Spring/Summer 2003, Volume 20.3
Brandon Cesmat earned his M.F.A. from San Diego State University and now teaches film studies at California State University, San Marcos. "Playing Peon" is based on his novel in progress. He edited Classrooms of Poets for Poetic Matrix Press. He has been previously published in Weber Studies. Learn more about Brandon Cesmat at: https://www.csusm.edu/profe. Read other work by Brandon Cesmat published in Weber: Vol. 15.2 and Vol. 24.3.
For the first hour by the river, I didn't say anything, which is a long time for me. We just stood around the BIA dump truck and waited for Samuel to drive up with the saws and machetes. Samuel chairs the tribe's pow-wow. He's also a student whom I liked talking with but had to fail in College English, which I taught at the satellite campus on the rez.
At the tribal hall that morning, I'd come by to help Samuel get the outdoor arena ready for the pow-wow, and he told me, "Ride with Jasper."
So I knew the short guy with long brown braids who drove the dump truck was Jasper. The other five guys were strangers. Jasper was leaning against the running board and telling them that he couldn't pay for breakfast because he only made minimum wage. Another guy with loose black hair laughed.
"Don't give us that," he said. "You make $5.75 an hour and you're on the clock right now. We know the tribal budget, so don't be telling us how much you make. We know."
Jasper looked surprised, as if he'd just remembered he'd parked his car that morning and left the headlights on.
A guy who looked about seventeen in his backward baseball hat and sagging pants toed a gopher hole as if he discussed the tribal budget all the time. The young guy had said as much as I had. Teaching on the rez had taught me that if I didn't have anything to say, it was best not to say it. But we were coming up on an hour and a half, and I didn't think I could stay quiet much longer.
Last week, Dr. Hamilton called because registration for my class was low. It was beyond my control, I told him. He said if people weren't showing up for class, it was my fault. I even had to fail Samuel, but he didn't seem to take it personally. He knew he had missed a lot of class time: three wakes, several conferences and pow-wows. But not everyone in the class followed the pow-wow trail. Hamilton said it would probably be my last semester teaching on the rez.
After I told Charlene what Hamilton had said, she silently cleaned the whole house. I wasn't sure if she was ticked at me or at Hamilton. When she finished vacuuming, she sent our son Kevin to play in the backyard and sat me down on our bed to talk. Kevin's teacher at Verdugo Elementary had him settled in, which wasn't easy, she said. Kevin has Attention Deficit Disorder and the last thing Charlene wanted to do was move him back to town. Besides, she had a job she liked in the accounting office at the country club. I told her I didn't want to move either, that last semester I had learned enough from the students to really make next semester go. She saw I was floundering and told me to watch Kevin while she went to the movies.
I volunteered to cut willows for the arena because it gave me a chance to recruit students. But as we stood by the river, I didn't feel right butting into the conversation, and nobody even looked my way. I wondered if no one talked to me because no one knew me or because everyone knew I was that goddamned English teacher who gave bad grades even when they wrote essays on topics they knew about, such as bigotry.
Another thing I'd learned in the year I'd been teaching at the rez was that teaching English was almost as bad as being a blond anthropologist, like Hamilton. Even white students on the main campus hate English comp, but Native Americans' distrust for English teachers goes back to the Carlisle Indian School where the students were made to speak English only. Although nowadays everyone spoke it on the rez, English had the stigma of being the enemy's tongue, and English comp was the class in the invader's voice. I made copies of my favorite Momaday essay for the class, but Della, one of the older students, pretty much summed up the groups' reaction when she said, "No wonder they gave him an award. He sounds like a white man."
I needed them, and whether they knew it or not, they needed me or someone like me to teach thesis, supporting evidence, and all that goes with writing college research papers. Hamilton said it was "a hoop they have to jump through." I tried to think of it more as catching horses.
As the sun got higher, the dump truck offered less shade, so I walked toward the streambed.
"Don't step on any rattlers," the guy with the unbound hair called.
I resisted the urge to hold my foot in the air over the tall, dry grass, because that's what he wanted. Instead, I stepped down and, when nothing bit me, I exhaled and hummed one of Tchaikovsky's danses just loud enough so a snake could hear me coming and get out of the way.
I walked into the deep shade. I didn't know which kind of branches we were going to cut. At least half a dozen different kinds of trees grew in the dry riverbed. We probably wouldn't be using the Pacific Oaks with their serrated leaves and hard wood. I also ruled out the cottonwoods because of their white spores. If people were going to sit under a shelter, they didn't want fuzz drizzled on them like dandruff. Samuel probably wanted the branches with the large oval leaves.
