Saturday, September 30, 2017


I met Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Ḵeixwnéi, for the first time back in the late 90s, when we both read on a panel of West Coast poets for MLA in San Francisco. I was still a grad student, and MLA was still one of the few conferences I could go to where Indian scholars could be found, so it was a little like heaven for me. Reading with other Indians, going out to dinner with them afterwards, was a rapture. The tension-filled, status-oriented onslaught of almost 20,000 academics in one place – not so much. I gravitated to Nora; her warm, welcoming persona was like a calm shelter.

One afternoon, neither one of us had any particular place we had to be; Nora told me she'd been saving her "fish money" and wanted to go look for a beautiful dress for herself - to wear to readings and important ceremonies. Would I like to go dress-hunting with her?

Nora meant business when it came to shopping: she headed straight to Saks. I'd never set foot in Saks, much less actually seen the store. I'd heard of it, but it seemed more like Brigadoon than a real place. Walking into the massive ornate building was kind of like finding out an imaginary land actually exists. I trailed after Nora in a state of shock as she searched through racks of dresses that cost hundreds of dollars, if not thousands. It was San Francisco; we were Indians, not dressed especially well, or carrying any of the markers of social status – no diamonds, no gold, no name brand purses or coats. We were treated badly by the staff, which Nora took as a matter of course; she didn't let it stop her, although after one particularly rude encounter, she left the floor saying, "She's not getting a commission off of ME!"

Nora had a particular dream dress in mind: it needed to be floor-length, have at least ¾ length sleeves, a not-too-deep neckline, and be in keeping with the respectful nature of events she planned to attend. Eventually Nora settled on a gorgeous, flowing black gown that had a price tag of $800. Trying to keep my jaw off the floor, I agreed that it was pretty spectacular. "But it has this crease in the back..." Nora worried. "I hope I can get it out. I know some tricks." She made sure the saleswoman saw the crease, and told her she'd bring the dress back if she couldn't steam it out. Then she took out her "Indian purse" (a ziplock baggie) and peeled off $100 bills, laying them on the counter like she was dealing a poker hand.

Back at the hotel, Nora used all her wisdom, but the crease remained ("someone bought this dress, wore it all night, and then returned it!" she sighed), and we had to return it the next day. Nora was not paying good money for someone else’s used dress. This caused some difficulty for the clerk, who remembered us well, but for whom issuing a refund of $800 in cash was not a usual occurrence.  Apparently, Saks didn’t keep that kind of cash on hand in the till.  Nora stood quietly at the cash register, a little like a barnacle on a rock.  “I paid cash,” she said, “And I live in Alaska – I can’t use a store credit up there. Why don’t you go ask your manager what you can do about this.”  The clerk hustled off, and although it took some time, Nora did indeed get her cash refund.  She tucked it back into her Ziploc bag firmly.

As we left the store, Nora reached out and fingered a few other dresses, but she’d already seen them all; nothing was quite right.  "Oh well," she smiled, "there's plenty more fish in the sea. I did want to spend my fish money while I was down here, though."

Later, Nora was passing through Seattle and came to visit the Native Lit class I was teaching at the UW as a grad student. We reminisced about the "black dress incident" and how a couple of Indian women ransacked Saks (I asked if she'd ever found "the dress," and she said she had - but I don't remember where). She was a mischievous, loving, brilliant soul. She taught me how to walk through a store like Saks and act like I owned it, instead of the other way around.

Dignity. It's a lesson I haven't forgotten. Micha eni hikpalala, Nora. I'll see you.

                           Read Nora's obituary here.

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