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Date: Sat, 14 Mar 1998 01:01:09 -0500
To: warriornet@speakeasy.org
From: ishgooda <ishgooda@tdi.net>
Subject: 5 Arrows
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Five Arrows

From Ish, 14 March 1998

This page..no longer exists..I don't know how else to credit the writer of this story..except the obsolete URL..I never did know her name...in honor and respect..



There was a story told to me by my sister, with an image branded into the core of the story that I shall never forget. The story revolved around a male cousin who went drinking one Saturday night in a Catskill bar called THE BLUEROOM, a mountain dive that once doubled as the stage for passions generally kept hidden behind the daytime quarter-smiles and Do you think it might rain? talk of mountain people, a Dreamtime dive that has long since been fired down to unseen rubble beneath grass. When I make one of my infrequent forays back to Livingston Manor, the increasingly sad and seedy upstate-New York town I grew up in, I can never stop myself from remembering the story as I pick my way down Main Street's cracked sidewalk past the grass concealing the lost blue room of dreams. Now the grass has been decreed a park by the town's fathers and mothers, an Earthly Paradise in the town's center stretching to the banks of the Willowemoc River. But, really, it is a jumbled collage of emptied beer cans, Thunderbird bottles, used condoms, alley cats, candy wrappers, and urine stains. It is the perfect burial ground for the story about my cousin, for stories about other relatives, and for the untold or soon-to-be-forgotten stories of all the mountain people who used to make their night migrations to this patch of earth formerly lit by blue neon and faces given the courage to shine by beer and whiskey. As I stumble down Main Street—the old child-chant Don't step on the crack, you'll break your mother's back needling the memory-grooves of my brain—I know this intended paradise is the perfect burial ground for my story/my stery, too.

When my sister began spinning the story, I imagined something fierce, wild, and probably crazy was going to happen because our cousin is connected to us through our mother's side of the family, the Indian side, the Hendricksons. Like us, our cousin is Blackfoot, Mohawk, Seneca, and several whiter shades of Pale. We are what some people would like to capture inside the labels of mixed-bloods or breeds, but we grew up feeling ourselves to be Indian while also recognizing and affirming our white blood—English, Irish, Swiss, Austrian, and Czech. We could be considered the flesh-and-blood embodiments of the history of the United States, both conquerors and conquered, but no one in my family has ever, finally, felt conquered, nor have they surrendered themselves or their dreaming hearts to a government that is only at its best where it was influenced by the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse). We are still very much Turtle Island people, and it may be said that the white people who married in with the Indian did so because they felt a closeness to Indian ways of seeing and doing, ways similar to those of mystics and poets.

So in the story where my cousin went drinking, I sensed it might turn out strange. When people like ourselves partake of the proverbial firewater, it is as if we are fused in a crucible that transforms us back into our Indian ancestors before Columbus invaded Turtle Island, before the entire tragic history of genocide, culture-ocide, and the Great Death by disease began to shock-wave across five shameful centuries. We become wholly Indian again, and the conflagration of hurt that has flamed inside us for so many years because of all the lies we have heard hissed about us, all the names we have been called, all the knowledge we've been robbed of—that wildfire of the spirit burns brighter with the fuel of alcohol. And our resilient pride, deep love, and warrior spirits blaze brighter, too.

In the story my sister told, our cousin was drinking whiskey from a bottle, listening to Hank Williams, George Jones, and Patsy Cline on the jukebox, in between drinks slow dancing through the smoke with a green-eyed, red-haired, other-side-of-the-tracks white girl who grew more and more beautiful to him the more he drank. She was one of those Frito-Lay-and-corn-chip-fed mountain girls who never quite get their bellies filled except by babies. But before the babies come, such girls can be startling in their beauty and hunger, their effect on men that of a false and too early spring. So our cousin was affected, to the point where his heart burned to breaking for the green-eyed girl and her doomed, too early flowering. He asked her to love him, make love to him, marry him. But, like the winter flower she truly was, she shrunk back from his hot requests. A heart-and-dagger tattooed, tobacco-chewing redneck, half-humped against the bar, sneered John Wayne-style, That's right, you dirty redskin, leave the little lady alone. She don't want no animal like you. Then our cousin did break, grabbing his whiskey bottle, smashing it into his forehead, over and over again. As he hit himself, he cried, I am a half-breed, nothing can hurt me, nothing, nothing, nothing, until the bottle shattered, leaving myriad glass shards arrowed into his skin. Blood streaming into his eyes and down his face with its high ledge of cheekbones, he stood, unseeing, inside the four square walls of THE BLUEROOM.