When I heard the engine, I thought for a moment they had driven off and left me to walk back. As I ran up the bank of the riverbed, I brushed against nettles. Some stuck my right hand and even stabbed through my jeans and into my thigh. By the time I got to the top of the bank, my skin stung so badly that I didn't care about new students. I was ready to walk back to the tribal hall. Just my luck, the engine noise was from Samuel's pick-up.
"Hey ho, teacher," Samuel said. "You thirsty?" With a big smile, he passed around cans of Pepsi, as if saving us from the heat we'd been waiting for him in gave him joy. No one else seemed to care. We leaned up against the truck. I held the cold can to the back of my stinging hand.
They sent the young guy in the backward baseball cap up a tree first. It wasn't the tree with the large ovals but one with smaller dagger-shaped leaves. I asked Samuel why he used that tree; he said because that was the kind his grandmother used. He called it a "willow" although I always thought that willow had vine-like branches. Samuel's willow branches grew straight so the limbs were easy to stack or use to play shinny stick, a game like field hockey. And the wood was soft, so it cut easily.
I had to hold my hand up to shade my eyes because the guy with his baseball hat on backwards sat about twenty feet up, his legs wrapped around a limb while he sawed branches that grew straight for the sky. The sun shone directly overhead. I would have kept the visor over my eyes.
"Hey, Robert," Jasper called up.
Robert stopped sawing and looked down at us.
"Don't look down," Jasper said.
"You see any caterpillars?" the guy with the unbound hair asked.
"Don't even talk about it," Robert said.
We stood back while the branches dropped. I guessed they had to be loaded into the dump truck, but I didn't pick them up until I saw the guy with the unbound hair grab one in each hand and drag them up the bank.
He climbed up in the bed, and I threw the branches up to him. Samuel and Jasper went down into the nettles. I carried all the branches Robert dropped and then went down into the riverbed to get Samuel's and Jasper's. Samuel had found a broken limb where he could stand on the ground and cut branches. Jasper had walked a long ways down the riverbed. I could see his machete flashing as he raised it beside a short willow.
I started down the river toward Jasper, but Samuel called me back.
"He works better alone," he said. "We'll get his branches on the way out."
Robert and the guy with unbound hair stood in the middle of the trail as I dragged a load of branches out of the riverbed. We'd long since flattened the nettles.
"Look at this," the guy with long hair said, pulling down the neck of Robert's tee shirt. A welt the size of a quarter swelled on Robert's collarbone.
Samuel came over with some of the others and asked, "You didn't believe us about those caterpillars, did you?" He handed me the saw.
I hadn't, but I didn't want to come right out and admit it, so I told them I believed them now. Robert said, "It hurts like a mother_____."
"Don't be talking that way in front of the English teacher." The guy with the unbound hair smiled at me for the first time all day.
I chuckled and slapped the flat side of the saw against my leg as I thought a revision.
"We've got to get Robert here through high school," Samuel said, but he wasn't smiling. "He's got two more months and he needs his English. Think you can help?"
Robert kept his eyes shut with pain. I couldn't tell what hurt more, the caterpillar welt or English. Of course, I am a teacher. Of course I am supposed to say "yes." But I'd come looking for adults to keep my own college class going, not someone who might not even finish high school. I was sweaty and where I didn't sting, I itched.
"Yeah, sure. We'll see," I said.
"I brought my book," Robert said without opening his eyes.
"That's great," I said. "Maybe we can look at it after the dump truck's full."
I saw a long limb about thirty or forty feet up. Out of the limb grew twenty of the straightest branches that I'd seen all day. I buttoned the collar and sleeves of my shirt to keep the caterpillars out, hooked the saw over my shoulder and climbed. The willows had a lot of horizontal branches, so I got to the top quickly. There was hardly any breeze, and I was out of the shade, so I started cutting the branches as fast as I could. From on top I could see the unbound-hair guy in the riverbed. Samuel and the others were hauling branches. Robert stood in the truck loading. I could see where we would drive by Jasper's stack of branches and where the road led across the river to the village. A stand of eucalyptus stood beside the arena where the poles were already set in the ground. I could see where we were going.
The handsaw cut quickly through the branches and most of them fell to the ground. A couple hung up on other branches below.
"Get that one," Samuel said, pointing to a straight six-footer that had snagged about twenty feet up. It was about as big around as a shovel handle but with more flex. "That's my shinny stick."
I climbed down and had to reach with my foot to kick it free. Samuel was stripping the leaves off of it when I swung down.
"You done good, Professor," he said.
I let my revision go. I was done.
At the pow-wow the next afternoon, elders sat in the shade underneath the thatched willow shelter that we'd built in the plaza between the tribal hall and the old mission. About 3:00 the breeze came up and shook the leaves. I worried for a moment that a branch might fall on an elder, but the shelters stayed woven together.
