A Whistle on the Drum
- by Mir Plemmons -
Uncle Rod came back from Vietnam, broken like they all were, and danced.
He did Mountain Man “Rondy” historical reenactments, too, and held forth about how AIM was screwing everything up. I think. That’s what Mom says. I don’t remember him talking about it, so I don’t really know.
What I do know is that Uncle Rod taught me to dance. He took me to powwows ever since I was little. He helped me make and remake my dance regalia over the years. We spent countless hours on the living room floor, with him patiently explaining and all of my “Me do!” demands. There’s this photo of me with a Star Wars picture in my bustle. That one probably took extra patience. Later, Uncle Rod took me camping on the coast, where I learned about turning your tent away from the awesome view because it’ll be soaked by the awesome storm when you try to get in, and taking two pairs of boots and extra socks, and keeping Raven’s little jokers from stealing all the food. He also taught me how to do ceremony. That was pretty wrapped up in the camping. It’s hard to find dry, really dry, rocks for a sweat lodge in our woods. They blow up when you bake them if they’ve got moisture soaked into them. Trust me: not good.
To him, ceremony was sweat lodge and smoking the sacred pipe to pray. That’s mostly great, but we’re Mohawk. I don’t even know what the Mohigan way is. What the heck, right? We live in Seattle and everybody’s jumbled together. Wakan Tanka, Gitche Manitou, Sky Holder, Great Mystery. . . Most everybody says Grandfather knows us and what we mean. I guess. Going to sweat lodge feels good to me, feels pure. Anyway, it mostly worked for Uncle Rod.
As I got older, Uncle Rod did, too. He danced less, had less energy, and ended up diabetic. He’d get back into dancing and then fade out again every few years. I mostly kept with it—I made friends on what we call the Powwow Highway, and I loved the feeling of the big drums and the singers’ call and response. That, and the smell of sage and sweetgrass and cedar.
I think powwows are probably my ceremony, my prayer. That’s okay, too.
Rod got sicker and we didn’t really see him much. He lived in a trailer in the woods outside La Conner. I’d see him maybe three, four times a year. We always meant to see him more—I always meant to see him more—and yet, somehow, it didn’t happen. Lots of little right-nows got in the way. For years. You know how that is, I bet.
Uncle Rod collapsed in the front yard one day, went to the hospital. He didn’t come home. The whole family was pretty shocked—nobody saw him that often, but we always knew he’d be around, that he’d bring us some of his stories or a new project, hang out with the kids for hours, just be Uncle Rod. We expected it, even when life got crowded. When he got tired and couldn’t drive—we didn’t get out there or go fetch him in very often. He was just . . . always there. We weren’t ready for it when, suddenly, he wasn’t.
I wasn’t even decently through the list of I-shouldas and regrets when I found out all the dance regalia was coming to me. I kind of jumped on that. You know how it is: Lots of promises about how you’re going to honour so-and-so in your dancing. I remade all my regalia with his, wore everything I thought I had any right to. We spent some time finding people who could take his Eagle staff, but no one I could ask on the powwow circuit remembered him much. I used his war club and hung his Eagle bone whistle around my wrist. I danced with it all that winter and into the spring. I already fancy danced, so the war club was a cinch. I knew about Eagle bone whistles, how people would blow one when the music and dancing was really, really good—calling Eagle to come see our people, strong and alive and making things better. But it’s not something they talked about and I was a little intimidated to go ask questions, to admit I didn’t know anything about how to use the whistle I’d inherited. I didn’t know its history, its prayers, its previous holders. That would be admitting to all the conversations I could have had with Uncle Rod. And didn’t.
So I kept quiet about it and just danced.
A couple buddies of mine were driving to MSU for their big spring powwow, and invited me to go. Sure, why not? Three people and their regalia just about stuffed the old Vega, and off we went. The rest of their drum circle, the 253s, took an old blue van and packed in around the drum. The Rockies are even more epic as you drive through them. Never gets old, ridge after ridge, and then as you head through you start to see the deep ripples from Glacial Lake Missoula—it’s hard to imagine a lake with enough water to rise up the sides of ridges like that.
