Last Friday, I left the farm and headed west on flat, flat, straight, straight Highway 2. When I got to Devil’s Lake, I pulled over, called my friend, Matt.
“Turn south on Highway 20. It turns into Highway 57 when you pass the casino, and that’ll take you straight in to Fort Totten. You’ll know you’re there when you see an old water tower and a new water tower being built next to it. You’ll go past those, then come to the tribal high school. Turn left after the school. After a while the road turns into a gravel road. You’ll veer left and you’ll see the rodeo. Once you pass the rodeo, you’ll see the pow wow.”
I was a little late on my way to the Spirit Lake Nation’s annual pow wow, but, “don’t worry,” Matt said, “this thing’ll go on til midnight.”
Highway 20. Highway 57. The casino. Two water towers. The high school with FORT TOTTEN SIOUX across the wall in giant letters. Paved road to gravel. The rodeo. Then a sea of parked cars. I parked, opened the door and walked toward the distant sound of drums, somewhere beyond the cars.
The pow wow took place an high meadow surrounded by a rolling sea of green hills. Shaded seating surrounded an open grass circle where all the action took place. I arrived just in time to see many old Indians dressed in old American military uniforms, marching slowly out of the grassy area. Two men in front of the procession held an American flag and the black POW-MIA flag. When the last old fellow marched out, the announcer said of the PA, “Alright, let’s give a loud, proud round of applause to these verterans!”
Matt found me.
“Did I miss much?”
“No,” he said, “just the grand entry and the veterans. Oh, man, and this guy running for the state legislature. Jeez, he came out and spoke and I’ve never felt a more uncomfortable silence. Pandering out here…” Matt shook his head. “Oh,” he said, looking behind me, “there’s Johnny, one of the drummers we took to New York for the art exhibit I was telling you about.” Matt waved. “Hey Johnny!”
“Matt, hey,” said Johnny. Johnny was tall, stood straight and had a large hard belly and long pony tail and wore a t-shirt shirt and gym shorts. “How’s it goin?”
“Good, Johnny” Matt said, “yourself?”
“I’m good, workin, you know. Drivin a truck.”
“Good, they takin care of ya?”
“These guys are. The people I worked for before, goin all the way to Florida and back…they only paid me $500. Hell,” he slapped his belly, “I ate more than that on the trip, ha ha! Hey, here’s my son, Johnny.”
Matt shook little Johnny’s hand. Little Johnny was as tall as his father, but skinny and had a smaller ponytail.
“Look,” eclaimed Christine, big Johnny’s wife, little Johnny’s mother, “isn’t he as tall as his father!! Gonna be 17 years old in-”
“Five days,” said little Johnny.
“Can you believe it, Matt?” Asked Johnny. “He’s already as tall as me. Gettin old, man.”
“Our daughter’s already gonna be 21,” said Christine. “And I’m already scared. She know’s where all the bars are.”
“Are you drumming tonight, Johnny?” Asked Matt.
The next drum circle began to set up behind us. Big Johnny, little Johnny, Christine, Matt and I went over to it.
“Did Matt tell you we went to New York?” Johnny asked. (Matt works for the North Dakota Museum of Art, they took a drum circle to New York the previous year), “We went to the top a that Empire State Buildin. It’s tall, man.”
“Have you ever heard one of these things up close?” Matt asked me, about the drum circle.
“It’s gonna go right through you.”
“So New York’s big, huh” Little Johnny asked me. “My dad says it’s big.”
“Well, yeah,” I answered. “There’s a lot going on. But it’s also a lot of people crammed in a small place. To me,” I looked up at the sky, down on the hills, “it feels bigger out here.”
Johnny shook his head. “My dad might get to take me to Chicago this summer in the truck. But I wanna go to New York someday, too.”
The drumming started and we all found places to get a good view.
“Alright ladies and gentleman,” said the announcer over the PA, here is the group, Yellow Snow!” The announcer chuckled.
Everybody around me chuckled. “Yellow snow,” said Matt, “get it?” I chuckled.
The men drummed softly, at first. Their voices were subdued, some sang in a low pitch, some in a high pitch. Then the drumming escalated into a hard driving cadence and suddenly all the voices shot up to a high, shreaking pitch that goes through a body like razor sharp icicles. Then the voices dropped, except one that maintained the incredibly high pitch. By itself, the voice sounded like it’s own entity, something unfound that dwells just on the edge of Reality’s Shine. Then the drumming softened and the voice faded down to the others – its disappearence leaving a hollow space in my chest. Then it all happened again, and again, the drumming and the voices rising and falling as if the song and the world came to me from far away on gusts of wind.
“Let’s go get an Indian taco,” Matt said.
As we made our way – along the various booths selling dream catchers, blankets, t-shirts – toward the food stands, Matt stopped to shake a hand here and there. Matt is white, but grew up on the reservation. His family had homesteaded in the Spirit Lake area before the land was allotted for the reservation, so, “my family’s and a few other families’ farms were grandfathered in,” Matt said, taking long, loose comfortable strides. Matt was home.
