Pale Rider needed a good sweat. His body craved the release of toxins and his mind felt clogged with civilization. He needed to sit with People of the Earth and chant, allowing the free flow of culture and wisdom to pass between and fill the holes in his life. It didn’t matter if his sweat brothers were Apache or Shoshone or Lakota as long as the tent held steam enough to clear his mind.
It was hard living white when one’s essence was nativistic; Pale Rider would never pass as NDN, given his pink skin and strawberry-blonde hair, but no one could take away the NDN in his soul. He kept a photo of his great, great, great grandmother framed in sparrow bones by his bedside and offered her blessings before going to his dreams. Ethel Spinely had been seventy-three when she passed, and family lore had it that Coyote himself met her above the deathbed. She was 1/32nd Choctaw through and through and lived her life as a steward of the land and dispenser of wisdom.
As Pale Rider approached Bellingham, Washington on I-5 he reminisced about his NDN naming day back in Pawnee, Oklahoma. He’d met a nice NDN family at a diner who’d been drawn to his turquoise and prairie grass circlet and invited him to dinner. He’d been moved by the invite, and ashamed he had only his European name to offer: Bill Shumway.
“Hey, my name’s Bill too,” said the father. “Bill Johnson. This here’s my wife Katie, and our sons Brock and Lester.”
“Of course,” said Bill Shumway, who understood the pressure of assimilation because he had dreamt about it during the last harvest season. He hoped they might share their native names once they became better acquainted.
He also understood the white man’s feast he’d been offered that night: T-bone steak, mashed potatoes, and peas, washed down with iced tea. He had not earned their trust, and although he had not broken any treaties, his ancestors had. Time passed differently for NDNs and he might as well be wearing Seventh Cavalry blue as he ate. Still, he couldn’t help himself.
“Katie, I bet you make the best frybread in Oklahoma,” he’d said.
Katie smiled. “It’s too good,” she said.
“It’s true,” said Bill Johnson. “So good Doc said we had to give it up before our hearts exploded.”
“My loss,” said Bill Shumway. He didn’t buy that excuse, but he got it. Frybread recipes were passed down for centuries, and he had yet to earn his place at that table.
After dinner Brock and Lester went out to count coup and the three adults moved to the living room.
“You like Eastwood?” asked Bill Johnson, as Katie brought out apple pie ala mode and coffee.
Bill Shumway thought carefully. Was this a test? He’d loved Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales, but felt Unforgiven missed out on a huge opportunity to further the cause of Native sovereignty.
“’Cause we had plans to watch one tonight. Welcome to join us.”
“Which one?” asked Bill Shumway, wishing he had dried huckleberries for the ice cream.
“Pale Rider,” said Bill Johnson. “We’re working through them chronologically.”
Bill Shumway was so shocked by this transgression of linearity so alien to true Nativeness that he declined the invitation, finished his pie, and left.
A hundred miles later Bill Shumway realized he’d received his true NDN name.
Pale Rider bypassed Bellingham and headed for the Casino on Slater Road. Over the years he’d found Native people willing to share information as long as he threw dice or spun wheels. He set aside ten percent of his earnings as a janitor to invest in Tribal casinos, figuring it was the least he could do. On the rare evenings he won, he donated the excess to the first Native bartender he encountered.
On this evening his luck was poor.
“Not your night, Friend,” said the blackjack dealer, a short, stocky fellow who could have been Navaho or Paiute, or some blood quantum combo of both.
“Tomorrow’s another day,” said Pale Rider.
“You got that right,” said the dealer, whose name tag read Ray.
Once the table emptied, Pale rider leaned toward Ray. “Looking for a good sweat,” he said, keeping his voice down.
“You’re looking for what?”
“A sweat. Heat for the heart. A soul-cleanse.”
Ray dealt. Pale Rider played. Pale Rider lost. “Local Y has a sauna,” said Ray.
Pale Rider thought about this and nodded. “I understand.”
Ray looked solemn, then cracked up. “Just pulling your leg, Friend. Afraid I don’t know of any ‘sweats’ at the moment.”
“I have Choctaw Blood,” said Pale Rider.
“I would have guessed Cherokee,” said Ray.
“No offense, Ray, but everyone and his mother claims Cherokee ancestry.”
Ray pursed his lips. “Tell you what. Go to the store by the ferry landing on Gooseberry Point and tell ‘em Ray Bear sent you.”
Pale Rider stood up and donned his worn denim, then held out his hand and shared his true NDN name. Ray Bear, stunned by the power of the Name-Share, sat frozen as Pale Rider lowered his hand and left.
The clerk in the store was not helpful.
“Go for a fucking run, dude,” said the young man to Pale Rider. “Then sweat your ass back to wherever it is you come from.” He was worked up, and Pale Rider understood completely. He put both hands out palms up.
“I hear you, Young Son. Five hundred years of white pain is enough for anyone. I am humble in your presence.”
Young Son’s hair burst into flames as he pulled out a baseball bat and headed toward Pale Rider.
“Put that goddamn thing away, Jackson,” boomed a voice. An old man shuffled up next to Pale Rider. “And put out your hair.”
Jackson Young Son glared at Pale Rider, but did as he was told and resumed his station behind the counter, flicking a few sparks toward Pale Rider, who prayed he wouldn’t ignite.
