keep america beautiful

He takes off his creased Stetson to look in the eyepiece of the camera, puts it back on the second he moves away. Faded denim, dusty, wornout boots and a plaid work shirt, always with a stiff pack of cigarettes in the pocket. He smokes like a champ, a fucking chimney. That’s great all American hero puffing on his cigs. You give us firewater, we give you tobacco, the calumet. Smoke up, cowboy…”


by brendan costello



I’ve got to get up. Stuffy little trailer they’ve got me in, can barely breathe. Head is killing me, as always. Two thirty? Man, I got to get moving. Making the greatest TV commercial in history, here, noble red man guilting his white brethren to stop littering.

Of course, if I had my way, I’d change it a little: “Keep America Beautiful, Paleface. You stole the country from us, fucked it up, spread your misery everywhere. The least you can do is keep it clean.” Little too long for a bumper sticker, unfortunately.

They’ve already got footage of me paddling a canoe through a garbage strewn pond. Hysterical. Third time in my life I’ve been in a canoe they had to put a little walkie-talkie in there to direct me, make it look natural. Wasn’t no water on the reservation where I lived.

Wasn’t no water on the reservation that’s why I started drinking whiskey. My little joke.

Jesus, I need some air.

Damn, the sun is out. That stand of birches off in the distance looks like a place for some shade and privacy. Collect myself before I have to deal with the crew, that menagerie of losers and loons.

I hear them when I walk. They call me “Chief,” their great joke. “Chief Wild Turkey, him plenty big leader,” they laugh. Plenty big drinker, maybe, but they don’t say that. Or I don’t hear it, at least.

They don’t know what a chief is, what that name really means; just another one of their problems. The Director’s their chief, at least for this shoot. A weak man, obviously not a leader, but they all follow him. (A true leader would have confronted me about the whiskey, instead of stealing it from my trailer while I slept.) He wants to film the scene during “magic hour,” the time when the sun has set but the sky is still daylight a 45 minute window of opportunity each day. Director picked the location, too he loves the angle, the hill with the road below and the sun in the distance. It’s not a garbage dump though, so the set guys are spreading garbage around the field where I’ll be standing. If we don’t get the scene done today, they’ll have to clean it up and spread it around, every time we shoot. All because of this shit Director, their phony chief. What kind of man wears penny loafers with no socks? Pale pink shirt, skin so tan you’d think he was my cousin. Sporting sunglasses and sniffling all the time. Is this what’s become of our conquerors? They’ve evolved into wealthy spoiled children, dressed in pastel colors and arranging shadow plays. Unabashedly in lust with the cameraman, too. Fucking guy. He’s got me, the dimestore injun on one hand, and the cameraman, smoking Marlboros and in authentic cowboy gear on the other hand. A fetishist’s fantasy! Director would be jerking off nonstop if he weren’t so busy patting himself on the back for this “gutsy, edgy” public service announcement we’re making today.

Frank, the cowboy cameraman, dresses the part better than me, certainly. He takes off his creased Stetson to look in the eyepiece of the camera, puts it back on the second he moves away. Faded denim, dusty, wornout boots and a plaid work shirt, always with a stiff pack of cigarettes in the pocket. He smokes like a champ, a fucking chimney. That’s great all American hero puffing on his cigs. You give us firewater, we give you tobacco, the calumet. Smoke up, cowboy.

Cowboy. He’s never seen a horse up close, never looked in its eyes. Me? I’ve seen plenty of horses. On backlots, movie sets out in the desert, TV shows. Worked with a trained horse in “How The West Was Won” a couple of years back, could paw the ground any number you wanted, and whinny on command. Only horse I ever saw who didn’t have any soul behind the eyes.

Well, I guess if I’m the closest thing they can get to an Indian, Frank’s the closest we got to a cowboy. Gotta keep a fucking balance around here, right?

“Ohhh,” the crew members all say with their eyes, some even shaping the vowel with their lips but no one daring to speak. The Wooden Indian is stumbling out his trailer after another night of hard drinking, and he looks awful quite a scene for them! They want to stare, try not to, then give in and pretend it’s because they care.

They watch, they see me stagger on my way to the trees. I’m lurching now, God I really don’t feel right dizzy, and now the familiar twinge in my gut, trailer was too hot and now the air makes me sick.

Stay away from the white man and his fire water….