“Hey Sam Ann!” Matt swerved through the crowd to shake a woman’s hand.
“Matt!!! Oh my god, how are you!” They hugged.
“Sam and I grew up together,” Matt said to me, then turned back to Sam Ann. “My dad says he’d still adopt you in a heartbeat.”
“HIs dad,” Sam Ann said to me, “told me that every time he saw me.”
“How’s the girls?” Matt asked.
“Oh, Matt. I’m gonna be a grandma.”
“What?! Which daughter?”
“Both! Both of them, can you believe that? Oh well, I’ll be a young, fun grandma at least!” She looked around, then back to us. “Oh, I tell you I need a cigarette. Hey, have you heard…”
Behind Matt and Sam Ann, a young man in Army Dress was milling about, standing straight, his hat tucked in the crook of his arm, stretching his neck as he looked through the crowd. After a moment, his head jerked and he smiled. I turned toward the direction he was looking. A tall, large bellied man wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts was standing up in a crowd of other tall, large bellied men wearing t-shirts and gym shorts. He was smiling, too. The young soldier went over and shook hands with the man and the hands of all the other men. Then he relaxed his shoulders a little, sat down.
Matt and I grabbed our Indian tacos – a hefty portion of bison and lettuce atop a bulbous piece of fried bread – and weaved our way through the crowd, toward the pavillion, running straight through the cigarette cloud coming from a group of teenagers adorned in skull caps, black pants and heavy metal t-shirts.
“I’m guessing not many people make it off the reservation?” I asked, after we sat down.
Matt shook his head. “Naw. But more do than they used to. At the university (University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks) there’s a woman going to law school. Back in the 80’s or so, when I was a kid, that was unheard of. And some who did manage to leave are moving back to the Rez. The schooling is improving and there’s also a renewed focus on tribal traditions. But pretty much everyone you see here will never leave.”
A dozen men dressed in bright colors and feathers moved out onto the grassy area. When the drumming began, they started dancing. Their movements mirrored the drumming – feet softly tapping the earth, then stomping hard when the drumming came on harder, as if they were trying to crack the earth with each step. Every now and then they’d leap in the air as if they were trying to catch the shreaking voices. Then soft mincing with still torsos and relaxed arms when the drumming and voices softened together. All the men had their own distinct dance, but matched each other in intensity with the rise and fall of the song. The song finally ending on one final, Earth shuddering downbeat. All the dancers remained frozen in their last pose for a moment. Then they relaxed and the crowd applauded. The men shook each other’s hands, walked off, their chests heaving.
Later in the night, a gawky teenage boy in traditional dress except for a pair black horn rim Buddy Holly eye-glasses led a drum circle of equally gawky younger boys wearing t-shirts and gym shorts. The skinny group of kids swung down hard on the drum with sticks about the same size of their arms. Their faces contorted, as if they’d tasted something sour, when they went for the higher notes. Older folks stood around them, proudly, filming them with iPhones. After they came down hard on the last beat, they held still, caught their breath, then looked up at the crowd around them. During the applause, an older man walked up to the teenage boy with the glasses, grabbed his shoulder, squeezed it, stared in his eyes without saying a word, then walked away.
“Let’s give those boys another large round of applause,” said the announcer. “Now, we’re about done for the night. But I want all of you to not forget to head down to the casino tonight and have a good time!”
“Is that Arnie?” Asked Matt, as we were leaving. The short, fat indian wearing a cowboy hat approached us.
“There’s Matt!” Arnie exclaimed, then shook Matt’s hand.
“How’s it going, Arnie?”
“Aw, man…I need a drink!”
“What?! I thought you’re supposed to be on the wagon?”
“Jesus, Matt, can’t you take a joke?” He pointed to his cowboy hat. “You see the hat, the hat means I’m workin, not drinkin…but come on, man, you’re a Rezzie, you know how it is.”
Down the hill. Passed the dark rodeo arena. The highschool. The water towers. The casino. Highway 57 became Highway 20. Long, straight Highway 2. It was past midnight, the world was only the size of the reach of my headlights. It was a lonely world, with only the odd pair of headlights coming in to my world then leaving to resume the chase of their own world. But the thunderous drumming and those shreaking voices kept going on inside me. When I got to the farm I killed the engine, sat in the dark. I couldn’t even see the the dash. Then I stepped out of the car and stood still in the smoke-thick darkness for some time. The drumming. The voices. Cool moonless night. Then I looked up and gradually the entire sky was alight with stars. The drumming. The voices. The Milky Way fluttered so softly in a line from the Northeast to the Southwest. I like…I need…the big open sky. I need to see the twinkling stars clear down to the horizon, in every direction. To keep me reminded that I am amongst the starts, not separate from them. Not separate from anything.