“Why’d You Go, Daddy? Was I Bad?”
What Might've Lurked Inside the Head of Cortez Ewing (Stark Fear’s “The Chief”) + James Mooney’s Ghost Dance Recordings
By Erika T. Wurth
Reading time 20 Minutes
I guess I’ll never forget the mystery of what I saw of that white lady in her Hollywood trailer. She looked just like my grandma, who liked to beat me with the switch when I was bad, and tell me she wished my Indian grandma’d been left on the trail to die. Just like her, with her pale skin and dark hair and arched eyebrows. We was filming, and I was hot. Oklahoma in the summer ain’t no joke, and the director said he couldn’t afford fans. Dang I was young then, though I didn’t think on it – but I was already starting to lose my hair. Guess cause my daddy was white, and momma said there was some African blood somewhere, that accounts for it, cause I was the only Indian I knew who balded, that’s for dang sure. The director’d been putting the heavy on me all day. “More menacing,” he’d say, shakin his head over and over like he was somethin special. Then we stopped and he said we’d try again next week, that he was gunna move on to other scenes.
During the scene I was in, while I was sweatin and graspin at that actress who looked like my white grandma while she squirmed and squirmed, I tried to think on that thing I always pull back on, that thing my Indian grandma tol me about. But it was hard to touch on it, sore. I loved her, and she loved me. Would sit all day in that rockin chair in the corner of our little house in the woods, tucked all the way back on the family allotment in Ada, and she’d sing to me in Chickasaw, those old songs that sounded so sweet, like a bird singin, her soft, brown hands in my hair, making it straight for school; and for the ladies, she’d joke on me, and I’d blush. Oh I miss those days, the branches ticking against the winder in them big, bad, storms, wonderin when my momma’d come home from work. Helping grandma to make that tasty ol fried chicken; shoot, it was so good. Now I often don’t know what to do with myself, though I got kids and got to support em, though it’s hard to get work. Least I stuck around, unlike my daddy. Dang though, people round here don’t like Indians, and even the Indians don’t like blacks, and I take after line that pretty good.
That’s why even though I ain’t any kinda actor, I was thankful when that director spotted me downtown and came up to me when he first seen me across from the drug. First I was suspicious, him asking all these questions, but after a while, after he explained what he was up to, that he got good money for a film, I decided to give it a try. Tol me I’d be playing a Pawnee called The Chief. I didn’t like that much – either thing – but I was happy to get work, and though it got me looking like me and every other Indian’s a raper and a drunk, it was good money, and it’ll last me a while. Least it’s got Indians like they are today. The movie even got a Stomp Dance in it, and that’s gotta count for somethin. Shiiiit, if Indians ever in the movies, they’re always in that ol Plains buckskin, don’t matter the tribe, savage as all git out, with them dang headbands acrost their foreheads to keep them wigs on. Makes me laugh and cry to think on it, so I just don’t.
I tried to be as mean lookin an Indian as possible, shit, the sweatin part was easy, like I was sayin, there weren’t no need for Hollywood tactics there. But I felt bad after, even though that ol director had said I wasn’t scury enough. That actress looked scured. Like real scured of me. I went to apologize to her, to tell her I was sure sorry if I scured her for real, and that it was jus actin. She was in her trailer I guess, taking a rest after that scene, someone tol me, so I walked across the set and went to knock, but hung my hand back. Dang if I didn’t hear her yellin, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” It gave me the chills. I went to turn around, back down them steps and home to Myrna, but the door opened all of a sudden and if I could turn red, I would’ve. She looked surprised, which was natural enough. I stammered for a good, tall minute there, I was so disconcerted. But then I recovered, tol her I hope I didn’t scure her during that scene none, and though she looked sad, she broke into a smile and laughed, and tol me that was acting, she wasn’t scured of me. I sure was relived, and almost forgot about that daddy thing, when she turned to shut the door, and I could see someone was in there. One of them young Indians from the Stomp scene even. She saw my look of confusion and it was her turn to look embarrassed, though I just turned and walked the other way, after telling her to have a good day and all. Wasn’t none of my business. The whole thing made me feel strange though, and got me all in a sweat. I needed this job. The roof needed fixin. The kids had been eatin commods for two weeks straight. I couldn’t afford for no Hollywood lady to get her britches tight over me seeing something. That night I tol Myrna all about it, and she said jus to keep mindin my own business, and that Hollywood people were different, and not to bother them none. I tol her I knew that but I was just wonderin if she was gonna punish me for seein her with that young Indian. She jus looked at me like she always does, her head cocked like a parakeet, her big blue eyes just as round. All I’m sayin is to mind yer business. And that you don’t know why that boy was in there. How do you know what she was up to? Coulda been somethin innocent. Maybe she was tryin to help that young man. Maybe give him some advice on actin. That’s when I laughed. I tol Myrna that she just didn’t know people like I did. That made her mad though, and she threw the ladle she’d been stirring some beef and potato stew with, hard into the pot, and went to the bedroom, slammed the door. Later I got her to come out, telling her through that dang door that I meant she was a good person, and didn’t think ill of people. She was silent at first, but she came on out eventually.
