We gather names, and from the names spring many lives. Sometimes individuals or whole communities rename us. At those moments we are initiated: We appropriate and are appropriated by other worlds. I believe we all have threads of other races, whisper-thin strings that vibrate at the touch on names. If we listen to their music, we become more-than-one, and we can never again act as the one we were before the music.
John Neihardt, who claimed me as a friend, was called Flaming Rainbow by Black Elk and Little Bull Buffalo by the Omaha. When he died, the pipe at the Eagle Ceremony vibrated in my shin bone and my skull. Since then I am always a guest in every house. This whole world is a house. Some people seem to need original Americans, as if they could live something for them. I do not need original Americans, and they do not need me. Whenever we meet we manage to be brothers and sisters in a stranger's house. We are guests looking carefully at what is beautiful around us.
"Apache" means enemy. I have an Apache name: Wounds-With-Shield. My Apache brothers and sisters could not decide if I was a warrior or not. I will not say my name in Apache because they fight to keep their language to themselves, destroying tapes in libraries and putting curses on those who teach it. Besides, the other name they wanted to give me was Keep-It-To-Yourself.
When Wounds-With-Shield was a teacher at Cibicue reservation, a woman teacher had Apache children feeling things in a grab bag and describing them. She was white with blue eyes and very blond hair. She was almost albino, and they suspected she was a witch. When the children were through describing what they thought they felt in her leather bag, she pulled out of its darkness and mystery many beautiful things, and one of those things was an owl feather. All the children left the school until she was fired. For the Apache, the owl is death. And when it comes for the children they hear their names called clearly.
I returned to Cibicue in the summer to learn from an Apache teacher. He was a healer and a singer. I have called such people Shaman, a name they accept quietly, but the term is small and childish. One thing the healer/teacher had me do was talk with crows. "Crow may trick you," the healer said, "but he will tell you where to go when you are lost." Once when I was lost on Second Mesa, Crow sent me to visit a woman in full ceremonial dress and herding sheep. I was afraid. She was too beautiful. She said nothing, and I still found my own way. There are realities on Second Mesa that some mistake for dreams or stories. One great mistake people can make is to believe someone's reality is a fantasy.
The healer/teacher took me to a cave and pointed to fossils he said were gifts for my mother-in-law. I gave them to her. She took them to the university and found out they were petrified sloth dung. I learned my teacher accepts the pleasure of tricks as payment for knowledge. Perhaps all teaching begins in this way, with a slow smile waiting to bless us with knowledge.
Wounds-With Shield has had many journeys. I have been to the canyon ruins of the house made of dawn and seen the evening light from its windows as the canyon turned salmon red before dark. At Case Grande, I have smelt the creosol and felt the life in ruins and heard a whisper in the tower where the ancient ones left no words but whispers.
I have smoked with the Yacci and Navaho, held snakes over my head in the sun and beneath the moon with the Zuni. I have seen the dance and been in the circle with the dancers. I have been proud to talk with Kachina and I have listened to Kachina. I have known the holy mountain of the Papago, so flat on top, so black. I have felt worship come upon me in the terror of silence in the white mountains and touched the places touched by the old ones. I have held the shards at Grasshopper dig and listened to what my fingers had to say. I have buried more shards than I dug up.I have hidden graves.
I have heard and felt what the IT is: the death feather brushes my face, reminding me I may not kill time.
In Senora and in the Chiricauha mountains, Wounds-With-Shield walked with warriors while the moon was an eye, not like an eye, but an eye. The arms of the Saguaro thundered and struck the ground. Violence had a holy voice. Wounds-With-Shield has seen his death. At some time and some place he lay in the mouth of a cave facing the valley where the sweet snow covered the black earth. All his senses were pricked with cold and caressed by the warmth of his red and blue blanket. He had a rifle wrapped in his arms as if it were a woman, and he sang. Like everyone else on earth, he was a guest in death's house.
I sat in prison with the mestizo whose name is Jimmy Santiago Bacca and shared poetry in maximum security and saw Jimmy write himself out of four walls to return to the circle of the world. He writes to me:
Now, Jimmy reads his poems to professors at Harvard and Berkeley. "I am the enemy," he tells them. "I am not the victim." Jimmy is Apache again, and I am proud when he calls me brother.
I do not need original Americans, and they do not need me. We have shared many skins, and when in an elevator Scott Momaday interrupts a long silence by saying "In another life I was a bear." I share his life, and a smile begins as if it were a blessing.
Last update: 5 June 2000