Carrying the Bones: Price of My Un-Belonging Is Death.
“Why do we need to be pardoned? What are we to be pardoned for?… Our dead, so very dead, so democratically dead from sorrow because no one did anything, because the dead, our dead, went just like that, with no one keeping count with no one saying, “Enough!” which would at least have granted some meaning to their deaths, a meaning no one ever sought for them, the dead of all times, who are now dying once again, but now in order to live?” ~ Subcomandante Marcos
I imagine the sun setting along the Eastern Seaboard, darkness is falling like a hush over the day and its spent potential.
I see a knife blade being unsheathed, the only hint of danger a glint of light flashing suddenly across her eyes.
I hear the sounds of her screams as the knife plunges in, finds her jugular, and stills her heart.
I notice the rustling of the grass as he tucks her scalp in his bag, rises, and walks away.
In Jesus’ name he walks away. In Jesus’ name a nation is born.
Do you think I exaggerate?
“During the late seventeenth century, Anglo settlers in New England began the routine practice of scalp hunting… Scalp hunting was not only a profitable privatized enterprise but also a means to eradicate or subjugate the Indigenous population of the Anglo-American Atlantic seaboard. The settlers gave a name to the mutilated, bloody corpses they left in the wake of scalp hunts: redskins.” ~ Dr. Roxanne-Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
I don’t know if I can tell this story. I am not sure I can do it justice. I am shaking as I type.
For me, this is not some sad memory to be closed up in the dusty pages of history and left to gather even more dust on our national shelves.
Each soul that gave up the ghost on the killing fields of these United States is a jewel I hold in my heart as family, as the ties of ancestry breaking and knitting themselves back together again, as hope fading and bursting to life anew, as prayers uttered on dying breath, unanswered and yet answered in the reality that we are still here.
For me the use of the word we prompts an even deeper inner wobble. What do I mean by we?
Let’s leave that question hanging in the air for now. Instead of answering it in a straightforward, linear way, let us instead walk together.
Let us be okla nowa, or people walking.
As you and I approach the road, do you see the soldiers on horseback? What about the people walking wearily along the way? If you look carefully, you will see these okla nowa struggling with heavy bundles, almost too heavy, awkward in shape yet impossible to put down. You will see thin frames, bleeding feet, downcast eyes, anguished expressions, and bones — bags of bones.
And yet they are singing as the sun goes down on another long, hard day of endless walking:
Shilombish Holitopa Ma, or Amazing Grace.
In Jesus’ name they also pray.
Carrying the bones, they sang. Carrying the bones, they prayed. Carrying the bones, they yet yearned to live.
“On the Trail of Tears, some of the refugees carried the bones of their dead with them as best they could. They did not want to break the bond of family. They did not want to leave their loved ones behind. Others who died along the way, had to be hurriedly buried on the road, their individual graves marked only by a rough cross. The resulting emotional trauma for my ancestors is almost beyond language to describe. Walking away from the ancient communal graves of generations of the People, desperately trying to bring some of them like the bones of Joseph on the journey ahead, having to inter elders and children alone, knowing they would never be found again, lost in a kind of limbo: the pain and suffering of the Choctaw and all the Native peoples forced onto the Trail of Tears is worthy of a lament for all time. ~ Steven Charleston, Choctaw Elder and Episcopal Bishop, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus
To really understand these heavy bundles and the dedication it took to carry them, and to also understand what I mean and what I, conversely, cannot mean by the word we, you must realize that Native American society was built from the roots of an unyielding we. Native Americans did not have a frame of reference for the terminal I so worshiped by the colonizing forces.
Awkwardly they walked, okla nowa, with their bundles of bones.
Perhaps above all that was conquered, all that was stolen, the theft of the we is the most terrible of losses.
You see, the colonizers were not satisfied with just taking the land soaked, like their hands, in the blood of my ancestors.
To make the taking complete, they took the who and what of the we.
They took the dancing, they took the prayers, they took the buffalo, they took the freedom to roam, they took the children, they took control of our god.
“…the United States occupied Native lands with its military and permitted no form of self-government for Native people. Native religious traditions were outlawed as devil worship and prohibited as forms of sedition. The historic way of life for the people was totally destroyed as the herds of buffalo were intentionally exterminated in their thousands. Native people were placed in the equivalent of concentration camps. Their children were taken from them and forced into boarding schools where they were only allowed to speak in English.” ~ Steven Charleston, Choctaw Elder and Episcopal Bishop, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus
Which brings me to the shaking and the wobbling I feel when I utter that tiny, somehow also enormous, two-letter word: we. That word brings to the surface all I can mean when I utter its sacred, single syllable, and all I cannot mean.
