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Tenure

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Devon Mihesuah, an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is the Cora Lee Beers Price Professor in the Humanities Program at the University of Kansas and the former editor of American Indian Quarterly. A historian by training, she is the author of numerous award-winning books on Indigenous history and current issues, including Ned Christie: The Creation of an Outlaw and Cherokee Hero, Choctaw Crime and Punishment: 1884-1907; American Indigenous Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism; and the novels Hatak Witches and the forthcoming Dance of the Returned. See her blog at: https://devonmihesuah.blog.ku.edu/.
Content Warning(s):
Alcohol, Cultural Appropriation

Be careful what you wish for, lest your wish come true.

Maybe, or maybe not, from “The Old Man and Death,” one of Aesop’s Fables.

March 2014

Chad read the message again.

“We had many qualified applicants for the position. After reviewing the applications received by the deadline, yours was not selected for further consideration. Thank you for your interest in our history program.”

He crumpled the letter and threw it towards the waste basket where it landed next to three other balls of paper. He drank the last bit of warm Coors backwash.

Chad paced his studio apartment, avoiding the computer table and television stand. His elbow hit the bookshelf and sent half a dozen books tumbling. He cursed then backed into the refrigerator, the handle colliding with his spine. He dropped on his futon that served as a bed, elbows on knees, and stared at the unraveling throw rug.

Chad had finally completed his dissertation and still had not found a faculty position. He knew that many graduate students had difficulty landing tenure track jobs, but he was not going to settle for teaching history at a junior college. No way. Still, he had to consider that he had published only two articles in regional journals and won just as many small travel grants. He gave several conference presentations, but they were all on the same topic. And his dissertation was on Choctaw removal, hardly a groundbreaking topic.

He thought about his classmate Neta Eastman. Hell, she got an offer without even applying. A direct hire from University of Oklahoma. How did that happen? Actually, he knew exactly how that happened. Despite her five published articles and a pre-contract for a book, he felt certain that Neta got her job because she was Chickasaw. And for sure that was how she won a Ford Foundation dissertation fellowship. Not fair.

Chad paced and rubbed his chin stubble as he thought. He returned to his computer chair, clicked to the acknowledgements page, and picked up the last of his cold Sonic cheeseburger. He chewed as he considered the paragraph. He mumbled, “I also want to acknowledge the sage advice given me by my other dissertation committee members, Professors Anne Elliot, Alexander Lewis and Kenneth Walters.”

Those faculty, plus his major advisor, Joseph Michaels, had already approved his dissertation. All Chad had to do was make a few edits in the last chapter and write the thank yous. The committee would not see this writing project again. He cocked his head. His profile needed to exude something extra.

Chad moved the mouse across the Geico caveman pad and stopped the cursor at the end of the sentence that read, “Finally, this work could not have been completed without the loving support of my family,” and before the sentence that began, “My parents have always believed in me.”

Chad reached for the Coors, remembered it was empty, then picked up the Sonic cup and sucked in flat Pepsi through the straw until he hit air. He tapped his foot along with the pulsing cursor. He typed, then puffed his cheeks and sat back in his computer chair, mindful of the broken arm rests. He read aloud the new insertion: “My most heartfelt thanks goes to my grandmother, Meemaw, who taught me our Choctaw traditions.” He clicked his teeth. Not quite right. He started again. “My most heartfelt thanks goes to my grandmother Meemaw, who overcame a lifetime of racism and hardship as an Indian woman. She instilled in me a deep appreciation for the cultural traditions and values that inform my work.”

Chad reread the two sentences and nodded. His mother had researched her and her husband’s families going back seven generations. Their lineage was Irish and English. Still, a few years prior, Chad had considered claiming to be Indian to see if that got him anywhere. But the Ward Churchill and Andrea Smith debacles convinced him that ruse would not work. Then a few months prior he saw something that intrigued him: a woman claiming to be a Mohawk descendant. Now that was worth thinking about. Descendant. Not enrolled. He drummed his fingers on the small desk top.