In the story told to me by my sister, with its core image of our cousin smashing a whiskey bottle into his skull, I realized it could have been me, it could have been her, it could have been any so-called breed. In the communality of storytelling, we both remembered without saying so our own neon-lit nights in THE BLUEROOM and other bars, those times when we behaved like desperados wondering if there were any goddamn men left in the world whose bodies were all passionate, crying, ecstatic heart, instead of those rinky-dink, urban landscape, watered-down Perrier men who talk through their assholes, as mountain people put it, men not courageous enough to love up close but cowardly enough to kill from a distance. My sister and I could still see the flickering neon in each other's eyes, the firewater and the fire, and we knew what our cousin did summed up the pain and confusion of what it's like to grow up as a half-breed or a mixed-blood. We also knew that he had made a stand. We understood what the people who would call our cousin an idiot-redskin, and worse, could never understand, that he had drunk and loved and burned and cut himself back into the primordial forest of real existence. That night, in his own way, he had let everyone know that he wasn't a vanishing Indian, or a wooden Indian, that they were not going to hurt him anymore. My sister and I knew he had made a stand, all right, the kind of stand that can end in a suicide.

The suicide rate among Indian teenagers in what is called the United States is four times the national average, and I doubt that chilling statistic includes the suicides committed by Indian children not officially enrolled in tribes. The U.S. government has long manipulated numbers in such a way as to abstract out as much misery as it possibly can on the part of American Indians. It just so happens there may be 15 million human beings now living on Turtle Island who have Indian blood flowing in their veins, Indians who are not certified as belonging to any particular tribe or nation, people who are not papered like dogs and don't wish to be, but who are fiercely proud of being Indian.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government's policy on what it is that makes an Indian an Indian is a divide-and-conquer policy that involves blood quantum and whether or not a person is listed on tribal rolls. It is a policy that would make any Nazi feel he had finally goose-stepped his way to Wagnerian glory. It is a policy that pointedly ignores the tragic history of Turtle Island and why so many Indians are mixed-bloods, especially on the East Coast. For instance, consider that in the late seventeenth century the Mohawk Nation was so nearly destroyed by disease and murder, a holocaust compounded by suicides and abortions, that what few warriors were left began raiding Hurons and Whites to incorporate them into the Nation and so save the Mohawk people from total extermination.

Obviously, my ancestors' understanding of what it means to be a Mohawk wasn't solely a blood thing. It is a Government policy that pretends not to know there are clusters of Indian families such as mine, the Hendricksons, who sought sanctuary in hidden mountain places as a strategy for remaining freer than those families corralled onto reservations. And, most sadly, it is a policy that certain certified Indians (certified what? Crazy?) have embraced as one might a poisonous snake, copping an I'm more Indian than thou attitude right out of Christian missionary land. As my oldest brother so eloquently put it this past November when my husband and I had him to our house to celebrate his birthday, I never even heard about this certified shit until last year. Indeed, when he, my other brothers, my sister, and I were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, we only had to contend with the pain caused to us by white racists. In the small constellation of Indian families starring that part of the Catskill Mountains I was born to, an unspoken bond always existed among us, a quiet but fiery pattern that said, We are still here, shining in our aliveness, and we are something beautiful whether non-Indians can see it, or not. All our friends happened to be mixed-blood Indians, although I don't think that they were friends based on blood, but because they were possessed of a certain vision of the world that happened to be Indian, rather than white at its most destructive.

In the story my sister told, our cousin smashed a whiskey bottle into his forehead until it broke. In our lives, far inside our hearts, many of us Indians, mixed-blood or otherwise, stand inside the four square walls of a blue room, blood and tears in our eyes. We stand, unseeing, longing to get back to the forest, the prairie, the mesa, to an incomparable love and freedom, to not feeling hurt anymore. So I remember another story, one given to me by my mother, in which I learned the last word my Indian grandfather ever said, cried, when he was dying, was Mother. I used to hear that cry as a call to his mother who, ice-fishing one winter in the Willowemoc River not far from her cabin, crashed through the ice and died soon after from pneumonia. That winter my grandfather was nine. Following his mother's death, he, his sisters, and brothers were sent to an orphanage in Binghamton, New York, from where children very often were packed off to farms and used not much better than slaves.

