Book Club

Excerpt: “War Dances”

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Nurses walk under dimmed lighting during 'quiet time' at the Newborn Family Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Nurses walk under dimmed lighting during "quiet time" at the Newborn Family Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

“Oh, he does a naming ceremony right in the hospital.

Like, it’s supposed to protect the baby from all the technology and s–t. Like hospitals are the big problem. You know how many babies died before we had good hospitals?”

“I don’t know.”

“Most of them. Well, s–t, a lot of them, at least.”

This guy was talking out of his ass. I liked him immediately.

“I mean,” the guy said. “You should see my dad right now. He’s pretending to go into this, like, f—ing trance and is dancing around my sister’s bed, and he says he’s trying to, you know, see into her womb, to see who the baby is, to see its true nature, so he can give it a name — a protective name — before it’s born.”

The guy laughed and threw his head back and banged it on the wall.

“I mean, come on, I’m a loser,” he said and rubbed his sore skull. “My whole family is filled with losers.”

The Indian world is filled with charlatans, men and women who pretended — hell, who might have come to believe — that they were holy. Last year, I had gone to a lecture at the University of Washington. An elderly Indian woman, a Sioux writer and scholar and charlatan, had come to orate on Indian sovereignty and literature. She kept arguing for some kind of separate indigenous literary identity, which was ironic considering that she was speaking English to a room full of white professors. But I wasn’t angry with the woman, or even bored. No, I felt sorry for her. I realized that she was dying of nostalgia. She had taken nostalgia as her false idol — her thin blanket — and it was murdering her.

“Nostalgia,” I said to the other Indian man in the hospital.


“Your dad, he sounds like he’s got a bad case of nostalgia.”

“Yeah, I hear you catch that from f—ing old high school girlfriends,” the man said. “What the hell you doing here anyway?”

“My dad just got his feet cut off,” I said.


“And vodka.”

“Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?”


“Natural causes for an Indian.”


There wasn’t much to say after that.

“Well, I better get back,” the man said. “Otherwise, my dad might wave an eagle feather and change my name.”

“Hey, wait,” I said.


“Can I ask you a favor?”


“My dad, he’s in the recovery room,” I said. “Well, it’s more like a hallway, and he’s freezing, and they’ve only got these s–tty little blankets, and I came looking for Indians in the hospital because I figured—well, I guessed if I found any Indians, they might have some good blankets.”

“So you want to borrow a blanket from us?” the man asked.


“Because you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?”

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