Chad could not enroll in any tribe because that required bona fide linkage to Native ancestors. But descendancy was doable. If anyone challenged him on that claim he could say his family did not sign up on tribal rolls because they denied their heritage or were ashamed of being Indians. Still, determined minds might look him up. The challenge now was to somehow preempt investigation into his past.

Chad needed access to the Dawes Roll. He did not have the time or money to travel to the federal archives in Fort Worth or to the Oklahoma Historical Society to look at them, so the day after he turned in his dissertation, he joined ancestry.com, the online genealogical site that allowed him to do research at home. And in private.

Chad’s goal was to find Choctaw last names that matched those in his white family linage. He quickly found several matches among the tribe: Roberts, Wade, and Williams. He retrieved the tribal roll numbers of the individual family members along with the census card numbers. After hours of searching ancestry.com and categorizing, he narrowed the many names to those who were the same gender and birth year as his real ancestors.

Looking good, he thought. And very easy. As he dropped links to files in the “Build a Family Tree” feature, he felt a pain in his right temple. Where’s that Ibuprofen? He found the bottle on the floor and took the remaining three capsules.

For grins he looked at the Cherokee rolls. To his delight, he found his family names there as well. Another name stopped him. Ross. Everyone knew of John Ross, the Cherokee Chief. Chad had ancestors named Rose. Despite the pounding in his head and a nagging feeling of guilt that clashed with his growing feeling of empowerment, he stayed up all night chugging Coors and perusing his Rose ancestors from the tree his mother sent him. All I need is one. Just one. At four a.m. he found what he was looking for: a misspelling of the name Rose on a census record. It was in messy handwriting and looked like Ross. He dropped that name onto a branch of his new tree.

He stood and raised his fists to the ceiling. “And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen!”

Chad grimaced at the sharp pain in his temple. He rummaged in a box for more pain meds, found an old bottle of Advil, and took four, chased by expired orange juice he pulled from the back of the mini-fridge. The cold sweetness made him feel better. He returned to the chair with two Coors.

Choctaw and Cherokee descent, he thought. Why not? Chad figured that anyone who investigated his tree would see those legitimate names and links to their tribal documents. He hoped no one would bother to scrutinize how those names connected to his real family. How many academics knew how to do genealogy, anyway?

Satisfied that he had fleshed out a mighty family oak, he created his fabricated identity statement. “Chad Schroeder, of Choctaw and Cherokee descent and member of the prominent Wade, Ross, Roberts, and Williams families.” He backspaced and considered. Should he drop Williams? Were they prominent? As far as Chad could tell, all the families were farmers except for Ross. Chad figured that by plopping Ross into the second spot, it would appear that he was a casual, yet golden, descendant of a significant Cherokee man.

At 6am, bleary eyed and hungover, Chad discovered three more tenure track history positions in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and began his letters of application.

End of April 2014

Chad found himself a finalist for three tenure track positions. Two of those had available endowed professorships designated for Native Americans. Neither required proof of tribal membership nor were they reserved for Natives of a certain tribe or geographical area.

On visit number one, to the University of Northern Oklahoma, all had gone well until after his job talk. The third person to ask him a question was a woman who looked to be about twenty. She stood at the microphone in the aisle, confident and beautiful in her red T-shirt and tight jeans. Her thick, dark hair and large breasts made him smile. That is, until she spoke.

“You say you are a Choctaw and Cherokee descendant. If these families you claim are so prominent, then why aren’t you enrolled?” Her face was as serious as the sudden cramp in his guts.

“Well, my great-grandparents died before the rolls opened.”

Many heads in the audience turned expectantly towards the young woman. Chad had the feeling that this was not the first time she had questioned someone publicly.

“You’re here, are you not?” she asked.

“Well,” he snorted. “Uh, yeah.” His head pounded.

“That means your great-grandparents’ children should have been enrolled. Nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles.”

Oh, shit fire. He had not thought this through. “They left Indian Territory and did not enroll.” A sharp, intense pain over his right ear felt like an ice pick stab.

A tall, gray-haired man in a sports jacket stood. “Enough, Evangeline. You can’t ask those questions.”

“I most certainly can, Professor Kemp. Tribes have many lists and his family should be on tribal census records, the removal roll, the—” Her microphone stopped working.