“Thank you, Grandfather,” said Pale Rider. “I meant no disrespect. It’s just that I’m filled with impurities and know only one way to get rid of them.”
“He’s not your goddam Grand—”
“Can it, Junior,” said Grandfather. “You’ll have to excuse Jackson. The young men around here tend to get a little worked up over ‘perceived slights’.”
“No explanations needed,” said Pale Rider. “Every white man’s middle name is Armstrong.”
Jackson rolled his eyes so hard Pale Rider nearly lost his balance.
Grandfather steadied him with a leathery hand, then guided him to the door. “Tell you what.” Grandfather lowered his voice and looked left and right. “Head down Lummi Shore Road until you smell sage. Left at the first Doug Fir, right down a driveway marked with a bear skin hanging off a fence post. Tell ‘em Soaring Eagle sent you.”
Pale Rider took hold of a right forearm and squeezed. “Thank you, Soaring Eagle. ‘Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam’.”
“What language is that?”
“Paleo-Indian. Means ‘Blessings From the Earth’.”
“Ah,” said Soaring Eagle. “Beautiful.”
Pale Rider mounted his ‘82 Mustang and drove off. The old man—whose real name was Herb McCaskey—watched him go, a wisp of smoke curling up from his gray ponytail.
“Did I just hear Klingon?” asked Jackson from inside the store.
“Beat’s me,” said Herb. “Anyway, get on the horn and let ‘em know we sent one runnin’.”
The driveway cut between two towering totem poles, around which performed several dozen Fancy Dancers from various tribes. A cluster of tipis perched on a ridge to the left, and a weathered Iroquois longhouse sat amid Ash trees. Everywhere, NDN children ran amok, twirling Bull Roarers above their head or Kicking the Stick. A profound sense of belonging came over Pale Rider and his heart went light. He parked at the end of the driveway in front of a giant Wickiup. As soon as he got out of his car a passel of kids ran up yelling “Uncle! Uncle!” Pale Rider knelt down and let them touch his red hair, and a few of them went so far as to lick his arms and cheeks.
“Heh! A new way to say hello!” said Pale Rider, but when he stuck out his tongue in response the children screamed and jumped back. Just then the stateliest, wrinkliest, braidiest NDN Pale Rider had ever seen exited the wickiup and walked over. Pale Rider dropped to his knees, awed by sheer authenticity, but the old man gestured for him to rise.
“Stand, Plump White Man Seeking Sweat.”
Pale Rider pulled himself up and tried to pinpoint tribal affiliation. Too tall for a Navajo. Too short for an Apache. Too dark-skinned for an Ojibwe. Too stately for a Tlingit. He wore sandals woven from reeds and a bear skin loincloth, a single eagle feather sticking out of an intricate badger claw circlet.
“I am honored and unworthy, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great…. Great Grandfather.”
Great, Great, Great, Great, Great…Great Grandfather inclined his head ever so slightly. “Please. I am called Starsent Hungry Wolf.”
“I am Pale Rider, and I seek a soul-cleanse.” Pale Rider held out his hand and was gratified when Starsent Hungry Wolf grasped his forearm in the traditional way.
“Well-met, Pale Rider.” He gestured to the Wickiup. “Join me inside where we will prepare for the Ceremony of Water Walking Skyward.”
Pale Rider followed Starsent Hungry Wolf, turning back to wave at the children, who waved back and smacked their lips.
A group of elders sat on blankets around a fire. Bundles of willow kindling and aspen logs were stacked neatly against rounded walls adorned with various pelts, most of which Pale Rider recognized: beaver, mink, cougar, bear. Another type was unfamiliar, taking up most of the space. Starsent Hungry Wolf noticed Pale Rider’s attention and placed his hand on Pale Rider’s shoulder.
“Sasquatch hides. All native tribes honor an ancient blood agreement to collect and process remains, so the existence of Bigfoot remains a mystery. Our hirsute cousins treasure privacy.”
Pale Rider was shaken. “You honor me with this knowledge.”
“We trust you as one brother trusts another,” said Starsent Hungry Wolf, the elders in the circle nodding in assent.
“One thing though,” said Pale Rider. “Why are the pelts so small?”
Whispers broke out among the elders. Pale Rider sensed his question may have breached cultural protocol and felt instantly ashamed, his white skin reddening.
Finally, the whispers ceased, and Starsent Hungry Wolf turned toward him. “The sacred Sasquatch tanning ritual passed down to us for generations causes shrinkage. I can say no more.”
Pale rider understood. Ten minutes later—after having been stripped of his Northern European clothing, chanted over, rubbed with sage, basil, rosemary, mint and extra virgin olive oil and taking several tokes from a peace pipe which made him feel floaty and full of love for his new friends—he found himself in a domed sweat lodge framed with willow branches and sealed, Pale Rider was happy to note, with animal hides rather than tarps and plastic sheeting. As the temperature rose and sweat covered his body he took no note as one by one the other participants departed until he was alone in the darkness. As the toxins and impurities left him Pale Rider felt clean and whole for the first time in months, and by the time time the first blister bubbles arose on his meaty thighs his purified soul had risen above his body and escaped on the wings of a gentle zephyr into the maw of a raven which shat him out the following day onto the windshield of a Tesla Model X filled with rich white people looking for cheap waterfront property.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com