A Great Burning

from Experiments in Belief

This "contemporary" story was inspired by a pow-wow in Austin, where members of my wife's side of the family were performing. My first pow-wow.

The story is an impressionistic rendering of the experience; many details have been re-invented.


God knows why, but the announcer is a Texan. Not one of the blandly urbane businesspeople that Carl fixes sandwiches for downtown. Not one of those indistinct refugees from other states. Not even the more common indigenous representative: a cheery West Texan stoner with ponytail and 4x4. No, he's a real one, masticating the microphone with the fatty jowls of a rancher, making a lewd grimace whenever he talks about women, shouting his praise for "awr people," though if he has a single drop of Native American blood in his veins it has long since been diluted by good Christian Sundays and Oscar Mayer weeners.

"He's probably a Baptist preacher," Carl says to his girlfriend, Gina, knowing he has to say something or she'll think he's bored.

"Just a little sexist," she agrees.

The announcer is killing time while the dancers assemble in the tunnel that leads to the locker rooms. "What's the differnce between the Lahn King and O.J. Simpson?" he hollers toward the bleachers.

"Oh no," says Gina.

"One of 'em's an African lahn, an' the other one's a lahyin' African!"

Scattered groans and guffaws. "Oh wow," says Carl. "I can't believe it."

"Whoo-ee! Ah can see mah ass's gonna get toasted for that one. Seriously, folks, so glad you could come out to share in awr truhditions and culture. We're just about ready, as soon as Ah hear from Bill. We're all just waitin' on you, Bill. (Bill Sanders, a fahn man, Chippewa, vet'ran of the Korean War.) Hurry it up, Bill!"

The closest thing to a Native American in Carl and Gina's section is a young Asian man with an earring who is talking on a cell phone.

"Look at that," says Carl. "Look. Always something more important to do than what's happening right now, in the here and now."

Gina sighs, stretching on tip-toes to see the garish mob forming in the corridor.

He lets the thought evaporate. "I'm hungry," he says.

"Yeah," she says absently.

"There's that stand outside with the bread. You've never had Indian bread. Genuine wild-West stuff. You'd like it. I think they make it at the Wonder Bread factory in Denver."

"This is the Grand Entry. You should be into it. You're Native American."

Gina says this with a placid, all-knowing expression. Nothing aggravates him more about her than this presumptuous college-girl attitude. Like she knows anything about being Indian. Like he's going to get anything out of a circus act for curious yuppies. "Really—I'm starving. These guys aren't going to be ready for twenty minutes."

The Asian man—a boy, really—takes a few steps closer to them, holding a finger to one ear. "I need a martini real bad," he says into the little phone. "Let's hook up at Cedar Street and walk to the show."

Carl has a deliciously witty remark to make into Gina's ear, but he's hungry, and he decides that she wouldn't be interested anyway. "Come on, then we can have a snack while we watch."

They go back to the warren of stalls in the parking lot. Never in his life has Carl seen such heaps of Indian rubbish for sale. Instead of food, his eyes linger among racks of beads, jewelry, buckskin shawls, carved pipes, boxes of CDs, the beckoning cries of windchimes, other crimes of nostalgia. "Those! There!" he shouts suddenly, pointing at a battalion of blue dolls for sale. "I used to unpack these exact dolls by the crate in my parents' store. They come from a factory in Tijuana, I think." He takes one of the bead-eyed dolls in his hand, wanting to say so much more. For him, they imply a cinderblock gas station off Exit 81, cracking and rusting and wearing away in a dry wind beside a sinister new Texaco with its bleeping digital displays, a sorry little shop which through a long agony of abrasion reduced his parents to beggars and finally to two smears of dust blown east toward El Paso, a fate he only partially escaped . . . all those dead hours after school broken only by dopey fat tourists lured by the Cachina doll billboard, which had been put up by God knows who, owned supposedly by a senile mechanic who burned tires in the evenings, now speckled with bullet-holes from children on desolate walks with their .22's and no birds to shoot. He knows what it means to be the Cachina doll salesman, to ring up the price with an accommodating smile, letting whichever pack of bumpkins stands waiting believe that somewhere out there, behind the rocky hills going blue with the evening, campfires burn, and aborigines gather in the dusk to dance and sing and fashion little souvenirs for travelers. He knows what it is to pretend to be an Indian, for a mother and father who were Cherokee and Polish, respectively, and who drifted into Arizona only because they had always clung to the highway, hematophages on a vein, knowing no homeland or tradition or craft other than plain dull survival. He has trotted out these facts for Gina, in the cavernous darkness of his warehouse loft, near morning, when the city enjoys its one solemn hour of reflection, yet all she can say about the doll in his hand is: "Wow, pretty."

