Read Living by the Word Online

Authors: Alice Walker

Living by the Word (6 page)

I first met Bill Wahpepah in the fall of 1984, in Custer, South Dakota; I think perhaps our mutual friend Belvie Rooks introduced us. She and I were in Custer to attend the trial of Dennis Banks, and I was coming out of a long period of spiritual reassessment and political hibernation. On top of everything else—by which I mean the assassinations of the sixties and seventies, the repressions (on Indian reservations and in ghettos, in particular) of the seventies and eighties, and the rape and brutalization of the planet in general—the election of Ronald Reagan, with Nancy Reagan posited as a desirable model of twentieth-century womanhood, had hit me hard. During this period, which encompassed several years, Indians were very much in my consciousness. There was my mother’s mostly Cherokee grandmother to contend with in myself, for instance. There was my gravitation toward Indian art and artifacts, which had in fact started years earlier: the need to have arrowheads on my person (I never flew without one) and Indian pottery, jewelry, and rugs around. And there was my study of Cherokee folklore and folkways: I made the astonishing discovery that the animal tales, commonly known in North America as “Uncle Remus” stories, which, as told by my parents, I grew up listening to as a child, and which I had assumed were from Africa, could as easily be from the Cherokee, since the very same tales abound in their folk “literature.” I also discovered what appeared to me to be the origin, or one interesting possible origin, of the expression “the blues.” Among the Cherokee the color blue itself was “emblematic of failure, disappointment, unsatisfied desire.”** When one felt that way, one painted one’s body or part of one’s body blue. When one felt better, red was the color of choice. I began to recognize in the faces of the people among whom I grew up traces of the Cherokee Indian tribe that everyone around me, when I was a child, had claimed was gone forever, last seen as its members left Georgia on the ominous Trail of Tears. And of course the myth the white people perpetuated to make black people feel even worse about having been enslaved was that the Indians, warriors to the last man, had never been.

Prominent among the people I was now scrutinizing was Miss Bessie, long-haired and high-nosed, whom everyone in our community automatically called “The Indian.” She was very poor, like most of us, and a great believer in sharing, but to a greater extent than even my parents, who were very generous; she would give you anything she had. You had only to admire something sincerely, a spool of thread, a plant, or a kitchen object, and it was yours. In fact, to me, Miss Bessie, still alive and nearing a hundred, remains a primary symbol of human generosity.

In my apartment I lived with Edward S. Curtis’s photographs of Indians on every wall; I began to feel that the faces he photographed spoke directly to me. I studied the people’s clothing, their adornments, their hair; I noticed particularly their sense of aesthetics, their sense of style. I could see that of all the clothing styles created in or imported into North America, theirs was still the most intrinsically elegant. Over a period of months I made a thorough investigation into the merits of the teepee and stopped only a little short of buying and living in one. No other structure seemed so sensible for the landscape and for the nomadic life style Indians enjoyed. I needed the reading of the folklore, I needed the photographs around me. Especially the photographs. Indians do not live in history books; every one encountered there is dead. But in the folklore Indians are still acting colored and telling jokes, and in the photographs they are still looking out at the world and at the white man with infinitely expressive faces and not managing to keep all that they are thinking to themselves. Of what devastation, to the environment and to other human beings, we are now witnessing did their incredulous expressions forewarn!

After meeting Bill Wahpepah that day in Custer, where signs of the exploitation of Indians still abound (wooden “cigar-store” Indians, fake war bonnets, and “Indian” silver-and-turquoise jewelry fill the store windows along the main street), I stood in front of the courthouse where the trial was to be held and waited for the doors to open. When they finally did open, after a very long time, the white Southern-looking and Southern-sounding officer advised us that only a fraction of the large crowd outside (several hundred women, children, and men, including three Buddhist monks—although I discovered months later that at least one of them was a woman—who were beating gongs) would be let inside. A few family members, a few of the elders, a few of the press. I was none of these. I was merely a witness, at the moment rather feeble from the blows of oppression that, in the case of the Indians, I could see were presumably unending; I was only a pair of eyes, a body, a flagging though faithful heart. But out of the crowd Big Bill appeared. He seemed enormous, and was—two hundred pounds at least—very dapper in vest, long braids, headband, and beads. And, taking me by the shoulders with his large hands, he propelled me forward until I stood in the midst of the elders, a group of ancient, intricately wrinkled Indian women, wrapped in blankets. I was remarkably content to be there, as we all settled in, huddled together, to wait.

