The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Wa


wá. n. snow, snowflake (if size indicated)
Wašíču n. fat taker, white person
wašíŋ, n. lard, fat. n.n. (nickname) ex. Wašíŋ, Ray Little Weasel /Levoi’s name, given to him by his dad, the clichéd unnamed bad-teethed Indian in Thunderheart:

He called me Wašíŋ, he said it meant ‘Good Boy.’

Snow and fat are flying on the Northern Plains.

I’d start this by saying, “As another brutal winter wends its way into the Dakotas,” but I’m pretty sure we all know the Dakotas know no other kind of winter.

The fat that’s flying—that’s a different story. You might know about Dakota winters from the popular imagery, but to understand what’s happening around resources (I don’t want to say “resources” here. That’s not what they are. They’re more than that. Also, I don’t want you to mutter “hippy” to yourselves eight lines into this piece. ‘Cause who wants to read that? And, I ain’t no hippy) the land, the water, the jam-packed parking lots of Bismarck’s abundant eating establishments? You’ve got to see it to believe it.

Me, Daughter, Brother, and my sisters and nieces had headed up from Pine Ridge through Cheyenne River to Standing Rock in late October. We spent the afternoon and early evening at the camp, but since we hadn’t planned to camp out, and there was no room at the casino, we stayed up in Bismarck.

Everybody except me slept through their alarms, but I let them catch up on some rest. I drank coffee, put together notes, and grew increasingly distressed by the warning notifications scrolling across the screen on my phone. Eventually, everyone got ready to go and we headed out. But first, something to eat. My choice, so my favorite: Perkins. We were seated with, I guess, all the Native people in the restaurant, and in the section serviced by… You know what? Never mind.

We were at Perkins.

The parking lot was absolutely packed. As was the parking lot at the Burger King, McDonald’s, Arby’s, and the Hardee’s—at every place that had something fit for human consumption on its premises. Lord.

We were waiting to order, and I had just explained to Brother, while sitting in my booth, looking down, that this bod, this ‘dad bod,’ don’t come easy.

I asked him, “Do you think this magnificence just happens? When DiCaprio went all in on his own dad bod, I was like, ‘well, yeah, maybe. Most actors have a sense of commitment, and that’s what it takes.” I tell Brother, “Leo says to me, from Hollywood, or Borneo, or whatever dump he was holed up in, ‘Ted, man, I know you’re the gold standard, but I want this, I need this. I’m in, bro.’ But still, I was like, ‘Leo. You need to take notes, bro. You don’t just go to a restaurant and get the biscuits and gravy. Pssss. You have to eye up your server. You have to pull them in close. You have to order that extra gravy. And get it for free. You’re in training, fool. Commit!’”

Brother laughs. A lot. “Shiiiit,” he says. “Man.” And we order. Even Daughter and my nieces pile on the food. It was like peer-pressure—regular plate shaming. We wait for our orders to arrive with a little dread. Everyone makes small talk for a while, tells jokes—teases each other.


I look across the brass-and-plant divider at our fellow patrons, the ones in the section that’s all white folks. There’s so much white here. All the ones that are bad for you—salt, sugar, flour, lard, even their clothes are cream colored, ivory t-shirts with oil and drilling company names, button down short-sleeves with light tan and off-white plaid. It’s like being trapped inside an undercooked biscuit. Giant plates. Feelings and thoughts all head down the hatch over there. Servers scuttle back and forth. Who the fuck drinks pop with breakfast? My god.

All this eating, I think, is descended from the original taking of the fat. It’s genetic, inescapable. When whites first arrived in Lakota homelands, the people observed their behavior and came up with a name for them. That “wasicu” you hear in Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart. That’s got nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with worldview. It’s about greed; it’s about taking only the best part of things, the cream off the top, the fat. And this taking of the fat has reached a crisis point in America—a critical mass, if you will. It’s an odd way to govern, certainly, and it would seem to have an end point on the near horizon. For example, allowing the banks to commit crimes against American citizens is just a way for the government to commit their own crimes against the people, collect more taxes extort money from us. The banks overcharge/swindle/defraud citizens, make a bunch of money, the government fines them (takes their cut), and it all goes back to business as usual. How is this sustainable, or even okay?

After our meals, we are uncomfortably stuffed (I even ordered and ate fruit! in an attempt to salvage some semblance of healthy out of the whole thing). We amble out to the vehicle and settle in for the long drive home. The plan had been to head back down to Cannonball, but we get giant-sized, loud as fuck texts on our phones that morning about how all the roads are closed. Yeah. It is the Sunday the soldiers (because, let’s be real, those people in uniforms, with that equipment, hardly qualify by many, nay any, stretch, as “police”) amp up their violence, their aggression, and mace and spray and begin to really attack the Water Protectors.


We drive west through the DMZ (Dakota Militarized Zone). All this, once just homelands. It’s beautiful, and I sort of lose myself in memory of some kind, in reverie.

Brother wakes up and says, “Holy fuck, bro. How fast are you going?”

“Shit.” I look down at the speedometer. And then I look up. And I say, “It don’t matter, Brother. Check it out. Every cop in the state is headed the other way.”

And we look across yet another divider.

The fat jiggles by in armored personnel carriers, in snaking lines of cruisers, in patrol cars, in unmarked vehicles, in flatbeds of nefarious-looking equipment. Dubious intentions glance at us from behind mirrored aviators. I shudder, and laugh. Never taking my foot off the pedal, never flinching. Everyone rests easy, goes back to sleep. I drive on.

As I write this, I’m fearfully counting down the days to December 5, the date by which the Water Protectors are to vacate land claimed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, according to an order issued by same. The day before, at least 1500 veterans are due to arrive and assemble in order to defend and protect. Many would-be Natives have pointed out, with no small sense of irony, that the fifth of December is Custer’s birthday. Always this fucking Custer. I recall that Custer’s old command, the Seventh Cavalry, were the perpetrators of the massacre at Wounded Knee. America, queen of telling the rest of the world to “Get over it,” has some growing up to do her damn self. My fear is that Europe’s most petulant child will err, as it usually does, in stunning fashion.

Thoughts and prayers, indeed.

I’ll leave us with a question, then, and provide an answer.

What happens when the fat’s all gone?

We can’t take any more.


Photographs provided courtesy of author.

Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana. He is a former Assistant Dean and Director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale University, and has been an Assistant Professor and Co-Chair of the Program in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work includes "Lapin Noir: To Del Rio It Went" in A Critical Companion to the Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones, ed. Billy J. Stratton from the University of New Mexico Press as well as the chapters "Navajo Joe," and "The Savage Innocents," in Seeing Red—Hollywood's Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film (2013), available from Michigan State University Press. His current book-length project is Spaghetti and Sauerkraut with a Side of Frybread, and his edited volume The Faster, Redder, Road: The Best UnAmerican Stories of Stephen Graham Jones was released in April 2015 by the University of New Mexico Press. He has worked as a consultant on multiple projects for the Disney Channel as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered, and has recently appeared in multiple segments of the History Channel series Mankind the Story of All of Us. He has been interviewed by the Washington Post, Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Native America Calling, Smithsonian Magazine, and Al-Jazeera America Television on a variety of subjects, from Native representation and Tonto to Spaghetti Westerns, headdresses, and Twilight. More from this author →