He puts it down. "Let's go. We'll be late."

They buy the bread and go back inside.

They find a good seat in the front just in time for the procession of flag-bearers.

"Steve Wandering Elk, vet'ran of the Korean War," the announcer is saying. "Behahnd him, an old hero of awr people, a fahn dancer from before most of ya'll came into this world, a Chippewa—and we know how proud awr brothers in the north are of their elder, their wise grandfather, vet'ran of the Second World War, John Silverthorn!"

An old man teeters along the free-throw line, clutching the tall pole of the Veterans' Flag, shadowless beneath the ranks of electric lights, while his name booms louder than the drum.

"What is this—Monster Truck Madness?" laughs Carl, utterly offended that a bearer of the American flag leads the procession. His mother always said that pow-wows began as forced parades through Western towns for amusing the white people. So this little display seems: with whole families of mall-goers standing dutifully for the Grand Entry, seeing God knows what, natives, clowns, the Ice Capades . . . probably open to any spectacle that will pass the time.

Naturally, Gina does not respond to his comment. She doesn't have a sense of humor, really, aside from a general silliness and playfulness when she's in the mood.

"Like the Indians care less about the United States," he pursues.

"Native Americans." Without even a glance his way, Gina once again ignores the point of what he has said. She is taking some college course called "Denied Voices," which consists mostly of nice ways to phrase common ideas.

He can already imagine the paper she will write for extra credit . . .

Our Native American ancestors continue to thrive with resurgent enthusiasm. Firstly, in their dress, they demonstrate their noble past during their many pow-wows, which are held all over the country and are growing in popularity. Secondly . . .

The announcer's voice descends an octave, disrupting his composition. "And lookee here. Beauteeful fahn ladies. Fahn ladies. They are the buckskin dancers, the oldest of the women's dances. They move graceful as a breeze, swayin' in gentle rhythms. Observe the swayin' of the shawls, the fans lifted with the honor beats to honor the drum. These are awr fahn Native American women. They know how to keep the home warm and the children well-nurtured. They know how important their duties are, and how much their men honor them. Welcome these lovely ladies! Welcome them into the dancin' circle!"

Gina's serene face receives this speech without a change. Her round brown eyes are magic pools that can drown a man without rippling. "I could fall in love with you," he told her in the sulfur windowlight of her dorm room the night they first made love, searching her lovely bronze face for one glint of reaction. "Mmmmm," she had breathed, pinching his hand.

Everything he has ever said has washed over her like water, adding nothing, only cleaning away, leaving her more like she's always been. His words are limpid and translucent in his mouth, but he continues. "You should put that in your paper."

"A bit sexist," she agrees.

" . . . an' most lovely of all, leadin' awr lovely buckskin dancers to the floor, is Princess Sheila Larson, representin' the Sioux nation. We salute awr Sioux brothers an' welcome them into this gatherin' of peoples, and admahr this very shahnin' jewel they bring into the circle . . ."

"This is so sad," says Carl. "Like they're the last survivors, marching into the desert as we watch. It's all so—"


A young man in a windbreaker and a red baseball cap stops in front of them. He joins three fingers and the thumb of one hand in a gesture of profound high-mindedness, changing his voice. "Considarrr the naycharrrr of this ritualll," he says, then he breaks off this impersonation just as suddenly with a bright smile.

Gina is all giggles. "That's great!"

Encouraged, the young man continues, while his friend—dressed the same, athletic-looking in the same way, maybe produced by the same sport—leans back against the railing, crosses his arms, and stares questioningly at Carl. "Just wondarrr how the drum becummmms the heart-beat rhythummm of the Earth Motharrrrrr . . ."

