- October 10th, 2011
I was born in 1976, the third of six children, on the Navajo Indian reservation in Colorado. My name, which doesn't translate well into English, is Matthew Patch-of-Grass. My father, who was Comanche, told me it was the tradition with his people to name a child after the first thing the father saw after coming out of the birthing tent. His name was Running Deer, and he was a strong, proud man, but did not have much imagination. My two brothers, about whom you will be hearing a lot more as my story progresses, are called Luke Puddle and John Bit-of-Dirt. Although comical in the common tongue of these lands, they are perfectly normal names to me and my people.
I also had three sisters, Susan, Amy and Debz, who always seemed to be popular with the artists from the nearest town, which was thirty miles away. My mother told me that the artists were looking for the best possible materials from which to construct their painting materials, and judged the hair of young Apache Indian girls to be the most suitable. They would pay a lot of money for an hour (or sometimes even less) alone with the girls. I never noticed any change in their hair length afterwards, but my mother assured me that their brushes were very small, and we needed the extra money in any case, because if my father stopped drinking he might die. He had a medical condition.
We went to a government-run school in the town. Educational facilities on the reservation were scant, consisting mainly of a run-down building infested with dry rot and an old man call Sitting Dog who wanted to teach us the "old ways". We all thought he was crazy, but he kept trying to convince us that Indians were "closer to the earth" and more in tune with nature. He said there were secret ways to bring the rains, or to make crops grow, and so on, along with more sinister implications that he could curse a neighbour's crops also, if he wanted to. My mother tolerated his foolishness, but my father told us to stay the hell away from him, because he was up to no good.
Every so often, some policemen from the town would come to talk with Sitting Dog because he was so wise and knowledgeable. He was helping them with their enquiries. There was always some criminal activity on the reservation, mercifully mostly low-level petty theft. One day, the police came and took him away. He must have proved to be indispensible to their investigations because we never saw him again. My father told me that he was a special police man in Washington D.C., which was the American embassy. He got regular reports from Sitting Dog on how things were going, and there were photos of him in his uniform which we could not see due to matters of national security. It seemed to make sense at the time, because we were children, but in retrospect he probably didn't want to rob us of the rite of passage for all Navajo children, the rebellion against authority which usually took the form of stoning some police cars.
My father's father, my grandfather, was called Raining Men. Obviously, he was named long before the disco song became popular, and his parents would have no way to know that his name would form an instant association with promiscuous homosexual sex in the minds of all who were introduced to him. John Bit-of-Dirt jokingly suggested that he rename himself Elton John, which he proceeded to do against the stern advice of all. One night he was watching television in his caravan and Elton John came on singing Benny and the Jets. It was one of his concerts from the early 1970s, with the large glasses and glam rock outfit. We had being trying to explain this to my grandfather for years, but he didn't understand. He looked at Elton John, and then to us. He sat back in his old bakelite chair which used to be a counter-top before the government told us we had to throw them out due to a strong risk of ovarian cancer. He sat back, and sighed gently. Then he looked at us again, put his hands on his knees, and got up. He went out the door, slowly hobbled the three steps from the caravan to the muddy ground, disappeared into the brush, and shot himself. We weren't sure what to do with the headstone of his grave, but eventually we settled on 'Elton "Raining Men" John'.
I remembered when Elton John got that television first. It was soon after electricity came to our village, in 1985. I was nine years old. Some men came from the embassy and told us that it would be good for progress, and there were government programmes to help us pay for it, and so on. No one believed them. Any time a white man said something to us, it was a lie. This was the guiding force behind all our dealings with the embassy. My father admitted that this principle had no release valve for when a white man told the truth, as happened every so often. In those rare cases, we would be driven to demand that the white man recant the earlier truth, so we could consider it a lie, and proceed normally. To do otherwise would be to admit that our entire belief system for dealing with white people was fundamentally flawed, and that maybe we had been judging these pale colonial people too harshly ever since 1492. The elders of the village spent the day at Hanging Rock while the men from the embassy installed the electricity. When the white men asked where our leaders were, we told them they had gone away to maintain plausible deniability in the event that this was some sort of colonial plan to spy on us. When they asked us with false incredulity why they would want to spy on us, we replied that they might want to know our plans for rebellion and revolution. They laughed out loud at this, and shouted at us that they were doubtful of our ability to organise sexual activity in a brothel. They didn't phrase it like that, but the implication was clear. Their frenzied, feverish attempts to distract us from their machinations did not work, however, because we are a proud and noble people.
