Author’s Note: This story was originally published in The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018. It’s based on a real experience growing up in Tuolumne, a very small town that is both on Me-Wuk land and home to the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk, a sovereign nation of people. It is a fictional account of growing up friends with members of the tribe whose friendships helped me to recover my own indigeneity and the beauty of resisting whiteness rather than being subsumed by it.
I’m in Indian club. My little brother is in Indian club too. Mom signed us up, said we had to go, but we’re not Indian, not the reservation kind.
Mom was a chola when she left East LA to live with the hippies in the Bay Area. They hung around with the Grateful Dead but Mom never liked Jerry Garcia. She heard him tell someone he was Spanish, which she didn’t believe at all.
“Oh, sure, everyone is Spanish and never Mexican.” She sounded like she was spitting when she said it. “My cousin used to tell people she was Italian at school. Her parents told her to. Goddamn Italian, can you believe that?”
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know anyone Italian, no one who talked about it anyway.
After living with the hippies in Palo Alto, mom moved us to the mountains. She wanted fresh air, chickens, and a garden, and for us she wanted a good school. When we got there, she wanted Indian club. She said that Mexicans are Indios, too. From what she says Mexicans are little of everything, but Indian is one of the things we are a lot of. Everyone can see the Indian in my face for sure, my Mayan nose, my Aztec eyes. People, mostly grown-ups, tell me how I look all the time, everyone but Mrs. Fox, the Indian club teacher.
“What a pretty little Indian girl.”
“You’re nose has a hook like the Maya.”
“What are you?”
“Where were you born?”
“What kind of name is Acevedo?”
“Who braided your hair like that?”
Mom says braided hair keeps out the knots out and the head lice too. She braids my hair every day, sometimes into one long braid down my back, sometimes into two braids, one on each side of my head, or when I ask, wound up to the top and pinned in the middle like Princess Leia. Mom laughed the first time I asked for braids like that.
“Like Princess Leia! You mean like a Mexican. We’ve been wearing our hair like that before Star Wars. Put some ribbon in Princess Leia’s braid and zass, you got a folkloric dancer and extra protection from head lice.”
She always worries about head lice. She doesn’t want anyone to think we’re dirty, that we don’t take baths. Grandma worries about head lice too. She asked if we had it yet when we visited her at Christmas. Then she told me about how when she went to school in Camarillo in the old days, how Camarillo was just mostly farmland, a place where Mexicans and Indians from India, Hindus she called them, were friends, and how after Christmas the Mexican kids, and the Mexican Hindus, were rounded up by the school principal to have their heads doused with kerosene and topped with a paper bag to kill the lice. Merry Christmas! She said the smell of the kerosene burned her eyes and her nose, even her mouth. She said that she didn’t even think she had piojos. That is the word in Spanish for head lice. Piojos.
“Flor, Charlie, you can go to Indian club now.” My teacher, Mrs. Carr, looks at the clock and jerks her head toward the door. Me and Charlie get up from our desks at the same time. We go to Indian club every Tuesday at ten. We miss part of her social studies lesson.
Irene and Robert look up as I walk with Charlie toward the door. It makes me feel good to get up and leave right in the middle of the lesson. I put my shoulders back and pretend not to notice them staring.
Charlie is a real Indian. He looks like a real Indian too, except he has reddish hair, the red of the moist dirt in most of our yards, the dirt we called Indian clay. Charlie is mean, but mostly he’s quiet. Sometimes he lives in town; sometimes he lives on the rez. He seemed to go back and forth like that all the time.
I watch the heels of his suede loafers as he walks the breezeway in front of me toward the library. He wears suede loafers, the kind with the blond bumpy rubber sole. They’re nice and clean and new looking – his school shoes.
Some kids in another class watch us through the window as we walk by. They know we’re going to Indian club. They can tell by the way we look, but they don’t know what goes on in Indian club, in our corner of the library, even though I tell them whenever they ask.
“We’re learning about acorns.”
“We looked at woven baskets.”
“We’re still working on our loom beaded choker necklaces.”
We have been working on those for a long time, and I spilled my tray of tiny gold, black, and red beads all over the floor during the last club meeting. All the kids were there, like Anita Kosumi. We have been friends since first grade. I have even gone to her house after school a couple of times. Fran Herdez, who always looks mad at somebody, was there too. I try not to think about spilling the beads, and the way Mrs. Fox jumped out of her chair and tried to stop the tray from falling, sending the tiny beads bouncing and skittering across the tile floor. I got off my chair to help. Under the table, the tile was cool on my hands and knees; then I saw that tight-lipped look on Mrs. Fox’s face. I wondered if real Indians knew how to be more careful, if they had some Mother Earth power that helped them have better luck with gravity. I hadn’t seen anyone else spill the beads.
