Red Stick Festival

9 May 2019 | Karen Kao

Buckskin Cocaine is a collection of fierce short stories by Erika Wurth. Sexual predators, male and female, roam these pages. They drink in the Anodyne, do drugs at the Blue Hotel, gatecrash VIP parties at the Red Stick Festival. These men and women inhabit the world of American Indian film. Most of them hate each other.

Wurth is not writing to script here. She rejects the notion that Native Americans

could literally speak to the earth, talk to trees. And this idea that we’re magical and not human, well, for me, that puts our status closer to a unicorn than a human, and I’m just not comfortable with that. These stereotypes are really dangerous.

Désirée Zamorano, “Erika Wurth: For the Love and Art of Language” in Origins, 24 Apr 2017 (retrieved 5 May 2019)

Con Artists and Fakes

Instead of stereotypes, Wurth gives us flawed human beings: directors hungry for money and fame, actors willing to give blowjobs if it means a role in a movie, dancers desperate to get out of Colorado or Oklahoma. They recognize each other’s cons because they use them, too.

George was always there. Always trying to fuck me […] he must have thought I was a moron. I found out pretty quickly that he only did Navajo films, cast Navajo actors. But he liked to find women like me, mixed women, tall women, and indicate that he might cast them, and then fuck them and move onto the next. Please. I’d been using people for years in New York.

“Candy Francois”

Each of the 8 stories in Buckskin Cocaine features a different character. Each story is narrated in the first person. The tone is insistent, sometimes overbearing, almost always conflicting with the story you’ve just read. The characters appear in each other’s interlocking narratives. Candy meets George. George hangs out with Robert. Robert hates Barry and Gary and Mark. Mark would love to screw Candy or Olivia but ends up with Lucy. Or is it Lucy who is screwing with Mark?

The Buckskin Gig

The despise Wurth’s characters feel for each other is topped only by their common hatred for the industry that fuels Buckskin Cocaine.

The only thing I hated about the Film Festival was all the Indians. Hoka Hey this, Aho that, lets burn sage this, this is all sacred that. What a bunch of shit. These fucking fuckers wouldn’t last three seconds at my parents’ house. And I doubt they spoke more than three words of their own language, just enough to pull off looking like a big traditional Indian in front of all the people with money.

“George Bull”

Wurth skewers the turquoise-wearing wannabe’s, the buckskin gigs, the belt buckles shaped like revolvers. The constant need to conform to some outsider idea of how Indians must look, act, be.

Modeling

Wurth starting writing Buckskin Cocaine while in that dead zone, waiting to hear whether her first novel (Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend) would be published. The initial responses to that manuscript were not encouraging. Wurth did not fit the mold of the Indian who leaves the rez and makes it good. Buckskin Cocaine is her response.

It’s a harsh piece, and it’s very satiric. It’s dark. It’s unusual for me. But I’m really tired of a lot of writers of color, and certainly Natives, always being like, “We have to show our best face.” Or, “But that’s bad character.

Deesha Philyaw, “VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Erika T. Wurth” in The Rumpus, 23 Aug 2017 (retrieved 5 May 2019)

Wurth is not the first Native writer to discard the noble savage trope. The first wave dates back to the 70s and 80s with authors like James Welch, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. As a young writer, Wurth consciously modeled her writing

after all the writers who made a difference for me when I was developing my voice, like Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Less than a year after that interview, Wurth publicly accused Alexie of sexually inappropriate behavior. Their connection began in Wurth’s hope that Alexie would agree to mentor her. What happened would have worked well as a story in Buckskin Cocaine.

“Indian du jour”

Before his fall from grace, Alexie complained about his treatment by the media as the Indian du jour. He was expected to speak on behalf of all Native Americans and to represent their concerns at all times. As if any one person could. Wurth has gotten that same token experience.

For example, a visual artist and I were asked to do a presentation on Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian]. It was kind of a strange request, as he’s a post-modern artist and I’m neither a YA or Alexie scholar. The only tie was that we’re Indian.

Désirée Zamorano

Poetics

The great beauty of the stories in Buckskin Cocaine does not lie in the plot. The novella “Olivia James” that ends this collection, for example, was a little too overt and, in the end, predictable. Read Wurth instead for her characters – complex, contradictory, fascinating – and her language.

Because I’m famous because I’m rich because I grew up poor on a reservation and that’s what no one understands even though I have been telling the same story, over and over for years, to anyone who would listen. Because I was an alcoholic because I deserve to get what I want because I do get what I want because I work harder than everyone else. Because I know how to shake like I’m laughing, my long, angry body turned away from the face floating in front of me. Because I know how to fake it.

Barry Four Voices

More of that, please.