"I am going to speak now," Dan said. "These are things I want you to hear."
Toward the end of the book 'the Wolf at Twilight' by Kent Nerburn there is a chapter called The Longest Night. In it, the central figure in the book (Dan) delivers a synopsis of the 'White and Indian' relationship, and how things need to change. I have never heard it expressed any better, and many of his words reflect much of what I have also been teaching these past eighteen years, especially the positive ones about that which we can learn and benefit from in traditional Native American ways. So, I thought I would share them with you. To help you, if you have not read the book, in the excerpt, Yellow Bird is Dan's younger sister, from whom he was separated early in life. Nerburn is, of course, the author of the book. Grover is a friend of Dan's, and Charles Bronson is the name of Dan's dog.
This excerpt from the book 'the Wolf at Twilight' is reprinted with permission from the author, Kent Nerburn, and courtesy of his publisher, New World Library. You can find them at www.kentnerburn.com and www.newworldlibrary.com respectively. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
. . . . . . . Dan exhaled deeply and lapsed into a long silence. He mouthed some words in Lakota, then touched his thumb and finger to his lips and began to speak in English.
“I’m going to speak now,” he said. “These are things I want you to hear.”
He had assumed the formal manner of speech that he used when talking about something important.
“I have been alive a long time. Almost a hundred years. I have seen many things. I have seen the old people pass and the old ways pass. I have seen our connections to the old knowledge become like threads ready to break.
“But a river does not run backward. That is one of the Creator’s laws. We must accept what has happened and pay attention to what is going to happen downstream. We must pay attention to what is going to happen to the children.”
He peered over at the tape recorder.
“You sure those ears are working?”
I pointed to the wheels whirring behind the small plastic window.
“Good,” he said. “Because I want you to get all of this.
“See, Nerburn, it’s the children who are most important. People get old and die, but the children keep coming. They keep coming with their little faces and their smiles. They come with pure spirits and open hearts. Then something happens. Their eyes change. Their mouths get hard. They move way back inside and don’t let anyone in. They lose the way of the heart.”
He took another sip of water.
“We cannot let this happen. They have just come from the Creator. They remember things they do not even understand. We must protect that. We must keep their little hearts from getting hard.”
He looked down at the table, as if he was examining his thoughts to make sure he was speaking truly.
“I know that we Indian people are not the only ones who love the children, Nerburn. All people love their children. But we know our love in a special way, because we are now so few.
“We were once a large nation of many peoples. We stretched from one ocean to the other. But now we are only a small handful, struggling to hold on. Each child is a gift, each death is a loss. We cannot afford to lose our children. We cannot afford to lose them to death or to drugs or to a sadness that kills their spirit. We cannot afford to see them disappear into the brown bottle, because they come back with violence in their hearts.
“But what I say is true for all the children — the children of your people and my people and all the people in the world. We need to help them set their feet on the path of kindness so they do not raise their hands in violence against each other.”
He looked me directly in the eye — something he did not often do.
“Do you understand what I am saying?”
I nodded quietly.
“Good, because this is an important trail I am trying to walk.
“You see,” he continued, “the Creator has given me a gift. It was not an easy gift. But the Creator’s gifts are not always easy. Sometimes they are hard. But we must accept them and use them to help the people.
“The gift the Creator gave me was to have an open heart for the children. He gave it to me when he took Yellow Bird from me. From that moment, I could not think of anything except her. Whenever I saw children playing, I thought of Yellow Bird. Whenever I heard a child cry, I thought of Yellow Bird. Now, for all my years, every time I see a little child I think of Yellow Bird.”
“It must have been hard,” I said.
“Yes,” he answered. “It’s been hard. Life is hard. But life is good, too. Because of little Yellow Bird my heart has always been open to the children. When I have wanted to lie down I thought of the children and kept walking. When I have wanted to take the bad road I thought of the children and stayed on the good road. I knew that I must live for little Yellow Bird, and that little Yellow Bird was present in every child I saw.
