Feathering Custer

Feathering Custer

by William S. Penn


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Noted Nez Perce fiction writer and critic W. S. Penn, one of the most provocative Native essayists writing today, turns his wry and penetrating gaze upon the state of Native life and literature today. Marshaling personal experience, remarkable critical acumen, and plain old good sense, Penn considers how modern scholarship has affected the ways Native Americans and others see themselves and their world. The result is a uniquely frank, witty, and unsettling critique of contemporary literary and cultural theory and its ability to come to terms with the real lives and literatures of Native Americans. Key to this critique is the troubling issue of what properly constitutes a traditional "Indian" identity and an "Indian" literature within Native communities and in the academy. In confronting this issue, Penn exposes some of the sillier uses of the serious language of diversity as well as the impact of identity politics on Native professors in a world where the age-old language of cultural dominance still underpins the showcasing and teaching of minority literatures. And yet, Penn argues, the storytelling traditions so central to Native communities remain very much alive today, hidden in the corners of the literary canon. His book is a bracing challenge to make these traditions a foundation for a distinctive literary and cultural theory for Native lives and literatures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803287822
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 12/28/2004
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

W. S. Penn is the director of the Creative Writing Program and winner of the Distinguished Faculty Award at Michigan State University. His many books include the North American Indian Prose Award–winner All My Sins Are Relatives (Nebraska 1995); the American Book Award–winner Killing Time with Strangers; and This Is the World.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Tonto Meets Chuang Tzu


Tonto, the Indian man whose modus vivendi was as the quintessentialsidekick, was not afraid to be wrong. For his lack of fear, for his veryreal courage, he was denigrated by his very nickname, which means"stupid" or "idiot."

    But the truth is, next to the Lone Ranger, Tonto did seem stupidor slow, and we have to wonder why Tonto did not hire a lawyer toforce the studio to give him better lines and make him equal to theLone Ranger. But we now know, given the charitable and generousactivities of the man behind the role, Jay Silverheels was wise enoughto realize that, while he could have played a second and equal Ranger,he would not have been happy. As much as he was alone both on andoff the set, he knew that while he had always wanted to be one with theboys, he usually preferred the company of girls, who, in those days,seemed less likely to mark territory with barbed fences or pee—notunlike the reasons for which one might tend to like other outcasts likeJews, Chicanos, and often gay men—which is not to imply anythingregarding Tonto's masked friend.

Imagine Tonto, a Fat Indian Boy, growing up in the late 1940s and 50s.No doubt he wears glasses, and between fourth and twelfth grades hewill attend at least six different schools. Whether it's the fat, theIndian, the Dr. Pepper four eyes, or the fact that during the first weekin every new school he has to defend himself from being picked onphysically, he has to learn to ignore the name-calling.

    "Hey, Four Eyes," Ranger calls.

   "You spick-a da Ing-liss, or what?"

    "Come on, Piggy, let's move it."

    "Fucking Greasers."

    "Hey, those glasses or Coke bottle bottoms?"

    "Dr. Pepper," he answers, smiling. "Coke isn't thick enough."

    His smile makes them vengeful. He has to learn to defuse theirvengefulness by controlling his own sense that he is inferior and bystanding up to them without fear—like dogs, the scent of fear or evencaution makes them foam at the mouth. Otherwise, he would spendhis halcyon school days fighting just for the sake of battle.

    The whole time Tonto is trying to overcome his feelings of inferiority,he can't help but see some of the foolishness that accompaniesthe exhibitions of superiority. He learns to flip baseball cards fartheron the playground. His cards rise in the hazy distance like deep flyballs, forcing the smaller kids to go back on the fly like Willie Mays.He feels warmed by streaks of boyish admiration of his prowess. Hiswrist and arm action balances force with method in such a way asto impart just the fight pitch and yaw to let the card carry itself outover the asphalt playground. But when a tow-headed, hapless secondgrader with farsighted eyes and a butch haircut stumbles up to himat the end of recess empty-handed, having caught no cards at all, letalone one worth having, he shuffles through his pack of keepers andhands him a Willie McCovey.

    The second grader's eyes grow wider, dark like plums glistening inthe gratitude of rain. "Gee. Thanks."

    "I have two," Tonto says. He doesn't. And he knows in the accidentalfickle world of baseball card collecting, he will never seeanother. Because of the American love of sheer power over finesse,Willie McCoveys are more rare than Willie Mayses, the Say-Hey Kidwho could go back on a fly ball or stroke a game-winning double tothe gap in the opposite field.

    When Tonto's friends, the other fifth graders who grudginglyadmired his ability to flip cards farther, find out what he has done,there is hell to pay.

    "You idiot!"

    "Man, are you ever the stupidest, slowest four-eyed greaser thatever walked the face of Hollywood."

    "Pendejo," his friend Arturo laughs. He tosses an arm acrossTonto's shoulders as they walk off the playground—an acre of blackasphalt painted with lines that mean nothing unless you are playing agame between them.

    Fortunately, as the inheritors of a history of relocation, the fatIndian boy's family moves all the time. So around the time the otherboys in his grade first hear of a Willie McCovey existing in someone'scard collection, before they find out that it was actually given away andnot traded for a red Corvette or the promise of someone's firstborn,Tonto's father, Sidekick Sr., will have moved him and his family farenough away that the reputation cannot follow him. He will move hisbaseball card collection, even though his father thinks it silly, and thereputation for stupidity will take time to blossom faintly anew like theperennial ground cover it resembles.

    When he finally outgrows the collection, he will not store it awaybecause someday it'll be worth something, meaning money and onlymoney. He simply will forget it in a box on the top shelf of hiscloset. When his mother, in one of her divorced angers, gives thecollection away while he's at college, he will mind the anger, themean-spirited gesture, but not the loss itself—because he is no goodat buying and selling, at maintaining what he feels is a false sense ofmonetary value for something so silly as an athlete's image and statson cutout cardboard.

This bad attitude toward money—seeing its use but not its religiousqualities—is part of a practical compromise with college. Agreeablesidekick that he is, when two of his friends apply to the mostprestigious (by which he realizes later is meant "expensive," classdistinctions being more important than intellectual abilities) privatecollege in the West, he will let himself be convinced by the school'scounselor that he too should apply. All three gain early acceptance.

    His grades in high school are high because he has become whatcan be called nothing but agreeable, and an agreeable student, thoughmaybe not wise, is diligent. And he has an interesting individuality togo with it (he "tans" well), which is why, when the captain of thefootball team runs for senior class president unopposed, he lets someof the girls talk him into becoming the opposition. As an AgreeableContrary, our Tonto figures, What the heck, Why not? The worst he cando is lose. He expects to. But maybe he will make some new friends.What he doesn't figure on is demographics and the undercurrentsof social change. That is, there are more girls than boys. And a fewboys should feel obliged to vote for him—the Talmudic Jews, who donot value athletics; the homosexuals, who are, in the 1950s, mostlyundeclared; the Chicanos, whose resentment over all those years ofleading their classes in dancing La Cucaracha resembles an innateclass hatred; and the hoodlums.

    Normally, the hoodlums wouldn't even try to read the campaignposters, sounding them out one letter at a time. But Tonto, in hisconciliatory fashion, promises them a "Smoking Area" out behindthe school where they can go during each of their four or five studyhall periods to smoke whatever they wish without being harassedby principals or police and without the innocent getting high bygoing into the small and almost ventless bathrooms. The hoodlumsnot only turn out in numbers, but they turn out in force; and thefootball team captain's posters vanish like morning dew—or, as thecampaign reaches its pitch, the captain's campaign manager choosesnot to bother putting them up and thus risking the disapproval of theHoodlum Seven.

    When he wins, Tonto has to make good on this promise, and hegets his first real-world lesson in the value of appearances over ethics.It is all too easily done. The principal thinks it's a great idea. It's a new,state-of-the-art high school, so the public and parental eyes are uponthem—especially the eyes of parents of the kids stuck at the crosstownrival high school from which the new high school's studentswere drawn. With the hoods smoking way out behind a small burialmound beyond the football field, there will be no complaints or questions.The area can be viewed from the commuter train tracks, whichare trafficked mainly before and after school hours, and the tintedwindows of a Veteran's Administration Hospital, where quivering oldmen shout obscenities or piss on the shoes of missionaries— as Tonto,as a VA volunteer on weekends, has seen.

    After instituting rules about policing the grounds, the principalgrants the hoodlums some room of their own out in open space. Tontosometimes visits the keeping of his promise to savor the surprise ofit, but also because, in this middle-class high school where he hasbecome popular as class president, the Hoodlum Seven makes himfeel more comfortable, more welcome. Still, most of the time, heplays out his happy role of adopted mascot to the majority girls. Hediscovers that he likes girls. He really likes them, likes being aroundthem, likes eating lunch with them. Except for the ones named Gigi orSuzi, some of them seem to have brains—and even Suzi will one dayabandon Gigi, cropping her hair and changing her name to "Suze."

    Eventually, the boys get over the fact that they lost.

    "Hey, it surprised me as much as you," Tonto consoles the footballteam's captain and (not very good) quarterback. "But we had agood race."

    The captain receives this consolation in silence, either because heis unable to string together more than three words at once or becausehe ran no race at all, assuming he would win against this nobody, thisFat Indian Boy. He was beneath notice, let alone contempt.

    But the other boys, once they get used to the idea of Tonto as classpresident, invite him to drink Canadian Club poured into paper cupsof black cherry cola at the student council meetings at which theymerrily (and one should say agreeably) govern—which means mainlyallocating money to clubs and planning dances as well as Senior CutDay. And to reward them, Tonto imagines two Senior Cut Days—theone sanctioned by the too-liberal principal, who provides busses to theseniors; and the authentic one, where they all cut school and go to HalfMoon Bay to drink and throw up on the sides of cars as those like Tontowho could hold their liquor and sort of see to drive take them home.

    Why a guy who enjoyed girls would agree to apply to—and, worse,attend—a private, expensive men's college, even one located acrossthe street from two women's colleges, is a question. Perhaps hangingwith the hoods and drinking with the alums renewed Tonto's wishthat he could be one of the guys. Whatever his reasons, he continuesto lack the slick self-deceptions of the suave. He is embarrassed byhis complete inability to ask a girl out. He is inevitably awkward andclumsy and blurtive, in part because even though he was a popularmascot in high school, he has never figured out why a girl would wantto go out with him. At the same time, he knows there are qualitiesin him that should make them all want to go out with him. Hecultivates these qualities. Mainly, he tries to listen, to pay attentionto the expressions of their character—at least until he discovers thatthe Pitzer girls have none—and then, instead of taking advantage oftheir willingness to be lied to, he will only take them back to theirdormitories and drop them off.

    He gets invited on overnight camping trips out to Lake Arrowhead.There is, he learns, something truly discouraging in having a girlinvite him to share her sleeping bag and him replying that he's okayin his own. He is simply too shy to crawl out of his bag and into hers,too afraid that if he does, he will goof the whole thing up by fartingin the middle of the night or accidentally dislocating her jaw with aclumsy elbow, so he turns her down. She is sweet about it. Perhapsshe is even more attracted to him because of his timidity. But he couldkick himself, kick himself, kick himself.

    It doesn't take many of these experiences to turn him into a kindof voyeur, watching other boys and girls, smiling at other people'sfun. He becomes the kind of boy a girl will try to include when shesenses danger on a casual first or lunch or coffee date. To please them(the girls—he still doesn't like many boys, and he distrusts and enviesthe intentions and motives of most), to be good in this role of "mypal Tonto" ("You don't mind if he joins us, do you?"), he becomesbrave, remembers and redevelops the courage of grammar schools,able to take the lowering looks of athletes the size of tanks and twiceas explosive.

    He also becomes a true connoisseur of the superficial, able to keepany conversation going with barely a yawn. To the Polyphemic jockswith their groping univision, he is an outis, a nobody, and they don'thave to take anything he says or does as much more than a minorinconvenience that needs to be gotten rid of. To the girls, he becomeseven more popular as a pal, a sidekick, and more often he finds himselfhaving to defuse the rage of a girl's super-sized boyfriend becauseshe's told him she has to wash her hair and then has gone for coffeeor a movie with her sidekick Tonto. He understands and sympathizeswith their wanting an evening out without the pressures of beggingout of sex because of headaches, early classes, or being tired. For thesingle semester during which he manages to stay at this prestigiouslyexpensive college, he relishes his role as dilettante and plays it tothe extreme.

A sidekick must be someone who is interested in a lot of differentsubjects, as our Tonto is. If something is even modestly well-told,he'll happily listen to any telling, from engineers to plumbers to somescientist who studies The Life of Nickel. At other times daily life at theMalls of American Thinking impresses him as a tedious waste of time,if only because, like trips on drugs, trips to the mall of banal cannotbe well-told enough to interest. And tedium begins to foment anger.

