SKY HOPINKA

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AMERICAN TRADITIONAL WAR DANCES
OPEN NOTES TO SYLVIA GARD


— Water-logged cherries sat dripping on the side table. I brought you a new pack of cigarettes from your room, peeling the cellophane off the top. After you lit up I laid back down on the couch thinking about that smell wondering if I’d ever smoke.

Under the palm trees, through and around the fronds scattered in our back yard I went over the route we laid out. You – under the awning drinking ice water or ice tea, I can’t remember – hitting pause on the tape player to tell me I’m off beat and off time and the first push up hasn’t even come yet. I couldn’t hear the down beat then, and I can’t now, but when I listen for that thud thwack thud thwack, yours is always the first voice on the up and up that tells me when I should be. Rewound tape begins again – counting, pausing, playing, aching – imagining when I would learn how to become someone new.

Canadian television at eleven AM set the tone for years after that first season, maybe the fourth, when we found our story. The serialized show from a reservation above the arctic circle gave me perspective with what we were doing in the desert. You and I in our living room, teaching me how to war dance like you learned from watching the old men and how you taught my brother and my mother. Thick dry heat suffocated us in a good way when we stepped outside, but for the most part swamp coolers and the broad slated blinds pointed upwards gave the living room a cool blue hue in the morning sun. The windows faced north – I never thought of that before.

At the airport my Aunty TeeTee, me, and my sister waited in the parking lot listening to a Yellow Jacket buzz on the radio. TeeTee told us stories of her time sweating away the pain of others. She was closer to god than I’ll ever be; a sacred cough too holy for those tubes of oxygen to contain. I often wonder if I regret that I only knew her when she was ill.

The Umatilla Studs sang a song you loved and so did I. That song was our victory song – an end song. Positively pounding as an intertribal that didn’t sound like an old song. Maybe it came from someone like my dad, Mike, who you’d tell me stories of between sessions, when I was sweaty and tired, laying on the floor breathing to the ceiling imaging the cottage cheese bumps were inverted mountain ranges of a great white country I was too large to traverse discretely. I thought of those years before in TeeTee’s apartment in Ferndale Square a long time ago last night with her and my sister watching VHS tapes of recorded television shows and movies pilfered with static. We’d take turns finding balance in the vertical hold.

I’d often wonder where I was. Insects scurrying next to my sleeping baby brother. We’d been in the desert for about six months and I began to realize what I was missing out on. Leaving my home under the cold gray blanket of the Pacific Northwest to live beneath the bright blue skies of the desert where lights shone on everything I knew I couldn’t be. I failed at being present and my presentation was beginning to fail. A thirteen-year-old in a new place full of groups of histories that spanned eight years or more. Quite a length of time when you’re an adolescent. The cockroach, its carapace crackling and collapsing under the weight of pressed toilet paper, stained brown red grey – seeping onto both the wall and my finger. I cried when I knew that I wasn’t going home again. Not heavy heaving sobs, but quiet gasps withholding tears in a way I imagined would make Mike proud. The person I’d been becoming wasn’t going to grow into the person I’d eventually be. It’s hard to describe such a sadness – where any small joy felt so fragile and tenuous that I’d hold on to and repeat whatever action or sentiment that brought about such plain and easy emotions. That was some time before we started to dance.

The joys present in a day or an evening are such because they are about the moment. Where everything else falls away and you’re allowed to be the person you’re supposed to be, or that’s what I’d tell myself.

As my world became smaller, my friends from the old town stopped writing. Maybe I stopped writing them. I was afraid of the new town and would go once a week to an independent study center. I had homework and presentations to give and you were my teacher. Yet I was still alone and my sadness grew with my body.

Two hundred and seventy is what the scale said that morning I stepped on it. It was in my mom and step-dad’s bathroom and it was a while since I looked. Size was always made important to me – earlier signs of this obsession popped up when I was still in grade school. I was never small and slight like my white classmates, nor short, and of a different kind of stock than my Native friends from the Northwest tribe in the town I grew up in. My tribe was from the woodlands of the Midwest. I latched onto that term – the Woodlands – as a way to enchant myself with a mystical idea of bodily self-hood that would explain everything about where I belonged. I was always bigger, and that largess of physicality grew when I became depressed, before I knew that none of that mattered. That’s about when we began to swim.

I can’t remember when I learned that you were a swimmer, but stories of Adak island on the outer reaches of the Aleutian Chain scuba diving and disc jockeying filled me with hope. You sat on a chair under an umbrella by the side of the pool and counted laps and taught me better form. It was a small kidney shaped pool but large enough for an obese boy of fourteen to get winded and feel accomplished. That’s about when we started to dance.

I felt at ease on those long drives to the mountain pass at the edge of the valley. Staring out the window listening to the hum of the wheel rolling along the road from our home to the Morongo Indian Health Services clinic. You, my mom, and my step-dad knew what you couldn’t do, and agreed that I needed someone to talk to. Dr. McMichael was white but had a brown beard and a thinning pony tail that for some reason made him easier to visit with. Each session we played Uno as he listened to me search for words that I didn’t know existed, told me stories, and gave me permission to feel how I felt. I’m glad I still remember his name.

I grew up practicing in the living rooms of our tiny apartments since before I could remember. Tiny circles grew smaller as I turned and ducked and dived – always reluctantly and shyly. You didn’t have time for that. Knees higher and get lower. Those commands bounce in my ears every time I get on the dance floor at a powwow or practice in my bedroom. I still practice with a sense of bashfulness, always when my roommates aren’t home. I’ve outgrown enough, but not that.

You died on January 27th, 2005. I was twenty and wasn’t there. I came home for Thanksgiving and my brother told me that you weren’t well. I came back for Christmas and played you some songs on my guitar. I remember when I’d be practicing in my bedroom and after I’d finish a song that I was trying to learn from tabs on the internet, you’d yell at me from the living room that I played your new favorite song and to play it again. You were barely awake. Your eyelids were heavy. You slurred your words. You said that song was still your favorite. I cried, not those proud-like-my-father cries I was used to, but heavy sobs that I buried into my mother’s chest. I went back to Riverside and waited for word. It finally came when my mom called and said that my brother was there with you when you left. I was proud to take care of you when I could, however little it was. You died at home back in the Pacific Northwest, in the living room of the house you and my mother and my step father worked for, where you decorated and potted your plants, sat and watched as I watered your dahlias. Where you said to me – You are not your father, and you are not your mother. You are not me and you’ll never be any of us. You’re okay as you were and as you always will be – Maybe that’s how I remember it.

Sky Hopinka was born in 1984, in Washington State and spent a number of years in Palm Springs, and Riverside, California, and Portland, Oregon. He is currently based out of Milwaukee. Hopinka is a Ho-Chunk Nation national and descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. In Portland he studied and taught Chinuk Wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. He received his BA from Portland State University in Liberal Arts and his MFA in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Hopinka has had several gallery and museum exhibitions, including at The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts; and the Whitney Biennial 2017.

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