Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Great Article... read and discuss

The Urgency of Native Stories in the New Century

by Susan Power on Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 9:41am ·

I share this wonderful essay by Native American author, Susan Power. Hope you will enjoy it and comment.

[Powers's Comment:  A few of my friends expressed interest in reading comments I made on this topic at Iowa State University.  This is a just a brief introduction to the reading I then gave from my new novel -- so these words skim the subject which my fiction hopefully fleshed-out.  Thank you for your interest!]

I was so fortunate to be raised in diversity at a time when much of the country was rigidly segregated. Our home welcomed (and often housed) people of all different races and religions, in great part due to my mother's outgoing nature and political activism. So I was taught to honor the traditions and histories of fellow human beings, whatever their origins, educational level, or economic means, and expected to look beyond the end of my nose. I like to say, using writer's language, that this is a multiple point-of-view world, and what the best education can do for us, is teach us to “switch heads.” I do NOT mean replace our own specific backgrounds and belief systems, languages, with some new generic model that has been scrubbed clean of any reference to the past, any true foundation, the catastrophic soup of the so-called American Melting Pot, where we're expected to bleed away our old stories, turn our backs on our ancestors. No, I mean the ability to momentarily set aside the childish ego that insists there is one road, one religion, a single story meant to smother all the rest. To switch heads is to step in each others' shoes, look at the world from inside, outside, upside-down, ultimately creating a new kind of discourse where our stories, ideas, technologies and beliefs are in conversation with each other. A new kind of discourse where the dynamic has nothing to do with winning and losing, shouting louder than the next person, dominating, demolishing, silencing. I was raised hearing stories about my great-great-grandfather, Mahto Nunpa (Two Grizzly Bear) who was a highly respected Council Chief. A critical part of his success as a leader was his practice of careful listening. Opening the mind along with the ears, hearing without judgment, considering all angles. Wisdom isn't knowing more than someone else, having the cleverer brain. Wisdom is the flexibility that comes with maturity, the ability to set aside assumptions, agendas, and the need to be right. Wisdom is the willingness to be surprised.

I've spent a great deal of my life being educated, both in mainstream institutions of higher learning, and on reservations, in Native enclaves, through trips to other countries, and by reading the works of prophets and philosophers writing out of very different traditions. This is education at its best, being exposed to many voices. But I reject the role of the marginal person, the empty vessel needing to be filled by others, as if teaching is a one-way road. I don't come from a subculture, a dangling branch that hangs off the proud American tree. Our tribal roots drill deep and have yet to be plucked from this territory, this Turtle Island continent. Indigenous peoples all over the world have been schooled by the mainstream for hundreds of years, as if we didn't know how to look at the world with a proper set of eyes. This, despite evidence that we knew how to live in a place so that life was possible from one generation to the next, all varieties of life sustained – not taking the most expedient shortcuts to grab resources. So, a few of us are beginning to turn the tables and step forward with OUR stories, our own lessons, which we offer up as necessary additions to the Canon.

Vine Deloria's last book, published before his death, is titled The World We Used to Live In – Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men. This cousin of mine, a leading Native scholar, reminds us of the wondrous talents exhibited by our ancestors. He says, “There were two paths that led them to make sense of their world: empirical observation of the physical world and the continuing but sporadic intrusion of higher powers in their lives, manifested in unusual events and dreams....They understood that their task was to fit into the physical world in the most constructive manner and to establish relationships with the higher power, or powers, that created and sustained the universe.” He argues that this secular society which dominates all discourse essentially believes in nothing, acknowledging no greater good than what we can feel and touch. I lived a great deal of my adult life in this way, convinced that since I didn't have the profound experiences my mother did, those the mainstream would consider impossible, they must be imagined rather than lived, dream-stuff rather than “real.” It wasn't until I surrendered the hubris of my Harvard eyes, and opened in humble curiosity, that I began to see as my mother sees, hear as my mother hears. Remember, we send our children to college to be educated, and if they wish to become engineers or doctors, lawyers or scientists, they spend years learning the skills of their profession, serving long periods of apprenticeship before they're deemed ready to practice. So it is with what I call “Long Vision,” the ability to see in many dimensions, the ability to hear more than the chattering voice of the brain. It takes foundation and practice to open to these experiences. All knowledge isn't stuffed in the mind, but also issues forth from the heart and that secret place we call “spirit.”

Colonization and the missionaries' zeal to eradicate Indigenous life-ways, has separated too many of us from a skill-set that doesn't belong to those who are currently running this world, and running it into the ground. But that doesn't mean our stories and ceremonies and spiritual powers are lost to us. On the contrary, revitalization programs are growing across the country, as our ancestors tap us to recover what was hidden for a time.

I recently learned that a tipi lodge belonging to my great-great-grandfather, is part of the collections at the Oklahoma History Center. The lodge is exceptionally attractive, decorated with pictographs that record the history of my people. It was probably stolen in 1863 when our band was nearly exterminated by Federal troops looking to break the back of the Dakota Nation. Perhaps a soldier nabbed it as a souvenir. For decades Mahto Nunpa's buffalo skin lodge was stored in basements and attics, until eventually it was donated to the Oklahoma History Center’s collection. By this time the pictographs covering the hide had faded to near invisibility, mere outlines and sketches that were difficult to perceive with the naked eye. When the History Center moved to a facility with a controlled environment and the lodge was once again mounted on tipi poles and exposed to the light, there was an unexpected development – the pictographs began to emerge again, color returning as if newly painted, as if the original artist’s hand was telling the stories again for a new generation. Yes. It's time for our stories to live again, not as cultural curiosities interrogated by anthropologists, but as a blueprint for how to survive our crumbling world.

My new novel, Our Lady of a New World, took me seven years to complete. The process felt like an apprenticeship I served under the watchful eyes of elders. In order to find the truth of this fiction, the authentic voices, I had to expand as a person, develop greater compassion, courage, and patience. I had to set aside my expectations and plans, my agenda. At times I felt as though I had to coax these characters to offer up their stories, prove to them I wasn't here to exploit them for the purposes of advancing my career. Instead I was the Seeker, willing to do as much research as it took, as much meditation, revision, re-imagining as they deemed necessary before allowing me inside. Eventually they did. And the gift wasn't simply another finished book. No. They helped me alter my vision of what is possible.

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