Brown: The Last Discovery of America (8 page)

BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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And the Indians were royals; here was hierarchy and here was priesthood, even frippery. The costumes, the castes the Puritans had fled in England, America provided in savage parody. (As if the masques of court had pursued them in nightmare.)
The famous opposite tale of colonial America was that of Pocahontas. Her life reads as a Puritan parody; it certainly was an Anglican parody of Puritanism. She is a princess. We first hear of her cartwheeling down Main Street without any knickers on. (Her name meant “playful one.”) As a child, Pocahontas saves the life of an Englishman. As an adult, she marries an Englishman, a different Englishman. She “goes native”; converts to her husband’s church (the church the Puritans had fled); she takes the name of Rebecca. With her husband she travels back in time to London, toward her new innocence; assumes a title there. She is presented to Queen Anne. She is painted holding a plumed fan and with a garland of feathers upon the brim of her hat, a riding hat. She gives birth to a son and dies in England of the smallpox. She is laid to rest beneath an effigy, alongside the swift-flowing Thames. Her son later sails out to Virginia, marries there. Families in Virginia still claim some aristocracy as descendants of Pocahontas.
One hundred years after the death of Pocahontas, Joseph Addison, in a disquisition on London street signs, wonders at the Bell-Savage—a tavern sign—“which is the sign of a savage man standing by a bell. . . .” He conjectures the sign is a pictogram for the French,
belle-sauvage.
Might it not, as well, be a lost homage to the American princess?
One hundred years or so after Thanksgiving, the descendants of the first colonists would dress as Indians to portray themselves as authentic to their landscape, to portray the old country as having no claim on them, therefore. This was the Boston Tea Party.
Three hundred years after Thanksgiving a tribe of Indians at Stanford University would object to a theatrical Indian on the field of Stanford Stadium. Their puritan objection would be to the inauthenticity of the portrayal.
My interest is in this intersection—the intersection in America of the private theatrical with the public theatrical; the intersection of the closet and the meetinghouse; the impulse to play and the fear of play.
It is fall: I am sitting in the Stanford Stadium, in my year of T. E. Lawrence. I don’t know if you remember those Saturdays in Palo Alto. The smell of peanuts and cigarettes, wet leaves. And smoke in the air. Remember how we cheered? Inauthentic to me, I confess. I wasn’t interested in football. I wasn’t cheered by the black- and white-skinned redskins—“Stanford Indians.”
In those days many American high schools and colleges named their athletic teams “Indians,” connoting physical prowess and, too, a renegade mythos. Tailgate parties, kegs of beer. And, too, an acrid poetic aroma of Indian summer that often accompanied the first contests of the school year.
But this day, the U.C.L.A. Bruins are overwhelming the Stanford Indians. I am wearing a costume I have copied from an illustration in
Esquire
—loafers, khakis, blue shirt, a red sweater draped over my shoulders. (Miles Standish.) At about this time, my younger sister decided to go to school in Paris. My mother wept and blamed me for all the “big ideas” I’d put in my sister’s head. My sister was dry-eyed as she disappeared around the corner of the boarding gate; she never looked back. I had written a letter to her this morning. I couldn’t wait for her to see
Lawrence of Arabia
; another big idea.
So many ironies played. I was, in those years, a most oblivious Indian. I did not think of myself as an Indian. Nor, incidentally, did Stanford. According to the logic and sympathy of my university, I was nothing more ancient than a “minority student,” a new thing, freshly minted, a pilgrim. A minority, not because of my Indian face or Indian blood, but because I was related to Mexico. Were I, today, a student at Stanford, university bureaucrats would enlarge my disadvantage to describe it hemispherically—I would be Hispanic or Latino, not yet an Indian.
But there are Indians on campus during my time, oh yes. America is already far enough into the puritan revival we call “the sixties” so that some college and high school athletic teams are embarrassed to be named Indians. Angry American Indians at Stanford, impersonating angry African Americans, have already renamed themselves “Native Americans,” thus disallowing the white irony of lost Columbus. (The Indians are learning to control parody, an American task.) We are already far enough into the sixties so that protests against the use of an Indian as an athletic mascot have been heard from the university’s Native American theme house, where a tribe of undergraduates lives together, of a feather.
The Stanford Indian logo was a cartoon, an aspect of the Age of Disney. The Stanford Indian was a sort of troll. He had a big nose, red skin, pigtails, eyebrows expressive of peeve. The Stanford Indian was roughly a counterpart to Yosemite Sam; perhaps I misremember. He wasn’t the Mohawk Gas sort of Indian, though, or the nickel sort. Certainly he was perceived as objectionable by Native American undergraduates. So the Stanford Indian had to go, and with him the bland, “flesh-colored” Pilgrim. The world would see them no more.
