Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo


The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commission has been to bridge the gulf between his own and 'white' culture, takes one into an even deeper territory of difference. For we travel into what the predominant culture would call, if being generous, the 'paranormal' and when not the merely superstitious; but, which Dan simply calls, at one point, 'Indian science'!

In the first two books, discussed here, http://ncolloff.blogspot.nl/2017/10/journeying-with-indian-elder.html, we follow Dan and Nerburn on two journeys. The first two are into Dan's past. The first concludes at the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee from which Dan's parents are survivors. The second ends at the discovered grave of Dan's younger sister, Yellow Bird, whose apparent speech impediment and supernatural gift with animals had deeply unsettled her boarding school authorities (Catholic nuns). On her release from school, separated from her own family, she had acted as a house servant for a white family until her early death.

The third book, 'The Girl who sang to the Buffalo' picks up the story and travels into the future (and into an alternate view of the universe). It begins with a dream. A compulsive one that visits Nerburn on a nightly basis. Here Mary, the elderly Indian woman, that has helped him find Yellow Bird's grave, and Yellow Bird herself appear eagerly gesturing him towards a discovery. It is only after, one night, when locked in the dream once more, he is awoken by a thunderclap that no else hears that he decides to re-visit Mary. He finds that she has died (at the exact time that the thunderclap wakes Nerburn) but has left a journal with further details about Yellow Bird's life that she did not disclose (to an unknown white man) before.

Here we discover that Yellow Bird had, between school and servitude, been an inmate of the grim Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. A name that suggests that Americans genuinely have no sense of irony. After all her speech impediment made her 'retarded' and, with yet, with cognitive dissonance, her gifts with animals made her uncanny, unsettling and 'pagan'. The asylum was a place of unremitting degradation and, in its formidable structure, intimidating colonizing power.

Nerburn travels back to Dan with this new, dark picture only to discover that the world (from his perspective) was to get stranger. One of the virtues of the book is that Nerburn, as ever, whilst deeply sympathetic to Indian culture, is a balanced, and far from credulous, observer.

Dan has a granddaughter, four years of age, who in appearance, self-containment, and gift of imaginative sympathy with the world around her is strikingly similar to his, now long deceased, sister. Her withdrawn nature, lack of apparent social gifts have unsettled her parents and the white doctors they have consulted have suggested treatment. Dan is convinced that she has come bearing 'the old knowledge', the wisdom that had sustained Lakota culture for so long and which had gone into eclipse when confronted with the knowledge of the white culture and its power. How to protect his granddaughter from a similar degradation that his sister had suffered (even if one more kindly administered than the physical and emotional brutalities of the asylum)?

Mary's journal and its account of his sister's gifts is one clue as is the man that Mary's granddaughter originally sends Nerburn too: Bernais, an old Indian, fully immersed in the knowledge and tradition of his ancestors. Can this man's wisdom and practice so much deeper that Dan's own (however cogently expressed through all three books) be of help? Thus, the trilogy ends with another journey to find the old man and confirmation of Dan's granddaughter's gifts.

At it ends beautifully. Yellow Bird II is acknowledged as an 'old one' carrying knowledge by Bernais but can this wizened, strange old man be trusted? He is, to compound things, from another tribe, not traditionally friendly with the Lakota. Though Dan is an elder (and grandfather), he has a tendency to see 'sign' and 'meaning' in everything, too much perhaps. And the white doctors carry all the power of the dominant culture. But the world speaks. Yellow Bird II wanders off into the snow, searched for by her frantic parents, Nerburn, an Indian friend and a dog. She is discovered, eventually, surrounded by a transfixed group of buffalo to whom in the moonlight, she sings a haunting wordless song. They remain still, protective, sheltering her, until she ceases, returns to her family, the spell broken, and the world falls back into its 'usual' place. Nobody there is under any doubt that Yellow Bird II is special and must be brought up in the old ways. The doctors have lost their patient.