Over the following weeks, the rest of the tribe were using the electricity for more mundane tasks like cutting keys or winding back the odometers on our Ford pick-up trucks, but my grandfather had vision. He decided to buy a television. He said he wanted to keep up with the news of the outside world, and in particular from the embassy, but any time we saw him, he was watching Dallas. Dallas was a show popular among white people about a bunch of white people having sex on stolen land and selling oil to Arabs. The show incensed my grandfather so much that he watched every single episode and all the repeats. He wrote a letter to the embassy once, complaining about the show's insensitivity to the native inhabitants of Dallas, and what effect this casual re-writing of history might have on children. He got an answer too, which said he should take it up with CBS, which was, it seems, the particular branch of the embassy in charge of racism. So he forwarded the message to CBS, with the note from the embassy attached. He received a reply in two weeks (which back then was a very short time to get a reply from anyone about anything) which stated, in a very roundabout way, that most children would be in bed by the time Dallas was airing, and if any children were allowed up to watch it, the problem lay not with the network, but with the parents. Elton John was so pleased with this answer that he framed the letter and hung it over the television. Every time Dallas came on, he would look over to me and my brothers, wink knowingly, and say that if he was our father, he would be a very bad parent for letting us watch it.
He got married very young, back when he was Raining Men, to a very pretty young Apache girl called Annette Smith. They had two children and then she went away. We never knew what happened and he never seemed interested in explaining further. I still don't know if she's dead or alive. All I know is that she "went away" when my father was very young. Maybe she went to the embassy and got a job like Sitting Dog. To Elton, getting a job was like a death of the spirit. We would mention employment prospects in hushed tones when we were around him, or any of the old people, who felt very much like him. There was one photo of Elton and Annette, sitting on the headboard of the bed, facing the wall. Sometimes, when he got very drunk, he would show us the photo and scream at us, "Look at that! Isn't she beautiful? Look at her! I had that. I did that. I did that! And then she went away." She was certainly very pretty, although she did have a slightly confused look, as though she had just woken up. Sitting Dog once told us that she was like that all the time, by which I understood that she slept a lot, perhaps due to anemia. Back then, anemia was a disease that only affected women, like Repetitive Strain Injury these days, or gonorrhea.
My grandfather never turned the television off. He had it on all during the night, with the sound turned down. He was afraid that somehow the technology (which he regarded as a concrete entity rather than an abstract concept) would "fail" and it might not come back on again. As soon as Dallas was over, he turned the sound down and put a tablecloth over the set. You could still see the patterns of light and dark dancing around inside the tablecloth, but it didn't bother him, so it didn't bother us. These days, of course, you can just put the television on standby.
When he wasn't watching Dallas, he was watching games of American football. Apparently he was under the assumption that the NFL existed within the fictional world of Dallas due to a misapprehension regarding the status of the Dallas Cowboys. He treated all the games as though they were an elaborate spin-off of Dallas, and as far as we knew, he was correct. It wasn't until much later that we realised the NFL was a separate entity which existed in the real world. I remember as a child hearing one of the players, William Perry, referred to as "The Refrigerator". The fridge in our caravan was tiny, and I remember thinking, every time I heard them talking about him on the television, "I hope he doesn't get knocked over!"
When I was young, my brothers and I used to be part of a small gang of kids. My mother used to call us the Reservation Dogs, because we used to often make secret plans and so on, and maybe dogs do that too. I don't know that much about dogs, to be honest. There were always a few bedraggled mongrels padding around the caravans in the mud after heavy rain. We used to chase them around and light their tails on fire, just as a joke. There wasn't much to do in the reservation before we old enough to drink.