Now I’m on my knees, waiting for the sheet lightning to pass from my eyes. Deep breaths, deep breaths…. It always goes blinding white when I make sick…wonder why. At least I got to the trees, don’t think they saw. Chief Wild Turkey. They laugh but it’s true.

I’m their cigar store Indian, shedding a miraculous mahogany tear. Like a weeping Madonna in Palermo, a bleeding Jesus in Manila. I cry on cue when they throw garbage at me.

“Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s.” What was that? Two, three years ago? Actually meant something then. The first Earth Day was only two years ago, and now we’re making it into a TV commercial.

Wait, wait. Can’t stand up too fast, else the lightning will come right back. Oh yes. Leaning on the tree, squat down on my haunches.

The white man came like a plague across the land; like a natural disaster…. Only you can prevent forest fires.

Grandfather? Is he here? He always used to say those things. Constantly repeating himself. Always speaking in slogans. And all the cliche Indians I played in every TV show and movie since 1933 were based entirely on him. He tried to give me a sense of my heritage, and I used it to make a quick buck.

People make pollution; only people can stop it.

Christ, this is terrible. He’s haunting me, his voice. Always heard about this; thought it was just Mom trying to scare me, or that it only happened on the reservation, with proper meditation.

I know what you have done, Dying Sparrow. You have fallen far, and taken our people with you. Everything I gave you.

No, no no no. I can’t be having a vision quest now; or a visitation or whatever this is. Gotta take a piss. But there he is, off in the trees, white hair in braids, weathered face, eyes black and shining. In his old ceremonial robe, which I never wore on TV or movies, thank you very much. I have some integrity. Had.

You’re taking after your father. He was a showman. I told you, just as I told him. This is no way to avenge me. You have fallen into their trap.


Yes you were born into the tribe, you lived on the reservation but what have you done that is worthy of the Lakota brave? You are Lakota in skin only, and you have made your living with that. You don’t even know how to row a canoe! “Indian.” “Native American.” What was wrong with Lakota? Not enough jobs for “Lakota”? Generic as possible, is that what you are?

Are you finished, old man? Enough of this. I’m not turning into some crazy Indian, voices in my head. Feel better I can stand up now. I’ll take a piss, and he’ll be gone.

Aren’t we making progress? We took over Alcatraz in ’69, right? Fuck it. Too late to bury my heart at Wounded Knee. Now I wear the “traditional Indian” costume, stand on my mark and turn on the waterworks while they scourge me. History repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce, third time public service announcement?

They have always loved my eyes, my serious looks. “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” the movies they all came to me for that special something, the deluxe Indian. Just once I would have liked to shoot John Wayne in a movie. Now, this pansy Director thinks he’s doing something meaningful by putting me into this ad I’m a moral compass, an accusing arrow shot right at the country’s conscience. They want it, too, so bad. They want it because as guilty as I make them feel, they’ll feel good about me. They’ll say, “I hate pollution as much as Injun Joe in the commercial. I love my country.”

Oh, if they could see me now. Injun Joe, moral compass of the continent, on all fours in a patch of birchwood, puking his guts out and talking to his grandfather. First time as tragedy, second time as farce, third time travesty….

This is the end of the Trail of Tears, it’s all over now. The Navajo blankets and turquoise bracelets, the Sioux medicine wheels and dream catchers will become household items, or worse still the tchotchkes and talismans of “sensitive” children, the pale descendants of the killers of my ancestors. What have I gotten for my acting, for this commercial, for the movies and TV? Nothing, compared to what I’ve given away. Traded on my identity, just like my forebears traded on their land, not realizing it was theirs to give until they lost it. Identity? I’m just an actor. Playing a part. The audience that sees me on TV, they see my entire nation when they look at me. And I squandered it, let them shape it to what they wanted. Sold for a couple of bucks and a bottle of whiskey.

Hell with it. What they want, I’ll give it to them. Doesn’t matter. Sick of it all anyway. Soon I’ll be pale face too, body wrapped in white clothing and fire building beneath me. Probably go up in a big poof, all the alcohol in my blood. I’ll explode. Heh. Funniest thought I’ve had in a while. That asshole Director thought he could make my cry by taking away my bottle. How could he know that I don’t need any tricks? I may be a phony Indian, but my tears are real enough. Time to go make America beautiful.


Originally published:
Issue Ten
June 2001


Brendan Costello is a senior editor and contributing writer for Brooklyn’s Lurch Magazine.  More from Brendan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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