaw and teacups, tightened with plastic. A reminder that, if my hands grow too cold, the ring will slip right off my bones. My ring will tumble right off onto the floor, and bounce around the halls of the museum, jangling metal, like a hungry ghost.
In the Bed I Share with a Living Red Man
He turned off the overhead lights hours ago, but he’s still awake. He’s gazing into his phone screen, chattering silently to himself. He is almost always chattering to himself, though he seldom makes noise. I know, behind the patient, flat glare, there are multiple channels flipping inside his brain. Crazy or brave. Crazy and brave. Crazy Brave.
I’m not sure if he knows I’m awake. I pretend I’m sleeping, because this is the time he keeps to himself. All the same, Psyche and Eros, I want to look.
I do, because he’s never told me not to. I’m really trying to please everyone.
Especially in the bedroom dark, the phone screen illuminates his face. Up-lit by this blue-white computer candle, he looks almost too alive. I’m struck by the way the shadows catch under his eyes and along his nose. I think of rows and rows of pottery, similarly illuminated. I think of the patchwork of baskets, carefully woven and meticulously collected, made supernaturally sunny by artificial lights. I think of the traditional garb strung out behind glass panels, puffed out with headless mannequins. Lit up by invisible columns of recessed lights.
I remember—remember like you remember a dream—a lecture wherein a woman said, “We don’t want these in their galleries, because they’re alive.” We-they all murmured and nodded along. How interesting. How novel. How lovely.
She was talking about spirits carved of wood. Carved into wood. Carved with wood. Carved and living and fitted into narrow galleries. Alive but dying. No longer animate, but instead an animate object.
But so beautiful.
And here I am, thinking on critical curation and best practices, and I can’t help but wonder on the structure of his face.
His eyes, usually a gentle, shifting brown, seem empty and black. But not the empty and black of a doll or a mannequin. The empty and black of something that has simply realized it exists.
“What are you reading?” I ask, because I don’t really want to know, but I also want him to know I’m alive too.
His eyes flick down at me and he smiles. I’m reassured that they melt back to brown. That he somehow becomes less alive. “Just stories,” he says. “I’m trying to memorize them.” I don’t say anything, because I don’t want to suggest that he never will. He looks back to the screen and, once more, glides into a timeless meditation on pixels.
In the Late Morning That Neither of Us Claim
“You should come with me to work,” I add. I have coffee in a paper cup. I have, as I do nearly every morning, purchased it from the café two doors down from our little apartment. It’s brisk and pleasant, and most of the baristas know us on sight. I go there every morning because, even though it’s too expensive, it’s also comfortable. Familiar. I know what to do. I know how to prepare a cup of coffee in a way that no one will doubt or question. I can please nearly everyone.
“Why?” he asks, though it’s not a challenge yet. He has a glass of orange juice. Orange juice he bought at a gas station, which he calls a way-station. (I’ve decided that the way he stops into these places, with his amiable compulsion, is romantic and odd. When he hands me the chocolate bar, free with purchase of a diet Pepsi, it’s a token. A token of what, I’m still not entirely sure.)
“I want you to see the space,” I offer. Last night, I was burning sage, because things have been difficult lately. Not white woman sage, however; milk-white Red girl sage. I wonder, pursing my lips, if the sage I burned has made my coffee taste off this morning.
“The gallery?” he asks. He isn’t doing it now, but sometimes he weaves spiderwebs into hoops. I wonder if they’d hang one in the gallery. Part of the collaborative process, I’d say. Cooperative curation, I’d add. Authentic contemporary workmanship. Current trends in Indian Revitalization. A way to filter all the white noise that whistles through.
“Yeah, I feel…” I don’t want to say overwhelmed because in reality, standing in the gallery, I only feel lonely. “I don’t know. It feels like a corpse in there.”
“And you want to decorate it?” he asks, realizing I’m only asking for company in the Hall of Things That Need to Move Around But Are Long Dead.