As I have grown older, I have considered further how my great-grandmother, Lillian Hendrickson, died, how my nine-year-old grandfather was taken to the orphanage against his will, how he and his sister Grace kept running away until they finally made their way back to the mountains for good. So considering, I have come to hear my grandfather's cry to his mother better. That cry has grown louder and clearer inside the spirals of my inner ear, has radiated out inside the interior of my body until I now hear it as not just a cry to the individual mother who gave birth to my grandfather, but as a cry to Mother Earth, as well. It must have been horrible for my grandfather to have been driven against his will to a city, locked inside an orphanage, handed over to a succession of farmers who couldn't keep, tame, or shame him. I always smile a little when I envision my grandfather with his black, other-side-of-the-moon hair and sharp cheekbones running away from the orphanage and the farms. I used to run away when I was young, too, and I know that bold, heady, hair-flying, wild-wild-horses feeling that accompanies such running. I used to feel that if I could just run fast enough and far enough I could race right out of the surreal techno-scape of superhighways, skyscrapers, factories, walled schools, missile silos, barbed wire, posted property, automobiles, air pollution, shopping malls, TVs, and too many over-populating, hate-filled human beings trapped inside windowless halls of misery-mirrors. I liked feeling the way my grandfather must have felt when he ran away; I hope he got to where he wanted to go.

In the late twentieth century perhaps it is even harder to get there, that there being, more than anything else, a balance and wholeness in the human spirit. It is difficult to remain sane when one knows one's Mother is daily being raped, and when it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself from the process of her destruction. This is devastating for many people. For American Indians it really can be beyond bearing. So we get my cousin shattering a whiskey bottle against his head, or an Indian artist's son slitting his entire left arm open, or an old mixed-blood friend's sister destroying her God-gift for painting with a mixed-drug ingestion of alcohol, cocaine, speed, acid, chill pills and percodan. Any Indian knows that it is not possible to be sane unless a person lives close to the Earth, thereby experiencing everything as vibrantly alive and interconnected, a matrix of music that pulls all hearts together into one Heart, one dance.

In the clock-time years that I grew up in, the fifties and sixties, it could be very painful for children like myself, and even more painful for reservation Indians, to see our people repeatedly portrayed by whites as unredeemable savages bereft of intelligence, as redskins inferior beyond belief, with no culture, religion, or system of government worth preserving. For decades the old religious traditions, the sacred songs and dances, the visions, the ecstasy, love, and exuberance had been suppressed or driven underground. The reservation children were forcefully exiled to boarding schools where they were beaten for speaking their native languages or refusing to have their flowing long hair cut, for trying to maintain the old ways in any way. Mixed-blood children like myself daydreamed through grade after grade of public school being told that Manifest Destiny was right, that Christianity was the best thing that ever happened to the heathen Indians, that Indian killers such as General Sheridan, Kit Carson, Andrew Jackson, and George Armstrong Custer were great Indian fighters and heroes. Innocent, we sat through countless cowboy-and-Indian matinees with all the other kids, seeing the Indians, played by Mexicans and Italians, depicted as the dark-eyed bad guys. We watched The Wizard of Oz every Christmas without ever knowing that its creator had once called for the absolute, total extermination of Indians, a race, in his view, too shamed and beaten to be allowed to live. It could be said that we were silenced before we even knew we were being silenced, because how can a small child realize at first that she, or he, is being lied to by adults who are looked up to and trusted?

I used to wonder, wandering through those long and labyrinthine years of lies all around me, what it would have been like had I just been born white and solely of one race? Or what would it have been like if I had been born a full-blooded Indian, a reservation girl? I wondered if it would have provided me with a greater simplicity of spirit, and if life would have been easier for me. But through the years I have come to feel gratitude for containing what Walt Whitman might have referred to as multitudes. Such abundance taught me early on to question the surfaces of words, to discern that the books I loved could sometimes contain unforgivable lies, to learn how to scry the radiance, or lack thereof, in people's faces. It taught me that there are many different ways of coming at the world, and that I could take all the entangled flora and fauna of my heart and transform it into a daily celebration, into poetry.