Eventually both Belvie and I were admitted to the courtroom, but only for a short portion of the trial. No one, beyond the family, the elders, and the white men who represented the press, was to see this carriage of “justice” from start to finish. We were at least able to see Dennis and Kamook and their children, their love for one another announced in every movement of their bodies and every glance of their apprehensive eyes. Dennis was especially beautiful in a red robe, with feathers in the long braids that hung down his back and with sneakers on his feet, though his face had the haggard pallor of one whose fate has for generations rested in the hands of his enemies.

Shortly after the trial—Dennis had been sentenced to prison for three years—and after I had returned to San Francisco, I was asked by Bill Wahpepah to join the program of a fundraiser for the International Indian Treaty Council, of which he was director of information. One of the things the Council does is connect Indians of all continents with each other; today, because of people like Bill Wahpepah, indigenous peoples from New Zealand to Nicaragua are talking together, sharing their experiences and struggles. To my mind, this is one of the best things happening on the planet.

To his surprise, I think, I said yes. Some of Bill’s style is expressed in his letter to me about the event. “Dear Alice,” he wrote, “we have this idea of asking you to read with this man, John Trudell…” Enclosed was a tape of John’s work. An incredibly powerful and sensitive poet, whose family had been firebombed to death in retaliation for his activity in the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee, John moved me profoundly, as did the beating of the ceremonial drum over which he read. I was delighted to read with him. On the night of the event I asked Bill if it would be appropriate for the drums to sound for me, as well. He said “sure,” and invited the drummers to drum as I read. There were six of them around the large drum, and their steady, ancient drumming seemed to reawaken in me the very beat of my nearly dormant poet’s heart. I knew that my spiritual reassessment had reached another plateau and that my political hibernation was over.

Bill and I were to work together several times before he died. When I learned he was not well—he spoke many times about the earlier years of his life, when the use of drugs and alcohol constituted his response to despair—I invited him and his family to visit with me in the country. Actually, that expression “to visit with” is Bill’s. The first time, he came with his wife, Carol, and the boys, Renchul and Choko; the second time, he came alone. I was not there—for some reason, it was always hard to synchronize our “visiting”—but a friend who stopped by tells a lovely story of Bill blissed out, naked as a jaybird (presumably), splashing about in the pond. It was during that visit that he planted tobacco seeds in the garden, very neatly and with their own little staked fence. (They never came up; when I asked Bill about them he said he’d gotten them from some old-timer on the reservation, and, no, he had no idea why they didn’t come up. He knew very little about such things, he said. We laughed at this admission.) He hung tiny “medicine bundles” of cedar, with wrappings of red flannel, from trees in the yard and over the front door. I was left also with a substantial supply of sage, some of which Bill had burned in an abalone shell, which still retained the residue. This was rather wonderful: to walk into my studio after Bill’s visits and to find these unexpected gifts, not the least of which was the smell of sage smoke. I always think of the place where I work as holy; Bill seemed to sense that instinctively, and, indeed, we once had a brief conversation, if I remember correctly, in which I told him that I’d come to understand my work as prayer, and he said he understood his the same way. I always felt very comfortable talking with Bill about prayer and Mother Earth and the spirits that, if you are open to them, are ever present. He had such empathy with the suffering of the Earth, as Belvie always said, that when he spoke about her you thought it was some human being he knew.

On his last visit to the country he looked very tired and his eyes were sad. We sat on the deck above the garden, and he said a touching thing: “I want my children to continue to know you.” I thought he said this because, the afternoon before, I had been out along the road and pond sowing wild-flower seeds with them, and laughing; like their father, they didn’t seem to have much faith that anything was going to come up. He said it very directly and with emphasis in his quiet voice, and I felt that he knew his health was very, very bad, and that he was making preparations to go. He also told me that Carol was a fine artist and that he regretted she hadn’t had much time to do her own work, because being a mother and wife and working with the Treaty Council took up so much of her time. I hadn’t known about Carol’s art (beautiful sculpture and drawings); I was to see my first drawing by her on an invitation to a birthday party for Bill shortly before he died.