We all left Thursday night after work, traded off driving and dozing, caught showers and some real sleep at some second cousin’s in Spokane. We hit Bozeman stiff, hungry, and tired. We were glad to stretch out, get our blood flowing, and get dinner before it was time to dress for Grand Entry.
Lookin’ and dancin’ good at seven pm on a Friday only works if you’re local . . . or crazy and hoping for any edge on winning a few hundred bucks.
MSU’s powwow is huge, and no surprise there’s hundreds of people in the Fieldhouse on Friday night. The place still looks almost empty since it’s this huge indoor (of course—this is Montana) arena with bleachers and upper galleries and all of that, in a zone of campus that seems set aside for the big tourist/attendance stuff. The Museum of the Rockies, which has been posting billboards with “MOR this!” and “MOR that!” for miles and miles of I-90, is right there, too.
I wanted to go check out the dinos Saturday sometime. Walk off the frybread before evening competitions.
It was a good thing I wrapped myself around a huge dinner that night, though, because the place is just alive with energy. Even the greeting dance is fun. Usually, I’m just getting through the slow-stepping dance—shaking hands and smiling with all the tiny tots and Elders, being respectful. But, you know, getting on with things.
Tonight, it’s like everything is clicking—everything feels so good and right and like I can’t put a foot wrong. As a fancy dancer, that’s kind of a big thing. For the first time, I’m wishing I had bells on my leggings. If you’re off the beat at all, they give away your miscues; but when you’re on, they tell the world.
We get through the first Intertribals and I size up the other guys. There are mostly grass dancers out there, and maybe a dozen serious fancy dancers. I might actually have a shot at this. They’re good, but I’m feeling it, matching it, dancing with it so well . . . this powwow might be my win. That would be real good. Seven hundred dollars and a Pendleton—that’s some serious winnings, let me tell you.
Oh and the drum circles! 253 had a big success just getting to come out here and show their stuff, all young Tacomans from different Nations, and they’re kinda rebels—both women and men singing. A couple of drums are college groups, most are normal family drums carried by cousins but with uncles singing and babies crawling close. One drum has a different feel. They’re all vets, with patches on their black leather vests that showed their branch of service, what wars they knew too well, and some of what they’d earned and paid. I’d learned to read some of those patches from Uncle Rod. I’d given his vest to his motorcycle club. Looking at the veteran drum, I figure it’s a lot like the bike club. They’ve got family, camp chairs, and regalia stands in a ring around them like everyone else, but they’re the only ones on the drum. I bet they’re all in recovery, too, drumming their way out of PTSD.
Fair enough. Powwow, the drums, and the dancing have kept me mostly out of trouble. I’m only a part of NDNs-not-Anonymous.
Eight pm comes, and finally it’s time for the first men’s fancy: the Elders. Man, I’m just watching the footwork. It’s all in the timing; getting to hear the honour beats before they land is just the start. Telling a story with every movement precise and on is what it’s all about.
Everything’s amazing tonight. The drum circles rotate through the songs and 253 gets another Intertribal. Then it’s the vets’ drum with the Men’s Fancy. I sort of leap onto the floor—didn’t really mean to make that kind of an entry, but a bustle stand caught my foot. Somehow I land right—making it look cool—and freeze, waiting for the song.
I can’t believe it. I thought I was “on” before, but now? Now, it’s like lightning. The drum is a thunder inside me, my dancing crackles with energy. My moccasins spark when they touch the boards, and my club and shield move exactly with my mind and the story I’m dancing. Then I feel something reach up from deep, deep inside and head out my arm—I drop the shield, letting it hang from its straps, to grab and blow that Eagle whistle of Uncle Rod’s for the first time. This moment, this powwow, has got to be one for the spirits to see. The whistle breaks through the sound and movement, clear and high and old—so old.
The place darkens, and chills. Spirits crowd in. Large ones, broad ones, deep-roaring ones . . . and lots of small, sharp ones.
They come with clouds and lightning and winds. Their feel—alien minds and energies—is palpable. Dancers and drum all stutter to a stop. My first thought is that we’re being visited by Thunder Beings. Briefly, it seems the perfect answer to the amazing feel of the dancing here tonight.
