We have a small dining room table—the unattractive, university-issued kind. It’s only meant for six people, but the boys down the hall have carried a couple extra chairs in just for tonight. All eight of us are crowded around the table, knees bumping and laughter boisterous, unconcerned about the late hour.
We’re being taught BANG!, a tabletop game set in the mostly-mythical Wild West world of duels and sheriffs and gold. Half of us have never played, so even starting the game has turned out to be a chaotic process, but it’s been fun so far. At the start of the game, I drew the card of the “Renegade,” so my character’s goal is to be the last woman standing—an unexpectedly strategic role for a game that comes in a bullet-shaped canister.
Turns are taken one at a time, moving clockwise around the table. We haven’t even made it a full turn around the table when one of the boys slaps down a card, eliciting a collective groan from those near him.
“Everyone has to play a BANG! card or lose a life,” he announces.
“Wait,” I say, slow on the uptake, “why are we shooting?” From my minimal understanding, BANG! cards are played voluntarily when a player wants to shoot. They’re valuable cards, and I’m not ready to surrender one of mine without good reason.
“Apparently we’re shooting Indians,” one of the boys responds matter-of-factly. His tone isn’t malicious; in fact, he doesn’t seem all that interested in the words leaving his mouth. He gestures down at the card. Indeed, even upside-down and across the table, I can see INDIANS! printed in that woodblock saloon font, a couple of caricatured, feathered-headdress-wearing Indian profiles drawn below.
I flounder for a moment, heart in my throat. “Well,” I finally say, awkward, “I guess I’m dead, then.”
One of the other boys looks up from his hand. “Do you not have a BANG! card to play?”
I clear my throat. “No, I just, you know—I’m Indian.”
The chuckles and chatter peter out. I’ve tossed a loaded gun onto the table and now everyone’s staring—no clue what to do with it, where to aim it, or how to disarm it.
Except the loaded gun is me: me with my white skin and my Chetco blood, me with my dizzyingly entangled European and indigenous heritages. I’ve got family on both sides of this sad game—the native tribes who’d belonged to these western coasts, and the Euro-Americans who’d happily claimed the land as their own. I have no answers to this unhappy paradox. I still haven’t learned how to disarm the loaded gun. I suppose it’s not fair to expect anyone else at this table to know how, either.
I’m tired. It’s so much easier, sometimes, to let the invisible Indian stay invisible. To laugh along with the jokes, and even, sometimes, to make them.
So I play the card—a bullet to my own heart—and the game goes on.