Be patient as I untangle this for you.
Clearly, I am part of the we that still lives and breathes today.
In my blood runs the Choctaw story.
I cannot ultimately be separated from the we because it is physically impossible for me to lose something so true that it formed my very essence, so true that it formed my DNA.
Literally, someone who made it through the Trail of Tears, past the concentration camps, and beyond the reach of the boarding schools gave birth to the man who fathered my mother, who gave birth to me. It is an indestructible fact that I exist because my ancestors lived on.
And yet, I am not part of the we in any practical sense. My mother scarcely mentioned we were Native. She barely situated my life in the ground of this we. She died when I was 24 years old. She was brutally murdered, suddenly taken, viciously removed from my life long before I was ready to let her go. When she died, she took with her even the very faintest link to the we.
I am left with almost imperceptible clues about who I am.
History books and vague memories are all I have.
But that was the point, wasn’t it? To make us so ashamed of ourselves as Native people that we would assimilate out of the we, into the rotten I-ndividualism of American culture, and out of existence?
Maybe I haven’t quite driven my point home! Maybe you think the prohibition on speaking our own language was not such a big deal. Maybe you can’t see why it was so laced with fatal shame that my great aunt would not speak the name of our Indigenous nation out loud to me.
Let me try again!
“The stated goal of the project was assimilation. Indigenous children were prohibited from speaking their mother tongues or practicing their religions… in the US boarding schools the children were beaten for speaking their own languages, among other infractions that expressed their humanity. Although stripped of their languages and skills of their communities, what they learned in boarding school was useless for the purposes of effective assimilation, creating multiple lost generations of traumatized individuals.” ~ Dr. Roxanne-Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
I don’t know much of my mother’s childhood. I know she was abandoned by the tall, robust, round, dark-skinned man I called Papaw, and that she was raised by her grandmother, a Native woman. She told me of the times she stood by the window waiting for him to come and how often he never did. Trauma does this. It destroys intimacy.
It replaces the we with a catastrophically, self-protective, selfish, destructive I-ndividualism.
Trauma, especially systemic, genocidal trauma seals us all in a living grave made for one.
I feel like I followed in my mother’s footsteps. Though she was physically present, I spent my life standing by the metaphorical window of my mother’s world, searching for clues about who she was and who I am. I have spent the 20-plus years since she died by a knife to her throat, so blood-soaked and ravaged by violence that we could not have an open casket, still standing by that window, still searching, still waiting.
History books and vague references are all I have left of the past, of her, of the stories I wish she would have told me, of the questions I wish my young mind had known to formulate.
Blood-soaked memories that I pick through searching for my reflection in the shattered mirror of a shattered we are all that remain.
In those history books, I have found much of what I need to know in order to understand the shroud of silence my family held over our Indigenous roots.
In those same books, I have found all I ever could have imagined (and a thousand times worse) of the reasons why my mother held her tongue and raised us in a White fairy tale far from the beatings and the death and the barely marked graves that ended by that lonely window, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Now I hope that you finally understand what I mean by the title of this article, that you understand what I mean when I say that the price of my original un-belonging was death.
I likewise hope you understand that the price of my next, very necessary act of un-belonging, this time to the false narrative of Whiteness, is also death, and that this un-belonging is the first trembling step I must take out of that interminable holding pattern of waiting endlessly by a lonely window.
In the annals of history, on the days I have dared to look, alongside the tragedy, I have also found courage — the courage of my people. I have found the will to heed the call of the Indigenous Zapatista leader to die in order to live.
I have died page by page, incomplete memory by incomplete memory, to the White fantasy of a holy, godly, compassionate nation. I have died to the me that was formed without the we.
I feel all alone tonight, like a mound of bones left by the side of the road in the tear-soaked land of our exile. I fear I may wind up like the barely marked graves, hastily left, without ceremony or coordinates, a lonesome cross marking the spot where I fell, except there is no one here to even bury or to carry the remains of who I was except me.
