“Blue Blanket Dancer”

Fiction by James K. Phillips

    Ahkee had come to really like the two Narragansett women. They were big, beautiful, strong-willed and full of life, a mixture of native and Portuguese, with dark gold complexions, green eyes, and dark auburn hair that fell down their backs to just above their waists. Although they were big women, they danced effortlessly and smoothly, floating like the fog gliding through the New England woods where they came from. They were also the two of the top finishers at every pow wow they danced in, and a lot of women on the circuit were jealous of them for it. That, and for their habit of “borrowing” other women’s men shamelessly and brazenly. But they also had a reputation for smacking down anyone who had the gumption and nerve to call them on it.
    “For shit’s sake, I ain’t worried about what them women think or say,” Pearl said once after hearing that some Pequot women were a little peeved about her snagging one of their boyfriends after a late night forty-nine. A forty-nine can only be described as an after pow wow when the official one is over. It can and usually does go on until the following morning and as far as some participants are concerned, all rules of etiquette are suspended.
    “Hell,” Pearl laughed, “if they had more meat on their plates, they wouldn’t have no trouble keeping their men from trying the entrees and desserts from another table! I mean why would I even want to steal a man that runs around on his woman any damn way?”
    Pearl and Naya came from a rough and tumble family of 13 children. Pearl was the oldest and Naya the next in line and neither were afraid to mix it up with either man or woman. They had grown up taking care of their younger brothers and sisters, standing in for their parents, who worked long and hard to feed their wild bunch of kids.
    Pearl and Naya had taken a liking to Ahkee and her kids, but didn’t think much of Danny even though he had tried to ingratiate himself into their good graces. They would ignore him whenever he was with Ahkee and keep her out at their camp just to get under his skin.
    Having already been through several marriages each —  Pearl was on her third, and Naya’s second husband was currently serving time for what she would only describe as “basic stupidity” —  and seven kids between them —  four for Pearl and three for Naya — they made it plain and clear that they thought Ahkee would be better off on her own. But they also understood how Ahkee could still love and miss Danny. Best of all they made her laugh and helped with the girls when they came around, braiding their hair and helping put on their outfits. Naya had given each of the girls a pair of beaded moccasins and matching barrettes she’d made over the winter. Of course, the girls thought the two sisters were wonderful and exciting and were totally in love with the loud and larger-than-life women.
    Standing under the big tent in the arena now, Ahkee looked around to see who was in her category. She was glad the two Narragansett women had decided not to dance this time. It was two fewer competitors she had to worry about and there was no doubt in her mind that Pearl and Naya would have smoked everyone out there like cheap tobacco.
    The two sisters had come to the pow wow but were helping out at the family-run food and crafts stands. This involved Pearl standing in the back of the food stand giving orders and Naya working at the craft stand selling the beaded moccasins, belts, bags, and barrettes the family had made during the winter.
    After setting up their stands and leaving the always arguing younger brothers and sisters with instructions, they had come over to help Ahkee get the girls dressed and fed, then offered the services of their teenage daughters to watch them while she danced.
    “It helps keep them all out of trouble,” Pearl had told her, meaning not just Ahkee’s girls but Pearl and Naya’s nieces and daughters too. The last time Ahkee saw her daughters, they were sitting in a row of folding chairs along the perimeter of the dance arena with at least five teen girls arguing and fussing over how the little girls should wear their hair and what steps to do.
    She could see from their beaming faces and wide eyes that Amy and Anok’qus clearly enjoyed the attention from the older girls. Ahkee hoped that her daughters would look as pretty and dance as well as the Snow Flower girls when they reached that age. Anok’qus and Amy were already heartbreakingly cute in their little outfits and could keep a beat easily.
    The two little girls loved to dance, always placing and always excited to run up and get their prize money for their category. They always offered some of their winnings to their father, whom they adored, and he was good about giving it to their grandmother to put in their college accounts. Ahkee thought it was too bad the fool couldn’t be as responsible with his own money.
    Looking at the other blanket dancers, Ahkee saw that she might have a chance to place after all. There were 11 other women in her category competing for four cash prizes starting at $750. She crossed off three of them because they were hobbyists and two more because their outfits shouted “catalog.” The rest of the women were dressed in traditional woodland regalia of skins or trade cloth and beautiful beadwork and she could tell that they knew what they were doing out in the arena.
    Ahkee had made her own dress and moccasins during the past winter from smoke-tanned deerskin that she had traded her jingle dress and leggings for. The Onondaga woman whom she had made the trade with had also thrown in an otter pelt because she was so impressed by Ahkee’s handiwork. Ahkee had made a yoke out of the pelt, trimming it with shells and beadwork that matched her crown and moccasins. Over it, she wore her grandmother’s wampum necklaces that had been handed down to her before the old woman had walked on at the age of 91. She also wore the silver earrings the girls had bought for her birthday. But her most prized possession of all was the blue trade blanket that Danny had surprised her with last Christmas. It was a beautiful Pendleton he had bought with his second place winnings at last year’s Pequot Pow Wow.
    As she smoothed and adjusted it for the contest, Ahkee remembered what he had told her when he presented it to her: “It will be like I’ve got my arms around you, even if you’re dancing someplace and I’m not there.” They had laughed about it and later on that night christened the blanket properly.
