There is no Silence in the Earth — so silent
As that endured
Which uttered, would discourage Nature
And haunt the World —
In 1851, Tashtego is the only Indian on the whaler Pequod. The only red man on that ship of the damned. One of three-become-four harpooners. One for each of the whaling boats. Representatives of the brown, red, black, and yellow races. Each paired with one of the three mates and the captain.
In 2019, artist Preston Singletary tells the Tlingit story of Raven. Preston carves in glass as his ancestors carved in cedar. Raven rose through the smoke-hole of the longhouse. Raven rises through the smoke-hole of the hot shop.
Elizabeth has been told by her forebears that she is of Cherokee descent. It’s family history. Family lore. Repeated long enough and by so many family members it becomes real. Manifest in the flesh.
It was common for those growing up in Oklahoma to hear that they had ancestors who were Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, or Seminole—peoples and nations forced off their historical lands under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, supported and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson.
Elizabeth Warren was no Indian princess. She was also no Andrew Jackson, although she was running for President in 2020. What she did, though, uncommon to most politicians, is that she apologized. Many would never forgive her for her mistake, her transgression. But many would.
Like Elizabeth Warren, Tommy Gaines, Sr., the first, the original, was told that he was Cherokee. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he wasn’t. But growing up in Strang, Oklahoma in the 1920s, his father told him never to admit he was Indian. The state government, the federal government, wanted Tommy and his siblings registered as Indians but his father refused.
Tommy Gaines II
Tommy Gaines, Jr. would have DNA testing done in 2010 that would show Native American heritage, but also West African and Portuguese, along with the various Western and Northern European ethnic groups. Slave and slave trader, indigenous and colonizer. The “Trail of Tears” led from the Melungeon people and the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky to the red-soiled grasslands of Oklahoma, and after the Dust Bowl to Olympia, Washington to work the fields and mushroom farms as migrant workers.
Tommy Gaines III
And then there is me. Tommy Gaines III, whomever he may be on his father’s side of the family—white, black, Native American—knows he can trace Potawatomi heritage through his mother and his mother’s father and his mother’s father’s mother and her mother, a daughter of the Turtle clan married to a French-Canadian fur trapper.
Until my father does some genealogical research.
My maternal grandfather’s great-grandmother was full-blooded Potawatomi, they say. She married a French-Canadian fur trapper. Beaver pelts and babies. I hear these stories so many times that I begin to believe them. I perform phrenological studies of my own face, that of my brother, my sister, cousins. Marie has skin that darkens much faster during exposure to the summer sun, and she never burns. James has a wider and flatter nose than any of the rest of us.
But my father can’t locate the woman among all the French-sounding names who would be the Indian that was forced into marriage with the fur trapper.
In 2019, poet and musician Joy Harjo is named as Poet Laureate of these United States of America. Joy is the first Native American named to such an honor. Joy will point to things that others cannot see.
In 1986, it feels as though the world won’t last much longer. I’m waiting for Ronald Reagan to talk us into nuclear Armageddon, certain it will happen soon. Or the Soviet Union will strike for some unknown reason.
On a Friday night, in downtown Bremerton while cruising the strip, some friends and I head off to party with some sailors we meet. Why not?
Another group of teens end up there and I take a liking to a skinny guy whose friends keep calling Tommy. The sailors let all of us hang out and drink because, even though were all underage, we have money to purchase beer for everyone.
Later in the evening, after a few wine coolers, I get up the courage to go and talk to Tommy.
Tommy Gaines III
“Hey, white boy,” she says, “you want to Indian leg wrestle?”
“What?” I stutter back at her, caught off guard by all the things that might be wrong with this sentence she utters.
“It’s okay, I can say it,” she says, noticing my confusion and awkwardness. “I’m Suquamish. You’re obviously white and a boy. So, do you want to Indian leg wrestle?”
Buoyed by bottle after bottle of Miller Genuine Draft and being cheered on by others at the party, the next thing I know she and I are lying next to one another on the floor. Sailors are betting a few bucks on who will win. Most of them bet on her.
Her thigh is warm against mine. Her grip is firm on my forearm. I don’t last long before being flipped over. Then she climbs on top of me and pins my arms to the carpet to the hoots and hollers of the room. She nuzzles up into my neck and whispers, “I’m Lily. It’s nice to meet you, white boy.”
We wander off to claim a couch in one of the small rooms. To lie together and talk and laugh and kiss and keep death at bay for the next few moments, into the wee hours of the morning.
Wampanoag. My people. Tashtego. My name. These words slide off the second mate’s tongue in the same way that tobacco smoke from his pipe eddies and whorls when he exhales.
Stubb and I sit with our backs against our stowed whale boat, talking late into the night, beneath the indifferent stars. Puritan and Indian. Philosophizing. Working through matters of creation, existence, mortality.
This scene, repeated often, will never be captured in print. It is ours alone.
Tommy Gaines II
One cousin says that members of our family wanted to register as members of the Cherokee, to be on the roles and the benefits that would come with such registration. Another counters that we were told not to register, in order that our family wasn’t branded as Indians in perpetuity. They both spit out reams of paper, genealogical research, facts, family lore until this embassy borders on failed diplomacy and civil war looms.
Maps are consulted. The topographic lines of Appalachia become the dotted lines of the Trail of Tears that lead to red-soiled Oklahoma, which will become a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of red fire by night to lead my Okies elders to the promised lands of California, Oregon, Washington on rudimentary roadways. To cabbage fields and apple orchards.
Blood is drawn. Saliva is swabbed. Samples are sent to labs for confirmation or denial.
In the summer of 2016, three other native women and I pile into a camper van in Tacoma and drive the asphalt trail of Interstate 90 across many ancestral lands to the Standing Rock Reservation. The water cries out to us and we join the Lakota people, the Dakota people, and people of many other nations to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. To sing a song of stewardship of the earth instead of an incantation of oil.
In autumn, we drive back to the land of the generous people, the Puyallup. Land that was stolen by treaty and by force. Land that was stolen from the sea. Denuded hills and mud flats. It is here in Tacoma that I begin to write. Poems of protest. Poems of prophecy. Poems that are political and personal.
In 2019, I’m invited to a reading at King’s Books. I read selections from my latest chapbook. As I start the opening lines of “White Boy,” I look out at the audience and in the back of the room sits Tommy.
We’re sailing toward the edge of the world. Where the waters fall off into the darkness and chaos of the abyss. The dark maw of the White Whale.
Pray for all of us. The nations. The people. For a sure hand in those who would cast harpoons into the flesh of the Whale before we are swept under the waves.
Raven moves over the face of the waters upon wings of molten glass.
Joy Harjo plays a plaintive note on her saxophone.
A single black feather floats down from the heavens.
Troy Kehm-Goins is a Puyallup poet and artist who has been published in WRIST, Post Defiance, Read Write Poem, and Les Sar’zine. His work is a mixture of the everyday and the mythological, drawing upon diverse influences and inspirations. He also has self-published four poetry chapbooks through his own press, the most recent of which is Black Psalms.