Next day we were gonna finish the filming of the scene I was in. I didn’t know until someone tol me that I only hadda show up for the days they were filming the parts I was in. I’d come ever day, and I sat and watched as they filmed the whole dang thing until I knew better. I was glad though, when I think back on it, cause I got to see them filmin the stomp scene, and though they did it real small, and strange, and made it all creepy-like, with that actress walkin in and bumpin inta everybody, and everybody bumpin her back all aggressive-like, which isn’t how a stomp is at all, it was still interestin. Interestin because my family hadn’t stomped, to my knowin, since my grandmother’s time. In fact, if they’d knowed it was a spiritual thing, that woulda been illegal to do or to film. The gov’ment doesn’t let us have our religions, and though I’m a Churstun, I still think that’s wrong. I mean I figure if all them white folks and their ancestors came here so they could do their religion the way they wanted, why can’t we do the same? Ain’t right. I member my grandma talkin about that dance. How back in the day, before the removal, even though Indians were doing things the way white folks did, they still loved themselves a stomp. She remembers stompin as a girl, all in a swirl around a fire, the singers callin and the dancers callin back, the turtle shells ringin around the sound of the rattle. She used to tell it so beautiful, and me an my sister used to sit by the ol black stove in the winter, our faces burnin from the heat, but it feelin so good and cozy, and listen to her tell about green corn days, and the stomp, and all them things before they marched them out an inta Oklahoma. Who do you think the savages were? she’d say, snortin, an then startin a new plug of tobacco fer her pipe, puffin and sitting back, her black eyes tired but content in that ol rockin chair. It jus about breaks my heart to think on it, I miss her so. And to think about what happened to her on the trail . . . and at them goddang boarding schools. Makes me sick to think on it.
I tol Myrna somethin about that that actress with that young man, and somethin about the whole dang film was brangin all this stuff up for me. All she could say was to continue to mine my business. But in retrospect, when I started to think on the face of that boy in that trailer, and the stomp scene, things started floatin right to the surface of my mind and combinin, and I felt strange. I remembered, once I thought on it, the way she’d looked at the boys stompin the day of filmin. That look of hers was a strange one, and though I didn’t think of it much at the time, on account of the fact that she was part of that whole scene an needed to be there, when I look back on it, there was a thing in her eyes, her body, the way it hung loose-like, but still expectant, her face hungry, like a coyote’s at the edge of a hen-house.
Now I’m not sayin there’s anything wrong with lust in a woman. In fact, I like a woman who knows what she wants. It’s why I married Myrna. I ain’t inta delicate flowers none. But all them boys were young boys, not children mine you, but young. I got to thinkin then, about her yellin for her daddy that day, I’d durn near forgitit. I thought on it and thought on it, smokin my Pall Malls in the bedroom, sittin on the blue and yellah star quilt my sister’d made for me and Myrna for our weddin, the winder open for me to hear them songbirds, and to get some wind, it was still so hot, and my mind kept turnin and turnin like a pinwheel on a day that’s about to storm. I decided to investigate, though I wasn’t about to tell Myrna on that. She’d have my head, and I don’ blame her.
I came to the set the next day, as the work I had was on a house, helpin a friend to fix a toilet later closer on towards evenin, and I sat near her trailer and watched. And sure enough, though it took me dang near time till I had to go, there come that boy. That same boy that I’d seen her with that day, walkin right inta that trailer late in the afternoon, though he looked around good before he did. I hadda figure that boy was no more than fifteen, now what I got a good look at him. Later that day, while I was workin on that toilet, my hands pullin on wrenches and liftin ceramic, doin what my friend was tellin me to do, I was thinkin on that boy. If something was goin on, I guess he was old enough to decide himself about it. But it gave me the shivers. I kept hearing Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! again and again, and I jus couldn’t figure out what it was all about. I guess what it come down to, was I was turrible curious. My grandma used to tell me all the time that’d bring me down, specially when she caught me lookin through the winder at that pretty neighbor girl. She knocked me goot with a switch she cut herself that day, and she made me watch as she cut it.