A little knowledge is dangerous, thinks Carl.

Gina's laughter is like the sparkling eruption of a champagne bottle. "Professor Strand would kill you!"

"Is he here?"

"He must be."

"Hey, you're the Sandwich Guy!"

It's the second young man, justifying the rudeness of his staring. To Gina and his friend, he explains, "I get sandwiches from this guy all the time. He makes a kick-ass ham and swiss."

Laughing easily, Gina introduces Carl as her boyfriend. "This is Rad and Charlie," she adds.

"Chad?" says Carl.

"Rad. My friends call me Rad."

The stiff-necked delivery of this information tells Carl that the appellation is no joke. "Good to meet you," he says.

Gina's two classmates murmur the same, then Charlie says, "You know what it is, about those sandwiches—it's the carrots," gesturing to include everyone, "They grate carrots and put them right on top of the meat. It's awesome."

"I wouldn't want carrots on a ham sandwich," says Rad flatly.

"You wouldn't believe it," says Charlie.

"Sounds yummy." Gina, always the diplomat.

"And those Jarrito's tamarind sodas. Man. I eat there every time I go to my internship. Y'all ever want some good food, this guy can hook you up."

"Actually," says Carl. "I don't have anything to do with how the sandwiches are made." The others watch him, misunderstanding maybe. Or maybe he's spoken too softly. "I just work there," he says.

This last statement only increases the interest with which Charlie and Rad regard him. No one says anything until a policeman asks the two young men to get off the railing. They go to stand beside Gina.

Rad is clearly honing in on Gina. The evidence is in his red cap, which bobs avidly, angled toward her all during the introductions of the jingle dancers, fancy dancers, and traditional dancers. Like tickling, his relentless good humor puts her in a state of toe-wiggling glee, punctuated by exclamations like "sweet!" and "no way!" Rad's words are lost in the crowd noise, but it's all the same to Carl, this arbitrary collegiate banter, the human organism's imperative to speak at all costs, like the wild turkey in spring.

They should be doing their assignment. Instead, he is the one who notes the various dances, the costumes, the fragments of an authentic past pricking the surface here and there. The Sioux princess actually looks quite convincing in her long buckskin dress, with strips of fur swaying from beaded clasps in her hair, a beaded crown on her head. She has an erect, proud bearing that makes her seem to float, as though the slow wave of her fringed shawl is merely the touch of a breeze that carries her. How enchanting this dance must have appeared around a fire, in shadow, this great host of dancers in a spiral moving barely an inch with each drum beat, great feather bustles shuddering, trailers tugged along like strings of hummingbirds, men carapaced in beads and aprons, leather belts, cuffs, armbands, gauntlets, chokers, loop necklaces, sequined breast plates, painted fans and capes, whole second bodies of myth and dream, women in dresses that shimmer from head to foot with rolled cones of tin—a medicine man's vision, the announcer says, a dance like fresh rain to cure a sick daughter—other women leaping and spinning with shawls draped over their shoulders, shawls bright with paint and appliqué, butterfly wings . . . a great ceremony, a dance that must have seemed like a gathering of spirits, ages ago. Carl can almost believe in it; he imagines how he would have lived, in the old time, devoting himself to a long-haired woman like the Sioux princess, full body and soul all his long life on the plains, wed in a compact of mutual need, to a life built with their own hands from hides and lodge poles. It would have been wonderful. However, nothing so spiritual can survive on the basketball court, under the merciless metal halide lighting, a grid of blue suns on the ceiling too bright to look at, which make each face ordinary, which make costumes into costumes and seek out the concealed other lives behind desks and counters. All the announcer's talk of a "vahbrant truhdition" evolving throughout the twentieth century cannot keep Carl from seeing the participants' faces, intent beleaguered faces unable to believe fully, like him, wanting to revive a gentle faith, during a time of electric light and electric sound—during a time past faith, he says to himself, yes, that's how he would phrase it, in the title of his paper, A Time Past Faith . . .

"Everyone's going to see Yo La Tengo." Gina's elbow taps his ribcage. "Wanna go?"

"Who's that?"

"Come on, you know."

