Reservation Blues - Alexie Sherman

BOOK: Reservation Blues - Alexie Sherman

Reservation Blues

Alexie Sherman

for Diane
Etta Adams

God's old lady, she sure is a big

I went to
the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad
down on my knees

Robert Johnson


all alone, feeling nothing good
It's been so
long since someone understood
All I've seen
is, is why I weep
And all I had for dinner
was some sleep U
know l'm lonely, I'm so lonely
My heart is
empty and l've been so hungry
All I need for
my hunger to ease
Is anything that you can
give me please
I ain't got nothing, I heard no good news
fill my pockets with those reservation blues
old, those old rez blues,
hose old reservation
And if you ain't got choices
What else do you choose?
chorus twice)
if you ain't got choices
Ain't got much to

In the one hundred and eleven years since the
creation of the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1881, not one person,
Indian or otherwise, had ever arrived there by accident. Wellpinit,
the only town on the reservation, did not exist on most maps, so the
black stranger surprised the whole tribe when he appeared with
nothing more than the suit he wore and the guitar slung over his
back. As Simon drove backward into town, he first noticed the black
man standing beside the faded WELCOME TO WELLPINIT, POPULATIONN:
VARIABLE sign. Lester FallsApart slept under that sign and dreamed
about the stranger before anyone else had a chance. That black man
walked past the Assembly of God Church, the Catholic Church and
Cemetery, the Presbyterian Church and Cemetery. He strolled to the
crossroads near the softball diamond, with its solitary grave hidden
in deep center field. The black man leaned his guitar against a stop
sign but stood himself straight and waited.

The entire reservation knew about the black man five
minutes after he showed up at the crossroads. All the Spokanes
thought up reasons to leave work or home so they could drive down to
look the stranger over. A small man with very dark skin and huge
hands, he wore a brown suit that looked good from a distance but grew
more ragged, frayed at the cuffs, as he came into focus. The black
man waved at every Indian that drove by, but nobody had the courage
to stop, until Thomas Builds-the-Fire pulled up in his old blue van.

"Ya-hey," Thomas called out.
the black man said.

"Are you lost?"

"Been lost a while, I suppose."

"You know where you're at?"

"At the crossroad," the black man said, but
his words sounded like stones in his mouth and coals in his stomach.

This is the Spokane Indian Reservation,"
Thomas said.

"Indians? I ain't seen many Indians."

Thomas parked his van and jumped out. Although the
Spokanes were mostly a light-skinned tribe, Thomas tanned to a deep
brown, nearly dark as the black man. With his long, black hair pulled
into braids, he looked Iike an old-time salmon fisherman: short,
muscular legs for the low center of gravity, long torso and arms for
the leverage to throw the spear. Just a few days past thirty-two, he
carried a slightly protruding belly that he'd had when he was eight
years old and would still have when he was eighty. He wasn't ugly,
though, just marked by loneliness, like, some red was tattooed on his
forehead. Indian women had never paid much attention to him, because
he didn't pretend to be some twentieth-century warrior, alternating
between blind rage and feigned disinterest. He was neither loud nor
aggressive, neither calm nor silent. He walked up to the black man
and offered his hand, but the stranger kept his hands at his sides,
out of view, hidden.

"I'm careful with my hands," the black man
said. "He might hear me if I use my hands."

"Who might hear you?"

The Gentleman."

Thomas wanted to know more about the Gentleman, but
he was too polite and traditional to ask and refused to offend the
black man with personal questions that early in the relationship.
Traditional Spokanes believe in rules of conduct that aren't
collected into any book and have been forgotten by most of the tribe.
For thousands of years, the Spokanes feasted, danced, conducted
conversations, and courted each other in certain ways. Most Indians
don't follow those rules anymore, but Thomas made the attempt.

"What's your name?" the black man asked
after a long silence.

"Thomas Builds-the-Fire."

"That a good name?"

"I don't know. I think so."

"My name's Johnson," the black man said. ‘
‘Robert Johnson."

"It's good to meet you, Mr. Johnson. Who's your
traveling partner?"

Johnson picked up his guitar, held it close to his

My best friend," Johnson said. "But I
ain't gonna tell y'all his name. The Gentleman might hear and come
runnin'. He gets into the strings, you hear?"

Thomas saw that Robert Johnson looked scared and
tired, in need of a shower, a good night's rest, and a few stories to
fill his stomach.

"How'd you end up here?" Thomas asked. A
crowd of Indian kids had gathered, because crowds of Indian kids are
always gathering somewhere, to watch Thomas BuiIds-the-Fire, the
misfit storyteller of the Spokane Tribe, talk to a strange black man
and his guitar. The whole event required the construction of another
historical monument. The reservation had filled with those monuments
years ago, but the Tribal Council still looked to build more, because
they received government grants to do exactly that.

"Been lookin' for a woman," Johnson said.
"I dream 'bout her."

"What woman?"

Old woman lives on a hill. I think she can fix
what's wrong with me."

"What's wrong with you?" Thomas asked.

Made a bad deal years ago. Caught a sickness I
can't get rid of."

Thomas knew about sickness. He'd caught some disease
in the womb that forced him to tell stories. The weight of those
stories bowed his legs and bent his spine a bit. Robert johnson
looked bowed, bent, and more fragile with each word. Those Indian
kids were ready to pounce on the black man with questions and
requests. The adults wouldn't be too far behind their kids.

"Listen," Thomas said, "we should get
out of the sun. I'll take you up to my house."

