A few years ago, while quietly sitting on her couch, I heard this old Lakota grandma tell a story that ended with her saying, “They say we’re supposed to forgive but I won’t. I will never forgive. I will never forgive.”
When I was a teenager I realized that I had to pull my shit together otherwise I was probably going to become a very bad story or just straight-up kill myself. Desperate, I told myself that I would never pity myself, that I would give up all self-pity, no matter how justified it may have seemed to me at the time, and just warrior forward, make a life for myself, pursue my dreams, be single-minded, single-hearted and driven as fuck. Survival was the word. Survive, move on, just keep going.
Last year, stepping outside for a smoke in the night, the word forgiveness came to my mind, a word I’d never really thought of or used much. Then, pondering that word, something happened and this wave of immense self-forgiveness washed through me. I teared up. I’d been so hard on myself my whole life and now I was forgiving myself for all the judgment-born self-lashings I’d given myself over the years. Compassion for all the shit that made me so hard on myself bloomed within me. I forgave myself all those things I’d punished myself for, had no mercy, no pity on myself for. I understood and that understanding inspired me to let go of all that meanness and judgment I had towards myself through the years. I forgave that struggling, hurt kid. That kid let go. That kid understood too. There was no need to be like that anymore. The time and need for that way, that stance was over. Maturity released the old programs. Maturity said it was okay. I could love myself. That’s what forgiveness was: maturity giving love to the thought-forms of the wounded; the medicine of love deeply understanding; love letting go of the pain caused by an ‘other’ in the past.
This is a big subject and it won’t be solved in this essay but I do want to write it anyway. Indians, should we forgive and how?
How do we forgive the past 500 years? The 500 years of insane, hellish atrocities and genocide which’re largely responsible for the systemic conditions which’re currently ravaging our people in all the well-known ways; how do we forgive that?; and why?
The present is the animated, expressive, living, speaking tip of what is going on with our ancestors, who’re still expressing a tremendous amount of what they experienced in their day. Trauma communicates forward. At a deeper level, so does our spirituality, our medicine, wisdom, and love. Going to ceremony, listening to our relatives, we hear how the story stretches back, the linked chapters flowing up to the one who is sharing in the moment. The truth, the way, is in the story. Our ancestors instruct us from beyond. They have things to say and they are speaking all the time. The entire surviving, vibrant bulk of our way of life is an ever-growing living organism of their constant oral transmissions. Do they say to forgive? And how?
Somewhere along the line I forgave my abusive alcoholic dad because I understood the gigantic pain that formed him and impelled him. I forgave, let go of all the hard feelings I had towards my mom, because I understood the things that had been done to her to make her how she was. I forgave an ex-friend who raped another friend (though I haven’t spoken a word to him since) because I saw the demons that had been working on him for so long. But can I forgive America? Can I forgive this culture and what it’s done to my people? Can I let go of those hard feelings and if I do what will be there in their place? Can we forgive this monstrous, greedy, materialist, patriarchal, racist, value-fucked, colonizing culture that came to our shores 500 years ago and has been raping and abusing and selfishly consuming the earth and soul-energies and life here ever since? Can we forgive that? As indians, can we?
I believe, relatives, we can. We don’t have to -it’s everyone’s choice, each person’s own right to choose- but I believe we can.
This culture is sick. It’s lost its mind, it’s heart is in shambles, it’s soul is struggling, blasted, far away, barely ticking in some regions. This culture is an expression of ancestors that have been suffering at the hands of the same monstrously misguided forces that we indian people have for even longer than 500 years, for thousands and thousands of years. Uncountable generations of widespread lostness guide the weakened surrender to these same dominant cultural forces that now so much define the architecture of the times. This culture, this America that has done and continues to do so much horrible shit to our people, needs some of that deep medicine understanding that is behind the survival and current regeneration of our indian people; this culture, of which we are all indissolubly entangled, needs that wisdom treatment that our great ancestors are still working though us, our tribes, our elders, our medicine people and Sundancers, our warriors, our unsung heroes, our strong-hearted relatives and neighbors, our still-glowing people; this culture needs loving engagement, loving reworking, loving imagination and visionary powers applied; this culture needs all those deep things that come from a mature understanding, from a mature compassion and even, when possible, from a mature forgiveness; this culture, which all of our lives and our children’s lives and our unborn one’s lives are inextricably wrapped up in, needs all these things and seriously, urgently so, even a little, if we can muster it, forgiveness.