Yes, he does. Gina mentioned on Tuesday that she wanted to see them. He's forced to acquiesce.

"Yay!" she exclaims, clapping and turning back to Rad.

"Cool, man," says Rad, reaching around her to try some snap maneuver on Carl's hand. "See you there. Later," he tells Gina, moving away.

"See ya, dude," Charlie says. "See ya," he says to Gina.

And away they go, in a strut, red caps bobbing, faces toward the crowd seeking more friends.

"Rad's so funny," says Gina with a smile.


Three solid beats of the drum round out a song, or some portion of a song, and relieve him of saying more. Looks like he's in for another night with the collegiate revelers, for whom all the world is one loud joke beyond sense or reason. In truth, he would love to laugh right along with them, in a gay delirium, but his smile is a dry yellow thing, not easy to produce or reuse.

He will hold a beer at a picnic table in the club's dirt courtyard, looking "dark and troubled" in Gina's sweet words, her sweet words, an epithet for a movie star. How long can it last? he wonders suddenly. His show. The tattooed dangerous kid who's hitchhiked in cold moonlight through the most hollow spaces of the desert, going only east, away from the slow whiskey death of his father in a furnaceless trailer, from the betrayal of his mother, from the varsity basketball team of his El Paso high-school, whose second-string center he nearly drowned in a pink marble fountain, fighting over a girl . . . How long will this story entertain her, with the real adventure so beyond her interest, the three weeks in Van Horn doing dishes and sleeping on a motel roof to save money for a bus ticket, the long days he lives right now, folding little pieces of meat for executives' lunches, his own plans for college . . . Already her eyes fail to start when he traces her jaw with the mouth of his beer bottle, and just yesterday she laughed when he grabbed her by the hair to give her a kiss. He doesn't intimidate her friends anymore, and so the end may very well be near, perhaps as soon as tonight, when he shows again what a stone he is, unable to be swept up into the general whirlwind of fun . . .

"You okay?"

Gina's been watching these dark thoughts cross his face. "Sure. Just thinking."

"We don't have to go if you don't want."

"No, it's cool."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course." He unfolds his brittle smile and puts an arm around her. "It'll be fun," he makes himself add.

Fun. The great cancer of the day. The absolute end of honest human feeling. If the white people brought one thing to this continent, he thinks, it was fun, a voracious fun that knows no other process than its own.

"Okay," she says skeptically.

They watch the show.

Yes, it's the threat of fun that has him turning chameleon colors. A tireless appetite for spectacle inside all of them: Gina's silver lamé blouse, her pierced lip, black eyeshadow, his own search for a leather jacket, the bands they must see or simply die, this very auditorium, in fact, with the mesmerizing sea of colors, now wall-to-wall, the five men on one tub-sized drum, the fancy dancers' fluorescent yellow, pink, and orange feathers—modern colors for modern times—all just like a spinning disco-ball, a pinball machine in the glow of a multi-ball orgasm, a 3D animated logo, Pop Rocks in the mouths of delighted children, hologram sunglasses. . . whatever shiny gewgaw one might imagine, the kind of trinket a pioneer might give to a native, now whirling like a spinning top for the amusement of all. Gina and her friends warm their toes around such displays, as around a fire, always seeking a piece of the Great Burning that surrounds them every day and for which the Indians are only one small fuel.

"Hey!" Gina's waving to someone behind them. The party goes on. With a touch to his shoulder, she alights, rising higher into the stands.

He observes the proceedings alone now. Six loud beats bring silence and a call for patience. "Y'all been good, honorin' awr ways, sharin'—with us—in this special occasion. We ask that you stay on your feet just a wee bit longer, for the prayer . . ."

"Muh—" says a puckered old man with hair like dry corn silk. He holds a microphone in the center of the drum circle.

The announcer rolls on: "Please join awr address to the Great Spirit. Pray with us. We all need the Spirit in awr lahves. Pray for those you know who may be hurtin'. Pray for those who may need strength. Or hope. Pray for awr young folk, to keep them off drugs an' on the rahght path. The straight road! Pray with us, good ladies and gentlemen!"

Good God, he is a preacher! Carl turns to say as much to Gina, but of course she's gone.

