As this humorous short story illustrates, learning Native American spirituality can be quite challenging, even embarrassing, to an unwary youth.
The road to the reserve is assaulted by gravel and dust clouds, thrown from a speeding hunk of metal which carries me along. Grandfather is asking for me, and Mom promised to bring me. I am happy to come. The old Indian might be dying and seeing me is probably his last wish.
I have always held a great affinity for Grandfather. He has almost always been good to me. He always tells great stories. He might be angered that I think of them as ‘stories’, as he places a lot of importance on them. He says his stories are “my connection to the past”. Perhaps that’s why they aren’t important to me. The past has passed.
I often convinced myself that we weren’t Indians. However, Grandfather often made it painfully clear that he was an Indian. He embarrassed me on many occasions. I remember him searching trash cans in town for bottles and cans, and it was often when I’d be walking through the streets with my friends. He didn’t need the money.
“Every man has got to do his part,” he’d tell me.
His care was for the earth, but he never told anyone else why he picked garbage. If they asked, he just looked as if he had become suddenly senile. When he came to town, he would often only speak to the black lab outside Big John’s Grocery. He’d play with that mutt for hours as though they were old friends. I ran home one such day, crying from embarrassment. Everyone had gathered around and pointed at him as he rolled on the sidewalk with the dog and called him an old fool.
That certainly is not the reason I’m coming back. I’ve always loved Grandfather, despite his faults, and am eager to let him know. Maybe he can rekindle the fire that encompassed me as a child and caused me to play with such intensity that I was mesmerized with every living thing. Grandfather always encouraged my ‘craziness’.
Halfway there now, too far to return, Mom lets me know Grandfather is healthy as a damned horse, and only wants to see me about a dream he’s had. Man, Indians and their dreams, what a combination. The old man is still crazy as ever, I think to myself. I’d never voice such an opinion to Mom.
Being an Indian to me means being a proud man turned beggar, or a drunk who speaks to ghosts from his past, or simply, worst of all, a no-good welfare bum. And, here I am, a lamb being placidly, pathetically led to the slaughter by his own family, in a beat up junker of a Ford, nonetheless. An ‘Indian-wagon’. How embarrassing.
Maybe the houses on the reserve are no longer dilapidated, I tell myself. Maybe their windows are intact and their door hinges don’t creak so loud. Maybe the sidings wear a fresh coat of paint and the roofs are no longer caving in. Maybe there are cut and well-manicured lawns, fresh gardens, and paved driveways. I am not slightly surprised as we rumble off the gravel highway and into the dirt and mud that is the reserve.
We pull up to Grandfather’s rundown shack. He awaits us on the porch. I exit the car and, as I ascend the stairs closer to him, I laugh to myself that, judging by his windfall of wrinkles, someone must have left him soaking in the tub all the time I’ve been away. His eyes say he agrees as he laughs aloud, slaps me on the back, and leads me inside. I surmise that he really does have something of great importance to tell me as he fails to greet Mom with the usual kiss and hug. I am feeling apprehensive.
Grandfather’s gesture for Mom to leave us alone had been an almost indiscernible flick of his finger and a quick flash from his eye. One thing I have always wished to inherit from him is that: the ease with which he communicates. Always directly indirect, if that makes sense. Nothing left out, and nothing inessential left in.
I notice him looking at me intently. He laughs again and offers me his pipe. I take a long drag and instantly relax. Grandfather has a smile I have seen only on statues of Buddha. He passes me the burning embers of sweet grass he has been preparing for this occasion. I purify myself with it, pass it back, and meditate in silence. I forgot how wonderful these rituals can rejuvenate a tired soul. Grandfather speaks:
In my dream, you had come back to learn the old ways. To learn to survive as an Indian man in this world, this world that has surrounded and invaded our people. You are a piece of our puzzle that got lost. Today, I am so happy to see you return. Just as in my dream.
In that dream, we gathered around the campfire, intent to hear of your journey. You refused. Said you didn’t belong, that you needed an Indian name before you would. You demanded a ritual. We obliged.
Everyone was dressed in brilliance. ‘Leathers and feathers’ as your Mom joked. You and The Shaman stood in the center of our great circle. It was as if he guided the sun to stop directly overhead and asked the clouds to move aside. In agreement, the elements danced together. It was a good sign, so we danced as well.
Your moment came. The Shaman asked you to speak to the Creator, and you said: “Oh Great Creator of Being, I humbly ask you what my warrior name shall be.” Birds chirped. The grass swayed. We were silent with reverent expectation. Nothing happened.
Your head, once held high, slowly dropped. The moment your eyes met the ground, an eagle’s cry was heard overhead. You raised your head and arms as if to embrace the great bird, and called out its name. Then, wham! Its shit hit you square in the mouth. A stunned silence followed and then muffled laughter as The Shaman patted your shoulder, smiled apologetically, and said “well, my boy, that mean your warrior name be He Who Talks Shit.” Everyone fell to the ground and laughed aloud.
I am stunned as Grandfather rolls on the floor, laughing so hard I’m sure he’s going to piss himself, the ‘wise man’. He looks up briefly, sees how shocked I am, and laughs all the harder. I get up, walk to the porch door calmly, yank it open, and slam it shut behind me. As I walk to Auntie’s, where Mom will be, he yells out “now, my son, you are free to be an Indian,” and continues laughing. I don’t look back.
Mom tries to comfort me on the way home. But I can’t get Grandfather’s words out of my head. The worst is wondering why he would humiliate me like that. I am afraid I will no longer remember him for his wisdom and our good times, but for that incident. I am so exhausted by the ordeal that I fall asleep searching my mind for answers.
Grandfather meets me in my dream.
“Look, kid, humiliation is key to being Indian. We must be humble to serve our Mother Earth and the Creator. Do you see?”
I nod because somehow I know. I have known it for some time. But, with that revelation, I also feel a great betrayal. The world isn’t as it should be.
“Grandfather, why has so much been taken from our people? Why have we joined in this game of claiming and destroying this land?”
Grandfather offers me his pipe, and motions for me to smoke. I notice we are in the center of a menacing bonfire. Sparks cut through the night. They are missiles looking for an opportune moment to strike.
“I cannot answer such questions except to warn you that such circles of fire may easily consume you. Today, men are afraid of humility because they assume it is a weakness. Without humility, men are capable of caring for only themselves and the false sense of power they seek. Don’t fall into that trap. That is why I told you of my dream, to guide you away from the pestilent illusions of power and greed. That is where the path of self-pity leads. So many of our people wallow there. So many white men, too. Nothing can truly harm you if you are first honest with yourself. I hope you will return to a path of humility.”
I awake and know something is changed. I have awakened as a person I had rejected and forgotten about a long time ago. A week later, I visit with Grandfather, thank and hug him close, and whisper in his ear:
“I awoke an Indian.” Grandfather just smiles.
Copyright © 2004 by Jason Portras. All rights reserved.
A native of Canada, Jason Portras was born and raised in Saskatchewan and currently lives in the mountains of British Columbia. A member of the Metis Nation of Canada, he is of Cree and Ojibway descent. He has been writing stories since early childhood. “Grandfather’s Dream is my recounting of a dream I had about this Grandfather I have never met, in the event that he had lived. As an Aboriginal person, I place a lot of importance upon the dream world and feel that my Grandfather’s spirit was speaking to me. I felt obligated to write about that experience.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)