Charlene and I sat where we could watch both the dancers in the arena and the basketball court behind the tribal hall. Kevin had made friends with a half-dozen other kids who were too young to play basketball but, nevertheless, ran back and forth along the sidelines with the big kids. At first Charlene had me check on Kevin every fifteen minutes, but after an hour and a half went by without Kevin getting into trouble, she relaxed, and we sat together holding hands for the first time that semester.
It felt good just to sit with her, listen and watch. I wondered how the dancers knew when to turn. We had chairs in the shade behind three elder women who sat at the edge of the arena. Two of them were not small. Once when I leaned around to see the beadwork on a pair of moccasins, one elder woman looked at me. I smiled. She didn't, but she nodded. The rattles and singing continued. It didn't seem like a good time to ask about dancing.
For dinner Charlene and Kevin ate Cupa Tacos—fry bread with beans and vegetables. We met several of my former students. Whether I had failed or passed them, everyone was kind, even Della. How much better to be off the clock, I thought. The subject of next semester never came up.
By dusk, Kevin was tired, and Charlene was ready to go. We went home, but I didn't feel sleepy, so I drove back to the reservation to see the peon games and talk with students who wanted to.
As I walked toward the arena, singing came from five different fires.
Peon is a guessing game played with bones, sticks and blankets, and it made no more sense to me than the dancing had. Two teams of four players each kneeled on the ground and faced one another. A fire burned between them. A man they called the quoyme stood by the fire and occasionally tended it with wood splits.
As far as I could tell, the quoyme was a cross between a card dealer and an umpire. If someone wanted to bet on one of the players, the quoyme announced the bet to the other side, and if the bet was taken, the quoyme held the bills between his fingers. He also called out the players who got caught and then paid the bet. Unlike a Vegas dealer, the house never won. He never lost either.
On one side, each player held two bones—one white, one black—in his hands. As they sang, two boys held a blanket so the players on the other side of the fire could not see the bones hidden in the other players' hands. People standing behind the team with the bones sang too. When the players hid the bones and finally folded their arms tightly across their chests, the boys dropped the blanket and that side sang louder while the players rocked on their knees.
The four men kneeling on the other side of the fire looked across, through the flames. An old man took off his cowboy hat and shaded his eyes from the fire. Finally, another man with two long braids clapped his hands and then pointed at a player. The player held out his hands and let the bones fall from leather thongs around his wrists. The quoyme said, "He passes," and took a long slender stick from a stack and laid it in front of the team who kept singing.
I found the fire where Samuel and Robert were singing with two other men.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned, I saw an old woman in a lawn chair, but she was too far away to have touched me. I looked back to the game. The tap came again, and when I turned, the old woman smiled and nodded to me. I smiled back and she started to laugh, so I turned back to the game. Samuel's side had just started to sing. Someone tapped me again. This time, I turned away from the tapping and saw the guy with unbound hair pull his hand back. They'd called him "Nennis" while we were thatching the shelter. He smiled and shook my hand.
Someone on the other side of the fire shouted, "Twenty dollars they get Samuel," and handed the quoyme a bill. I watched Samuel's face for a reaction, but he looked as serious as a boxer in a ring. Nennis handed the quoyme a twenty.
A young woman in a purple sweatshirt shouted, "Five dollars Robert passes." Someone on the other side handed the quoyme a bill. The young woman giggled. "I made a hundred and twenty on him last time," she said loud enough for everyone around the circle to hear, but Robert acted as if he hadn't heard.
The singers started low, their faces near the ground. As they rose to their knees, the song grew louder. On the other team, a man with pale skin and a drooping mustache took off his cowboy hat and held it in front of the fire so he could see the singers' faces. Fingers started pointing. Hands opened. Bones dangled from the leather thongs.
I still didn't understand the game, but I knew that if the singers kept singing after they revealed the bones, then someone had passed. The more bones the other team guessed wrong, the louder the men sang. If the team caught them, they stopped the song and tossed the bones to the team across the fire.
"El chico!" the quoyme shouted, pointing with one of the slender sticks toward the black and white bones dangling from Robert's hands. "This man passes. They got the rest of you."
The young woman laughed in a squeal as she hopped forward for her money.
"Twenty dollars they get Robert," someone on the other side of the fire said.
The young woman rubbed the two fives together. The quoyme held up the twenty and repeated the bid. Nennis looked at me. I didn't know the game but found a ten-dollar bill and thought about it for at least two seconds before I handed the ten to the young woman. I liked the idea of betting on singing.
Robert drew a couple more bets but never looked away from the players on the other side of the fire. The quoyme separated the bets between his fingers, the players' shoulders pressed together and tongues clicked around the edges of the fire's light, but Robert never dropped his eyes.