"Here to give the prayer we are greatly, deeply honored to have a most distinguished member of the Cherokee nation, a preserver of the old ways, vet'ran sailor of the Second World War, Derek Soaring Hawk!"

Turning around, Carl sees Gina applauding with a couple of girls from her class. She points and mouths the word "Cherokee" when she sees him. Her smile is beautiful. He can't believe she has remembered this detail from his life.

The old man with the puckered cheeks begins a perambulatory speech, and she goes back to her conversation.

"This was our land," the old man says with a wavering motion of one hand. "The Hill Country. Texas. Cherokee land. All the way to Mexico. Oklahoma. Cherokee land. The land of my father and his father." He clears his throat with difficulty. The microphone strikes part of his body with a loud report. His breathing is like that of an old troll. "They took my father. I didn't see him again. Only his spirit. His spirit lives on." Hawk pats his chest with the palm side of his fist. While he holds his fist over his heart, Carl notices just how loud the crowd is murmuring. It seems that no one will let his own story be interrupted.

"When we pray, we pray with our hearts," says Hawk, not once during his whole speech having looked up from the surface of the drum. "The Spirit listens, with a heart that knows the greatest sorrow, and a heart of pure joy. The Spirit is with us, here. It holds us, all of our people, together."

The young Asian man with the cell phone strolls by, still talking into the ether. Rad and Charlie have found some more friends, up near the scoreboard. They all laugh and slap each other's hands. Gina continues to talk. The old man's gusty, fitful voice seems to reach only the holy circle of drummers, maybe the dancers, even though it comes from speakers mounted above. At least Charlie appears to be watching.

As Hawk announces that he is about to pray, Carl urges Gina with his mind to listen. He faces Rad, wanting him to open his ears for just a moment . . . It's their assignment after all. . . .

"So let us begin:

Great Spirit, Great Spirit, My Grandfather,
All over the earth the faces of living things are all alike . . .
Look upon the faces of children without number
And with children in their arms,
That they may face the winds and
Walk the good road to the day of quiet . . .
There is no death . . .
Only a change of worlds . . .
Only a change of worlds."

Carl knows he will forget the words, but he holds on to the phrase "faces of children without number." Someone should be taking notes, he thinks. The words will disappear if they aren't written down.

"And now I will pray in the old way, because I know the Spirit can understand me only when I speak my own language."

With this, the old man begins a long cascade of plosive syllables, grammatically rich and varied, formal yet full of earnestness. His eyes are closed in absolute concentration, his voice full and steady.

Without looking, Carl knows that Gina has stopped talking, Rad too. A palpable silence develops, a stunned attentiveness, because no one quite believes what they're hearing:


The sounds are like no foreign language Carl has ever heard, yet he senses the contours of a meaning, all this man must have to say. To God, to the Spirit, to whatever forces must have shaped his life. What more does he know? He must remember an old world, a time from before airplanes and interstates. What was life like then? Where did he live that he could learn Cherokee as a first language? Carl did not know that such a thing was possible. . . .


The speech ends, and Hawk leaves the basketball court without another word. Seeing the red-faced announcer rise from his seat on the stage, Carl closes his eyes and tries to shut down his ears. The Texan drawl will cut into his mind like the edge of a saw.


His eyes open to the impact of Gina's fist on his shoulder.

"You okay?" she says.

She's seen the one tear that has escaped down his cheek. "Sure," he says, wiping it away.

The arm she puts around his waist reflects the most instinctive and simple of gestures, but it fills him with immense gratitude. Her eyes are full of pure joy for him. All-knowing eyes, they gaze on and on, seeing everything, while he blinks in astonishment.[1]

[1] The Cherokee prayer means roughly the following. The "Blue Hawk," a figure often associated with the divorce of a married couple, is an agent of disintegration.

          On high you repose, O Blue Hawk, there at the far distant lake. Now you have arisen at once and
          come down. Ha! I am exceedingly afraid of you . . .
          Listen! O, now you have drawn near to hearken—There shall be no loneliness. Let the paths
          from every direction recognize each other. We cause it to be so. I shall stand erect upon the Earth.
          Verily, I shall never become blue . . .