    Now, as she realized the prophecy of his words Ahkee felt like she had in the morning — sad and angry, but mostly sad that Danny wasn’t here with her.
    The announcer called for the Eastern Blanket category dancers to enter the arena. As she headed for her customary spot on the northern side, Ahkee heard her daughters’ high-pitched voices yell out encouragement to her. She looked over at them and smiled, again thinking of how much they looked like miniature female versions of their father even from a distance.
    The drummers started up the beat, building to a crescendo. Ahkee was glad it was the Red Tail singers from her home rez, nine men and boys, all friends and relatives who knew how to kick it properly and were considered one of the better drum groups on the trail.
    As she began to step into the dance, Ahkee heard her uncle Boo’s voice rise high above the beat before the other singers joined in. As always, the pounding of her heart seemed to take on the beat of the drum, and the impassioned, keening voices took her back to a time when women of her tribe danced for their men, to court them as well as keep them, to praise them and boast of their prowess in hunting and war.
    She imagined that Danny as an old-time man, away with a hunting party in the forest or out on the ocean in a big canoe catching fish or whales. Her dance would bring him back safely, and  — once wrapped in the warmth of the blanket with her  — he would not want to or even be able to leave again, ever.
    Ahkee lost herself in the music and her imagination. The blanket seemed to take on a life of its own and she let it tell the story of her heart’s hopes and sorrows. It seemed to go on for a lifetime and then it was over. She felt more than heard the song stop. She didn’t know if she had over-stepped or under-stepped, had danced well or not, and for the moment she didn’t care. The music and blanket had taken her away for the space of a song.
    Now she was back in the present and she could hear the announcer’s voice crackle over the loudspeakers, thanking the dancers and asking the audience for a round of applause. Part of her was still in another place and reluctant to return to the here and now.
    Draping her blanket over her arm, Ahkee followed the other dancers to where the judges waited. As she stood with the other women facing them, she heard her breath flow through her lungs and felt her blood pulsing along with the echo of the drumbeat in her ears. But this time was different; she was not tired, or even winded. Once the five judges finished their tallying and gave back their scoring clipboards to the arena director they shook each of the contestants’ hands. Two of them smiled at her and one winked her approval.
    As she turned and shook the hands of the other contestants, Ahkee thought they all looked at her strangely, but she didn’t think much of it nor care. For the first time in a long while she felt it had all come together in this dance. She felt no sadness and no worries, no tiredness and none of the post-dance blues, just the evanescent high of the dance itself. Nothing or no one could impinge on that feeling.
    As she went to gather her girls for the dinner break she almost walked into Pearl and Naya, who had been watching from the sidelines with them. They too, were looking at her in a different way although they were smiling their big teeth smiles. Pearl wore an apron with the initials FBI on it. As Ahkee took a closer look she could see smaller letters after each initial that spelled out “Fry Bread Inspector.” The apron was immaculately clean; Pearl didn’t have to work in the kitchen anymore, she just oversaw the operation and gave orders.
    Pearl gathered Ahkee in her arms, squeezing her so tightly she felt like a bunny in a python’s grip. “Well now little sister,” she laughed, “you didn’t do too bad this time out. Not bad, not bad at all. It looks like the spirit of the dance finally caught up with you!” 
     “Yeah, looks like we’ve got to watch our asses from now on,” Naya laughed. “You went from channeling the old-time Ojibwa girl to dancing like an old-time Narragansett all within the span of a dance!” After giving the teens their leave with strict instructions on when to come back to the stand, they helped Ahkee steer her own protesting little girls through the crowd and out of the arena.
    Later, after packing up all the regalia, duffel bags, tent, and sleeping gear, Ahkee quietly closed the back of the Blazer. The girls were fast asleep in their car seats, having worn themselves out as usual. Ahkee was glad that the teen girls had stuck around to help them change into their regular clothes and load them into the car. She smiled to herself as she checked to make sure they were secured in their seats.
    Anok’qus had spilled blueberries down the front of her dress and Amy had lost one of her new beaded barrettes. But they’d had a great time, and won first and third in their contest. Ahkee had told them how proud she was of them, and they made her promise to tell their dad how well they had danced when they got back home.
    After hugging and thanking Pearl, Naya, and all the other young women, Ahkee got in her beat-up truck and slowly drove across the bumpy grass of the campground to the main road.
    It was going to be a long drive home, and she was anxious to get on the road. As she turned onto the main road she thought again of her contest dance. It had felt cathartic and lifted her spirit in a way that hadn’t happened in a long time. She thought about what Pearl and Naya had said about the spirit of the dance taking her. She believed they knew what they were talking about and hoped she could bring up the feeling in the future.
    She smiled to herself as she remembered what Danny had said when he gave her the blanket. Then she thought about how if he found out how well she had done he would try to sweet-talk her into paying his fine and getting him out of the Gray Bar. Maybe she would and maybe she wouldn’t. It was something she would have plenty of time to think about on the ride back.
    Right now, all she could think about was how the $550 she’d won for placing third would be more than enough to pay for a night or two in a motel with a decent bathtub, soft bed, and air-conditioning, turned up high.

    James K. Phillips, a resident of the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton, has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing. A dancer on the pow-wow trail himself, he has done well as an Eastern War dancer in the last few years.