Journeying with an Indian elder

A phone call from an unknown Native American woman precipitated the author (and sculptor), Kent Nerburn into a compelling unexpected journey. The woman's grandfather, Dan, had seen a book Nerburn had helped compile where young Native Americans had helped tell the oral histories and stories of their elders. "Would Nerburn," Dan enquired, "help tell his story"?

The answer was yes and in two books - "Neither Wolf nor Dog" and "The Wolf at Twilight" - Nerburn helps illuminate the life of an Indian elder. In doing so, he honours Dan's request neither to paint the portrait of an elder as insuperably wise, given to eloquent speechifying (though he can be) nor the shadow side of contemporary Indian life that of a drunk wastrel living at (and off) the edges of 'civilisation'. Indeed Dan suggests better to be seen as the latter than the former - better to be despised than complacently lauded.  Dan wants to be seen (and heard) whole.

As a child, he had been told that he had been given a complex and difficult gift - to see with two eyes - one the way of an Indian, the other the way of the white man. Through the books, you come to realise just how difficult that is as a gift to bear.

At the heart of each of the two books is a journey. The first ends at Wounded Knee, site of a massacre of Native Americans in 1890, where a flawed attempt to disarm a group of Lakota Sioux spiralled into indiscriminate murder. It was the place from which Dan's parents had narrowly escaped as children and from which other ancestors had not. The second ends with the discovery of the presumed grave of Dan's sister - disabled she had been absorbed into the brutal school system that had sought to eradicate 'being an Indian' and replace it with a 'new person' able to find their appropriate place in the dominant, white society. This particular school, to which Dan also went, was run by Catholics - priests and nuns - of unremitting cruelty.

Both destinations would imply texts of sustained darkness but, in truth, they are, if not hopeful, full of the prospect of hope because through them, the reader gains a deeper understanding of both the gulf that separates Native American and white society and by doing so can, at the very least, begin to see where you might build bridges. Nerburn is scrupulously open about his own failings as an interpreter and in this gives a deepened sense of the authenticity of Dan's seeking to communicate.

The contrasts are stark - from the very different notion of what it means to belong to a place - to be gifted by a created order or to own a portion of property right through to the way you shake hands. An Indian's greeting is soft, responsive to the touch of the other, the white man's is hard to show (or project) their own standing.

What I found most deeply interesting was Dan's discussion of story and truth. For a Native American, it rests in a communally shared myth that has, at its heart, what it means for the heart and the behaviour of the listener. For the white person, there is the tendency to prioritise what 'actually happened'. Thus, as he says, it is more important to know that Lincoln freed the slaves on such and such a date than to live out the moral witness of that emancipation in your daily life. Dan finds this attachment to what actually happened puzzling for in the central story that white society wanted the Indian to adopt - the life of Jesus - what actually happened is conspicuously relegated, overshadowed by what is the meaning of what happened and its exemplary status. Not for the first time, white society is playing by standards, paradoxical at best, duplicitous at worse.

Throughout the book is saturated with a sense that Dan lives in a world where everything as gift has significance and that living a life in response is a sensitive attention to that which is given. There is the right time for everything and it will unfold in its own time - we are in kairos - sacred time - and the tragedy for us, disorientated Indian and white person alike is that we think the world and its time is ours; and, we must anxiously arrange it to our purpose.

The two books unfold beautifully - with their high points and low, their anxieties and humour, their wisdom and tragedy. I cannot think of anything I have read that shows forth the difference in two cultures so compellingly, that lays a tragic history bear, and doing so invites you to contemplate, in whatever small measure, to change your perspective - on the indigenous other, on your own way of life in relation to, and critiqued by, that other and in your own life generally.

Last week I was in Guatemala and, as before, I noticed that, especially the indigenous people, I shook hands with did so gently, with a softness of touch rather than grip and rather than wonder why that were so, responded in kind and was rewarded, more than once, by quite a different knowing look. That we learn slowly is a truism, that we learn, we can hope.

P.S. Interestingly Nerburn, following Dan, refers to Indian(s) not Native Americans. As Dan causticly notes both appellations are false - one a Columbian geographical mistake and the other an Italian name's imposture on a whole continent!

P.P.S. That the repression continues is a stark injustice that judges us all and one not confined to North America sadly.


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