But I absolutely cannot return to the uneasy gait that once carried me, camouflaged, through White society. I have died out from under the White fairy tale of a pilgrim covenant with god for a new land, whitewashed of the genocide that delivered the vastness of these United States and fulfilled the myth of Manifest Destiny.
I have now died once and for all out from under the influence of these pernicious myths of goodness and godliness that cover over theft by genocide. I have sacrificed myself as a character within these myths so that I can live in a new story, one with a solid foundation in reality and imbued with the power of a tomorrow I feel hell-bent on realizing.
I want you to understand the contours of this tomorrow! Maybe you too will want to die so you can live.
In service of this hope I hold for you and for me, you and I will now visit the communal burial grounds of my ancestors searching for clues, looking for answers. And while I am visiting, with you as my witness, I will beg for a blessing from my ancestors’ spirits and from the Spirit.
I will ask my ancestors to take the bones of who I was when I picked up the history books and started sorting through my mother’s vague references.
The lies those old bones carry is part of our legacy too. Those deceitful, rickety old bones are the faulty structures of a life constructed of the even more deceitful I-ndividualism brought by the colonizers. They must find their peace held in the truth of who we are as a people.
“Prior to the arrival of the Christian missionaries, my ancestors would place the bodies of their dead on scaffolds… The dead were escorted there by family as they grieved and then left for a long period until they were almost decomposed. Once this natural process had occurred, the family returned to the scaffold with a religious specialist known as a “bone picker” who cleaned the bones and reverently placed them in a box. The boxes of the dead collected by the local community were kept in a special place set apart — a “bone house” — until the holding place was full. Once there were enough boxes of the dead, the whole community carried them to a common place of internment where they were mixed together and covered with the earth, creating the small mounds that people honored as the final resting spot of their loved ones… The Trail of Tears, therefore, brings us full circle to the graveyard. Before the coming of Christianity, Choctaws buried their dead in communal graves. After conversion to Christianity, they buried them individually. The transition from one practice to another marks the path into the Wilderness for my people. The vision of my ancestors changed. The quest changed. They went from an independent, prosperous and thriving nation into a culturally shattered community of refugees. They lost the image of themselves as a chosen people of God, dwelling in sacred land in covenant with God. They saw themselves instead as survivors of cultural genocide in desperate need of a Messiah… On the Trail of Tears, my ancestors were quite literally, crying for a vision.” ~ Steven Charleston, Choctaw Elder and Episcopal Bishop, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus
And so I stand here now, as close to the bone house as I can get, as near the small burial mounds as my mind’s eye can take me. Holding the bones of who I was, and of who we were as a broken nation walking along the Trail of Tears, I cry for vision, for the inner sight that will bring the we alive in me, and in my life.
I cry out in holy hunger to the ancestors: take these dry, brittle, lonely bones made of lies. Hold them in the truth of who we were and of who we can be now.
Tremulous and uncertain, I lay my bones before the “bone picker” of my spirit and he picks the bones clean. He rips away the scourge that this exile has been. He removes the shame of the boarding schools. He wipes away the degradation of the concentration camps. He un-bandages the bloody feet of the okla nowa and of my own eternal restlessness.
And when he is finished, the ancestors sing to me and I know they have heard me and blessed me home. The bones vanish into the earth as I offer them.
Still the ancestors sing: Shilombish Holitopa Ma or Amazing Grace. Just like I remember we sang it over my mother’s casket. And yet in me she lives.
I am imagining my mother now standing in the fading light of her front door on the last day I saw her alive. She is so beautiful, red hair feathered, high cheekbones (I mean, extravagantly high), copper skin, bold, audacious, alive, strong beyond measure.
Flawed, lonely, terribly haunted, she never stopped loving me though I gave her a million reasons to abandon me by the way. She carried me, bones and flesh, as best she could with no one left to hold her. She did her best to create the we from the tattered, broken I-ndividualism.
And now I will do the same. In fact, I have done the same with my own daughter. Flawed, lonely, terribly haunted by things named and things unnamed, I never stopped trying to create the we. I endeavored (knowing little of love and belonging), with no one left to hold me, to give love and belonging, to conjure it from the thin air of my devastated young soul.
And so the work and the joy and the sorrow of living goes on.
Shilombish Holitopa Ma!
In Jesus’ name we pray. May he lead us out of exile and back into the covenant we once knew and now yearn to know.
Held in and as the essence of the Spirit.