“Perhaps that is why I did not look so hard for her. If I found her, I might have taken an easy rest. I might have closed my heart to the other children. But because of her, my heart remained open to them all.”
He reached across and grabbed my sleeve again. He was touching me more than he ever had in his life.
“Are you sure you’re understanding me?”
“Yes, Dan,” I said. “It’s a privilege for me to hear these things.”
“It is not a privilege,” he said. “It is a responsibility. You are the one I have chosen to help me speak. You are the one who must help me pass these things along.
“Now I will continue.”
He steepled his gnarled fingers in front of his face.
“Now the trail begins to get difficult. It gets difficult because there are things that are difficult for me to say and things that will be difficult for you to hear.”
He touched his fingers to his lips, as if seeking to consecrate his words.
“When your people first came here, we reached out our hands to each other. We showed you our ways, and you showed us yours. We taught you about the animals and the plants and the medicines. We showed you how to live on this land — how to make clothing and grow crops and build houses for the weather. You thanked us and showed us all the amazing things that you had created, like guns for hunting and glasses that could make far things look close, and special medicines that could cure sicknesses our medicines could not.
“Those were good times. They were not always easy times, but our hands were extended to each other in the hope of friendship. We were living together inside the Creator’s promise.
“But then something changed. Your hunger for our land became greater than your hunger for our friendship. What had been a sharing became a struggle for a way of life.
“We did not want such a struggle. We have always believed that the Creator’s knowledge is too great to fit inside one people. We believe he gave different knowledge to different people, just like he gave different knowledge to different plants and different animals. We believe it is our task is to be open to the Creator’s knowledge and to honor it wherever it is found.
“From the first, we saw that your people had a special kind of knowledge. It was knowledge that was difficult for us to understand, but we had to respect it, because it was your gift from the Creator. It was the knowledge of the restless spirit.
“You were always seeking. You did not want to stay still — in your lives or in your minds. You were always trying to change things, to make them better, to make them different. It was like the world that the Creator had made was not good enough for you. You wanted to know what was inside of stones and what was beyond the stars. You took everything apart then tried to put it back together. You never rested.
“This seemed to us like an unhappy way to live. We believed that what the Creator had given us was enough and that the place he had put us was where we belonged. We wanted to learn the Creator’s original teachings in the land that he had given us. We were an honoring people, a guardian people, not an exploring and discovering people. For us the world was a mystery to be honored, not a puzzle to be solved.
“But we saw that you had accomplished great things in your way, and we respected that. We thought that we could share our knowledge with you, and that you would listen to us and learn from us, like we were learning from you. But that was not your way. You believed that the Creator had put all his knowledge in a Black Book and it was your task to bring that Black Book to other people and make everyone live in the way that you lived.
“As you became more and more powerful, you tried to force this way of life on our people. You tried to destroy our languages. You took our children. You would not let us practice our beliefs or live in the way we had been taught by our ancestors. You tried to silence the voices of those who had lived here long before you and replace them with the sound of your language and your own way of life.
“This was a mistake. Our Indian people have been here for ten thousand seasons. We have a deep knowledge. We have been born on this land; our bodies have returned to this land. We have an understanding that comes only from deep listening and long patience. You needed to hear what we had to say, but your ears were closed and your hearts were hard.
“Now the earth is passing through a difficult season. A strong wind is shaking all the trees. Everyone is wondering what will happen. But our people are not worried. The tree of our life is strong; the roots of our knowledge go far into this earth.
“Your people’s roots do not run so deep. You grew fast and tall on this land, faster and taller than we had thought possible. But your roots have just started to become one with this soil. These winds could harm you. They could damage your little children. That is why I am talking to you. Perhaps now you will listen to us. Perhaps now you will open your hearts to what we have to share.”
His hands were shaking. I had never seen him so desperate to communicate.
He took another sip of water. “I need you to understand these things, Nerburn,” he said again. “I need you to pass them on.”