    Before long other connections begin to work on his agreeability.Connections of class: cars are forbidden to freshmen, but hisroommate, who has the brains of an arachnid but whose father isa state supreme court judge, gains special dispensation to have hiscar parked in a reserved space beside the dean of boys. Connectionsof contentment: except for the Jews, the kind of people he enjoyedin high school are now found trimming the lawns or dodging thepale green cars of the Border Patrol. Connections of meaning: forcedto join ROTC by financial circumstances and encouraged to join byhis continued desire to belong to America, he starts to question whyanyone would want to protect or defend the connections of class andwhat gets sold in the Malls of American Thinking. Why would anyonedie to kill Vietnamese instead of his privileged roommate, who hasto plagiarize obscure library books to pass freshman English? Thevery assumptions on which his roommate bases what little thinkinghe does burn Tonto's skin like a naked skid on the basketballcourt.

    It's these assumptions that, one late night in Ensenada, cause ahuge Indio by the name of Ramon to offer to knock his roommate outin order to keep his big mouth from getting him beaten—or worse,killed. Tonto and three of his friends have used his roommate. Bymeans of the very privilege Tonto objects to, they have driven downfor the weekend. The first night, his roommate, used to drinkingCherry extract in glasses of Coke to get high, has gotten so drunkon Dos Equis that he has fallen in love with all things and peopleMexican, even the almost unbelievable poverty. He talks a blue streak.He verily dribbles patronization, the friendly Norte Americano in apoor man's bar on the flip side of Ensenada.

    Ramon's offer is not mean, and it is not meant to be angry or resentful.He only stiffens, his massive oil rig shoulders hunching round andhard against his self-restraint, when the slurpy Lone Ranger throwshis arm around Ramon's shoulder and declares his love for "America'sbrown neighbors" to the south.

    "The way you take things so easy and slow," his roommate says, ifyou can understand his words through the heavy molasses of liquoraffecting his tongue.

    Ramon speaks little or no English. But Tonto can tell that he doesn'tneed Ranger's words to understand what they mean.

    "Perdoneme," Ramon says to Tonto. "Pero su amigo es muy borracho"Pardon me, your friend is pretty drunk. Me quieres dejarlo sinconocimiento? You can take him home, then.

    Tonto knows some Spanish. He doesn't know the words for "knockout," but the way Ramon slams his fist into his open palm and thenpoints his finger at his own jaw is plain enough. Ramon has a fist,Tonto notices, that you could bowl with.

    The offer is meant in friendship to Tonto. As the Lone Ranger'ssidekick, it is his job to take care of the Ranger. And without commenton his roommate's behavior, Ramon is offering to save the life ofTonto's sidekick and possibly the lives of the other boys who couldn'tresist the ride. They hate his roommate. And they are keeping theirdistance from him now, making it plain by their looks that they wantnothing to do with him, especially not in his current condition. Butdistance themselves as they would, there is no distance between whiteNotre Americanos in this bar, in this town. The border has erased anydistance they might want to maintain, and they are as close as twinsand triplets.

    Ramon makes the offer blank-faced, without emotion, and inSpanish. Tonto refuses the offer, also in Spanish, and with a kind ofemotion that doesn't show. It is a strange and deep gratitude. He takesthe warning; however, he sees the resentful glares of the other menaround them in the bar at this guero Americano. He makes the otherboys help him get the Ranger out of the bar, carrying him, his twolegs dragging like a rag doll's, badly scuffing the toes of his expensivebrogues, back to the motel. He returns to drink quietly in desultoryand broken conversation with Ramon. His Spanish is vestigial, like alanguage once spoken by his grandparents or like blood divided onlyby a black incision on a map.

    "Your fren, fue muy borracho," Ramon says. "Su amigo, lo duermo?"

    "Yeah. And thanks. Gracias por ... come se dice ...?"

    "De nada," Ramon says, a slight wave with the long-neck beer heholds in his hand.

    "Lo siento," Tonto says, and for Ramon and his friends in the bar, itis sufficient.

* * *

But not for Tonto. Something in him snaps that night. Or else it's thatsomething important is remembered. It's only an echo, undefined.Its origin is without location, but like standing in the shower besidea night-dark window raked by the wind, it is, if he lets it in, chillingenough to make him overreact.

    And he lets it in. In fact, Tonto indulges it, nurtures it on the slowride home the following day as though extreme reactions to his fearcan make up for his sense of wasted nights—all the nights and dayshe did not spend with the lawn trimmers and dodging migrants, withthe Ramons and their friends in dimly lit but almost familial comfort.

    When he gets back to the privilege and expense of college, ourimaginary Tonto finds that he resents the way girls (women, now,really) use him to keep the banalities of their boyfriends at bay, toprovide interest in the form of tension—mostly the jocks'—with hisown discomfort. He now minds very much being a buffer for themfrom the demands for sex as though he were a social prophylactic. Hefinds that when they call, he is busy; or when they drop by his dormroom, he hints broadly about his own sexual desires or needs, fumingto himself when the girls laugh as though of course he could be doingnothing but kidding.