The late lunch of cotoletta alla Milanese and two Stranahan’s Single Malt Whiskeys churned in Chad’s stomach. His face felt hot and he feared he might hurl his expensive meal onto the front row.

“Next question!” blurted Neil Straight, the boot-wearing chair of the history department.

Chad saw that Evangeline also spoke, but he could not hear her. Her microphone had been unplugged. Her nostrils flared and she glared at him. A young man wearing a suit and tie asked loudly, “Can you tell us the themes you would use in an American Indian history course? I mean, you organize your lectures thematically, or chronologically?”

Later that night on his flight home, Chad gulped a third Merlot. His head pounded and his eyes burned. Even if the department voted for him, he would still have to face the wrath of that hellcat who was on to him. And there were plenty more of them in Oklahoma. He knew he could not win.

The next two interviews at the University of Walla Walla and the University of California at Escondido went much better. He arrived prepared, yet wary of curve balls. No one asked about his family or challenged his integrity. He had friendly breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings with grad students and faculty and his job talks were smooth. Everyone bought his bullshit. No one knew much about Indian Territory. He flew home from both trips sober.

When the offers came, he jumped on the California gig. There were few Native faculty there and the history department only offered one class in Indian history. He would create more. In Escondido, he was far from the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations. The chances were slim that anyone would challenge him.

July 2014

Chad and a cloud of steam exited the tiny shower. He toweled off as he looked for his ringing iPhone.

“Hi, honey. What’re you doing?” His mother always asked that.

“Just got out of the shower.” He sat naked on the futon. Mom would be mad if she knew he did that. “Finishing my packing.”

 “So, you’re headed out this week?”

“Yeah. Got the oil changed.”

“I looked it up.”

Chad paused, staring out the window. He had a clear view of a gas station.

“Looked up what?”

“The professorship you got. What does it mean that the endowed professorship is for a Native American?”

“Well, uh, it actually means that it’s for those who write about them.” A dull thud pounded behind his forehead.

“Oh.” She drew out the word like a long exhale.

“Mom, I got another call. I have to take it. Love you.”

“Love you t—” He clicked off. He would do that a lot in the next few years.

October 2015

Chad met with several high-powered historians at the Organization of Western Historians conference in Los Angeles. Three of the four men were obviously white. The fourth, the Latino-presenting Louie Armijo claimed to be of Meskwaki descent. Chad knew the balding poser was full of shit. He was from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Meskwakis were an eastern woodland group. But, Armijo wrote an award winning book on the northern plains sun dance and everyone bowed to him as an historian equal to Tacitus. Chad felt it best to go along with the ruse.

The men invited Chad to skip the afternoon sessions to eat sashimi and drink sake at a sushi bar on Highway 10. Their drinks had not even arrived before they began talking smack about the outspoken Native scholar activists who objected to yet another white scholar being given the annual “Lifetime Native Historian Achievement Award” at the Native historians’ banquet. The Latino Meskwaki received it the year before despite having written only one book and being aged just forty years. 

“That Dorothea Harjo just won’t stop,” William Reeves said. “Leads a damn walkout at the award banquet? Jesus. What a bitch.”

Chad recalled Evangeline’s questions at his first interview. He understood the anger that emanated from these sake-drinking men. Truth hit hard. And it hurt.

“Decolonize!” yelled Bill Wright before gulping his fifth glass of clear alcohol. The few patrons at the restaurant ignored him. “Ha!” he snorted. “Jesus. Where do these people come from?” he asked as he slurped down an oyster.

Great moral question, Bill, Chad thought. He knew there were several Native scholars who were way overdue for the recognition. Despite the activists being correct about the awards, there was no way the OWH would honor any of them. The white men and women in charge of the organization supported each other and only honored those who supported them. Academics looking to rise in the ranks of the Ivory Tower considered the recognition priceless. The objective was to render invisible the outspoken Native scholars. Malleable Natives who owed the white leaders for helping them get their degrees and to find jobs defended their overlords, but numerous accomplished Native scholars who pushed backed against the racist organization had abandoned the association, dismissing the award as meaningless.

