A traditional American holiday from the perspective of a Native American
By Scott Bear Don’t Walk
We, the Apsaalooke people, live on top of large deposits of ancient carbonized plant matter. This ancient plant matter has broken down and been compressed over eons into stuff that burns called coal.
Large corporations pull the stuff out of the ground by digging open a massive hole. The dead plant matter is sold, up to 7.5 million tons a year , and shipped via unending train cars to the Midwest where it is burned to power generators. Without this invisible force, electricity, so much a part of our lives, we would live in the dark, shivering, and by “we” I mean America.
Imagine living in the arid high Northern Plains where the winds blow and the snow comes swirling. Imagine not having enough money to heat your house, to fill the truck with gas, to pay for school clothes, to feed your kids — the realities of no jobs, no industry. That is why we dig up the coal and ship it via unending train cars rattling past the house where my grandmother lived.
My grandmother walked every morning to the coal pile under the collapsed bare wood shed. Scooped into a zinc bucket, the coal catches the light like black diamonds. On infrequent visits I would wake up to the squeak of the stove door clanging shut in the darkness, the sound of the the poker reviving embers and the distinct sulfuric smell of coal combustion. Then the smell of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee would pull me out of bed. I’ve only smelt coal burning in a few places since, notably as a student at Oxford. The smell took me back to my grandmother’s house on the reservation.
Born in 1906, my grandmother saw Halley’s Comet arc across the sky when she was four years old. She was born after the U.S. census of 1900 which counted less than 240,000 Indians. When she died in 1996 (ten years after the comet’s 1986 return) there were counted around 4.1 million of us, including all her kids, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She formed the trunk from which my family branches outward. My grandmother made survival in the 20th century her life’s work. We do not take this survival for granted.
Recently, the husband of an Oxford acquaintance, an executive at a large dotcom, contacted me out of the blue, I’ve never met him. “Do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?” he presumed to ask.
“Hell no, whiteman”, I wanted to write back, “We spend the holiday in deep mourning and defiance, riding our ponies bareback on the reservation, guarding the lives of a flock of sacred wild turkeys with our repeating rifles, or in the case of my male relatives, contraband AK47s”.
But none of that is true, except for the AKs, and my uncles have permits — I think. And rather than mourning, we are a thankful lot, we Native Americans. We defy by living. Like many, my uncles, the ones still living, will sit down to a regular American-style Thanksgiving with too much turkey, the parade on TV and football. That’s how it goes, even in the poorest most remote places in Indian Country.
Two decades after having fled my reservation bordertown home, I have flown farther and farther afield searching. This separates me, pulls me, sets me apart. But more and more people in my tribe are becoming economic refugees, some moving away to find schooling and work.
This Thanksgiving, I will sit down to turkey with all the trimmings and stuff my face, celebrating as any Native American would, but I will do so far away from my home.
On the reservation the rest of my family will celebrate, together or alone. Now that my grandmother has gone to the Other Side Place, we lack a center. We no longer gather together. Old gripes and slights, formerly soothed so as not to upset Grandmother, have bubbled forth and we fly apart in many directions.
Formerly, my people spent time “visiting”, traveling from house to house with family and friends, talking, eating and telling stories. It was so prevalent that the Indian Agents and the government tried to separate us by allotting our land into individual parcels far apart from each other. The whiteman wanted us to be productive. One brother would be assigned to live 50 miles from the other. But that didn’t stop the visiting, on holidays we went visiting grandma’s, aunties, uncles, friends, long into the night.
The men would sneak off to the Silver Dollar Bar, the women would sit around the kitchen table laughing at shockingly ribald stories. In my family the spirit of visiting only left when my grandmother’s generation went over to the Other Side Camp.
Those who ask whether we celebrate Thanksgiving do so unable to believe that we would celebrate our destruction. But we celebrate that we are not destroyed. We are thankful. Where I’m from in Montana, Indians still exist, we still have homelands, we still have culture, language, stories — spirit. We haven’t been rubbed out, destroyed, killed off by disease or lack of love.
In a vision, the last chief of my tribe, Plenty Coups (1848-1932), saw the buffalo herds, our spiritual sponsors in this world, our livelihood, our lives, running into a dark hole in the earth. That’s where I think of them today, great massive herds alive, snorting, stomping and milling about, just waiting to return. I see them bursting forth, running free across the grasslands, past the open coal pits, past the dead horse carcasses roadside, past the Indian Health Service Hospital, past the Taco Johns, great thundering herds set free.
There would be some surprised looks from the young people looking up from their cellphones. But it wouldn’t take long before we would take up the hunt once again. While the buffalo are still in that hole we hold our breath, collectively. We live fenced in, thankful for Creator-given gifts, but wanting more.
I can still see her, my grandmother, in her saltbox house by the railroad tracks sitting at her dining room table, offering store-bought candy oranges and red Kool-Aid. Before her sits a Kleenex box, margarine tub, open mail, a photo album, the Enquirer, thread and needle, the crossword puzzle, the detritus of one Indian woman’s life that spanned the twilight of our numbers to the promise of our population resurgence.
Just out back a trail leads past the rusted tractors and coal shed to the foot of the Wolf Mountains. Along the way, we pass the family grave plot with the official US Army Cavalry headstone and the unadorned wooden crosses of children, fenced in from marauding cows. Past the creek growing with wild grapes and chokecherries we arrive at the stone cairns. These stones piles waist-high were left by passing vision seekers on their way to the mountains. They are still there today.
To be Native American involves a simple truism — we live here. All this time, over countless years, we’ve put down roots, made relations, found a way. Glimpses of us, the Fourth of July Powwow, the ceremonies, the sound of the Apsaalooke language which I’m trying to learn with my daughter, the stickgame, hints at a world that survives interior to this one. A past goes back to the original place, the plains, the mountains, to a birth and existence here.
What of the coal? Will the smoke from ever more frequent forest fires, due to climate change, obscure the sky? Will there be fresh water to drink? What will we do when the coal gives out and the waste stays? What will I leave behind when I go to the Other Side Camp? One day we all will become coal.
As a young boy walking with my grandmother towards the outhouse at night, she pointed up at the sky, past the spiraling fingers of the cottonwood tree backlit by stars.
“Can you see them?” she asked, pointing upwards.
I nodded there in the dark, a lie. I couldn’t focus to pick out the forms she was describing.
I’ve been back, the cottonwood tree is now cut down, the outhouse burned down. She’s gone to the Other Side Place to be with all my relations.
If I’m still alive, I will be in my 90s the next time Halley’s Comet returns.
Scott Bear Don’t Walk is a member of the Crow Indian Tribe of Montana. He is also Salish and Metis. He studied at the University of Montana and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He received his MFA in poetry from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. Currently he is writing his PhD dissertation at the Committee On Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
‘The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2000’, Stella U. Ogunwole; U.S. Census Bureau, Feb. 2002