There was another Indian. His name was Timm Williams. Williams, despite his name, was a “full-blooded” Yurok. Every Saturday home game during the football season, Timm Williams would take from his bedroom closet—I am making this up; I have no idea where Timm Williams kept his costume—would take from his bedroom closet a pair of buckskin britches, moccasins, a feathered war bonnet trimmed with fur. Thus attired, and somehow transported, Mr. Williams would step into the limelight of the Stanford Stadium as “Prince Lightfoot.”
When Stanford was down, Prince Lightfoot menaced the opposing team; he put a “hex” on them. Whenever Stanford scored, a cannon fired. The Stanford band played. Blond cheerleaders—the “Stanford Dollies”—each wearing a headband with a single feather, rejoiced with a victory dance, whirled till they showed their underpants. Prince Lightfoot lifted his arms skyward in thanksgiving to the Great God Grid-iron.
Shantih.
All I know about Timm Williams’s closet comes from a press release—an obituary—from the Stanford University News Service, 3-7-88, from which I quote:
Williams was 27 and working for a steamship company in San Francisco when an Indian headdress that he had made caught the eye of a Stanford friend who wanted to wear it to the ’51 Big Game.
Williams said he wouldn’t lend the headdress, but the friend sent word back to Stanford boosters about him, and they promptly asked him to dance at a Big Game rally in San Francisco.
“I said I’d gladly do it, if they could get me tickets to the Big Game,” [Williams] later recalled. The rally organizers agreed, and “Prince Lightfoot” began his reign.
Williams made his first trip to Stanford the next fall and performed at the bonfire in the sunken diamond. After his dance, a rally leader asked the crowd whether they wanted Prince Lightfoot as Stanford’s official Indian. They cheered.
I privately derive an unsubstantiated inference or two: Timm Williams liked to dress up. He sought, through the theatrical invention of himself, to portray his true self to himself by playing the Indian publicly.
Subordinate conjecture: His spare time was spent making a feathered headdress. Intended to wear? Or as a spiritual exercise? It was not, I’m guessing, a Yurok headdress. In the photographs, it resembles a Plains Indian headdress.
Why did the friend send word back to Stanford boosters about him?
(You gotta see this guy?)
Why two “m”s? Theatrical aspirations?
Why does one feel sure Timm Williams would have danced, even without tickets to the Big Game? His private impulse (making a headdress) wasn’t private at all, as it turns out, but a revelation—for those with eyes to see. As one might leave a book out for a visitor to observe.
Oh that?
I think it more likely Timm Williams suggested to his friend he “send word back to the Stanford boosters.”
What were the chances a young man who liked to dress up as an Indian prince would find his venue?
What were the chances history would find Timm Williams already suited up for the pageant of puritan dilemma—a public portrayal of his desire, a theatrical resolution to identity?
Most every child reaches, at least once, for fantasies of violation or aspiration—mother’s lipstick, daddy’s jockstrap—the chance to become, not someone else, but someone approaching—true, recognized, breasted, distended.
Alas, remarked Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the voices which we hear (as children) in solitude . . . grow faint as we enter the world.”
Do they?
College—the future—was represented to me in my adolescence by a pumpkin-colored settee in an illustration to the
Reader’s Digest
condensed version of a novel called
Father to the Man.
A pumpkin-colored settee beneath a neo-Gothic window opened to a New England autumn—trees, steeple, cirrus cloud. Sprawled upon the settee was a lanky young man. From that one illustration I rented a future as furnished as memory—a future I would recognize when I saw it.
I have never found the room. The couch. The window. The pennants on the wall. Trophies on the mantelpiece. The piles of books and papers scattered about. The older man in a gray suit, regarding the younger . . . who is he? Is he the father?
One must be middle-aged to appreciate the longevity of one’s fantasy: the adult stands at the bathroom mirror, holding up his skin in anticipation of the time—I am emotionally certain it will come—when I shall be young again.
To speak now of loneliness, shadows that move at a tangent to sight, to reason, to the turn of the earth; imaginations, melodies, phrases, arrangements of color that torment for pleasing too much: Old people who live alone, we sometimes say of them that they become queer, by which we mean they succumb to private arrangements or explanations or expectations of things. They succumb to imaginations that are at some variance with what we, who move through traffic and collect pay, call the real world.
BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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