“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” Clayton Red Bird always begins, but the women are not always ladies and the men are rarely gentle. Playing in bars both on and off the Pine Ridge Reservation, which rides the edge of Nebraska in South Dakota, the Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band fends off monkeys, jealous lovers and a considerable amount of intrigue in Frances Washburn’s latest novel.
“The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band” is possibly a mystery about who killed Buffalo Ames after the July 4th Rodeo. Or it is possibly a long country song about the ways in which hearts in small towns get hot and tangled in summer. Mostly, it is the story of one strong young woman who starts her journey toward becoming an elder.
As the story opens, Sissy Roberts declares, “It’s a curse I have, to be the listener, a curse that runs in the family.” Everyone checks in with her when they’ve done wrong, wandered too long or begun to feel desperate. She has the ability to see the big picture while they are lost in the details. She pays attention to the way the grass slowly changes color on the prairie, the way fathers misunderstand daughters, the way disappointment sometimes turns to anger, and the way people don’t always know they need to forgive themselves to carry on. She is only one of many Lakota characters and a handful of non-Lakota folks from around town, but she is the touchstone of the story and she illustrates the power of taking time to hear what is not easily said out loud.
Washburn set the novel in 1969, a year when the idea of Red Power was forming among other American civil rights movements. This was the year Vine Deloria Jr. published “Custer Died for Your Sins” and N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for “House Made of Dawn,” the year before President Nixon issued a special statement about self-determination for American Indian communities. The effects of this period on Indian communities are still unfolding and self-determination is still being defined. What Washburn captures here is the way it begins in the kitchens, on the dirt roads, during rodeos and dances in the minds of vastly different people who must first determine their own self-identity then bravely begin the work of nurturing a community strong enough for them all to succeed.
People not familiar with Pine Ridge might only remember the sensational events of the 1970s or know of the poverty that continues. This is a book that makes sense of a people who turned down more than $1 billion offered in exchange for the Black Hills. Some things are not easily bought and sold, some things are not “things” at all, only mirrors in which we can choose to see who we are and who we might become. Washburn writes beyond every Indian stereotype to leave us with a story that is as old as those Hills.
Margaret Noodin is a poet, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an alumna of the University of Minnesota. She is the author of “Bawaajimo: A Dialect of Dreams in Anishinaabe Language and Literature.”