It is April 1973, and I’m eleven years old, a Yanktonai Dakota who is already a writer, always has been a writer, even before I could read. I don’t need paper to fill pages in my imagination. Story is everywhere. I imagine myself into other worlds, other families. I enter the TV screen and change what happens there when I don’t like where the program is taking me. But on this first warm day of 1973, I find my father sleeping on the floor of our garage and imagination fails me. Hours later I will learn that he is dead, that fiction cannot make him alive in any satisfying way. I will sit with what is real, heavy in my lap, and cry behind plastic sunglasses. A beloved Ho-Chunk elder arrives to guide me and my mother through stunned grief. She speaks to us gently, hands us each a comb and a new toothbrush. We have to take care of ourselves, and wash. When you first step into grief it is like being born into a new world. You are a baby learning to walk on broken glass.
The elder says my father will be with us in spirit for the next four days, so we mustn’t show too much suffering or he’ll get stuck and not move on as a spirit should. We wear sunglasses to hide our tears. We watch as she places knives on the sill of each window, knives beside the entrance to each door. She explains that my father’s death has created a hole in the fabric of our family that other spirits might try to enter. Dad will need weapons at every entrance to fend them off. I think of that hole as the soft spot on a baby’s crown, a point of vulnerability that needs protection. I reach to the top of my own head and wonder if angry spirits will try to take me over now that my father has left us. A strange thought since my father never really believed in the soul, though he tried to. A small panic strikes me when I wonder how my father will know what to do—he’s a white man, after all, not indigenous like me, my mother, and this elder. He doesn’t believe in the things my mother raised me to believe; he doesn’t see what we see. But I don’t voice this worry until years later, in high school, when I write my way back to that terrible moment. The scrawl of poem ends:
“Death has picked the lock with his hairpin bones and only my father,
the white ghost, can save us from those
who want to enter our bodies and steal our souls.”
I am an intuitive writer, often oblivious to what I’m really saying until years later. It’s only now that I appreciate the irony of my teenage words: how much I was honoring other ways of knowing, doubting that my brilliant, insightful father with his vast breadth of knowledge and Phi Beta Kappa key, would have any idea of how to navigate the spirit world.
Unlike my father and most of my school teachers, I believe in magic. I believe the Universe speaks to me in ways that others will miss if they haven’t learned to pay attention. The Universe isn’t always noisy and obvious, sky-writing what it wants us to know in large cursive loops like the Wicked Witch’s message in The Wizard of Oz. Sometimes the voice is quiet and subtle, seeming to rise from our innermost depths.
The Universe offers me visions, short films that play in my head without dialogue. An older woman dances in a buckskin dress on the moon. A young woman descends from the sky as if riding an invisible escalator, a wampum belt slung across one shoulder. I am given these mysteries to solve, these characters who arrive like strangers and end up relatives. My first paragraphs of solution, of story, are a leap of faith. I trust the visions have come from a place that is true, that will ultimately reveal what I need to know when I’m ready to listen. I work with my characters as if I’m their confessor, their therapist. I’m grateful when they begin to reveal their lives and secrets. I cannot say I am their Creator because they don’t arrive in pieces, even if pieces are all I see in the beginning. They are whole. They are separate. They come from deep places I don’t fully understand. They are my teachers.
If you have been raised to honor other ways of knowing, the World will challenge you. The World doesn’t honor what it hasn’t learned to see or hear or trust. During my high school and college years I began to shut down inside, telling my spirit to be quiet. What did it know? Was it even there? My spirit wasn’t something I could photograph or slide beneath a microscope in the Science Lab. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and learning to write fiction that I broke open again. As if the sacred act of creativity must come from an honest place, an unmasked and fearless place if it is to have anything worthwhile to say.
In my first year of graduate school I finished writing a story titled, “Moonwalk,” just in time for it to be workshopped in class. I read the ending aloud to a classmate, thrilled with the final image of a Dakota elder on the moon, her spirit dancing through Neil Armstrong—the astronaut oblivious to her presence.
“They’re gonna hate it,” my friend warned. I knew she was right but handed in the story anyway. In their comments, fellow students scolded me for the weirdness of my world. I made them nervous, dragging them onto unfamiliar ground. I wrote these fantasies as if I believed them, as if they were possible. Magical realism was all well and good as a literary strategy, but this was something else! My Dakota character who danced on the moon was an elder who decided to die early because she had other business to attend to before joining her ancestors. Once her mission was accomplished she set off to join the Council Fire where loved ones were waiting, a place she told me was “five steps beyond the edge of the Universe.” She showed me a glimpse of this place that I’ll perhaps find at the end of my days. In my dreams I’ve walked the spirit road that leads there. In desperate times I’ve felt it tugging at my feet, felt the lure of joining everyone I’ve lost. But I have my own business to attend to first. So I walk through this World in ordinary ways, on concrete sidewalks that jar my knees. No one would guess to look at me that I am listening to the trees, deciphering their papery words, their tree logic. No one would guess that one woman contains such worlds in her quiet body.