    Sex between friends?


    It would spoil everything.

    "Not everything," Tonto fumes.

    He finds that inside he has always had a real hatred of Americainterwoven with his need to belong to it. After numerous infractionson the ROTC parade grounds, when the captain suggests that it wouldbe a shame for him not to receive the waivers and stipends that ROTCcan provide, he quits. Drops out, knowing that this means he can'tstay at the expensive college. And when the dean of boys calls him inand tries to explain what a shame it would be for someone like Tontoto lose the potential in later life that the prestige and connections("friendships," the boys' dean calls them) of this expensive collegewill give him de facto, he still fails to change his mind.

    Tonto suspects then that it is only by a spectacular lack of successthat he can remain a nobody, and that being a nobody is a truly happyposition. Being nobody, he can duck Polyphemus's groping aroundthe floor of their mutually shared cave and let the Cyclops devour hisfriends with significance. When the other Cyclopes call through thestone roiled across the door, "Who has blinded you?" his answer canremain—unlike Odysseus, whose Parthian shot at Polyphemus wasthe noise of his name—"No One."

    The major problem with all this is that a nobody does not take partin the world. He is alone. The friends he has sneak off to a protectivedistance in the cave or they get eaten because he is powerless to helpthem. And in the end, Tonto knows, as did Jay Silverheels, who gavelocal habitation as well as a name to the role, that everyone gets eaten.That is why Mr. Silverheels did so much community work. Alone, onesimply ends up hiding in a cave, fending off or dodging the blindgropes of a clumsy monster.

The problem with being a nobody isn't that people suffer you to havea kind of innocent anonymity. It's not that they do not recognize youas being someone. It's that they go out of their way to denigrate you,as Tonto learns when, out of school and out of work, he takes uplandscaping to make some money—a rather formal way of sayingthat he mows lawns and trims hedges—for which most people balkat paying him more than the low wages of an untaxable boy. Tontodoesn't mind. He's outdoors, on his own, with almost no one toanswer to, and he can think his own thoughts.

    This contentment lasts until the Sunday morning he arrives earlyto a job. At the gate to the side fence, he overhears Mr. Beasley, whoowns a cowboy theme bar a few blocks away and pockets hundreds ofdollars a week in unreported quarters from his pool tables. Beasley isyelling at Bonni, his wife or mistress, who always puts a small heartover the i when she writes out checks for Tonto's payment, handingthe checks to him with accidental friendly touches and looks thatmake the heart seem like a solicitation.

    "Don't blame me," Beasley is shouting. "I didn't hurt your peonies."

    Bonni says something Tonto can't understand except for its tone,which is plaintive and a little frightened.

    "Why don't you blame that boy you hired? Maybe you should askhim who broke the stalks off your precious flowers. Huh? Maybe askthe boy. Sneaky bastard probably did it and then didn't have the gutsto tell you."

    He couldn't have spit that word boy at her with any more force if itwere chewed tobacco. But it isn't being called a boy by cowboy Beasleythat stops our Tonto—anyone paid what he is paid, no matter how oldhe gets, will always be a "boy" to people like them. (Bonni pays himhalf what he gets from everyone else.) He was about to quit when,last week when he was done mowing, she brought out a pitcher oflemonade and sat with him on the iron patio chairs. She began totalk. (Just talk, I'm sorry to say for those of you hoping otherwise.)Tonto was hot and thirsty, so he was glad for the lemonade. But thetalk worried him. He could tell there was much more she wanted tosay about her relationship with Beasley. It was information he didn'twant. And he was afraid of where it might lead: he could envisionending up in her bed wondering how he could manage to be kindand gentle when the time came for him to stop trimming her lawnand leave. He cared about her as he would care about anyone whowas kind to him, thinking that he might be hot and tired and wanta cool drink or something. Her life with Beasley seemed, well, if notterrifying, then edged with a caged feeling; and it was a picture ofmarriage that made him feel sorry for her. But care as he might, heknew he was a sidekick only, and not a savior.


Excerpted from Feathering Custer by W. S. Penn. Copyright © 2001 by W. S. Penn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Tonto Meets Chuang Tzu1
Paving with Good Intentions27
Tradition and the Individual Imitation63
Leaving the Parlor89
Donne Talkin'103
Killing Ourselves with Language as Such131
In the Gazebo147
In the Garden of the Gods175
Feathering Custer187
Critical Arts217

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