Her fingers embroidering leather with porcupine quills, the Island woman saw me and laughed, “Go back home where you belong.”
Then offered, “I’m teaching anyone who would like to learn.” But I didn’t want to learn, not right then.
So she said, “have you seen the exhibit, it’s one of the best they’ve ever had.” So she said, “go back home where you belong.”
The paintings were by Robert S. Neuman,
and they undid me. I had never heard of him, but he was born in my land. Born in Kellogg, Idaho. His canvases were 6 feet high and color bled from them like the release of souls.
I staggered between his teepeed paintings of Lapwai, Lame Deer, Greasy Grass, and Wallowas. The beauty of this last, I collapsed under. I wept under. I prayed under as if beneath the real mountains in Oregon. I sat down on a bench in front of “Wallowas,” in the cool dim museum air, as single words from voices behind me echoed, Dream…Spirit…Repetition…Illustrious, when the only words that mattered were, “land of my birth,” and “go back home where you belong,” when all that mattered was the silence in between.
For hours I sat in front of the painting, transfixed. The afternoon went by a meditation; I sat until closing. People walked by and stood in front of me, not noticing I was there, I sat so still and silent, then whispered “excuse me,” and vanished. I picked out my memories in the colors—glacier designed trails next to streams—voices of ones I love in the shapes. I watched the history of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph unfold. I watched myself standing near a lake of snow melt at the foot of the Wallowas.
Above the shining hardwood floors that through Native eyes brought me to the land from where I come, in a room lit with explosive color, the paintings told me: you must write the hugeness of what you see, and touch, and hear, and feel. You must write with the huge tremendous color of the land.