I think of my old anthropology textbooks with chapters titled Funerary Customs. All those “villagers who would sit with the dead body as it decayed, offering it food, drink, and clothing as a sign of respect.” (We did that too. Everyone wrote about it.) I think of the rows and rows of baskets, originally meant to be filled with corn mush at weddings. The rows and rows of ceramic vessels, originally filled with water for dancers. Those rows and rows of headless mannequins, decked out in whatever people have decided is traditional garb.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m not sure how to approach it.”
He nods, and I take that as a good sign.
In the Hall of Dead Red Men, Again
The platform is empty and I point it out to him.
“They want me to come up with an exhibit,” I say, and I feel queasy, because, in this badly cluttered space, my exhibit is still empty. A gaping white emptiness, like polished wood, staring up at us. It won’t eat us, the platform, but it will remind us of how little I’ve done. “I don’t know what to do,” I finally confess. And the guilt, Catholic and Jewish and deep ochre Indian, starts to melt down my chest.
“It looks like the deck of a ship,” he says with an eerie certainty. “The deck of a ship under moonlight and starfire. The deck of a ship about to sink or fly.”
I don’t know what to make of any of that. I usually don’t understand his declarations, flowery or brutal. I know I shouldn’t ignore it, but I do anyway.
“I don’t know what to make of that platform,” I say instead, attempting to bury my previous confession. “I have to put something there. Something… I don’t know. Native.”
He looks at it, his brow furrowing. “How Native?” he asks, and he’s already stepping towards it.
“No,” I say, and I’m not sure why, because I knew this would happen. “It’s against the rules to step on the exhibits,” I try to warn him.
He winces boyishly at me, indifferent to regulations and fully cognizant of what is about to happen. I can’t tell if he’s mourning me or mocking me.
“No,” I plead again. “Please don’t.”
But he has stepped up onto the platform. The lights are shining up on his face, and they’re illuminating the aquiline nose and the thick, lustrous hair and the high cheek-bones. And they not me are already coming in. Coming in with blankets and feathers and full buckskin.
He is silent, as they strip him naked. He is silent, as they spray him with things to prevent moth infestation. He is silent, as they carve out his eyes with a melon-baller, and plop in black marbles.
With black-marble eyes, he looks at me.
“I told you not to step on the platform!” I insist, but we both know I never should have brought him here. Never should have spoken his name to nice white ladies.
He doesn’t say anything, because he’s always been patient and bored.
“In a few months,” one of the nice white ladies says, “we’ll have him teach the school children to make dreamcatchers.” And she smacks his hips clinically, as another pulls up not-his-now-his deerskin trousers.
“In a few weeks,” another nice white lady says, “we’ll invite his tribe here to give prayers.” And she drapes him with a blanket, and I wonder if he counts as a corpse.
“In a few days,” another nice white lady says, “the president will come take a picture with him.” And she smiles a bony, luminous smile.
“We’ll feature it on the website,” they all say.
And a technician—a small, timid perfectionist I almost recognize—brings out the headdress.
I don’t know what to say, as they arrange fronds of feather over his shoulders, other than, “He’s not a Plains Indian. He’s from Michigan.”
I look to his jeans, now discarded on the floor in favor of traditional garb, and see the square lump of his wallet. I dig into the pockets, and excavate his Indian Card from behind receipts and coupons. Frantically, I try to show it to them. “See! He’s from Michigan!”
The nice white ladies nod lovingly. Comfortingly. Maternally. Busily, because they have better things to do than worry about what kind of Indian he is.
The technician—quaking apologetically because I, also an Indigenous person, am upset in a problematic space—comes up to me, and extends her hand. She doesn’t ask for the card, but I hand it to her. Fumbling as if I’m thumbing through expired credit cards. Fumbling as if they won’t accept my health insurance.
The technician thanks me. She walks with her mousey ghost-steps to the foundation of the pillar. With trained precision, she mounts the card against the platform.
I realize, after all, she just wanted a label for the exhibit.