Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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I couldn’t get up off the floor. I had collapsed on top of a stack of newspapers and atop my dry-cleaned, finely pressed suit and some soiled towels. I had completely lost every fucking marble I had. And to make matters worse, some asshole in the next room kept wailing like a banshee in some haunted Scottish castle. For a moment there, I thought it was hip-hop artist Frank Waln belting scales. MTV had set us up at the Hotel Monaco – an ornate museum-like place riddled with busts of dead rich white politicians. “Shut up, Frank!” I yelled. “I’m getting the fear!”

The Hotel Monaco in Washington, D.C. – the whole thing is an obvious salute to the European invasion of these shores. Jefferson and Adams and Washington and Hamilton – all of their ugly plastered faces are there to glare at you and diabolically laugh as you lie on the floor, fingering the carpet for bugs and eyeing the ceiling, watching the thing slowly close in on your skull ….

Right. I couldn’t handle any of it. I felt like I was failing Red Cloud and Crazy Horse and Black Elk. We couldn’t say anything. We had to keep to the business we were there for – the Rebel Music Native America screening and panel, and it ate at me like a tick. We were about to head to The White House, the seat of power, into the “belly of the beast,” as Frank put it, and we couldn’t say a thing about the issues … only the film. God, man, I thought. This is madness. … And, following the screening, we were slated to speak to a room chock-full of Native American youth ambassadors – the next generation of jawbone leaders and activists. It was all too much to bear. The guilt had taken over. My suit was wrinkled and wet here and there from the towels. The ceiling was on my nose at this point. Everything seemed lost and pointless, and then a knock at the door.

“Housekeeping,” a voice said.

“There’s no one here!” I shouted. “Only us towels. We’re wet and useless. We need provisions!”

A rattle of keys and the sound of a cart quickly trundling away indicated to me that whoever rapped upon my door would dare not return, even if a rotting stench creeped into the room below me so that the sorry sack who disturbed my sorrow would be ordered to check out what the hell was going on in room 317, even then the poor soul would surely not knock again. Good, I thought. Because I wish no guilt like the guilt I felt on that soiled floor. That guilt was the kind of guilt that hangs heavy in the air like tear gas or London fog. It’s the kind that enters through your pores like cyanide. Gnawing guilt, and it gnaws at me still.

Later, sitting in the back of a cab with Frank and Dr. Melissa Leal, I could see Frank’s eyes. He was ready for action, and so was I. It was 5:45 p.m. when we arrived at The White House. We had to wait outside in the rain until 6 p.m. on the dot before they'd let us in. Billy Luther, the Diné filmmaker, was already there waiting, looking dapper and drenched. Everyone did. But when it was time to head in Frank was the first to go through security. Jeezus, I thought. Is Frank carrying sage? What will these pigs think it is? Will it get confiscated and later smoked? It’s possible. A lot of weed in this world has never made it into the evidence room, but this is sage. If these thugs smoke it, I thought, they will surely grow another arm or their ship will sink into the ocean because they had dishonored the gods with that kind of dipshitted buffoonery. Oh well. It’s your bed. Sleep in it.

We wandered the halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with MTV General Manager and Rebel Music creator Nusrat Durrani. We found a little corner and plotted the panel. Frank sat at the head of the table, and I had imagined that somewhere Andrew Jackson was losing his shit, and maybe Abe, too – the murdering hypocrite. “To hell with them all! We, the Lakota activists, have infiltrated their camp like the Lakota leaders of yore!” … I could hear this going in my head as I took ample notes for the coming panel; what to say, what not to say, all the while the guilt-tick was feeding on my spirit. My spine was working double-time, locking, shoulders back, to compensate for my failing conviction. … I wondered if the fuzz had confiscated the sage, had there been any to begin with. I could use some right now, I thought. And if there had been any, it was surely long gone, tamped in a cheap glass pipe, smoked by shitheads behind some White House dumpster.

***

It was late by the time we were directed to a makeshift greenroom where we were to wait for the screening and panel to begin. I was still anxious and ready for that action, and looking at Frank, I could see he was of same mood and mind. At any moment, I thought, Frank is going to barrel out of here and head for the Oval Office and demand that President Obama stop dicking around and listen here about the Keystone XL Pipeline, about the disproportionate amount of indigenous women who go murdered and missing, about the fact that Native Americans are more likely to be killed by white cops than black people, about why Columbus Day is still a thing, and so I knew, instinctively, that if he boomed out of the room I’d have to zip out, too, tackle a sergeant-at-arms, wrestle the bastard for his radio and keys, toss them to Frank and shout, “Just get in there, goddamnit! I can’t hold this shit-kicker for long!”

“Alright, are you guys ready?” a voice asked, pulling me out of my colorfully created daydream.

“Let’s do it!” someone said.

And so the screening began. Following the film, we were each introduced, one by one. We talked about indigenous art, ambition, how Billy would dance on tables as a kid in some sort of expression of individuality, and why any of this is worth it – which it is.

After the panel ended, we all dined and drank and ate and regaled each other with war-wound stories. I could see Frank’s eyes had calmed. My tick was gone. My spine relieved. Somewhere in my troubled head I knew that this trip was a chess move. Bide your time, you sonofabitch, I thought. Go gently. Plot your next one. Always forward – and it was about this time that I began to hallucinate, but I lead on like I was fine.

The cab dropped Frank and Melissa and I off in front of the Hotel Monaco. I told the pair that I was going to head to the bar for a nightcap; they both retired to their rooms, and then I noticed the bar was closing. Behind me, a woman – a housekeeper – walked by. I wished her a, “Good evening.” She suddenly appeared shaken by the sound of my voice, and then it dawned on me: this was the sad sack who had earlier rapped at my door. “I’m out of towels,” I said. “They’re all wet.” The woman ignored me and so I went back to my room, room 317, without a nightcap, where the ceiling still hung ominously low and where a chaotic combo of New York Times and Washington Post papers were waiting for me with the kind of news that turns old as soon as it’s printed. This is when the wailing began again, and so I wished the morrow, which wouldn’t come … until it did where I found more chess pieces readying for another calculated move. And so the game continues. Right on schedule.

Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, has a Master of Arts degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in New York City.