I remember the day my mother went away. She was a Sioux named Susan Jones, but everyone called her Su-Su. I never knew her parents, but always imagined them to be Welsh miners, forever nervously glancing at the canary in the cage beside them as they worked four miles underground. My youthful imagination had them developing neck injuries and scoliosis from constantly craning around to check the canary, which would always be fine. Of course, this was back before Indians were allowed to be Welsh, so my dreams were pure fantasy. Nowadays, some of the best people in the world are Welsh, including Catherine Zeta Jones, Tom Jones and some other people called Jones. But not my mother, who despite her name, was in fact an American Indian.
She came into our room that day, and said goodbye to us. We didn't think much of it, because she was always threatening to leave, and she always came back. Sometimes she made it as far as the bus station, but then the bus would be late, and by the time the bus arrived she would have changed her mind, or my father would have sobered up and sent some men to retrieve her. I regret not making eye contact with her that day, but in my defence I was on my way to a new high score on Centipede on my Atari 2600. My father, ever the lovable rogue, was in an alcoholic stupor. She screamed something at him in her native language, dragging her broken suitcase behind her. He tried crawling after her, but threw up on the steps of the caravan and passed out.
Sitting Dog told us that some people from the embassy turned up in the Big Field many years ago, when he was our age, running around in big suits. He asked them what they were doing, and they said they were training for a NASA mission to the moon. He asked if they could send a message to the moon from the native people of this proud nation, and they agreed, because it meant they qualified for more government funding. He sent the message in Navajo, but they didn't have time to translate it because they were very busy with the zero-gravity toilet mechanism, which kept breaking down (cue humour-deficient NASA engineers joking about bored astronauts "going through the motions"). Eventually they got around to translating Sitting Dog's message for the moon: "Beware of these white-suited people! They will steal your land!"
We were all expected to laugh at that story, even though it was more depressing than funny. We all laughed. We kept laughing long after it was reasonable to stop, because no one wanted to be the first person to stop laughing. Sitting Dog was notorious for his peculiar punishments for children who were not paying attention, or, weirdly, who were paying too much attention. Whoever stopped laughing first might be sent to poke a beaver with a spoon, or something more ridiculous. Beavers might look cute, but you don't want to poke one with a spoon. Also, you don't get many beavers in the desert. Most of us were hoping that we were in some sort of arcane training regime, like in the Hollywood movies, where the students have to perform a number of humiliating and meaningless tasks, but later discover that it was an integral part of the learning process. That never happened to us. We were just sent around the reservation making fools of ourselves, for no reason.
After what seemed like a week, one of my friends, Running Water, stopped laughing. He was sent to the tree beside the well and told not to come back until he had lodged a frisbee between two of the upper branches. He was still there at four o'clock, when we were walking home from lessons, ineffectually throwing the frisbee into the tree and watching with increasing frustration as it slid its way harmlessly from branch to branch, and onto the ground. The punishments were meted and executed randomly. He said later that it would prepare us for how random life outside the reservation was. None of us moved out of the reservation, though, so the whole thing seems as pointless in retrospect as it did at the time.
Our village chief (who may not be named in this or any publications due to very strict cultural taboos, although the publishers also insisted on removing his name for legal reasons) died in 1980, when I was four years old. Before he died, as is the custom of our people, he was able to name his successor. His breathing was very bad, and the elders of the village had to lean close to hear the answer to their question, "Who should be our next chief?". Although everyone agreed that he had definitely named my father, Running Deer, there was a heated debate that night about whether he had said "How about Running Deer" or "Anyone but Running Deer". My father lobbied frantically all night with gifts of vodka bottles and tickets to see Mama Mia, and by the following morning he was proclaimed chief of our reservation, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto, inter alia, etc. ad infinitum. This was also very exciting for me, as it meant I was the eldest son of a chief, and would surely have my pick of the finest young ladies Hollywood had to offer. Soon afterwards, my dream came knocking at my back door, with the runaway success of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves.