Paul Chaat Smith

A Place Called Irony

A Place Called Irony

From Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong

It is hard to say when we first met, because I cannot remember not knowing him, or feeling his presence. It’s sort of like asking when do you first remember meeting your older sister. But if you want a starting point, maybe it was 1960 at Cherokee Lane Elementary School. I have vivid memories of hanging out with Irony during recess in the first grade. At first I guess I thought he was just another imaginary friend (okay, like you didn’t have any, right?), but there was something about the way he critiqued the other kids’ performances in dodge ball, or the funny looks he gave me when we ducked and covered during civil defense drills. I remember him during Thanksgiving, advising me on what colors the feathers should be on the turkeys and the Indians, but I could tell he wasn’t really into the academic side of things. He was cool, like the hoods in their green work pants and black Chuck Taylor tennis shoes, smoking Marlboros at the bus stop, but unlike them he never looked like he was trying to be cool. He just was.

As my childhood unfolded I relied on him more and more. A few times a week he’d fall by the crib and we would watch Bullwinkle together, Irony explaining things I didn’t get, like who Norman Mailer was and why Russians are funny. He told me scandalous stories about Hanna and Barbera, agreed that I would make an excellent pilot with a pretty good chance to become an astronaut, and listened to my theories on turtles and slot cars and ice cream. He was there for me when I earned my Indian dancing merit badge and when I and other privileged Scouts lined Pennsylvania Avenue one January for President Nixon’s inaugural parade. I stood there in my uniform, beyond frozen, and he kept me in stitches with his color commentary on the floats. When the presidential limousine rolled by, Irony, wearing black leather from head to toe and a red bandanna that said KILL FOR PEACE, offered a power salute and I remember thinking, wow, am I really glad he’s invisible.

He was the only one who seemed to understand how weird it all was, the Comanche stuff, parents, sisters, geometry, SATs, girls. I gradually came to understand something of his role in the cosmos, although even now I don’t know what he was exactly. The Big Guy’s bastard son? The patron saint of strange peoples in strange times? I realized he was not just an interpreter of the bizarre but was actually a kind of fixer of the bizarre. Sometimes he would slip and talk about things from the last century like they happened last week, and he was there. Once, I asked him the basic Comanche political question (Quanah Parker: sellout or patriot?), and he started rambling about the time he and Quanah got so trashed in Fort Worth that . . . well, the details aren’t important. The main thing is he seemed to have been around forever, and always had front row seats to the main event. He was there when Sitting Bull and Black Elk signed up with Buffalo Bill and toured Europe, when Montezuma looked at Cortés and concluded the Spanish adventurer was a deity, when Cher recorded “Half- Breed,” and when the first Mohawks built their first skyscraper.

The next inauguration I was on the other side of the barricades, with Rennie Davis and his splinter group of seditionists, and was almost run over by a humorless motorcycle cop. By then it was 1973, and though the sixties were plainly over, I wouldn’t hear of it. I knew everything then, even more than Irony, and our relationship cooled. I grew tired of his endless puns and wisecracks—he couldn’t seem to take anything seriously—and after he dozed off during one of my explications on lessons from the anticolonial struggles in west Africa, I wouldn’t speak to him for a year. The truth is I started taking him for granted, never imagining that someday he might be gone.

Like others of my generation I joined the Indian movement, a social protest just getting under way as others faded into oblivion. They say timing is everything and in this case that was certainly true.

We lost touch for a while. I thought I had learned everything Irony had to teach me, but I was wrong. I knew how to read the signs. Yes, I had the basic fluency all Indians must have to make sense in the empire of the senseless, but I was really at the 101 level. I cringe now at my arrogance back then.

We had a terrible fight in 1975, when I pleaded with him to choose someone, anyone, to be our number one friend instead of Marlon Brando, but Irony wouldn’t hear of it. He loved Marlon, and they talked on the phone for hours. Irony even claimed that Brando gave him a bit part in One-Eyed Jacks. (I don’t know if this is true or not, since I have never seen the film.)

The movement broke my heart, as movements do, and I found solace in the oldest new place on the continent, New Amsterdam. It was the eighties. Irony and I had achieved a détente of sorts. He was pretty busy, flying around the country for important clients, but he would call up a couple of times a year and invite me over to his suite at the Plaza. We would order in Chinese and Irony would slap a favorite video into the machine—the Grammy Awards, or a Reagan press conference—and argue about Cyndi Lauper or who should coach the Knicks.