Reading it, I realized how little I identify with Nerburn. He positions himself, rightly and beautifully, as the outsider neophyte, often bewildered by events, in deeper than he can possibly know according to Grover, Dan's younger friend and fierce protector. This is not because I am 'an Indian' nor inclined to pretend to have knowledge neither structured as theirs or as deep. But because our paths walk close by - dreams can come, and have, from others, they have even predicted the future; when sufficiently attentive and sometimes when not, the world has offered a dance of synchronicity that has overwhelmed to the point of fear (in this I can identify with Nerburn); and, rarely but really, I have found myself communing with animals in a way that speaks, to use my own tradition's language, of a restoration of paradise.

In this last regard, I remember going for a walk in a wood in Southern Illinois. It was Friday 14th September 2001 and I had been watching the memorial service on television at the National Cathedral in Washington following the tragic events of 9/11. I was on my own and stepping into my path as I pondered my feelings was a deer who held me in her look. Time flowed ever more slowly. Time stopped as she regarded me with a resignation so deep that you were judged. Later it reminded me of Muir's beautiful poem of the animals on the fifth day of creation looking out with love and trepidation at ourselves the product of the sixth.

Nerburn's trilogy is a deep reminder of that indigenous wisdom that imagines the world as sign and gift and challenges us to remember what you do with a gift is to honor it and live with it kindly and to its purpose.




Sunday, November 5, 2017

Quaker dwarf slams slavery



Benjamin Lay was a victim of 'history from above', airbrushed out of the history of the abolition of slavery for being not only ahead of his time but awkward, cantankerous, impolite and, importantly, an artisan and a self educated autodidact who was, quite literally, a dwarf coming in at a little over four feet high.

He was decidedly not one of the saintly persuaders of the subsequent generation - middle class, well-educated men of property and station, heirs to the burgeoning Enlightenment. But, as Marcus Rediker, eloquently argues in his, 'The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist', he led in the 1720's and 30's, through his writings, his provocative theatre of protest and his general way of life to pave the way. It was in the year of his death that the Pennsylvania Monthly Meeting, who had expelled him, agreed that the trade in slaves was incompatible with membership. The first step on a long path but which, in his own sight, allowed him to die vindicated.

Rediker shows how both the manifold aspects of his life and the traditions and reading he engaged with shaped Lay's life, thoughts and actions. He was deeply influenced by his encounter with slavery in Barbados, where he and his beloved wife, Sarah, also a Quaker and a dwarf, ran a shop. So too his life as a sailor had given him a taste for mutual aid and the practical egalitarianism of the sea. And though self-taught, he was deeply read - in the strands of radicalism associated with the English revolution including the early Quakers, in Greek philosophy and especially the witness of the Cynics to a life of simplicity, equality and truthful speech and, most critically, in the Bible and that most complex of books that of the Revelation of St John.

In this last text, Lay saw his justification for imagining that in succumbing to the ownership of slaves, Quakers had lost their mission, been literally subverted by evil and needed to be confronted with the mark of their treachery. This he did both in print but more importantly by subverting meetings for worship. Most notably he once took a Bible, a bladder of red fruit juice and stabbing the latter while brandishing the former literally branded his fellow Quakers, many of whom owned slaves, with the blood of their injustice. No wonder he kept being expelled! But he reminds us that confronting injustice, even if always non-violently, does not mean politely or without confrontation.

He, also, reminds us that struggling for justice is not, never simply, working on one issue for much is connected. Slavery was born out of a search for wealth, the system of wealth creation exploited others beyond slaves - the poor and animals were also of central concern to Lay, who became a vegetarian following the logic of his own argument. Wealth created inequality and pride that corrupted life; thus, Lay ended his own life living in an altered cave and off the produce of his own labour (including weaving his own linen clothes - refusing wool and leather). His was a radicalism all of a piece.

It is a fascinating book, beautifully written, that restores Lay to his place of importance in history but also invites reflection on our present. What does it require of us to positively protest lives of change? It hardly suggests that signing an online petition or donating a fraction of our income is enough. Nor does it suggest that seeking justice now is simply a question of technocratic fixing at the end of history. Our 'ideologies' matter and they should matter across and through the whole texture of our lives. We may not be as radical as Lay but Lay's life is there to ask us: why not?

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

When Goethe was a student in Strasbourg, he became fascinated by the cathedral which, for two centuries from its ‘completion’, had be...