Alex Jacobs, 'Tattooed Flint' (detail), collage

Native American Heritage Month: 'Indian On Fire,' a Poem by Alex Jacobs

Alex Jacobs

Indian on Fire
dedicated to Sherwin Bitsui & Sherman Alexie,
2 skins who know something about fire

Hanging around skins is like waiting for someone to catch on fire
you’re not sure when it’s going to happen, but it will
not like they’re going to burst into flame if you light a match
or sit in the sun too long
but they are ready, ready to blow, ready to explode
ready to start singing their death song
on the street, in a bar, riding a rez car
over some issue, some incident, some long ago thing
something that happened last week, last year, last summer,
last Pow-wow, 100 years ago, 500 years ago

Now if there are white folks around, they become
the natural target for a foaming, spitting skin
ready to explode. It’s just kind of a natural trajectory.
Like a homing beacon, or ducks flying thousands of miles
to land in the pond they were born in.
But only the slow pale ones will receive the brunt.
Those locals wise enough to have experienced an Indian Burn
will stand up at attention, sniff the air and scramble to get out of the way.
They’ll cross the parking lot, cross the street, cross themselves and pray,
“Please God, save me from the merciless savages
about to descend on this, your unwitting and humble servant.”

Of course there are those hippies, yippes and zippies
who instead of fleeing (the natural white reaction)
will stand there and let loose a big ol’ Iron Eyes Cody teardrop
and commiserate with their downtrodden red brother.
The red brother will mumble and grumble and acknowledge that
this pale personage is of Crazy-as-a-Loon Clan and will not
flee, wince, hide or judge him and his imminent outburst.
So unless the afflicted skin wants to receive the Vulcan Mind Meld
from this New Age Shaman, he will recite some sacred (or profane) passage
to the empathetic hippie and will continue on his hunt
for slower, paler prey.
Usually it’s a tourist in town looking for some local color, and boy do they get it.
I think God made some white folks good at making money,
because it makes up for a lack of survival skills, you know bush skills,
yeah, it keeps them in the gene pool, otherwise all the Burning Indians
would’ve decimated their ranks a long time ago.

Right now somewhere in this country…in Minneapolis, in Phoenix,
In Seattle, in San Francisco, in New York City, in Rapid City, on Pine Ridge,
At Rocky Boy and Wind River, in Taos, in Albuquerque, in Santa Fe.
There’s an Indian on Fire! And there ain’t nothing you can do but let him burn.
It’s really a control burn, like setting the marsh on fire every spring.
Well you notice all these wild fires out of control lately?
That’s because there ain’t no skins out there burning the bush
When it needs to burn. Nature is out of whack! Everybody’s smoking crack!
You see people think those Indians who inhabit the streets are all drunk
And weaving and wandering around town. But actually they are getting ready.
They are singing their death songs. They are looking for a place to
Explode and take out a few tourists, cops or a traveling church group with them.
All around this country, Indians are blowing into cities
Like so many tumbleweeds, looking for something to latch onto,
Find some heat source and explode like a tinderbox.
You know that Los Alamos fire? That was no controlled burn.
That was a war party of disgruntled skins, sick of the pollution
Of their lands and bodies and cultures. POOF!
Some skins come to the city to die, because they don’t want to die
at home, unnoticed, ignored, standing in line for a box of cheese.
Some skins would rather die in the streets of America in a big blaze
Taking out a block of gawking white folks, rather than go home
To the Rez and die of diabetes, cholesterol, cirrhosis or cancer.
Yup, somewhere right now there’s an Indian on Fire
Scattering people before him like chattering fallen leaves.

So just be aware.
When you see us standing around, waiting.
We are not waiting for the next Hollywood movie.
We are no waiting to be in the next chapter of your next novel.
We are not postcard fodder or what’s called local color.
We are waiting for the next wave of civilization to intrude
In our space, in our face,
And we waiting for the next Skin to catch on Fire
And taking bets on which one of us is next.

Santa Fe, 2002

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.

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