My mood was too peculiar the night of the party to risk inflicting it on others, and so I called and explained I couldn’t come. I consoled myself by thinking about how good Bill had looked the last time I’d seen him, when he brought a woman by my house to sell me some Big Mountain Support Group Navajo/Dineh rugs. He was slimmer than usual and wore a dark shirt and trousers and a blue Greek fisherman’s cap. I told him he was looking great, and he said he’d cut down on red meat. Since I think the consumption of red meat accounts for at least half of the world’s ills, I was extremely happy to hear this. He told a rather bawdy joke that I didn’t get, about an Indian and his saddle horn. I asked him to repeat it, and it never got any funnier; but it showed me another side of Bill that I’d never guessed.

When I heard he’d died, I didn’t feel sad right away. Belvie called to tell me and there were tears in her voice. I thought about his jokes and his voice and his tobacco seeds and his commitment to being an authentic person, always willing to give full accounts of his good years and his bad, and his patience with his children. Even at his farewell ceremony, at which I thought he looked quite justified and content with himself, I cried less for him—“free at last!”—than for the rest of us. What a mess the world is in! I thought. What peace to get away! But sometime later I felt very sad, because I missed him and because people like Bill are part of the foundation that holds the whole world up. Then I heard him say: Ah, hell, let somebody else hold the damn thing up for a while, and I felt more cheerful.

He lived a good life, with suffering, struggle, joy, children, whole peoples of all continents in it. He was forever receiving energy and support and love from those who recognized his magnificence as a human being, and he was forever giving back more than he got. I was glad that my years spent locating the Indian within myself prepared me for a friendship with Bill that proceeded in love, dignity, and remarkable harmony. He used to tell me that I helped him to affirm the connection between “Indians of the Americas” and “Indians [Africans] of Africa,” and we were both thrilled when the faces of Nelson Mandela and Leonard Peltier appeared together on Indian Treaty Council T-shirts and when, at rallies, their names became linked in the same breath. There were all his small but meaningful gifts of understanding; like his saying to me once, as my book
The Color Purple
was being criticized because of the character of Mister: “There’s a little bit of Mister in all of us.” Exactly my feeling. And, when he asked me to do a benefit for the Treaty Council and I declined, he understood when Belvie explained that it was because of the time of year. Alice is like a plant, she told him, she goes to sleep during the winter months, but she wakes up again in the spring.

said Bill, imagining me, no doubt, as corn. At least I hope so.

Actually, Bill felt more like a big brother than anything else. There was a special affinity between us based on the common intuitive knowledge that, in a sense, all indigenous peoples are, by their attachment to Mother Earth and experience with Wasichus,*** Conquistadors, and Afrikaners, one. I loved standing on a stage next to Bill (one night in Berkeley especially comes to mind, when there were also Pete Seeger and Ogie Yocha, the radical Korean-Japanese rock-reggae band), wrapped in the red Indian shawl he gave me at one of our more amazingly soulful and festive events, as we listened to the voices and the drums of all our people, alive again.


MYTHS OF THE CHEROKEE AND SACRED FORMULAS OF THE CHEROKEES, collected and transcribed 1887-1890. (Nashville: Charles and Randy Elder-Booksellers, Publishers, in collaboration with Cherokee Heritage Books, Cherokee, NC, 1982).

“At about 10:30 Thursday morning, September 13th, 1984, Dennis Banks (American Indian Movement—AIM—leader) took a courageous step toward gaining his eventual freedom by surrendering to law enforcement officials in Rapid City, South Dakota. Banks, who fled South Dakota in 1975 because of threats against his life by William Janklow (Governor of South Dakota) and prison guards, was convicted of assault (without intent to kill) and riot. This conviction grew out of a demonstration that erupted into a riot in Custer, South Dakota on February 6th, 1973. The demonstration by approximately 150 Indian people came about because of the judicial mishandling of a case involving the death of an Indian youth at the hands of a white man. (The accused was eventually acquitted.)” From a flier prepared by Mark Banks, National Director, Dennis Banks Support Committee.

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