“So, tell us about your book,” Ted Lucas asked Chad.

Chad sipped sake and coughed. The warm alcohol did not agree with him. Ted was the smooth talking one of the bunch. He wore a trimmed van dyke beard and ironed white shirt rolled at the sleeves. His jacket hung from the nearby stand. Chad knew that this man held serious power in the field and behaved as if he had personally known Geronimo and planted the Haudenosaunee Great Tree of Peace. He had written two tedious books that had won every history award: a 500 page tome about Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary and an even longer snooze fest about Fort Abraham Lincoln.

He thought about saying, “I did my thesis on the Choctaw removal, and for my dissertation I expanded on the first ten years after their arrival,” but knew these esteemed scholars would dismiss him. As they should, because this topic had been rehashed countless times. “For the book, I’m adding family stories.” Then someone would ask, “Why didn’t you put those in the dissertation?”

Despite Vine Deloria’s concern about scholars repeatedly “hoeing the same rows,” Chad’s contrived family stories would add a new dimension to the discussion. He considered Ted’s question. Maybe they knew nothing about his thesis and dissertation.

“Choctaw removal,” Chad said. “I have a lot of family stories.” Or, he would. He had to create them first. As a bonus, he wouldn’t have to interview any real Choctaws. Suddenly, a pain hit his right temple with the force of a ball-been hammer. His companions were too lit to notice him flinch. Maybe I should see a doctor, Chad thought.

“Ah,” Dale Griffith began. “Integrating empirical research. Good.”

Chad took deep breaths. His mental wheels turned as the pain receded. Many Native scholars included familial stories in their works, but were often ignored and sometimes treated with disdain by those who did not have personal connections to their topics. Chad, on the other hand, was apparently “in.” They kept talking to him and buying him sake. But why?

He was about to find out.

“Ted and I are going to write a text on Indian history,” Dale said. “We know one is out now, but we want to include objectives, assessment ideas, study guides, you know. All that.”

Chad nodded. There already existed a perfectly good text with all those features. It sold a lot of copies. If you wanted to make money in academia, either become an administrator or write a textbook. Then he understood. Chad knew what was coming next:

“We could use a third editor.”

Writers use several strategies to keep interest high and criticism at bay. Chad had read some ridiculous book acknowledgements that included every Native writer who wrote about the same topic as the author. Who would bash a book that included their name? Writers also knew the value of having Natives endorse their books with back-cover blurbs. In this situation, criticizing a book with a Native co-editor would be a bad look.

Chad excused himself. In the men’s room, he swallowed four prescription Tylenol 3s with codeine. He might regret doubling the dosage, but liked the relaxed sensation the pills gave him. Certainly better than the nausea and constipation that Oxi offered.

He looked in the mirror and smiled. These guys, he shook his head. These fragile guys with their white privilege would always denigrate people not like them. But they were smart enough to know that they had to play nice with some Indians. They needed allies from the opposition to back up their behaviors and opinions. And they settled on him. How ironic. They had no idea Chad was a white man just like them.

He snorted. He had arrived at the sweet spot. The safest and most lucrative place in the academy. Chad recalled what his dad told him about moving up the ladder in most businesses:  It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know in powerful positions and if they like you. If he hooked up with these guys, he would always have a job. He would win awards. He would accept their invitation.

March 2017

Chad paced in front of the dry-erase board, his fingers uncapping and recapping the marker that he never used. He faced sixty students in the tiered auditorium. There would have been eighty if everyone had showed up. But this was the last day before spring break and the missing pupils were probably playing Greek volleyball as they drank beer and inhaled grill smoke. None of these kids knew a thing about Indians and most thought the sophomore level “American Indian History” course would be an easy grade.

Today he talked about creation stories and attempted to sound passionate about tribal emergence beliefs, especially the one about Choctaws emerging from underground up onto the earth through Nanih Waiya, an actual mound revered by Mississippi Choctaws.

“And, we have many strange entities in our culture. For example,” he clicked the presentation clicker and a Wookie-like creature appeared on the screen. “This is a shampe. A large, hairy, stinky creature. Other tribes have similar beings.”

