Here it is–another week has passed and I remain in a cultural spin; listened to a dozen life histories this week and each at once confirmed the richness of a tribal way of life that is fading quickly and the poverty of life that looms daily to replace it. Beneath the surface of the attempt to retain Cheyenne traditional identity are the stark realities that on the Rez there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. Education will get you out, but once out, most don’t want to return. And beyond the complexities of that denoument–not the least of which being that even though Reservation ex-pats don’t want to come back they ultimately find life in white society untenable–there remains the singular antidote to boredom and welfare; alcoholism. One in four are alcolholic and therefore every family is plagued by alcohol related death.
As I listen each day to elders tell their stories and I try to look back over our collective long disappointing history, I am reminded of something the novelist Salman Rushdie said; “a tragedy is when you break something and you can’t fix it”. I want to believe somehow it can be repaired but I don’t know how. Let the following story from one of last week’s interviews offer a metaphor for repair.
Dorothy’s grandfather had the following method for dealing with bad behavior in children. When he discovered she had committed an offence, he motioned for her to accompany him outside. There, he sat her down, and asked her what she had done. If she was unresponsive, he handed her a round stone about the size of a tennis ball that he had stored near the front step. He told her to sit there and hold the stone until she knew what she did and could tell him; no matter how long it took. When she thought she had an answer, she was to fetch him; if she gave the right answer (he knew what she had done), then he told her to sit and hold the stone again and think about what she should do to correct her mistake; if she didn’t get it, she had to sit and hold the stone and think some more. Then, when she came up with the right response she was told to go make that restitution; if not, she had to sit some more and think ’til she found it.
“When you hold the stone,’ he said, “you are reminded that you are connected to the earth; we are all connected to the earth and when we do harm we carry the burden of it until we make it right.”
Perhaps “holding the stone” might be a better way than all the white man’s beurocratic interventions that have thus far failed to improve the quality of life for Native Americans. It made all the difference for Dorothy. She has her grandfather’s stone in her kitchen to this day on a shelf near the stove.