In the Silver Covenant Chain that was forged between the Haudenosaunee and the Europeans, the Indian pointed out that the white man travels on the Creator's waters in his boats and the Indian travels on those same sacred waters in his boats. But someday there might be people who try to keep one foot in the white man's boat and one foot in the Indian boat, one foot, in other words, inside two different ways of journeying through life. And if a strong wind gusts up, the boats will whirl apart and the person with a foot in each vessel will tumble into the water, be swept away and lost forever. I have often meditated on this section of the Silver Covenant Chain, on what might be viewed as a cautionary tale for anyone who is of mixed Indian-white heritage and who lives on Turtle Island. I more and more wonder why any human being should be confined to just one vessel and just one trip; I like to laugh and say that if a person is balanced enough nothing can buck her off those boats into certain death by drowning. I have asked myself which boat it is that I have chosen, and I feel in my heart that through my poetry my feet are moving more inside the Indian boat. But there is so much culture overlap that a lot of whites are making canoes these days, so who ever knows what one might be stepping into?

In the story my sister told, our cousin went drinking and drummed a bottle into his head. This is a scene that never could have happened if other humans beings hadn't already tried to break him into pieces as much as he broke that bottle into bits. I always hated people trying to grate me down into fractions. Fractions always made me feel fractious in the math classes I was forced to take in school, and having my entire being viewed as disconnected parts by flesh-and-blood paragons of human insensitivity makes me very irritable, indeed. The real tragedy in Indian Country these days, after the initial flowering of renewed Indian pride and the start of showing American Indians as complicated human beings in books, movies, paintings, and music (still a long way to go), is how some Indians have been attacking other Indians, accusing their brothers and sisters of not being Indian because they are not on tribal rolls, or because they don't meet someone's arbitrary standard of right blood quantum, or because they can't prove through birth certificates or past tribal rolls that they are Indian. Or, hey, maybe they just don't look Indian—don't have high cheekbones, or swarthy skin like those Italians and Mexicans playing Indians in the old movies. I've met more than one Indian who has worked up a whole Cyrano-de-Bergerac-type routine to handle the That's funny, you don't look Indian ignoramuses of whatever race: Oh, really? That's funny, you don't look rude. Oh, that's funny, you don't look as if you could say something so unfunny. And so it goes.

What I happen to find most unfunny is that after all the centuries of white oppression of Indians is that Indians themselves are, as I noted earlier, playing into the divide-and-conquer policies of the United States Government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, turning against and hurting their own. I never could have imagined when I was a girl trying to figure out how to deal with white racism that there would ever be a creature as distasteful and monstrous as an Aryan Indian. I can still hear what Zack Brown Bear, a Cherokee artist who makes Four Directions Feather Pieces, once said to my husband and me: Finally I am not part Indian or part White, part this or part that; I am a whole human being. He spoke aloud what already resided in my heart in silence, and what I believe resides in a lot of people's hearts. Most people I speak to of whatever background are weary of racial division and people being pitted against each other because of skin color and blood. As any true Indian knows, as anyone with an Indian heart knows, we are responsible to our children, all children, down to the seventh generation. Trying to deny people their identity and wholeness of spirit is not being responsible, nor is hating each other because of race. How many broken bottles, slit arms, lost gifts, and suicides is it going to take before people remember what their responsibility is and where their love must lie?

When the Peacemaker arrived among the Haudenosaunee in a time before clocks and helped them to create the original great Confederacy of Five Nations, the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, he took up one arrow in his hands and said, If you take one arrow alone and try to break it, you can easily do so. And he snapped the arrow in half. Then he took up five arrows in his hands and bound them together and said, If you take five arrows bound together and try to break them, you can never do so. And he tried as hard as he could to break those five arrows, and even let others try, but no one could break those arrows bound together. So, the Peacemaker said, if you five nations are bound together into one confederacy, no one can ever break you.

Despite the mistaken notions that many Americans have about Indians, including that there are only about ten little Indians left in the entire country, the Iroquois Confederacy (which now also embraces a sixth nation, the Tuscarora) still exists. And the Great Tree of Peace with its white roots extending out in four directions, inviting all people to follow them back in order to live inside the law and ways of the Confederacy, still exists. How many years will it be, yet, before all the nations of the earth can envision themselves as being like those five bound arrows in the Peacemaker's hands, before too many human hearts are Balkanized and broken because of the tragic absurdity of defining people by blood? And how many years will it be before Mother Earth is totally destroyed if all those nations continue to exist each as a single arrow, easily snapped in two?

My sister told me a story. There was an image branded into the core of the story that I shall never forget.