Clearing The Air

Walking across the campus
of the University of Montana
with a group of summer camp writers,
ten year-olds, we stop to view
the sculpture I’ve passed maybe
a hundred times before, an iron cone
topped with a wild, wavy shock

of aluminum hair: one child’s octopus,
another’s volcano. An astute student
reads out, “Tepee Burner!” A boy’s
expression gives me pause before
I begin explaining: when I was their age,
sawmills burned slash and sawdust
around the clock in these tepee shaped

structures. What would have been air
pollution alerts, we called “the mill,”
“wood smoke,” or “the sweet smell
of money.” That yellow ground fog
was our eerie London imagining Jack
the Ripper waiting like a werewolf
to attack, slit, and gut another co-ed.

Growing up sheltered by the lumbering
denials of a Christian culture determined
to hide embarrassing issues like genocide
behind Thanksgiving dinner and a heroic
last stand on the Little Big Horn, we wanted
to believe we were the good guys
wearing the white hats. No point in dwelling

on mistakes in the past. We believed
in putting our problems behind us, or behind
bars. Bars helped us contain problems, preferably
reservation bars. Tepee burners were everywhere
when I was a kid, but then so were “niggers
in the woodpile” and on the prairie. We caught
them by a toe, “eeny-meany-miney-moe.”

Didn’t study the history of the Indian
Wars in school, avoided the Holocaust,
too, like there was some statute of
cancellation for mass murder. Maybe after
Japan and Germany, we didn’t want to
talk about killing out of fear. Instead we’d
focus on Hitler, our model of what to abhor,
and never “get to” a discussion of ethics
beyond basketball. The track record
was clear: in 1540 the Spanish burned
thousands of Indians alive at Mabila,
set the standard for the next hundred years.
1637, the English massacred six hundred
at Mystic, and the French slaughtered another

five in 1730. I mention a handful from
the list that boggles the mind, thousands to
millions of brown corpses strewn over centuries.
California vigilantes, settlers, posses of white
men systematically went about annihilating
the coastal Indians. Here in Montana, on the Marias
River, Piegan women, children, and the elderly

were massacred just eighty years before
the existence of me. You’ve heard of
Wounded Knee where two hundred-some
Sioux were attacked at their winter camp, 1890,
by the 7th Cavalry, experienced tepee burners.
Custer, Sherman, Sheridan, Chivington,
proud Americans, soldiers, leaders of men

were known to say: “Nits make lice!”
and “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
They were even fonder of the stench
of blood and burning flesh. Extermination
was the necessary task they were commissioned
to do. They rode their high horses and polished
their brass. It’s hard for me to admit this

ignorance, my blindness: the “poet”
oblivious to metaphor, his own prejudice,
two words he’d never questioned, never owned,
let alone stood in blackened moccasins among
smoking tepees, the cavalry bugling, watched
the charge in his mind, the horses hooves, heard
the screams of frantic old ones and kids, mothers

armed only with infants, and smelled gunpowder,
blood on steel. Lice . . . the solution . . . horror.
War makes men insane. How do we manage
to forget? What we say and how we say it
precedes what we do. We must try to understand,
be more aware of our words. Think like a poet:
are tepee burners gone? Where are the nits of fear?

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