The song started a little louder than usual. The blanket dropped and the voices rose. Samuel took off his hat and held it in front of Robert as they swayed. The other two singers held up their hands and taunted the other players. Across the fire, a man with a single thick braid clapped his hands once. Twice. A third time. Robert let loose guttural upbeats to the song's rhythm, "Aaaah-hew, aaah-hew, aaah-hew!" The music was loud.
The player with the cowboy hat whispered to the man with the braid, who pointed one last time. Robert opened his hands, and the song grew louder.
The next day I came to the tribal hall to fax a proposal to Hamilton. We'd offered nothing but required courses on the reservation for the two semesters that I'd been there. Syllogisms, thesis statements, warrants, induction, deduction, Venn diagrams, the curriculum made writing as clear as an undistributed middle. Della had once told me, "White people think anything that's written down is true, that it's a document." I liked the way she had said the word, "doc-you-meant." My theory was that we should build on strengths, write stories and poems first. Essays later. More listening, less prescribing.
I was watching the tribal hall fax machine spit back my memo when Samuel hit me on the back.
"Hey, Professor, you come back to help take down the shelters?"
"Why don't you leave them up for a few days?" I suggested. I had a stack of books at home that I'd been waiting all spring to read.
"Come on," Samuel said. "You looked pretty good up in that tree. You want to really impress us, you'll help clean up."
Well, that's what I wanted to do—impress them. I called Charlene and told her that I wouldn't be home for lunch because I was working with students.
My hands had yet to recover from the day in the riverbed. Red scratches puffed between my knuckles and around my cuticles. Jasper stood in the truck bed, and we threw the willow branches up to him. He wore gloves.
Pulling the shelter down didn't take as long as weaving it. Today, we had gravity on our side. Samuel had us stack the poles and fill the holes in the arena so it would be ready for shinny-stick games. Robert and I talked a little while we worked. He liked shinny because it was rough like football. I asked him how he played peon. He said, "You use strategies but you have to have power, too." The power was neither good nor bad, he explained. It was either with you or against you. It sounded like teaching.
Robert said the flames showed players where the bones were. As we worked, I thought about the logs in last night's fire. First they charred black and then ashed over white; as the fire burned into the cores of logs, red cracks glowed between the embers. I looked down at ashes from the night before and wondered what I hadn't seen.
After we tamped the last hole, all of us had a good sweat going, so we sat down inside the tribal hall. Samuel bought everyone Pepsi, again. Robert folded his arms on one of the tables and put his head down. So the gesture wasn't just something students did to demonstrate boredom, I thought. We were all so tired that no one made a move to turn on the television.
"Robert," Samuel called. Robert lifted his head. "You bring your book?"
"It's at my house."
"Go get it." Samuel nodded to me. "We got the Professor here." He turned and looked at me. I shrugged and nodded. Yes, I had said that I would help.
"If you don't pass your class, your mom's not going to let me take you singing next weekend," Samuel said. Robert stood up.
That Samuel should promote education on the rez seemed strange. Apparently someone else's high school diploma mattered more to him than his own college degree. I was too tired to understand it, but Robert climbed on his bike and pedaled away for the book.
We began to talk about our own school days. I don't know why I said reading was fun. Probably because I believe it. But Samuel picked up the remote control to the T.V. and pointed it at me as if to turn me off or change my channel. "You say that because it's fun for you," he said. As if on cue, Robert came pumping up to the hall with a thick book in one hand. He walked inside and dropped it on the table in front of me.
"I have to read eight stories and write about them," Robert said.
"Tell me it will be fun," Samuel said.
I wanted to argue that stories were meant to entertain as well as to teach. I opened Robert's book and flipped through the pages and found a story by Silko that I'd never read before. It was one of Della's "doc-you-meants"; I had no idea what the story "meant." I just guessed that it would be good.
"Okay," I told Samuel and Robert, "this will either be fun or it will be funny," and I began to read out loud. Robert listened, and so did Samuel. It was like reading sheet music. She had written in beats and places to rest. The others listened, too. The story was not really in the book or following the paragraphs stacked one on top of the next and pausing where periods cracked them into sentences. The story was in taking it off the page or seeing through the page as if it were a pane of glass.
By the time we got to the part on the mountain where the boy finds the stone bear in the lake, Jasper had pulled in a milk crate from the kitchen and was sitting on it, listening. The room felt cooler.
Reading is like playing peon. We have strategies, but they can't interfere with the story. I did not understand the bear my first time reading the story. I was still listening, figuring out where the bones were in the paragraphs. I just read. Then Robert read a couple of paragraphs, and that was the sound of us learning.
It was English, but the story kept us sitting there. The words seemed as important as the silences between the words, like the images of sand and snow between the characters in the story, like the white space between the words. And the words were like sticks that settled down into the sand and snow while I watched them.