Dan’s Papers Literary Prize Winner: ‘Magic Shirts’ by James K. Phillips

Pow-wow season has arrived and as usual everything is being done now that should have been done during the winter and spring. Of course, during the winter no one does much except complain about the weather and put off doing that breechcloth, moccasin repair, beadwork, dress or headdress until next week, right after that favorite show finishes for the season or the time and energy arrive or whatever excuse works, until it doesn’t anymore and suddenly it’s here…summer—and there’s a gathering every weekend.

My excuse was that I still had plenty of time to do the necessary things, until time cleared out faster than Lolo Jones clears hurdles and left me scrambling with all the other procrastinators to get everything that was supposed to be done yesterday, done NOW.

Welcome to the Pow-wow trail, where you can always find people sitting along the dance arena, in cars, RV’s, parking lots, tents and hotel rooms working on something at the last minute before the first grand entry. I’m one of those people sitting outside my tent making those last-minute adjustments, trying to stitch a blown-out moccasin, or replacing the small iridescent copper “sun-catcher” feathers on my headdress. This year I had to get new ribbon shirts made, because I only have three left and one of those looks like it was on that raft with Tom Hanks in Castaway. The other two are quite soft and comfy, but if I pull just a little on a ribbon, it will not only come off in my hand, but it will also bring some shirt material along for the party. It’s happened before at the most inopportune times— like right in the middle of a dance-off.

So I enlisted The Niece, (AKA “The Tough Girl,” due to her shooting, truck-driving, hay-hauling and ruling-the-younger-siblings abilities) to take me “Up Island”—that’s anywhere west of Riverhead in “Rez Speak”—to a fabric store to pick out material.

The Niece is a magic girl, the eldest granddaughter of an eldest granddaughter, who is my eldest sister, who is the repository of a lot of the mid-wife and herbal knowledge left by the maternal grandmother, who knew about such things and other stuff that I am not privy to and  honestly quite happy not knowing anything about. I’m more like an instrument of their will: going into the woods to look for the herbs and plants that they use for…whatever. The Niece also has nascent powers of her own that I don’t know or want to know anything about. I do know that she is fun to be around, can shoot a bow, shotgun or rifle better than most guys, rides motorcycles, quads and horses equally well, and has a great sense of humor, the last attribute being very important if you’re taking your fashion—challenged uncle on a shopping trip.

I like the old school look, like the outfits you see in paintings by Charles Bird-King, George Catlin, or Karl Bodmer. Nice, simple floral or calico prints in natural colors. The Niece picked fabrics of green, blue and yellow, which were beautiful. And she really is a whole lot better at picking out ribbon to accentuate the colors than I am or could ever hope to be. I joked with the counter girl wearing interesting makeup, as I watched her cut up the cloth, wrap it nicely and ring me up. I asked her if you needed any special training to work in a big fabric store and she sighed as only a bored teen can and said, “Nah, you just have to apply and show up on time.” The Niece rolled her eyes and muttered, “OMG”, either at my lameness or the up island girl’s response, before grabbing the bag and walking quickly out of the store. But the fun was just beginning. The next part was getting the shirts made.

The women who make my ribbon shirts are from a large family full of magic girls and all of them—mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces and aunts—have the mischievous, acerbic and quick sense of humor I’m so used to in Shinnecock women. They speak very quietly and smile a lot, which is really nice, but scary at the same time. I love to listen to them talking to each other in their secret language, discussing what each shirt should look like. It’s like hearing sparrows singing in the branches of a cedar overhead, you know they’re saying something important but you’re unsure just what and then they’ll turn and look your way and laugh before continuing.

But they are sorceresses with a needle and thread and sewing machine, making new ribbon shirts that evoke the aura of those classic paintings. And every shirt they’ve made has seen me through long days dancing in the summer’s wilting heat and into the fall’s chilly nights. Sometimes, I look down while I’m wearing one and I can feel the energy those lovely women put into it. I feel as if nothing nor can no-one touch me, harm me or make me feel anything but happy. I feel pretty in a Muhammad Ali kind of way, like I’ve got on Frodo’s elf-woven shirt. It feels like magic when I put one on, so that’s what I call them; magic shirts.

Now, I have other parts of my regalia that I consider magic too: beaded moose-hide Abenaki moccasins picked out and bartered over by a Narragansett friend, a carved wooden turtle medallion my sister gave me, the leather for my breechcloth a Shinnecock woman chose  and cut the fringe, (she thought I’d “murder it with a pair of scissors”); beaded turtles on the breech by the same woman who makes my shirts; white turquoise earrings acquired during a trip to my nephews’ Dine’ in-laws in New Mexico; an eagle-feather fan gifted by the Narragansett’s at an honor ceremony for dancing in their August Meeting (which they’ve held for 300 plus years); and a turkey-feather headdress provided by two cousins who shot and ate the turkey, then smoked the skin with the feathers attached, so they would stay on until “you can’t dance anymore.” Around my waist I wear a beaded leather belt that I made for my sister while I was in the Navy that she returned to me for good luck. Two silver turtles on silver chains hang from my neck; one from my love inside the shirt next to my skin, the other outside my shirt-collar, is from two medicine women that live in a little house bordered by a forest, a cemetery and a small highway. I found out the hard way that I have to keep them separated, or else they get to scrapping and tangled up and damn near choke me as I dance. And this year a woman who makes jewelry from sea glass will make a necklace for me. I think anything that the ocean has cleaned and sculpted over time might give me an edge in patience and stamina. It all counts as magic to me and even though I’m a 21st century Indian, I still believe that something unseen and unknown got us this far along so I might as well believe in magic. Can’t hurt, I guess.

It’s taken almost 15 years for this current outfit to come together, and it’s an ongoing process. Fifteen years. I’ve been in and out of the pow-wow arena for most of my life. Though I’m no longer a young man, whenever I’m in that arena, wherever it might be, time is suspended. I am again that eight-year-old boy called into a small teepee by an old man during Shinnecock pow-wow, given a pair of bells for being a good and energetic dancer and told that dance would be there for me when there was nothing else. I remember being really excited and I truly believed that those bells helped me dance better and longer.  I didn’t know exactly what that old man was talking about then, but I have come to realize that he was right. I see how moving my feet to the drum keeps my heart beating strong and keeps my head clear, how it takes away aches and pains and sorrows and what-ifs for a while. You know—like magic.

Regalia (or outfits) are always being worked on, updated, tweaked and adjusted. My beaded moccasins have been re-soled three times with moose hide bought from the same booth on the pow-wow trail. Ribbon shirts are always fading and disintegrating from sweat and the bleaching sun. I can usually get two or three years out of one, if I rotate them properly. Feathers fall off the headdress, necklaces pop and jewelry and metal armbands have to constantly be polished, leather ties deteriorate and need to be checked constantly, or they’ll let go of whatever is being held in the middle of a contest, meaning disqualification, if it’s a major piece of regalia.

Once, during the Shinnecock pow-wow, I faced my Narragansett friend and rival in a dance-off. As the first drum beats began, I swung my war axe and watched as the cluster of hawk feathers representing myself and my four sisters detached from the axehead and arched into the sunlight. It hung in the air for what seemed like forever and I wanted to be as free as it was, if only for a few seconds…or a lifetime. It was an automatic disqualification, but we continued on and danced hard, the drum group giving us a smoking hot song. I presented my friend with those feathers, as a tribute to an honorable and spectacular contest. I feel like those feathers sometimes; wanting to break the ties of this world and fly away to a place where I can dance forever, my feet never touching the earth. But then, who knows? Perhaps one day I’ll have gathered enough articles of magic and do just that.

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