“I’ll try, Dan,” I said.
He slammed the glass back on the table.
“No,” he said. “No. You will not try. You will do it. You will do it for me, and you will do it for Yellow Bird. I am telling you this. You think I let you close to my life so you could choose what you want?”
“I’m sorry, Dan. I didn’t mean it in that way.”
“I don’t care how you meant it. I only care that you do what you are called on to do. It is like I said — not all gifts are easy gifts. This gift I give you is not an easy gift. People will challenge you. White people will say that you lie. Indian people will say that you try to steal our words and put them in your own mouth.
“Grover says I should not have talked to you. He says you’re weak. He says you fear anger. He thinks I chose poorly.
“I don’t believe that. I think you are strong. I think you have the strength of a camp chief, not the strength of a war chief. You are not a leader, but you make sure that no one is left behind. We Indian people are the ones who have been left behind. That is why I talk to you. Because you will not let the little children be left behind.”
I was taken aback by his vehemence. But I was honored by his willingness to stand by me.
“I won’t let you down, Dan,” I said. “I won’t let Yellow Bird down. I won’t let any of you down.”
He poked my arm with his crooked finger. “You just worry about the children downstream,” he said.
He pointed at the tape recorder. “Now, check those white man’s ears. Make sure they’re still awake.”
I held up the recorder so he could hear the whirring of the wheels. “They’re still awake,” I said.
“Good. Now let us go a little farther on this trail.
“The greatest weakness of your people is that you do not know how to listen. You have closed your ears to other voices. Not just the voices of other people, but the voices of all creation. This is wrong. The Creator has placed knowledge in all things. Just because we humans have been given the gift of being able to stand outside ourselves does not mean that our knowledge is superior. We are not at the center of creation, we are just a part of creation.
“We Indians understand this. We know that the Creator placed special knowledge in everything. Tatanka has a special knowledge. Wanbli has a special knowledge. The plants, they each have special knowledge. Even little shunka here, he has special knowledge.”
He rubbed Charles Bronson under the neck. The little dog shifted in Dan’s lap and stared up at Dan with something close to love.
“It’s not knowledge they can express, because they can’t stand outside themselves and think about themselves like we can. Their knowledge is pure. It’s inside them. They can’t express it, but they live it. It’s our task as humans to watch them and listen to them and learn their knowledge, just as we must listen to the winds and the rivers and the trees and the stones.”
He hoisted himself upright in his seat and again looked directly in my face. His milky right eye was gleaming.
“We must stop looking at life as if we humans are at the top of everything. There’s spirit in everything, not just in people. If the Creator made it, there is spirit in it. And if it has spirit in it, it has a part to play in creation.
“Here is where your people have lost the path. You have spent too much time thinking that we humans are at the top of everything. You have spent too much time trying to learn about things and not enough time trying to learn from them. You have thought too much and honored too little.”
He paused and took several deep breaths, as if gathering his strength.
“Do you remember what we said in the sweat after we prayed?”
“Yes. Mitakuye oyas’in.”
“And what does that mean?”
“‘All my relations.’”
“That’s right. All my relations. Not ‘all the things I can use to make my life better.’ All my relations. That means everything in the world — the plants, the animals, the sky, the trees, the rocks — everything. When you feel that everything is your relation, you feel that everything is connected.
“That is the secret to living a life of the spirit. If you see that everything has spirit and that everything is connected, you honor everything because you know that it has a part to play in creation.
“Now, this is where the trail leads back to the children. The way we are living today is not good for them. It takes the light out of their eyes, because it does not teach them to see the spirit in all of life. It takes away their connection to everything else. It does not allow them to see the part they play in creation.
“Instead, they think of themselves as part of a straight line that runs from birth to death, and their task is to wait their turn until they reach the place in the line where they are strong and powerful. They are not taught that they have an important role to play just where they are, and that it is they alone who can fill that role.
