Some friends have a couple of teepee rings on their South Dakota ranch, visible only in summer, and then, only when the cattle keep the grass down. But they're there all right, huge circles of mostly submerged stones that mark the spots where, hundreds of years ago, maybe more, Lakota people lived. Some people wouldn't give a hoot about a couple of 15- or 20-food wide circles of stones out in the middle of nowhere, but me--I think it's a treasure, an actual footprint of a whole different time.
These friends claim that they believe there is a long line of stones out there too, a line that points to a spot on the horizon where the sun rises on summer solstice. I haven't seen it, but I know that such things exist. Ancient clocks, really--they were there to remind "the people" that the times, they were 'a'changing. Once they sun would hit that spot, they'd know the winter was coming again.
I walked outside two mornings ago and the wind was blowing hard out of the northwest. It was the morning of winter solstice, and I thought of those teepee rings, and some band of Native people out there on a wide open plains 200 years ago. It's likely they wouldn't have been at that spot exactly, because most Lakota thought it appropriate to head for the hills come winter, come cold--the Black Hills, where the hills became a resort, a shelter in the time of winter storm.
Nonetheless, when December winds blow on the prairie, it's hard to imagine how a people could live here in teepees. For that matter, it's hard to imagine why anyone does. I know how the people stayed warm--I mean I know the answers--but it's still hard to believe how anyone could live through stiff northwest winds that push the temperature down to regions of cold no one should have to experience. But they did.
The book I'm reading, Radical Hope, helps me to understand some things about Native life today. What it does is speculate on the death of a culture, or at least a vastly diminished thing, and then asks questions. It calls itself philosophical anthropology. Here's it's initial assertion. The culture of the Crow Indians (not unlike most Plains Indians) essentially centered around bravery in warfare. It's central ritual was "counting coup," a strategy of battle in which the warrior would deliberately hit the opponent before anything else--making the whole thing something of a game really, or so it seems to me, a 21st century white guy. But counting coup was at the heart of Native culture.
Now take warfare out of the culture, Jonathan Lear argues, and nothing has any meaning. Women don't make meals to keep their warriors strong because their men aren't warriors. Why take sweat baths if the purpose of life is gone? Why dance? Why celebrate anything? How do you tell stories when the signifiers of all the great stories simply are no more? How do you do anything? Why?
I'm not particularly interested in bathing my white self in guilt, but, honestly, the argument here, I believe, helps me at least far--I can understand something of what Euro-Americans like me did when we decided to build a brand new country where there was nothing but wilderness (oh, yeah--and some few Native people). It's one thing to admit that "we robbed them of their culture"; it's quite another to help me understand why they could no longer tell stories. Nothing had meaning.
Today is Christmas here in the Schaap house. It's not December 25th, but our kids will be gone, come the 25th, so today we're doing the rituals: we're opening presents. Yesterday, my granddaughter and I hit Wal-Mart for what has become our annual-Christmas-present-buying spree. It goes like this: she picks out presents, and I buy. It's a joy I look forward to all year.
Someone once told me that the loss of one's parent would be almost a ghostly thing. It would haunt me--or he would, my father. My dad died already five years ago, and I live quite normally in his absence.
But then there are times like right now that miss him. Christmas. I wish somehow we were going home.
But there is no "home" there anymore. It's here, obviously. I can't go back to my father because my father isn't there. And what I'm saying is that, oddly enough, this particular morning I find his absence unsettling. I miss him.
I'm not trying to argue that my father's death is something of the cultural genocide Euro-Americans perpetuated on Native people across this vast land. But right now, this morning, I can feel at least something of the tremors that arise in the soul when something really important is lost, even though it's only a slice of my own personal culture, if I may speak that way.
This morning, the morning of our Christmas celebration, I feel the loss of my father, strangely. When he left, at least for me, some of the reason for telling stories was gone.
Maybe that's why I like those teepee rings. They're not virtual. They're there, in the ground. I've seen 'em--more than once. And the stones in a line toward the solstice dawn too--they're there, a testimony.
Like my father's Bible, which sits here on a table beside me, tattered and worn, full of his old letters and memories, things that meant the world to him--far less to me, his son. But it's here, like teepee rings, bearing a 1941 inscription that somehow is a vision for me this morning, a vision of Christmas past, before I was born.