“Yeah, Sasquatch, Big Foot, the Yeti,” a voice in back shouted.

Chad pointed at him in agreement. Another click and a hazy blue heart floated in a misty background with the words Hashok Okwa Hui’ga in black letters at the bottom of the slide. He couldn’t pronounce that, so he said, “This is Grass Water Drop. We can only see his heart at night. But, well, we’re not supposed to see him because he’ll take us away. Or something.” He really was not sure, so he was glad when another voice yelped, “Swamp creature!”

“Indeed.” Chad did not know much about these freaky beings but he knew students loved this stuff. “And this one is the Nalusa Falaya. He’s long and black.” A few students snickered. “Stop that,” he chided. “A man with little eyes and elf ears. He crawls around like a snake. We don’t want to see him either.”

“And finally, the big bad.” Click. A black shape in a gray background. “This guy is huge, black. And we’re not allowed to say his name or else he shows up. Like Candy Man.” He looked at the audience, hoping someone would catch his pop culture reference. A few students nodded. Disappointed that no one laughed, he continued. Chad flipped to the next dark interpretation of the creature. “Nalusa Chito. Chito means big. Nalusa means black thingie. If we say his name, then he knows about us. And he reads our minds. If you think thoughts you shouldn’t, he eats your brain and soul.”

Chad suddenly felt nauseous. A cold needle stabbed his right temple, traveled through his brain and exited out his left ear. He thought he might have stumbled, but his hand still rested on the podium.

“Dr. Schroeder!” came the voice from the second row. Chad looked up. No one seemed to have noticed his glitch.

God. Not this guy, Chad thought. The buttoned up pink Polo-shirted young man had a question for every lecture and he always zeroed in on the sensitive topics. “Do you believe those stories? Do you believe tribes are from this hemisphere?” Before Chad could speak, the dark haired youth from Utah continued, “You don’t really think that Choctaws came out of the ground, do you?”

Of course they didn’t, you idiot, Chad thought but did not say because students often recorded lectures, or, at least portions of lectures to edit and post. As he turned to face the students, the gong sounded above his right temple. He flinched from the pain. He looked down to hide his discomfort.

“And what about these weird monsters?” pink shirt relented. “You believe in them?”

Chad took a deep breath.  Tylenol and codeine was just a few minutes away. “I respect my elders and the stories they tell me. Tribes have traditions, just like every culture, right? I was not present at creation and neither was anyone else.” A few students laughed. Then he added in an attempt to sound authoritative: “And no one in my family has ever seen them.” Then he shifted like he always did and reversed the situation. “Do you think God created the heavens and the earth in seven days?”

No one answered. “Okay. This is not a religion course and I’m not putting anyone on the spot.” In an attempt to avoid further awkwardness, he looked at his watch and said, “Spring break starts at midnight. I’m letting you go early. Have a great vacation.”

The next afternoon.

Chad flew home to Missouri for three days of spring break. That was more than enough time. He had avoided seeing his family for two years, aware that his mother and sister Janice knew he was up to something.

His father retrieved him from the airport and said nothing about his son’s man bun. Chad had been overzealous with the tanner and Dad did not mention that, either.

He engaged in awkward conversation with his parents and played ball with the dog until his sister returned from work. She lived at home but got a new job as an accountant and planned to move out in a few weeks.

As she always had, Janice plopped down next to him on the sofa, her right leg draped over his left thigh.

“Hey,” she yelped. She looked down where their forearms rubbed together. “What the heck.” Chad jerked his arm away. “Seriously Chad. What the heck? Did you shave your arms?”

He stood. She grabbed at his hand. He glanced at their dad, but Harold appeared focused on Judge Judy who screeched, “You’re stupid!!” at a man who thought it acceptable to defecate in his front yard because his water had been turned off and he couldn’t flush the toilet.

“No, I didn’t,” Chad shot back.

“You sure did. It’s all stubbly.”

Chad felt his cheeks burn.

A bowl hit the table in the dining room. “Dinner!” their mom yelled.