I respected him, but I also felt overloaded by Irony. He seemed to be everywhere at once, and it became too much. I saw newspaper ads for sweat lodges and vision quests and wanted to shake him, and say, “Yo, if this isn’t going too far, will you please tell me what is?” To be Indian you had to be spiritual and environmental all the time, and the whole scene started feeling like church.

I should have asked him for some clarity on all this, but after I saw a picture of him in the New York Post twisting the night away at Studio 54, I decided to keep my questions to myself.

A few years later, as the eighties turned into the nineties, I picked up the phone and heard the familiar voice, though slurred and weary. He was at the Kahala Hilton, obviously tanked and just as obviously lost. I was shocked. Yes, I had heard the talk, at Veselka’s on Second Avenue and at the Calgary Stampede and the Crow Fair, wherever Indians gathered, the whispers that Irony had lost a step, or maybe two steps, that his recent work was lacking in verve, in heart, in a certain complexity that had always been there before. People talk, people gossip, that’s the way of the world. I couldn’t believe it had gotten to Irony, yet here he was holed up in some twelve-hundred-dollar-a-day cottage in Honolulu, asking the same questions. Worse than the criticisms, he said, was that some people didn’t even recognize his work anymore, or confused it with that of his so-called rivals. He complained bitterly about the recent spate of academic books on coyote and trickster and Madonna, “those pretenders,” he called them.

I tried to talk him down as best I could, saying he was the Man and he shouldn’t demean himself this way, and telling him how much I and all of the Nations loved him. That sort of worked, but it might have had more to do with the pitcher of Kamikazes at his side. Eventually he said he loved me too and maybe he would be remembered, damn straight should be after all the crap he’s been through stuff nobody even knows about and on and on, then he started singing “Danny Boy” and we finally said good-bye.

He rang a few days later from some strategic planning conference in Aspen, a bit embarrassed, and laughed off the whole episode. After that I paid closer attention to his career, and to me it seemed that he was back on top. Casinos were exploding across Indian country, Dances with Wolves swept the Oscars, Russ Means played Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act passed, Louise and Michael wrote an airplane best seller that stiffed. Funny, brilliant stuff, and 1992 was still coming up. I looked forward to Irony’s best work, maybe ever.

I was about to send him a congratulatory telegram when a mutual friend told me Irony was gravely ill in some clinic in Switzerland (the one where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards went to kick heroin by having their blood replaced), being treated for some exotic form of iron-poor blood. He’d been there for months.

It struck me fast and it struck me hard. He had nothing to do with these recent episodes! We were doing this stuff on our own! But why? I consulted my animal guides for the answer. My animal guides happen to be rock bands, and at this dark moment I asked everyone for help, living and dead, even Lou Reed. And really, they all helped (thanks everyone!), but the ones that spelled it out the best were Zappa and Westerberg. Frank gave up the timeless question: “Is that a Mexican poncho or is that a Sears poncho?” Paul mumbled this, from the smoky end of a south Minneapolis bar, “He who laughs first didn’t get the joke.”

Over tears, banana cream pie, and bad coffee at Denny’s, I came to understand that the pressure had finally proved too much. He was like that political comic I heard about once who gave up his promising career the day Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. I never imagined Irony could be upstaged by reality, but that is apparently what happened.

That night I dreamed of him, poolside at the Kahala, wearing dark glasses and blowing cigar smoke, telling me to chill, offering neither apologies or regrets, just a weak Norma Desmond imitation: “Whattaya mean big? I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

A phone call the next morning brought news of his passing.

Some people say that Irony did not die in a clinic at the foot of the Alps on the eve of the odd anniversary that went largely unobserved in 1992. They say he lives on, wearing disguises, shape-shifting at will and turning out his best work even now. Others say he is on hiatus, like a temporarily canceled television show waiting only for a better time slot. Still others are glad to see him go. They say irony has outlived its usefulness. They argue that we cannot maintain our spiritual beliefs and traditions and rebuild our Nations with cheap laughs.

They have a point, but they miss something, that ineffable something that lets us keep on keeping on, despite many good reasons not to. His laughs were not cheap, but dear. His best work—Walking in Two Worlds, collective decision making, Oklahoma, Miss Indian America, Wayne Newton—will live forever, teaching our children unto the seventh generation the lessons of the past.

Dead? I don’t think so. Wherever Germans build tipis, government officials announce BIA reorganizations, Indians star in westerns, and tribal chairmen argue that high-stakes casinos are a traditional affirmation of sovereignty, Irony lives.

After all, it’s his world. We just live in it.

Paul Chaat Smith