Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s
2019, $29.95, 216 pages, ISBN: 978-1496215574
Anybody not already familiar with Tiffany Midge can tell just by the title of her humorous collection of essays that she is a savage satirist – and she would probably love that adjective, “savage,” since the target of her satire is so often the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in history, literature and film – you know, grunting “savages” in warpaint and loincloths. The fifty-odd pieces that make up this collection are divided thematically into eleven different sections and take aim at national holidays, movies, language, literature and a host of other themes, from a Native American perspective, and culminate in a merciless assessment of the Donald Trump administration, the coup de grâce a poem entitled ”Ars Poetica by Donald Trump.”
The title of the book, a play on Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s classic account of the genocide of American Indians in the nineteenth century, is also the title of the first essay, a personal memoir about the death, life and funeral rites of Midge’s mother. Channeling her mother’s wit, Midge imagines her mother instructing her about her last wishes: “I want my remains spread at Disneyland,” she tells her daughter. “You can bury my heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s.” Midge sums it all up: “We were two Indian women, laughing until our bellies ached, spitting death right in the eye.”
That’s about as good a characterization as any of her satire: spitting death right in the eye. Or rather, it more like she’s poking a finger in the eye of authority, and she’s funny as hell when she does it.
Take her views on the patriarchy. This section of essays begins with the epigraph: “Garsh Durn it! You Say Patriarchy, I Say Patri-Malarkey….” The essays include “An Open Letter to White Women Concerning The Handmaid’s Tale and America’s Historical Amnesia,” in which, as an Indigenous woman, Midge addresses “your fondness for The Handmaid’s Tale as a white feminist anthem,” reminding “Dakota” and “Madison” and “Kinsey” that the Republic of Gilead is fictional while The Indian Maiden’s Tale is not – they suffer violence and rape at astonishing rates every single day; in other words, save your indignation for something real. She is similarly underwhelmed in “Wonder Woman Hits Theaters, Smashes Patriarchy” and takes on body-image issues in her essay of “the Fat-Positivity Movement.” “The Committee of Barnyard Swine to Determine Fate for Women’s Health” turns its venom on “the Freedom Caucus,” the rightwing cadre of conservative white men in the U.S. House of Representatives. “House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters that the GOP health care bill would make ‘being a woman a pre-existing condition.’”
In “An Open Letter to White Girls Regarding Pumpkin Spice and Cultural Appropriation,” Midge again addresses “Piper” and “Brittney” and “Ariel” and “Aspen.” “Pumpkins and their kinfolk, squash, have a very specific meaning for Indigenous folk,” she reminds “Clementine” and “Delaney” and Peyton.” “I hope you will keep that firmly in mind when you order up your next pumpkin spice latte, McKenzie.”
In the same vein, in “Redeeming the English Language (Acquisition) Series” Midge hilariously discusses the etymology of the word “ugh,” its origins in a memoir of an 1825 Creek Indian council, through James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans to the offensive Indian-speak gibberish of the “Ugg-a-Wugg” musical number in Peter Pan Live. In this same section, her essay “Fifty Shades of Buckskin” lampoons Native American romance novels and historical fiction. Speaking of fiction, in another hilarious piece in this section, “Feast Smudge Snag,” Midge imagines alternative titles for various bestsellers: How Sacagawea Got Her Groove Back, The Casinos of Madison County, The Color Turquoise and Harry Pottahontas among them, with deft plot summaries accompanying each of them.
Similarly, in “Reel Indians Don’t Eat Quiche,” she takes on the stereotyping of Native Americans in Hollywood movies, but she does it with such delicious sarcasm! Considering the movie, The Revenant, she writes, “In the opening scenes, when a band of marauding Native Americans on horseback attacks a camp of innocent fur trappers, I was like, finally, filmmakers are making an effort to get this right!” Some incisive storytelling! she mocks the cliché.
A citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, in “Thousands of Jingle Dress Dancers Magically Appear at Standing Rock Protector Site” Midge satirizes the government response to the protests about clean water rights when protestors, “armed with sage and sweetgrass bundles” stood in the way of Dakota Access Pipeline Project contractors and law enforcement personnel armed with riot gear, armored vehicles, and military-grade Humvees. Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson and Mark Ruffalo likewise come in for a withering assessment.
Midge saves her most “savage” satire for the Trump administration. “Executive Order Requiring All Americans Take Up Cigarettes by End of 2017” caricatures the Trump administration’s casual disregard for health and welfare, its attack on safety regulations in the name of “business.” “Give a Chump a Chance” ridicules so many of the unqualified people who have made up this administration, from Kellyanne Conway (“Chattermouth”) to Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos. And that final poem, Ars Poetica?
Trust me, I’m a poet.
I have all of the words.
I have the best words.
The most tremendous words.
Such a buffoon! You might be forgiven if think this isn’t satire at all!
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.