By Damon McKinney
Growing up on a reservation in central Oklahoma wasn’t inspiring, at least at the time. Having Sunday dinners at my grandparents simple two-bedroom home wasn’t either, nor were the late nights at the family honkytonk, or running the streets of my hometown. Yet, those core memories are the anchors of my work. Growing up in this manner was not conducive to my wellbeing, either as a child or now as an adult. Those few places serve a place in my work, along with a few others, and I’m glad I survived them.
My words come from struggle, a remembrance of a “what might have been life,” a feeling of destitute and unrelenting poverty. Except at the time, I didn’t know I was poor. I thought everyone saw their mother cry as she asked for help from her uncle to pay the gas bill. Or everyone did their homework by kerosene lamp because the electricity got cut off again. Or turned on the water meter after dark in case the meter reader came by. To me, those things were normal. That wasn’t the “struggle,” the struggle was to not give up. The struggle was to keep going to school, to keep reading my homework, to stay in band, to graduate.
After high school, my words stopped. Losing my grandmother born grief into my life, for the first real time. She was a mean old woman, a “survivor,”—if there is such a thing—of a Indian school. She hated what seemed like the world, but she loved me, and that was enough. Three years later my grandfather joined her and everything turned. They were the glue that held everyone and everything together. They have made their presence known in my stories either as characters or their home as a setting. Here’s to Wilson and Etta.
Wilson was a combat vet of WWII, the big war. He rarely spoke about his time in combat. I heard him speak about it during an adoption ceremony, and it wasn’t about the death of his friends that made him weep, but rather, their families back home. How they wouldn’t get to bury their sons and honor them the traditional way. Family was important to him and he instilled that into his own children and grandchildren. Right before he passed, he asked me to take language classes with him, to bring us closer and to bridge the generational gap. We didn’t make it.
They owned a bar on the edge of town, and I spent way too many days and nights there. Playing pool, shuffleboard, drinking RC Cola and eating little pizzas. I learned how to two-step on that concrete slab, a few feet from where my uncle was shot dead over a pool game. I watched my aunt Jeannie beat the shit out of her best friend over a man. I still remember her wearing flipflops and that slapping sound they made as she stomped into the bar. I watched my grandmother faint as we shot off fireworks inside the bar one Fourth of July, we thought she had a heart attack, and that was the second time I saw Wilson cry. The drunks made a softball team there and even though they lost every game, we still watched them play. I can remember the layout of the place and the first time I went in, but I can’t remember the last time I left it. It’s been burnt down, rumored for the insurance money, and I can still hear my mom cry over it.
My words are born out of that barroom, that white two room house, that old married couple who fought every day. My mother’s tears of pride as her youngest son graduated high school, my brother’s beaten and battered face—a fight in a different bar, imagine that—as he limped in from a night out to wake me up for school, my aunts as they struggled to provide for my cousins. Every word comes from those red dirt roads of Oklahoma, the clear blue waters of the Flathead lake, and everywhere in between. I’ve seen the sunset on the Rockies, met a mountain man who birthed all of his kids on the couch in his living room, lived with a New York party kid only to bury him a year later.
I write to tell stories on the margin of society, the flyover states, a hole on the bible belt. Where scrublands hid moonshine stills and meth labs and the preachers have second families a town over. Where I ran around the pow wow grounds with my cousins looking for a little bit of fun, going to the youth dances at the community building, and trying to swim in a packed swimming pool. Going back to the reservation is a homecoming. Going to the tribal cemetery to see the ancestors, having a conversation with ghosts, and when the sun goes down, sing honor songs. We sang until sunrise. I still sing those songs.
Read Damon’s other work here at Reckon:
Fiction – BlackHawk Blues
Damon McKinney is an Indigenous author currently living in northeast Arkansas. He has a forthcoming chapbook, Beer-Breath Kisses, from Belle Point Press.