When it happened, Charlie laughed so hard, his chair lurched and squealed as it skidded back across the freshly waxed floor. No one else laughed except him, but Mrs. Fox made him stop. His laugh made me not want to look up when I got back up on my chair, so I focused on sorting the different color beads, putting each in its place. Charlie was like that sometimes, but he was better since I slapped him in the face real hard. We were on the back of the bus on a field trip, and he wouldn’t stop touching my hair and putting his face over the seat as close to my face as he could get. I told him to stop, and he copied me in a whiney voice, so I slapped him hard. I could tell he wanted to slap me back or touch his hand to the red mark I left on his cheek.
Mrs. Fox is already at the Indian club table with the third graders. They’re sitting down already, their small bead looms in front them. Mrs. Fox is talking to one kid, but she looks at us and smiles. Her smile makes me glad that my brother is Indian club on Wednesdays with the first and second graders because I’m sure he does worse than spill a box of beads on the floor. The older kids go on Mondays and Thursdays. I wonder if they’re almost finished with their beaded loom chokers? I can’t wait to wear mine to class, for everyone to see my beaded Indian design that I counted and strung all by myself using a sharp shiny needle. Before Christmas we made beaded ornaments with a lot of help from Mrs. Fox — bells, candy canes, stars, and Christmas trees. The bell was really hard. My brother came home with simpler versions of the candy canes and stars. My mom liked them and smiled when she put them on the tree, but she said something funny.
“Do you think Indians ever made candy canes like these?”
I wanted to say the Indians in Indian Club made ones just like it, but I didn’t want her to start shouting about how all she wanted in school was to learn something about her own people, how she kept waiting and waiting but she all she got was lessons about the Nina (which she pronounced, Niña) the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. I just think Mrs. Fox wanted us to get used to working with beads and to make something for Christmas.
“Hello Flor. Hello Charlie.” Mrs. Fox smiles again at us both.
She is married but she doesn’t have her own kids. Most of the other teachers do have kids, and some of them even go to our school. Mrs. Fox isn’t exactly a real teacher because she doesn’t teach English or math, but she likes kids more than some of the real teachers do. She doesn’t like beads all over the floor, or arguments, but she is always nice and happy to see us. My loom with my half-finished choker is sitting out, so I go to it and sit down. Three other kids come in and sit down, one other fourth grader and Fran Herdez, who was in my class in second grade, and my friend Anita Kosumi. Fran always wears a leather headband strapped around her forehead and tied at the back of her head. Maybe to hold down her thick black hair. They find their looms across from mine and sit down.
“I brought these chokers today.”
Mrs. Fox pulls four chokers, each in a different color and a different design, out of a black drawstring bag. She’s telling us how the designs aren’t Me-wuk, our tribe’s designs, that they are just meant to look tribal. She passes the chokers around the table for each of us to hold and look at. They feel like the little red racer snakes my brother and I find on our way to school, cool and smooth to the touch. Then she tells us that she will help us attach clasps on ours once we are finished and the chokers are off the looms. I can’t imagine when that will be. Getting the tiny beads on the loom strings is hard and Mrs. Fox has to help us whenever we aren’t careful and get our needle and thread filled with different colored beads tangled among the others.
“Charlie’s going to give his choker to his little girlfriend,” Fran says, her scratchy voice, even more scratchy than usual. “His white girlfriend.”
Charlie doesn’t have a girlfriend, but Anita told me he likes Margie Johnson. His chair scrapes the floor as he shifts in his seat. I look his way.
“Oh, yeah. At least she’s not a wannabe, like some people.” Charlie leans in and puts his face right in mine like he did the day I slapped him on the bus.
Fran opens her mouth wide then laughs, a loud scratchy laugh that I’m sure can be heard all over the library.
I want to look over at Mrs. Fox. And I almost reach up and touch one of my braids, but I don’t. I just look down at my choker. The strings on the loom blur and all the different colors, the gold, black, and red beads melt into a muddy brown.
“Charlie, another word from you and you’ll spend the rest of club time in the office.”
I look up. Mrs. Fox looks more enojada than I have ever seen her look.
