'Noam's Wood' by Jim Davis-Rosenthal
Noam's Wood, Jim Davis-Rosenthal, 1999.



Owl Dancing with Fred Astaire
Sherman Alexie


During a traditional Native American owl dance, the woman asks the man to dance. He is not supposed to refuse. However, if he does refuse, he must pay the woman whatever she wants and then tell the entire crowd at the powwow exactly why he refused.


I met the Indian woman who asked Fred Astaire to dance.
He politely refused her offer.

“He was so charming,” she said, “even when he rejected me.
But I kept wishing it was an owl dance.”


An owl dance is simple: two steps with your left foot forward,
one step with your right foot back, all to the beat of a drum

currently being pounded by six Indian men in baseball hats.
They sing falsetto. Many non-Indians wonder what they are singing

but that is too complicated to explain here. Let’s just say
they are singing an owl dance song. It is not necessarily romantic.

I mean, sisters owl dance with brothers
and sons owl dance with their mothers.

Yet, at every powwow, there are beautiful Indian women
who owl dance with beautiful Indian men, all hoping

for love/sex/a brief vacation from loneliness.
I must emphasize, however, that our love lives are not simple.

There are Indian men who have never been asked to owl dance.
Alone in the powwow crowd, those men tap their feet lightly

along with the drums. They sing softly under their breath.
Perhaps they secretly wish they were Fred Astaire.


Fred Astaire is gone now.
He is dead.
He will not be coming back.
However, if you watch his movies
you will notice
that he often smiles.

What was he thinking?
Was he merely pleased with himself
for being Fred Astaire

or was he completely unaware
of the camera and crew?
Was he dancing simply for the love of dancing?

I don’t know
and you will never know either.
Only Fred Astaire knew

and he was very good at keeping a secret
or so I am told
by the people who helped keep his secrets.


In my dream, Fred Astaire stumbles (yes, stumbles)
into the powwow and is shocked by the number of Indians

who have survived
the smallpox blankets, U.S. Cavalry, relocation, etc.

He smiles because, well, he is a good man prone to smiling.
(I must emphasize, however, that there are also bad men

who are prone to smiling.) Fred Astaire loves the drums.
He is pleasantly surprised by the quality of the singing.

Such pitch! and timbre! and range! and projection!
Fred Astaire taps his foot. He is wearing a tuxedo.

He is the skinniest white man in the history of the world.
Can you see him? He is not all that handsome

but he looks like a dancer. A great dancer.
In all cultures, women will choose a homely great dancer

over a handsome non-dancer. Fred Astaire is confident.
He waits for the next owl dance to begin.


Ask yourself this: How many times in your life
are you going to be asked to dance? Take that number

and divide it by the number of men and/or women
who have expressed deep affection for you.

If that number is X, then Y = heartbreak + X.
And, or course, Y is always equal to Fred Astaire.





Text © 1996, 1999 by Sherman Alexie
"Owl Dancing with Fred Astaire" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume II, Number 2. The work appears here by permission of the author.

Original Graphic Image, "Noam's Wood" © 1999 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal

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