They settle into shapes. Largest among them looms a figure I easily recognize. Thunder Lizard—a brontosaur? I forget what the new name is. But the image of that long, looping head and tail on that lump of a body is immediately recognizable. It sharpens, showing faded green-and-tan striped and branching patterns on its skin, a bit of leaf from its last lunch in its mouth. It peers at me quizzically, and I irrationally want to hand it spectacles.
Around it, the others become clearer, too. It looks like that entire “MOR dinos” exhibit is on the move. Guessing it came to me. Guessing that’s not a good thing.
Several triceratops-ish things, with brightly-coloured broad frills and these crinkled horns around their edges and one down in front, are clustered in tightly closed ranks, staring warily around them. A family, maybe. I wonder if there’s a baby in that press of bodies. Not gonna find out, I hope.
And an allosaurus. One is enough—even the jarringly bright red-gold diamond scale patterns look voracious. That head is just huge and mesmerizing, and those little arms, so stupidly pointless, just like all the jokes. They don’t even look like they reach its face. That allosaurus doesn’t need them, though. Mouth, check. Legs to move that mouth, check.
Behind them all, a dozen blue-yellow waist-high raptors scatter out of the mist, calling back and forth to one another like a basketball team. A big pack of demented Muppets, or chicken-dogs with fine feathers like hair running in manes down their necks.
All of them clarifying, materializing, until most everyone can see them. Shapes firm up, then comes the sounds of huge feet and things squashed and shoved aside, and then the smell hits.
Everyone panics—including the dinos.
Dancers, drummers, kids, dogs, and dinos scatter. Hundreds of people, most of them down on the fieldhouse arena floor suddenly want very much to be somewhere else. The ones who get across the court keep going. I would if I could. It’s just a good thing the raptors can’t fly, as people panic-clog the upper exits. The best I can do is to take cover among a pile of chairs next to that drum I’d blown the whistle on. I do, and take a look around me. It dawns on me that I’m alone with the dinos. Everyone who couldn’t get to an exit has huddled in a corner. I look up, trying to figure out what’s going on.
And there’re the veterans in their black leather vests, and dancers with their shields and war clubs raised, squaring off for battle. Men and a few women, putting themselves between Thunder Beings and the people, armed with only ceremonial weapons. Small chance that’ll work—and then I realize that these dinos are spirits. For all I know, maybe it will work.
The raptors charge the warriors, and recoil from them. I can’t tell what’s going on. It looks like the warriors are moving forward, and then I see one of the female vets fall back, bleeding from her scalp.
She’s bleeding! They’re REAL?
A ripple moves through the crowd, and then a WWII vet jabs with an Eagle staff and a raptor backs up, shaking its head. That catches the attention of the allosaurus. It looks over and loses interest in the chair it’s mauling. It moves in.
The raptors get out of the allosaurus’s way but weave around its feet.
The triceratops look like elephants; a sharp, pointy ring of horns and frills defends a corner. A woman I hadn’t seen—I guess she’d been hiding like me—gets up and walks over to them. She actually tries to apologize for the coalmines, tells them it’s desecrating their graves and that she gets that. I find myself nodding. Yeah, we know about that. Do they? Do dinosaur spirits wail over all the plastic in our world? She gets so passionate that she raises her voice. The biggest triceratops turns to face her squarely, and she doesn’t get the message. Must be more of a city NDN than I am, but no way am I going to get that thing’s attention by shouting a warning to her! That big bull stamps its feet, she reaches out to it, and the predictable happens. It spears her and flips her, and she hits the wall about twenty feet up before sliding back down. There’s a roar from across the room—where the allosaurus’s head is yanked back. That little WWII warrior is beneath it shouting triumphantly, doing a little dance before swiping at a couple raptors. Somewhere I can’t see, another warrior’s calling out orders.
The triceratops roars back and the allosaurus spins and retargets. It doesn’t look wounded, and the dinos begin focusing more on each other than our warriors—and the raptors act as the allosaurus’s groupies again. I never imagined how three triceratops could just face down an allosaurus. Those raptors are more effective, the way they work together—a coordinated pack of claws and teeth. They’re everywhere, trying to hamstring the triceratops and then scrambling up the brontosaur, driving it mad. I’d forgotten the bronto until then. It was behind me, not stomping around until the raptors. But now it’s slamming its neck against the ceiling and walls, trying to shake them off, staggering around and smashing everything in its path.
