All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in next spring Great Spirit will come. He bring back all game of every kind. The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. Old blind Indian see again and get young and have fine time. When Great Spirit comes this way, then all the Indians go to mountains, high up away from whites. Whites can’t hurt Indians then. Then while Indians way up high big flood comes like water and all white people die, get drowned. After that, water go away and then nobody but Indians everywhere and game all kinds thick. Then medicine man tell Indians to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and the good time will come. Indians who don’t dance, who don’t believe in this word, will grow little, just about a foot high, and stay that way. Some of them will be turned into wood and burned in fire.
—Wovoka, the Paiute Ghost Dance Messiah
After this happened, after it began, I decided Custer could have, must have, pressed the button, cut down all the trees, opened up holes in the ozone, flooded the earth. Since most of the white men died and most of the Indians lived, I decided only Custer could have done something that backward. Or maybe it was because the Ghost Dance finally worked.
* * *
Last night we burned another house. The Tribal Council has ruled that anything to do with the whites has to be destroyed. Sometimes while we are carrying furniture out of a house to be burned, all of us naked, I have to laugh out loud. I wonder if this is how it looked all those years ago when we savage Indians were slaughtering those helpless settlers. We must have been freezing, buried by cold then, too.
I found a little transistor radio in a close. It’s one of those yellow waterproof radios that children always used to have. I know that most of the electrical circuitry was destroyed, all the batteries dead, all the wires shorted, all the dams burst, but I wonder if this radio still works. It was hidden away in a closet under a pile of old quilts, so maybe I was protected. I was too scared to turn it on, though. What would I hear? Farm reports, sports scores, silence?
There’s this woman I love, Tremble Dancer, but she’s one of the Urbans. Urbans are the city Indians who survived and made their way out to the reservation after it all fell apart. There must have been over a hundred when they first arrived, but most of them have died since. Now there are only a dozen Urbans left, and they’re all sick. The really sick ones look like they are five hundred years old. They look like they have lived forever; they look like they’ll die soon.
Tremble Dancer isn’t sick yet, but she does have burns and scars all over her legs. When she dances around the fire at night, she shakes from the pain. Once when she fell, I caught her and we looked hard at each other. I thought I could see half of her life, something I could remember, something I could never forget.
The Skins, Indians who lived on the reservation when it happened, can never marry Urbans. The Tribal Council made that rule because of the sickness in the Urbans. One of the original Urbans was pregnant when she arrived on the reservation and gave birth to a monster. The Tribal Council doesn’t want that to happen again.
Sometimes I ride my clumsy horse out to Noah Chirapkin’s tipi. He’s the only Skin I know that has traveled off the reservation since it happened.
“There was no sound,” he told me once. “I rode for days and days but there were no cars moving, no planes, no bulldozers, no trees. I walked through a city that was empty, walked from one side to the other, and it took me a second. I just blinked my eyes and the city was gone, behind me. I found a single plant, a black flower, in the shadow of Little Falls Dam. It was forty years before I found another one, growing between the walls of an old house on the coast.”
Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying.
The weather is changed, changing, becoming new. At night it is cold, so cold that fingers can freeze into a face that is touched. During the day, our sun holds us tight against the ground. All the old people die, choosing to drown in their own water rather than die of thirst. All their bodies are evil, the Tribal Council decided. We burn the bodies on the football field, on the fifty-yard line one week, in an end zone the next. I hear rumors that relatives of the dead might be killed and burned, too. The Tribal Council decided it’s a white man’s disease in their blood. It’s a wristwatch that has fallen between their ribs, slowing, stopping. I’m happy my grandparents and parents died before all of this happened. I’m happy I’m an orphan.
Sometimes Tremble Dancer waits for me at the tree, all we have left. We take off our clothes, loincloth, box dress. We climb the branches of the tree and hold each other, watching for the Tribal Council. Sometimes her skin will flake, fall off, float to the ground. Sometimes I taste parts of her breaking off into my mouth. It is the taste of blood, dust, sap, sun.
“My legs are leaving me,” Tremble Dancer told me once. “Then it will be my arms, my eyes, my fingers, the small of my back.
“I’m jealous of what you have,” she told me, pointing at the parts of my body and telling me what they do.
Last night we burned another house. I saw a painting of Jesus Christ lying on the floor.
He’s white. Jesus is white.
While the house was burning, I could see flames, colors, every color but white. I don’t know what it means, don’t understand fire, the burns on Tremble Dancer’s legs, the ash left to cool after the house has been reduced.
I want to know why Jesus isn’t a flame.
Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying.
While I lie in my tipi pretending to be asleep under the half-blankets of dog and cat skin, I hear the horses exploding. I hear the screams of children who are taken.
The Others have come from a thousand years ago, their braids gray and broken with age. They have come with arrow, bow, stone ax, large hands.
“Do you remember me?” they sing above the noise, our noise.
“Do you still fear me?” they shout above the singing, our singing.
I run from my tipi across the ground toward the tree, climb the branches to watch the Others. There is one, taller than the clouds, who doesn’t ride a pony, who runs across the dust, faster than my memory.
Sometimes they come back. The Others, carrying salmon, water. Once, they took Noah Chirapkin, tied him down to the ground, poured water down his throat until he drowned.
The tallest Other, the giant, took Tremble Dancer away, brought her back with a big belly. She smelled of salt, old blood. She gave birth, salmon flopped from her, salmon growing larger.
When she died, her hands bled seawater from her palms.
At the Tribal Council meeting last night, Judas WildShoe gave a watch he found to the tribal chairman.
“A white man’s artifact, a sin,” the chairman said, put the watch in his pouch.
I remember watches. They measured time in seconds, minutes, hours. They measured time exactly, coldly. I measure time with my breath, the sound of my hands across my own skin.
I make mistakes.
Last night I held my transistor radio in my hands, gently, as if it were alive. I examined it closely, searching for some flaw, some obvious damage. But there was nothing, no imperfection I could see. If there was something wrong, it was not evident by the smooth, hard plastic of the outside. All the mistakes would be on the inside, where you couldn’t see, couldn’t reach.
I held that radio and turned it on, turned the volume to maximum, until all I could hear was the in and out, in again, of my breath.