Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wasicu at Chankpe Opi: A White Man at Wounded Knee VII

Now look down at the sign where the reservation roads cross, three hundred yards from where we’re standing. In summer, you might see a car or two. Go ahead. Walk down. People there beneath a brush arbor—Lakota people—will be happy to sell you some keepsake from your visit.

I have one—a little cowhide drum, two inches across, decorated with beaded fringe and hand-painted on both sides—on one, the image of a red drum; on the other, the words “Wounded Knee” painted in above a single eagle feather, two dates, one on either side—“1890” and “1973.”

Cost me twenty dollars. I bought it from an angular man in a Western shirt who had three of them strung over his hand when he showed me his goods. His dark, expressionless face was pockmarked, his eyes blood-lit. I am sad to say he looked far too much like the caricature some of us hold of reservation people today.

“My wife makes them,” he told me slowly, handing me the one that now hangs on my wall. He pointed into an old Ford parked just ten feet away. I looked into the interior where she was sitting on the passenger’s side. She didn’t move, her head bowed as if she were asleep. Maybe it was my own sinful prejudice, but I couldn’t help think the worst.

I picked a crisp twenty out of my billfold and handed it to him. He took it and left. I suppose the next day he would return with the other two he’d shown me.

I don’t know that I can unpack the whole meaning of that single twenty-dollar transaction—what percentage of what I gave him may have come from pity, what percentage from blood guilt, what percentage from the very real desire to take some icon home to remember Wounded Knee. I honestly cannot interpret my own motives, in part because I don’t know that I want to look that closely into my own heart.

But I’m happy that little cowhide drum is here beside me as I write these words, not because it’s cute—it isn’t. I have no doubt that some enterprising wasicu could create a kiosk and churn out Wounded Knee kitsch far more marketable—refrigerator magnets, ball-point pens with pinto ponies that run up and down the shaft. But there’s something about the people who sold it to me that I can’t forget, just as surely as the tawny prairie landscape all around and the entire awful story that gives the valley its ghostly life. Mystery and the sadness are here in my little buckskin drum, a drum that really doesn’t sound.

Mostly, at Wounded Knee, there is silence. When you visit, you won’t read or hear many words at all. If you’re white and you want to understand, you’ll have to look deeply into your own heart, stare into your deepest values, listen to the songs you sing, examine the history your family has lived and the faith you celebrate.

Maybe it’s best to simply to simply stand in awe at Wounded Knee and pray with your silence. That’s not easy. We’re not good at lamentations. White folks would much rather see Wounded Knee as a battle than a massacre, as we have, officially, for more than a century.

Look up. Somewhere in that vast azure dome a jet will be cutting a swath across the openness. Inside, three hundred people are sipping Cokes, reading Danielle Steele, watching a movie. Some are sleeping. Some are traveling home.

Do the math. Count them yourself—the thousands each day that only incidentally glance out from corner-less airplane windows as they pass over the spot we’re standing. Then look around and see how alone you are up here on the hill with four silent Hotchkiss guns.

Maybe we’d all rather not know. We’d all rather fly over Wounded Knee.

Visit sometime. Leave the kids at home. Welcome the silence. Stand here for an hour until the keening, the death songs, rise from the ravines as they once did. Look out over nearly a thousands ghosts assembled in space so open it’s almost frightening. 

Stand here alone for awhile, and I swear that what you’ll read in the flow of prairie grasses and hear in the spirit of the wind is that, really, despite the tracks of those jets in the skies above and the immensity of silence all around, once upon a time every last one of us was here.
This essay was published initially in Books and Culture.

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