Everyone is stone quiet now, and I’ve lost my place in my tribal design, so I have to look at my paper design, and go back and count each gold bead in the new row, one by one. Then someone coughs and someone else rummages through the beads.
Anita is watching me from her side of the table. I can feel her eyes on me. I look up and she narrows her eyes Charlie’s way and wrinkles her nose.
Mrs. Fox looks up and sets down the loom she was holding. It clunks on the table.
“We are a club,” she says. “It’s important that we act like one. Picking on each other is not how you act in a club.”
No one says a word.
“Do you understand?” Mrs. Fox is looking at all of us, scanning the table.
I nod even though I don’t think I should have to. I can see others nodding out of the corner of my eye.
We sit still and unmoving until one of the third-graders goes back to rummaging in her bead sorter. I keep my eyes on my choker.
Everyone is quiet until Fran raises her hand.
“Mrs. Fox, can I use the bathroom?”
“Yes, you may. Hurry back.”
Fran nods and gets out of her chair.
“Can I go next?” Charlie asks with a straight face.
“Yes, you may.”
“I have to go too,” says one of the third graders.
“Okay,” says Mrs. Fox, who no longer sounds angry, “but next week we need to practice being a club.”
We all nod.
I want to ask to go to the bathroom now too, but I look at the clock. I can see there isn’t time to wait for Fran, and Charlie, and the third grader. I will go on the way back to class. Plus, I don’t want to walk with Charlie.
I try not to think about what he said anymore. I try to bead faster, but my hands move slow. It would be a terrible time to spill the tiny beads, to send them skittering, mixed up and unsorted on the floor.
Fran comes back to the table and sits down. Charlie gets up and walks toward the bathroom. I keep my head down, but I lift my eyes to peek at the clock. Only four minutes to go.
“Tina, you can go to the bathroom now,” Mrs. Fox says to the third grader even though Charlie is not back. “Everyone else, you can start cleaning up. Flor, you can be today’s cleanup helper.”
Being cleanup helper means that I get to help Mrs. Fox put the looms and beads in plastic crates and help her carry them to the Indian Club closet. She has the key on a rubber band on her wrist.
It’s 11:00 and Mrs. Fox excuses the others.
“Bye, Flor,” Anita says to me.
Charlie walks in from the bathroom, turns when he sees everyone filing out and follows Anita. I watch the back of his head as he walks out of the library.
Mrs. Fox smiles.
We set the looms side-by-side in crates and slide the closed bead sorters on the sides, careful not to break any strings.
I follow Mrs. Fox to the club closet. I don’t say anything. I am still trying to forget what Charlie said.
The closest is at the back of the library in the far corner, but it’s not a big library.
Mrs. Fox is quiet at first, but she turns to me at the closet.
“Flor, when I married Mr. Fox people said all sorts of mean things.”
She pulled the key from her wrist and stuck it in the keyhole.
“What did they say?”
She turns and faces me again.
“They said we shouldn’t get married because we were different, that he was a traitor, and that I didn’t know how to take care of an Indian man.
With the closet door now open, she is holding her hands out for me to pass her the crate.
I look right at her, Mrs. Fox, the teacher of the Indian club. Did the other kids know? Maybe I had missed something before. I look at her hair, short, dark brown and grey. Her eyes are brown too. I look at her skin, her face, her neck, her arms — she’s not dark, but not really güera either, about the same color as my mom.
“You’re not Indian, Mrs. Fox?
“No, not in the way you’d think,” she said. “Not in any way really, but I married an Indian, and I’ve learned a lot, a lot of things that have made my life more interesting.
I’m looking at her eyes now. I really want to understand.
I think about when we studied the missions and Mrs. Carr told us that a lot of Indians had Spanish last names like Martinez and Ramirez because they had been renamed by Spanish priests.
We are standing in front of the closet. I am still holding the crate. She takes it from me. She turns and puts it away, but she turns back, looking serious.
“Flor, there are lots of clubs and people are funny about them, but there are only two clubs in this town.”
My head hurts, and I feel like I can’t keep up. Is the other club the bar in town called The Club, the bar where I’ve seen the old seventh grade social studies teacher, Mr. Nelson, the bar where the retired mill workers sit all evening drinking beer? I don’t think so.
Then Mrs. Fox reaches down toward me with both hands. She touches the ends of my braids. She lifts one, then the other.
I feel like a dragonfly, like ones I’ve seen at the creek by my house buzzing above water waiting to land.
“I want you to know something,” she says, “you’re in the right club. Your mom did good signing you up.”
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