“Remember when I said that the children have pure hearts because they are closest to the Great Mystery? This is their gift, and that is their part — to remember the goodness of the Great Mystery and to reveal it to us. The rest of us get hard with life; the children remain soft with hope.
“Your way harms the children because it confuses being useful with being important. The little children are not useful because their hands are not yet strong and their minds have not yet been filled with knowledge of how the world works. But they are important. They are important because of where they stand in the circle of life. Like the elders, they are weak. But like the elders, they are closest to the Great Mystery. They allow us to see the morning of creation.
“This is something we have tried to share with your people. We have tried to remind you that life is not a straight line from birth to death, but a circle where the young and old hold hands at the door of the Great Mystery.
“If you see life as a straight line, where the young and old are weak and those in the middle are strong, and if you think that to be important you must be useful, you do not see value in the young and the old. You see them as burdens, not as gifts, because they cannot lift their hands to be of use to the community.
“But the young and old both have other gifts. The young have enthusiasm and hope. They give us dreams when we get weary, and they fill the future with promise. The old have the wisdom of experience. They have traveled far on the journey of life and give us knowledge about our own road ahead.
“In our Indian way, we honor these gifts, just like we honor the gifts of all creation. We do not call our old ones ‘senior citizens’ and put them in buildings away from the rest. For us, they are elders. They have lived what we are still waiting to learn. We go to them; we listen to them. ‘What do you know?’ we ask. ‘What has life taught you?’ They are the keepers of the memories. Their hands have touched the hands of our grandfathers and grandmothers. Their stories are alive with the heartbeat of the past.
“And we do not look at our children as full-growns waiting to be. We see them as special beings who bring us the freshness of wonder. They keep our hearts soft and our hands gentle. They keep us from thinking only about ourselves.
“And they give the elders a reason to live, because we entrust the elders with the shaping of their hearts and with setting their feet straight upon the path of life.
“This is an important task, and one that the elders hold close to their hearts. They understand that once you have wandered far from the good path, it is hard to find it again. But they know that the children have not had time to wander far, so they share the wisdom of their life with them. And the children listen and know that what the elders say is true, because in their little hearts they know the elders are the closest to them in the circle of life, not the farthest from them on the road from birth to death.
“Do you understand this?” he said. “How the children are a gift to the elders and how the elders are a gift to the children? How they complete the circle of life like morning and evening complete the circle of the day?”
“Yes, Dan, I think I do. I think I really do.”
He reached his shaking hand toward the glass of water on the table. He seemed emotionally spent.
“Good. Now, just a little more now, and I will be done. Here is why it is important that I say these things. The lives of my people and your people once ran like separate waters. But now they have come together. I am not saying that this is good or bad. Only the Creator knows such things. I only know that the stream of our children’s lives has merged with yours and that all of us must now travel together on the journey of life.
“What we must do now is learn from each other — the way it was when your people first came here. We must reach our hands out to each other again. My people must keep our hearts open to what is good about your ways, and you must open your hearts again to what is good about ours. It is time for our Indian voices — the voices that have been silenced — to be heard again.”
He reached across the table with both hands and grabbed me by the wrists.
“This is why I come to you. Your people do not hear us because they do not see us. They see drunks. They see shacks. They see casinos and wise men and people with their hands out. They see everything they want to see, but they don’t see us. And if they don’t see us, they don’t hear us. And if they don’t hear us, they can’t learn from us.”
He let go of my wrists and pounded the table. The tape recorder fell over and the water glass jumped. Little Bronson scuttled off his lap and ran to a corner.
Dan coughed several times and took a deep breath.
“I am sorry I get angry. But your people need to hear us. We Indian people know many things. We know how to wrap our arms around a larger family. We know how to be poor without thinking that we should be rich. We value our elders because we know they are the keepers of the memories, and we value our children because we know that they carry the hope for the future. We know how to honor the mysteries of life without always thinking that we’re supposed to solve them. And we know how to keep the sacred on our lips, because we know that what is on the lips eventually makes its way to the heart.