Johnson considered his options. Old and tired, he had
walked from crossroads to crossroads in search of the woman in his
dreams. That woman might save him. A big woman, she arrived in
shadows, riding a horse. She rode into his dreams as a shadow on a
shadowy horse, with songs that he loved but could not sing because
the Gentleman might hear. The Gentleman held the majority of stock in
Robert Johnson's soul and had chased Robert Johnson for decades.
Since 1938, the year he faked his death by poisoning and made his
escape, Johnson had been running from the Gentleman, who narrowly
missed him at every stop.

"Come on," Thomas said. "Hop in the
van. You can crash at my place. Maybe you can play some songs."

"I can't play nothin'," Johnson said. "Not

Robert Johnson raised his hands, palms open, to
Thomas. Burned, scarred, those hands frightened Thomas.

This is what happens," Johnson said. "This
is how it happens sometimes. Things work like this. They really do."

Thomas wanted to take Johnson to the Indian Health
Service Clinic, for a checkup and the exact diagnosis of his illness,
but he knew that wouldn't work. Indian Health only gave out dental
floss and condoms, and Thomas spent his whole life trying to figure
out the connection between the two. More than anything, he wanted a
story to heal the wounds, but he knew that his stories never healed

"I know somebody who might be able to help you,"
Thomas said.


"Big Mom. She lives on top of Wellpinit

Thomas pointed up through the clouds. Robert Johnson
looked toward the peak of Wellpinit, Mountain, where Big Mom kept her
home. Pine trees blanketed the mountain and the rest of the
reservation. The town of Wellpinit sat in a little clearing below the
mountain. Cougars strolled through the middle of town; a bear once
staggered out of hibernation too early, climbed onto the roof of the
Catholic Church, and fell back asleep. A few older Indians still
lived out in the deep woods in tipis and shacks, venturing into town
for funerals and powwows. Those elders told stories about the gentle
Bigfoot and the Stick Indians, banished from the tribe generations
ago, who had turned into evil spirits that haunted the forests now.

This is a beautiful place," Johnson said.

"But you haven't seen everything, " Thomas

What else is there?"

Thomas thought about all the dreams that were
murdered here, and the bones buried quickly just inches below the
surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those
government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban
Development. Thomas still lived in the government HUD house where he
had grown up. It was a huge house by reservation standards, with two
bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and living room and two more
bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement. However, the house had never
really been finished because the Bureau of Indian Affairs cut off the
building money halfway through construction. The water pipes froze
every winter, and windows warped in the hot summer heat. During his
childhood, Thomas had slept in the half-finished basement, with two
blankets for walls and one blanket for his bed.

There's a whole lot you haven't seen,"
Thomas said. "Things you don't want to see, you know? Big Mom
could tell you all about it. She's been around a long time."

"Take me to Big Mom," Robert Johnson said.
"Maybe she's the woman I been dreamin' about."

"Ain't nobody goes up the mountain to see her,"
Thomas said. "We always wait for her to come down. Only special
visitors get to go up the mountain. Nobody has ever seen one of them.
We just hear them late at night, sneaking through town. We don't ever
get to see them."

"She has to be the one," Johnson said. "She
has to be. Don't you see? I'm one of those special visitors. I'm
supposed to see her. I just come too early."

Robert Johnson climbed into the driver's seat of the
blue van. Thomas pushed him out of the way and shut the door. A few
dozen members of the Spokane Tribe had gathered at the crossroads.
Some trembled with fear, most laughed. Only Thomas Builds-the-Fire
would let this stranger any further into his van and his life.

"Take me there," Johnson said. "Take
me to Big Mom."

Tell me everything," Thomas said, "and
I'll take you."

"Mr. Builds-the-Fire, I sold my soul to the
Gentleman so I could play this damn guitar better than anybody ever
played guitar. I'm hopin' Big Mom can get it back."

Thomas put the van in gear and drove Robert Johnson
to the base of Wellpinit Mountain. He wanted to go farther, to
deliver Johnson to the front door of Big Mom's house, but the van
shuddered and died in the middle of the road.

This is as far as I can go," Thomas said.
"You have to walk from here."

Johnson stepped out of the van, looked toward the

"It's a long walk, ain't it?" Johnson

Thomas watched Johnson walk up the mountain until he
was out of vision and beyond any story. Then Thomas saw the guitar,
Robert Johnson's guitar, lying on the floor of the van. Thomas picked
it up, strummed the strings, felt a small pain in the palms of his
hands, and heard the first sad note of the reservation blues.

* * *

One hundred and thirty-four years before Robert
Johnson walked onto the Spokane Reservation, the Indian horses
screamed. At first, Big Mom thought the horses were singing a
familiar song. She had taught all of her horses to sing many
generations before, but she soon realized this was not a song of her
teaching. The song sounded so pained and tortured that Big Mom could
never have imagined it before the white men came, and never
understood it later, even at the edge of the twenty-first century.
She listened carefully to the horses' song, until she had memorized
it, and harmonized. She wanted to ask many questions about the new
song when she visited the horses next.

Finally, the horses stopped screaming their song, and
Big Mom listened to the silence that followed. Then she went back to
her work, to her buckskin and beads, to CNN. The horses' silence
lasted for minutes, maybe centuries, and made her curious. She
understood that silence created its own music but never knew the
horses to remain that quiet. After a while, she stood and started the
walk down her mountain to the clearing where the horses gathered. Of
course, she wanted to ask about the silence that followed their new

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