Saturday. I leave the house at 1.30. The pictures start at 2.00. Batman and Robin, sleek in darker shades of grey, sport gadgets galore. Sylvester the Cat and Tweetie Bird survive their near-miss lives of death and resurrection. The romance/western/drama follows: the hero fights for right over wrong, rescues the maiden, subdues the temptress — or is rescued by her from the claws of evil.
Eyes up, neck cricked, I sit the long wait on a wooden seat with the coins for the interval ice-cream clutched in my hand. As the sinister erupts from the shadows and the camera leads me down the corridors of the unknown, the coins grow into my sweaty palm. Searchlights sweep me into the black and white of war and corruption. But then there is colour; colour which speaks of a clear summer day as I sit in the darkness of night.
The Indians are bright and beautiful as they sweep across the open plains. Comanche? Cherokee? Or Cheyenne? Regardless, their powerful presence etches the horizon with dot points. From the covered wagons, the men yell ‘form a circle’ as the Indians whoop their cries while the women huddle beneath broad-brimmed sun-bonnets. Across the screen, a tumbleweed of blood and dust, hooves and spears, roll over the yellow grass. Across the sky, a horse’s mane tangles with galloping screams and rapid gunfire.
Father Christmas has left me a cream, plastic tent. The Indian painted on the side wears a headdress with red and blue feathers. The uncut summer grass is already prickly straw. With my bow and arrow I aim at the target on the far side of the yard. Narrowing my eyes, I bring the tip of the arrow in line with the red dot at its centre. I can feel the bow’s strength in the stretch of my arm and the fine balance of the arrow as I hold it between my thumb and fingers.
There are no buffalo in our back yard, but we cook meat: breakfast sausages and chops from the side of lamb my father buys at the market. I wield my father’s tomahawk,2 turn its smooth wooden handle in the palm of my hand and set about jarring my shoulder as I split a log of plum wood into kindling. As it burns, its damp sap boils and speaks to me in hissing tongues.
I know a lot about the Indians: they can throw tomahawks to within an inch of a life, they speak over long distances with cloud-words — greetings and warnings — and they use hand signs which I don’t understand.
At night, the pointers of the Southern Cross remind me of Nokomis. I look for Ish Koodah the comet with its fiery tresses. Inside my tent, the shadow of the Indian oversees my sleep. I think of Hiawatha in his cradle, bedded soft in moss and rushes, safely bound with reindeer sinews3 and I clutch my bow and arrow as the whispering of the plum in the corner of the garden speaks of Minne-wa’wa and the lapping water calls Mudway-aushka.
The Indians have migrated to the square box in our living room and live a black and white life on the shelf next to the bookcase. Their life is episodic, but they inhabit the central cavity of my chest and fill it with the tension and wonder of the world beyond. In spite of the cowboys and the settlers on the prairie, they celebrate life and death around a campfire, foot-stamping with the spirits of eternal life in a deathly dance of flames and searing heat. In a wigwam they smoke peace pipes which are passed with between the Indian chiefs, the medicine men and soldiers. Peace pipes or not, they remain the enemy until they fade into the distance as a new war against Soviet spies and the sly grog dealers of the Roaring Twenties fill the screen.
Sometimes an Indian returns, especially those called upon to read and follow the traces of a wanted man, to find the broken twig, the bruised blade of grass, the remnants of the campfire carelessly left warm, to read the signs a hero cannot see. But, however blind, the hero remains the lion-hearted.
The Indians have returned to the cinema. They cry out in stereoscopic sound. I watch them being massacred at the riverside, see the women scalped, see the skin of their breasts used as tobacco pouches, and the children slain. Slain. I hear the pain implicit in this word as fear distorts their faces and twists in my chest. They wear their grief like winter furs, hugged to their bodies, crossed arms holding together their breaking hearts. In the very darkness of the cinema revenge remains a motivation and my mind is torn. These stories are not sunny, although in colour. Sometimes a soldier/settler/cowboy joins an Indian tribe and I watch as another tragedy provokes a stomp into eternity.
And I dream of Minne-wa’wa.
The poster leaps out at me from the corner of a suburban street where it is pinned to a wooden telephone pole ─ and once there were tall trees in the fir forests where the Indians retreated when their prairie land was lost to them. Forever. A dancing Indian is inviting me to join him at a nearby park on the following evening at dusk. He is the ‘true son of a chief’.
The bus at the park entrance is covered with graffiti-like red and black letters. Its passengers are purveyors of the lost journey, freedom riders journeying across countries and continents. Tribally, it’s a loose assortment of nationalities trying to sever the umbilical cord to a colonial past.
At dusk the fire is lit and the flames flare quickly above the pyramid of wood, sparks flickering and dying in the spiralling heat. Unlike traders of the past, the chief says, he has nothing of commercial value to offer and our local government, in turn, have offered him no welcoming mat. A permit was necessary to light the fire.
I stand in awe of the figure silhouetted against the flames. His headdress flutters down the small of his back, plays around the back of his knees, the feathers flip from side to side. With the grace of soaring eagle, he moves from left foot to right, knees lifting high, head bobbing up and down with his chant. He draws me into this dance of dances, and stamps into my ignorant heart the emptiness of the silver screen.
‘Join in, join in,’ the movement calls out to me. I hover on the edge of the invitation, my fear of falling in rises as the other redemption seekers slip into the rhythmic swell circling the fire. Then, as the group uncoils into an insinuating snake, I step into the tail.
The documentary is sharp on my high definition screen even though it’s constructed around sepia photographs. The Indians are resolved in their commitment to survival, yet, like the smoke from their peace pipes, the treaty to preserve their life and rights dissolves into mist. And who is telling their story?
And who lives on the land they once inhabited?
Beneath my feet, beneath my floor, there is land.
Which treaty gave me ownership?
Once buffalo roamed the prairies. Once powerful eagles swooped the sky. If I were an Indian I would have a totem, a naming that would stretch me across the sky, into the sea, up the tallest tree, and over the fastest rapids. And in my naming there would be my dreaming.
In my dreaming I would ride a swift horse. Bespoken by the moon, I would be fleet of foot on a sliver of light, a darting ripple on the silver water, I would soar across the sky, sweeping away those storms of tears, challenging the reaper as he harvests the diseased and hate-ridden.
In my dreaming I would enter the clouds of peace.
But my naming is on paper and my child is unravelling ─ not because she hears a silver eagle in the sky or sees the gods playing, replaying, and replaying the rat-a-tat of bullets on the screen on the wall. My child is unravelling because the dreaming of a whispering tree that drinks rain in the spring and opens its leaves to the sun has never been hers.
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth (1807 -1882). The Song of Hiawatha
- tomahawk (a-h-), n., & v.t. 1. War-axe of N.-Amer. Indian, with head of horn, stone, or steel: bury the~or HATCHET. The concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, (1807 – 1882) The Song of Hiawatha