“These are good things. They are good things for everyone. They are the gifts the Creator gave us, and we want to share them. But your people need to listen. They need to learn how to listen.”
I carefully set the cassette recorder back in front of him. “I believe you’re right, Dan.”
“I know I’m right. But it does no good to be right when your voice never reaches another person’s ears.”
“I’ll try to change that, Dan,” I said. “I promise.”
“Don’t make promises to me,” he said. “Make them to the Creator.”
“All right, I make the promise to the Creator.”
“Then here is only one more thing that I have to say. I have left it for last, because it makes me say hard words about your people, and I do not like to say hard words about another people. But where your way has been wrong and has washed over our way, I owe it to the children to speak the hard words.
“From the very first our people are taught to share. When one person has something, we all have something. When times are difficult we divide what little we have and share it with others. This is our teaching; this is our way. It fills our heart with the idea that the people come first.
“From the beginning, you tried to take this away from us. You taught that we should forget about the people and think first about ourselves. It was why you put us in boarding schools and tried to kill our language and our old ways — you did not like that we put the people first and tried to live for the people before ourselves.
“We did not understand this. Your Jesus taught people to share. He gave away everything he had to feed the hungry. He didn’t think about ‘mine’ and ‘yours.’ But when we lived this way, you said it was wrong. You said we had to learn to take care of ourselves and not rely on each other. You called it ‘self-reliance’ and told us that this was why your people were so strong and why you had accomplished so much.
“You brought soldiers and ministers to make us live this way. You took the land the Creator had given us and divided it into little squares and gave it back to us with our names on it. You told us we should sell things instead of giving them away. We did not like this then, and we do not like it now, because it harms the heart and fills it with fear.”
“Fear?” I said.
“Yes. If you are living only for yourself, and you know that everyone else is living only for themselves, you know that there is no help for you if you fall. All people must fall at some time, just as there will always come rain and bad weather. You learn that you must protect what is yours, or you may lose everything.
“You put locks on your doors, locks on your hearts. You live in fear that you may lose what you have, so you spend your life getting more and more and trying to build walls around what you have. You learn to protect rather than to give.
“In the old way there were no locks on our doors. We had no fences to make lines between ‘mine’ and ‘yours.’ To be great among our people was not to gather the most for ourselves, it was to be the biggest giver and sharer and to protect the weak. We honored those who could help the most, not those who could have the most.
“Once a person starts to live in your way, everything changes, because everything has to be protected. You start making rules about what people can’t do, not what people should do. Look at those Ten Commandments you tried to teach us in boarding school: ‘Thou shalt not, thou shalt not.’
“I’d rather have rules that say, ‘You should, you should.’ It teaches us who we should be, not who we should not be. All your way does is tell someone how not to be bad. It doesn’t tell them how to be good.
“When we teach the children this fear way, we set their feet on a bad path. We teach them to grow up thinking about themselves. Sharing is just a small stick they hold out to other people, not the strongest branch on the tree of their lives. They learn to protect, not to give, and it builds a wall around their hearts.
“We need to change this. We need to teach them a helping way, to give them a vision of what is right, not only of what is wrong. We need to teach them that the way to be strong is to help the weak; the way to have wealth is to give things away; the way to lead is to serve. We need to let them know that they are an important part of the circle of life, and if they do not play their part, no one else can.
“If we teach them these things they will have hope in their hearts. If we don’t, their hearts will become hard. They will gather things to them and watch life from a cold distance. They will see the world as something to use, not something to honor. Their ears will stay closed to voices of creation, and the words of the sacred will die on their lips.”
He closed his eyes and grabbed my arm tightly, as if by holding it he would keep me from losing the understanding of what he had said. We sat this way for several seconds. Then, slowly, he loosened his grip and sat back in his chair.
“That is enough for now,” he said . . . . . . .