Kiowas and Cops

They both perished at the hands of the U.S. Calvary who finally discovered their last refuge in the vast Palo Duro Canyon.  For years the historic marker in the canyon told the story from the U.S. government perspective: how many savages surprised, how many captured or killed, the destroying of over 1000 Indian horses.

I can hear the horses screaming in the early mornings.  Sound traveling through memory.

The Comanches preferred the wide canyons like the Palo Duro and perhaps this was their undoing.  The Kiowa preferred deep canyons where one could disappear and from which they believed the bison would spring and run again.

Years ago, when I was a professor at West Texas State University in Canyon, Texas near the Palo Duro, a young Kiowa man showed up at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum.  He told the staff he had just had a purifying sweat on the banks of the Canadian River and now he had come to seek out the ceremonial objects of his people: headdresses, pipes, drums, and more.

He came with his hair parted in the middle, chignon in back, beads adorning its shining blackness.  He was a contemporary Native man, tee-shirt and levis–and he could find his roots only behind glass.

Gone were the buffalo, or bison, whose massive herds once blackened the plains.  Gone the tribal accouterments necessary for his passage into manhood.  He asked that the cases be unlocked so he could handle the ceremonial pieces.

No one thought to ask where he was from or where he was headed.  The director, finally reached by a befuddled staff, met him at the glass display cases, telling him no, he couldn’t open them for him; he could look but not touch.

Hours went by. And still he stood there.  Everyone seemed nervous, hoping he would leave.  Eventually the campus police were called in the event he might have to be removed.

Ah, Indian removals.  What a history.  But he had paid his entrance fee and he stood by.

Gossip flew around campus.  There’s an Indian man at the museum, eyeing the display cases.  He won’t leave. What does he want?

I thought of an article I had once read about National Geographic arguing that the magazine colonized its subjects, reducing their lives to slick articles dressed up in seductive language and exotic photographs.  And yet we thought of it as factual, to be trusted.

The police stood by.  I think more to validate his efforts than to protect the rest of us.  Perhaps they understood their witness as barrier.

Four o’clock came, closing hour.  People began shuffling around in preparation to go home.

The police stayed on, finally securing the building after the left.

He had spent the day with his fingers on the glass of the cases holding a culture in pristine 72 degree temperature.  The “objects” would not rust or rot; they would be preserved, without context, in their disembodied form–display, artifact, museum piece.

“It’s about the energy, absorbing it,” he told the director, as unnerved as anyone watching his actions.

His hands moved, gecko-like, across the glass.  When he was gone, no fingerprint could be found.



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