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Red Moon – by Tommy Orange


We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Red Moon – by Tommy Orange

Emily Paulos

I made this digital story two years ago at CDS. My son had just been born, and it had never seemed so important to consider who I was, what I was doing, where I came from. There were things I wanted to be able to pass on to him. And things I didn’t. Which is what the story is about. How pain and healing move through us, beyond us, on to the next generations. The story is also about the Sand Creek Massacre. And what it’s meant to my family.

When I was young, my dad used to tell us a story about a young warrior named Blind Man, who saved our great-great-grandpa, White Bird – who was just a baby then – from sure death at Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. They took each other’s names. Because that’s what you did then. And that’s where my Dad’s Indian name came from. From that young warrior. From that day. That act is why my family is here today. That’s what my dad meant to tell us by telling us that story.

To keep remembering something such as a massacre is not an exercise for morbidity or a futile attempt to honor those lives so cruelly taken. It is a story we had to keep telling. It’s not a cautionary tale or a lesson in why not to trust the American government. It is the story of our people. What we’ve been through. And the honoring of their lives comes with the living honor we bring to our own lives, as we choose to live them. 

The massacre was always there in the back of our minds. Behind the look in our dad’s eyes when he didn’t think we were looking. When he wasn’t looking at anything. When he got so quiet it was like he was dreaming with his eyes open, or nightmaring.

Our family came to know its latent effect as time went on. Mental illness, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, divorce, suicide attempts. We were all trying to make sense of history, and our own story, how to keep living in a world that continued in its willful blindness, its attempt at telling our stories for us, stories that effectively distort the past through violence, misinformation or a dehumanizing kind of romanticism. Just this past year the Gap corporation tried to put out a shirt that said Manifest Destiny in big bold letters on the front, Victoria’s Secret models wore headdresses in a fashion show, Gwen Stefani dressed up as an Indian in a cowboy and Indian themed music video, and on a CBS sitcom (Mike and Molly), the following was said: "Arizona? Why would I go to Arizona?" said Molly's mother-in-law, played by actress Rondi Reed. "It's nothing but a furnace full of drunk Indians."

It feels like we’re still at war. They’re just not willing to call it that, or maybe it’s a different kind of war. The enemy we face is faceless. She is someone we happen to overhear, dressed up as a scantily clad Indian for Halloween, saying, "C’mon, it’s not a big deal." They’re drilling and excavating our lands, poisoning our waters, underfunding and defunding what programs that do exist to help. This is still happening. They’re dividing us up by our blood. They’re unwilling to take us off of their team jerseys, unwilling to stop considering us as mascots… namely objects, mythological creatures, and animals. The big, faceless, them. There and not there.

Doing everything, and not doing anything. Innocent as the systems that favor them.

This is not another anti-American rant. I feel proud to be American. But that pride comes with questions, doubts, and even a deep kind of rage. A rage at those of us unwilling to look… unwilling to listen. These injustices are happening right now. And a majority of the time it is met with the sentiment: Would you get over it, already?

Recently, I was back in New Mexico, helping my dad with a digital storytelling grant he and his wife were awarded in order to work with the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, their youth. When we got some free time, I set up a camera, and he started telling me stories.

I listened to my dad, watched him remember, and it was as if for the first time I was hearing all of it. Because there are some things we have to hear many times to understand. Or there are things we hear over time that change with us, the listening deepens, or the information coalesces, forms a deeper narrative, brings new understandings and insights, new beauty or horror.

My dad told me they all used to gather around one TV, at the house of the only family in the whole community that had one, to watch boxing. He told me he only wore moccasins up until the age of four, which was when he saw a white person for the first time. He talked about how up until he got into school, he only spoke and understood Cheyenne. He said of his great-grandparents, who raised him, that his great-grandfather was blind, and his great-grandmother was lame, so he became their eyes and their legs. This is his story, or part of it. Our dad, a refugee from a country that no longer exists, with America right on top of it. Our dad who tells his stories to his Creator in prayers and puts up ceremonies for anyone who asks him to. Who worked as a civil engineer for 22 years at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs to support our family. Who grew up hearing the story of Sand Creek, and how our family, each of us, was saved by a boy named Blind Man.

Our family, and families like ours, are still trying to tell our stories, still trying to move past, or through, or out of a devastating past. A past which history tells us was as tried and true as it was red, white, and blue.

The reason I tell stories, and listen to them, is because they, and not history, are what make up the sound of what’s happened. It is a chorus of voices that speaks the truth, not a single authority, not a textbook, not an American monologue to itself, not the individual, it is the people’s song, and it has never been quiet, only silenced.

My son just turned two. And his grandpa will be spending the summer with us. We hope he will teach his grandson Cheyenne. We hope to hear more of his stories. Our lives are not perfect. We don’t all have it together. But we’re alive, and willing. We dream, and we love, and we remember. We are still here, telling our story.