A deep study of history and culture, which I unfortunately can’t fully explicate here (even if I totally knew it all, which I don’t) but which all these essays are regular person’s thought-sharing of, reveals a substantial amount of what the spirits and ancestors that come to our ceremonies tell us: all the moving parts of this culture of conquest and colonization which are behind the past 500 years of horrors wrought upon our people originate in similar horrors wrought upon the bloodlines of all those conveyors responsible for doing the shit that was done/is done to us; they, to put it almost too simply, did it to us because it was done to them; it was done to them for so long that they practically lost all sense that it was a thing being done to them and NOT what was actually indigenous to the soul and un-fucked-with human living; it caught them and brainwashed them and it just wanted to do the same thing to us; what was it?; take your pick; where to begin?; where to start?; it’s all the shit that we’re all fighting against when we talk about what we’re fighting against; it’s THAT.
But we indian people have not forgotten about what is indigenous to the soul and un-fucked-with human living. Our ancestors, living radiantly for countless, countless thousands of years, loving us down to every last molecule, won’t let us. We are empowered by a guiding sense of love and justice and respect and earth-closeness and spirituality. We are strong even in our struggling state with the spirit-wisdom that totally empowers us to understand the horrible, unfortunate shit that is still causing this American culture to be so insane, lost, disconnected, unaware, senseless, and woundedly obsessed with taking so much for oneself at the expense of others, our fellow human beings, our neighbors and grandchildren, the plants and animals, our beautiful, holy Mother Earth. We indian people have it in our nature because of so much soul-sense that’s still resiliently active in us to be agents of deep understanding and renovators and remakers and reinventors of this very culture that’s trying with all of its might to eat us and devour us and consume us. We indian people still deep down have the power to see the ancient truths and encompassing sacred reality that’s radically present behind all of the dangerous, blind history-repeating that’s powering so much of this American culture. We indian people are still rooted in the infinite medicine of our ancestors and we have the available ability to SEE what’s going on and in that SEEING, in time, among other things, we have the power to forgive and to be conveyors of that healing power that forgiveness generates inside of one, inside a regular, sacred human being. We indian people are richly capable of many things because of the spiritual inheritance our ancestors passed onto us, and that includes forgiving our oppressed oppressors, our colonized colonizers, our soul-damaged soul-damagers, our spiritually raped rapists, our relatives who just don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.
Can we indian people forgive what has happened to us in the past, what’s maddeningly still happening now? We can but that’s only part of it. This culture needs transforming, needs healing, needs changing, needs rebuilding, needs therapy, needs the old stories, needs ceremony, needs to face their ancestors who’re all following behind them like endless rows of Cherokee on a tragic, very real spirit-world, unending Trail of Tears. This culture needs the kind of help that we indian people are still traditionally capable of giving and forgiveness is a part of it, a medicine arrow in the quiver of holy arrows, a song in the sacred song-book, a tool in the toolbox, an instrument in the old, passed down medicine bundle.
Can we indian people forgive? We don’t have to. I didn’t tell that grandma anything when she said she’d never forgive. It wasn’t my place. But can we? The little maturity I have inside me says we can, my heart says we can, my heart says that in time forgiveness may very well be the most crucial thing of all standing between all of our downfall and a total changing of everything that we are all living in together, indians, non-indians, and all. My heart tells me this, relatives, and so this I share, this I turn into a living text for you to consider, this I hand to you from what the ancestors and spirits have handed over to my strange, limping ass over the years, this I humbly, prayerfully give to you.
Can we forgive? Yes, we can. It’s inevitable. It’s a part of what our ancestors are working towards. It’s necessary. The fate of things depends on it. It will happen, too, I believe. We will forgive. It’s in our ancestors’ deepest majesty, deepest medicine ways. Forgiveness is happening. Forgiveness is possible. It’s only a matter of time.
Cliff Taylor is a writer, a poet, a speaker, and an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He has written a non-fiction book about the little people and recently completed a memoir, Special Dogs, about coming-of-age in Nebraska. A year ago he moved to Seattle. He’s waiting to see what happens next. Contact Cliff @ firstname.lastname@example.org