Where did they come from? One minute, I blew Uncle Rod’s Eagle bone whistle on the drum, the next, there’s a storm in the powwow and these Thunder Beings appear. The whistle still hangs from its strap around my wrist, and I look at it—really look at it. I'd fallen on several chairs with sharp edges—hard! I’m sure feeling it, but the whistle’s not broken. Looking close I notice a gouge in it that’s pushed up a curl of plastic. Plastic. Uncle Rod’s Eagle bone whistle is . . . plastic? Maybe that woman was onto something with her coalmine apology . . .
Here I am, hiding in a pile of overturned chairs from spirit dinosaurs at a powwow in a state I’ve never been to before, and I’m wondering if a plastic whistle could call the beings from which it was made. Plastic from oil from dinos. Pissed off dinos. Very, very pissed off dinos.
The next thing I wonder is what would happen if I blow the whistle again. Or maybe suck air back through it? I wish I could get to that one feisty Elder. I bet he’d know.
Caught up in that idea of getting the whistle to that Elder, I stand up and call out to him. My brain completely fails me here, I’ll admit. I literally stand up, wave the whistle and shout, “Grandfather, the Eagle bone whistle is made of dinos—it’s plastic!”
And that allosaurus doesn’t miss a trick. It gives up on the triceratops and spins, looking for the noise. It thunders its way across the arena to loom over my insignificant pile of chairs. Of course it spots me. Those enormous eyes nail me to the floor, and I duck down, but it’s too late. Those teeth like scythes come darting in as its head snaps down—and snaps me right up. I don’t think it even chewed.
I don’t know what happened next. I got gulped down, I get that part. But the rest . . . I don’t feel dead. I don’t feel pain. I don’t feel all chewed up and swallowed. I don’t feel at all. I’m . . . I’m . . . I don’t think I’m in my body anymore.
I don’t even know where my body is. It might just be dead, but maybe it’ll end up drooling, brain-dead in some ICU somewhere. ’Cause this spirit-me isn’t in there.
I shouldn’t be a spirit-me. I haven’t done anything, been anything, earned anything. And I didn’t exactly die with something big I had to take care of. I don’t get it. But I can roll with it. I’m a ghost now. Or spirit. Or, well, something. But I’m also inside the allosaurus. Feels kind of like I’m part of it—like my spirit is. Feels like I’m riding the allosaurus spirit, now, or becoming one with it. . . Look, I don’t know.
I shake my head, and the allo-head moves with it. Wiggle my toes—yup. But then the allosaurus takes over again and looks around. Okay, so I’m probably not in charge. Who shook their head first? Me or him? That’s gonna be crazy making. Let’s just stick with “I don’t know.”
The allosaurus—it, me—sees moving creatures below. Food. Or pests. It’s got the same answer for either, that tiny brain thinking like a lagging game controller. Up, down, left, right, circle, stomp, bite. Oh, and roar. It really likes to do that after stomp or bite. Somewhere, dimly, I should know something about the little pointy animals. Kind of bothers me that I can’t figure it out, but it’s feeling less important by the moment.
And, you know, suddenly this looks like a whole heck of a lot of fun. Talk about living large and in charge! We’re gonna go stomp some things, just to feel them crunch under our allo-toes. Starting with those annoying things making noise down there. Or the triceratops. I hate those. This one grunting at me, it thinks it’s tough. We’re gonna have us some fun! STOMP! CHOMP! ROOOOOAR! Ooooohhhh yeah. This is gonna be AWESOME!
C’mere, little three-horned munch. Come out from the shield of your herd. I’m hungry.
© 2018 by Mir Plemmons
Via Mir Plemmons: “I am a member of the Puget Sound Cherokee Community (Eastern Cherokee, not Western!), raised on military bases and around Washington State. As a special education teacher, writing and editing is mostly a summer avocation. My publications include Widowmakers, ed. Pete Kale, and The Twelve Nights of Christmas, a small competition collection I edited. My vision is to show First Peoples in speculative fiction, so our kids can see First Nations people as more than a rare token or stereotype. We need to be seen going forward into the future—and doing far more than surviving.”