Next day at the set, I saw the boy go in to her trailer, this time about mid-morning, the sun already risen and hot as satan himself, and I thought what the hell: I’ll just go around, real quiet like, to the side of the trailer and jus see, if ain’t no one around, if there’s a winder I can look through. I’m tall. Well over six feet. And them trailers are small.
I was quiet, and folks was busy filmin. It was a scene that didn’t have that actress in it, and I figured this was why that boy was in there so early. I looked around, and sure enough, folks was still busy, and no-one was lookin at me, which was not somethin I often experienced, bein a 6’4 Indian with black features, and baldin to boot. I jus meandered over like I had somethin important to do, and jus kept my walkin as natural as I could. It was humid as hell, an I hadda keep wiping at my head with my kerchief, over and over, the sweat danglin in my eyes, and I was nervous to boot.
I turnt the corner of the trailer, and there wasn’t nothin behind there but woods, and as I made my way, lookin fer a winder, I thought, though my heart was beatin like a rabbit’s, I was scot-free. I saw a winder. Small. But if I stepped on my toes, I’d be able to see in. I took another look-see, an as there was no-one, continued to make my way. But as soon’s as I get close, I hear voices behind me and sweatin like hell, my heart fixin to bust right out my chest, I try my best not to whip around, to run, to not look suspicious. It was two men, I realized, and they were talkin about the set, smokin and laughin, and my heart rested. As they passed me by, I nodded, and they nodded back an as soon as they were outta sight, I figured I needed to make my move, and got myself right over to that winder, got up on my toes, and peered in.
What I saw that day I still don’t understand, and was stranger than hell.
The actress was bare-breasted, her dress pushed to the side, the boy laying across her chest all while she murmured, “Daddy . . . Daddy . . . Daddy,” tears streaming down her face, the boy’s eyes closed, his arm around her waist. “Why’d you go, Daddy? Was I bad? Daddy . . .”
I knew my mouth was open then, an I was so startled by what I was seein, I must’ve slipped, or my hand come down on the side of the trailer cause before I realized it, I made a noise and they both jumped up, scured. I whipped around then as fast as tarnation, and got myself the devil outta there. I knew if she saw it was me, I’d be in more trouble than I’d been in my whole life. I didn’t know why I had to know, goddangit, my grandma was right. And that the thing I kept pulling up for the role, and pushin away came up right in my head. That thing my grandma tol me once, after a lil more whiskey in her coffee than her usual, a soldier on the trail had raped her. Had clapped his hand over her mouth while they were all sleepin, and pulled her into the woods and raped her.
All of this and what I’d jus seen were swirlin in my head as I made my way to the job, and all that day, and at night, I was silent, Myrna askin me what was wrong over and over, the kids yellin and throwin food and me nothin but irritable and Myrna tellin me I should go lay down by myself if I was gonna be that way. I wanted to tell her about the boy. The actress. About my grandmother. But somehow I couldn’t. And when it came time to do my scene it was all in my head, my heart, all that strangeness and darkness I felt, and when that director tol me to be menacing, this time, it didn’t take me long to do it, feelin like a thing my own mother wouldn’t recognize; a beast sprung right outta some white soldier’s head, right outta the typewriter of some lonely Hollywood writer, something old, an angry at all this world.
THE JAMES MOODY GHOST DANCE RECORDINGS
James Mooney was a scholar of American Indian culture and language. In 1894, he made recordings of songs of the Ghost Dance. Stephanie Hall, a reference specialist at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, says "[it] is likely that these recordings were sung by Mooney himself. This was not unusual, as the common practice of the time was for ethnographers to memorize songs and stories from the people they studied, performing them back to the people helping them to learn the songs so that they had as accurate a performance as possible. In this way human memory was the 'recording' before actual recording technology was widely available." The Ghost Dance was a spiritual movement that arose among Western American Indians out of desperation after many treaties had been violated and they were forced onto reservations. The songs had a common pattern (a line repeated twice, another line repeated twice, and so on), and dancers entered into a trance state, hoping to achieve visions. The movement spread quickly among Native American peoples, particularly in the West. There was a real fear among European Americans of the Ghost Dance, and Mooney's aim--in his book on the subject--was to counter popular misconceptions and dissuade prejudice against Native Americans.
Erika T. Wurth’s publications include two novels, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and You Who Enter Here, two collections of poetry, and a collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, The Writer’s Chronicle, Waxwing, and The Kenyon Review. She is a Kenyon Review Writers Workshop Scholar, attended the Tin House Summer Workshop, and has been chosen as a narrative artist for the Meow Wolf Denver installation. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.