“And your hair. Seriously. A man bun? And you’re kind of orange. You’re being weird,” she whispered as they sat. “Are you auditioning for a play?”

Chad spent the remaining two days sleeping late and helping his father in the yard. When it came time to leave, his sister followed him to their father’s car, stepped close, and quietly said, “Don’t be stupid, dick head.”

May 2018

As his tenure year crept closer, Chad felt pressure to get his book out. By year four, he had delivered fourteen conference papers. He got a lot of mileage from his creative removal stories by presenting the same talk a dozen times, each with a different title. Another presentation focused on removal policy. A tired subject, to be sure. Those talks he reserved for the massive conferences where there were so many simultaneous sessions that either only a handful of people attended the unexciting ones, or audiences flocked to sessions with big names or hot topics. Chad did not care that his room was empty as long as his CV grew.

Writing was another issue. He had authored twenty-six book reviews, but those pieces would not count much, if at all, towards tenure. He still had only two minor articles. For tenure, he needed either at least six accepted by the top journals in his field or his book had to be accepted by fall year after next.

Chad sat in front of the computer looking at the table of contents of his revised dissertation. He had created six removal stories and matched the tales with the Ross, Roberts, Wade, and Williams people he found on the Dawes Roll. Still, the work came up short. He drummed his fingers on the table. What else? What else? What else?

For sure, he needed pictures. He googled Skullyville, Oklahoma, one of the first Choctaw settlements in Indian Territory. He clicked the link to the iconic cemetery list and read the names. He smiled when he saw headstones with two of his fabricated Choctaw family represented. The next step would be to trace those family trees and connect them to the people he’d chosen as his ancestors. He felt energized. This cemetery had possibilities.

As he scrolled through the pictures of the boneyard, he registered a new throb in the back of his brain. He went to the kitchen for cold water and downed two glasses. Better.

Back at his computer, he considered his end game. I should go down there. See where they arrived. See it for myself.

He googled Oklahoma. The drive from Oklahoma City to Skullyville was less than three hours. He would stay at the Choctaw Casino and Resort, just seven miles from Skullyville. I can buy all sorts of Choctaw stuff there, he thought. He made travel reservations.

A severe thunderstorm in OKC delayed Chad’s flight, but he got an upgraded vehicle. He arrived at Skullyville at 8:20. Curious horses trotted to the fence as he drove past. Enough light remained for him to walk around the cemetery, although he’d have to use a flashlight if he stayed longer than twenty minutes. He could use his iPhone light.

He took the turn at the Skullyville Cemetery street sign, stopped, and rolled down the window to take a picture of the engraved cemetery tribute stone. Over the engine he heard a bird chirping. A loud bird. What is that?

There was no breeze. The thunderstorm dropped three inches of rain and now the humidity felt like a rain forest. The bird’s chirps faded and he heard crickets and a couple of vocal cows. A distant dog barked.

Chad rolled up his window and shifted the vent of cold air to his face. He continued his drive. Gray headstones appeared in the graveyard ahead. He stopped next to a dusty blue Ford truck, the windows rolled down. He reluctantly turned off the engine. The air conditioner died with it.

Chad watched a family walk amid the gravestones across the grassy open space. Parents and two kids, a boy and a girl around seven and ten. All had dark hair and skin. Real Choctaws visiting their real ancestors, he guessed. Chad started his tour of the graveyard by moving opposite them.

That chittering again. Next to his car, then a small bird flew across the field. What the heck kind of bird makes that noise?

It was 8:30. The sun fell behind the tall trees. He already had his hotel room reserved at the casino, so he could wander after dark. Still, he had to get on the plane at 9am the next day and did not want to come back here in the morning.

Chad quickened his pace. He pulled his small notepad and pen from his pocket. The headstones were creepy. Like dirty snaggleteeth. Some were broken. The open spaces meant the gravestones were both horizontal and buried, or the stones had long since deteriorated. I’m walking on dead people. He did not like that imagery.

He wandered through the old graveyard and listened to the noisy bird chittering at the family. His head pounded and his damp T-shirt stuck to his back and chest. He slapped at a mosquito on his neck.

Suddenly, the family moved from where they stood under the towering oaks and into the open. The group hurried to their truck, “Tushpa! Tushpa!” the mother cried as she and her husband dragged their children by the hands.

“Mom!” the little girl yelled. “What is it?”

He watched as the four got into the truck and slammed the doors. The father gunned the engine and put the truck in gear before his family had time to click their seatbelts.

Chad watched the truck as it sped away from him fast enough to raise a tornado of mud splatters. What the heck? Maybe someone had to poop.

He shrugged and continued inspecting the headstones. Cool engravings, he thought. A finger pointing skyward, intricate flowers, broken angels. Words so faded as to be indecipherable.

The small bird, a woodpecker Chad thought, landed on a branch above him. The black and white-winged bird with red on its head hopped and chattered, alternating between a hoarse yell and a cat mewing. “Hey ,Woody,” Chad said, then went back to inspecting the gravestone in front of him. The bird’s cries intensified. A flash of pain shot through his skull. Shit. He normally carried his Tylenol with codeine prescription in a pocket, but had left the bottle in his car. I’ll get it in a minute.

A hot breeze ruffled his hair. If he had hair on his arms, they would be standing up. The bird continued to chatter. Maybe it has a nest nearby and thinks I’m a predator.

The warmth returned. He breathed in through his nose and proceeded through the burial ground. The bird continued to yell, as if the little bird brain kept time to a metronome.

As Chad moved across the damp grass, the yelling bird swooped over his head and alit on a branch five feet eleven inches above the ground. The same height as Chad. It hopped side to side, carrying on more than a room full of over-tired toddlers. “Jesus, bird.” In response, the bird became silent and still. It puffed its feathers and stared at Chad. “I’m not going to take your eggs.” The bird shrieked in response.

He turned his light onto a stone that read Williams. He pulled out his iPhone and took a picture. The right year of death. “Perfect,” he said aloud. He could use this one. This will be my ancestor and I can use this picture in the book. Chad felt a thrill. Maybe I can find another name out here. Two names would be gre—

His thoughts turned dark. A dense cloud interrupted his inner voice. A thread of hot and dirty air swirled around his neck and into his ears. He coughed. Chad panted and knew instinctively that the wind was a response to his thoughts.

Suddenly his mind cleared. He blinked, and in that nanosecond the sunlight disappeared. He shined his flashlight all around him. The yellow-bellied sapsucker, known as the messenger Biskinik to Choctaws, but unfortunately not to Chad, launched into a final set of frantic squeaks and yells. Chad shone the light on the bird. It regarded him with disappointment, then appeared to slump its feathered shoulders in defeat and flew off into the darkness.

His flashlight clicked off. “What the …?” he asked.

Hot air snaked up his shorts, as if he stood too close to a campfire. In front of him, a black shape rose like Batman. Except much larger. Chad gasped, blinked, and the figure disappeared. He whirled to look behind him and the dark entity stood closer to him.

Halito. He felt the deep voice rather than heard it. Chad knew that meant hello.

“Halito,” Chad squeaked.

This black hulk was not a person. The outline of the thing shifted, like smoke. Chad’s eyes burned. His eyelashes turned under. His skull filled, the pressure pushing outward while his eardrums compressed inward.

A hot poker scraped red letters into his inner cranium: You want to be us?

Chad panted and fell. He felt rough grass on his knees. “Who are you?’ he croaked.

The thing bellowed hot air. If you were us … Okla … you would know. And you would not think the things you do.

“No. No. No. Nononono.” Chad repeated. The pain in his head became unbearable.

You want to be Chahta but not pay the price for being Chahta. What Okla endure. What others like Chahta endure. You play games.

“No. I’m sorry.”

Yes, you are.

At 5:30am, a farmer looking for a cow that had escaped the previous night found Chad leaning against the monument stone by the Skullyville Cemetery street sign.

The puzzled LeFlore County coroner could not determine the cause of death. There were no signs of trauma on Chad’s body, yet his brain had been removed and replaced with Hoary Mountain Mint, a wildflower used to cure headaches.

© Devon Mihesuah