One time when I was little I bowled three strikes in a row; a turkey! I was so excited; it was so cool! The little boy of me turned around in my goofy, slippery bowling shoes and made some happy noise and then my dad quickly shut me down, getting me to quiet down real fast, essentially telling me something like, “Don’t be making a show of it. Don’t brag. Be quiet.” There was the meanness to him that made me tremble, fear of what would come when we got home if I didn’t immediately listen and mute myself. I got sad, sat down, and then bowled silently when my turn came again.
When I was in middle school my dad made friends with some skinny, old transitory Native who’d just gotten out of prison. I remember him having a bit of a remote, traveling, huckster’s vibe. I couldn’t believe that he was a medicine man. He was just around for a little while. Then he was gone.
When I was 22, somehow by the doings of the spirits, I found myself on the road to Sundance, on track to dance when I hadn’t even ever seen a Sundance before. My uncle and I stopped in at the garage where my dad was living a couple towns away, off in his own unfortunate story of drugs and who knew what else. “Sundances are secret,” he told me. “Nobody even knows where they are.” “But I’m going to one right now,” I told him. “I’m going to dance right now.”
Two months ago a statue of my great-great-great grandfather, Chief Standing Bear, was unveiled in the Capital City of Lincoln, Nebraska. Chief Standing Bear is famous for winning the landmark court case that declared indians were people in the eyes of the law. “It’s an amazing story of strength and courage,” Congressman Jeff Fortenberry said, referring to this Ponca Chief and his accomplishment, “and perhaps dignity, human dignity…” When I was young my dad told me that I was the great-great-great grandson of this Chief. He also told me not to tell anyone, like it was a secret I was supposed to keep. So as not to brag about it? Or because being Indian was dangerous, people knowing you were Indian was dangerous, letting anyone know what ran in your blood was dangerous…?
A few years ago a poet friend and I went to support my brother and a number of others who were running a hundred and eighty miles over two days in the Wounded Knee Survivor’s Run. We met up with them way past dark, joining the caravan of cars that was following the runners along the snow-crusted back roads. I remember my brother hopping in the car with us and giving us maybe the most eloquent history of what happened in the boarding schools I’ve ever heard. “You were punished, abused, molested, whipped for being Indian. All these little kids were made to hurt as much as children can be hurt and then they took on the understanding that being Indian was a real, justifiable reason to be hurt, tortured, abused, molested. They took this on and did it to the kids around them. They took this on and brought it back with them, brought it into their generations, their families, their homes. Being Indian was a shameful thing and it deserved punishment, beatings, abuse. This is what we learned in the boarding schools.” That’s a poor paraphrase. I just looked out the window at all the darkness and held back my tears. Some of those children were running with us. Some of them bundled up, carrying the leader’s staff at the head of the runners; some of them ghosts, running beside us.
What does shame do to a person? It disempowers, silences, pushes down, constrains, imprisons, divorces people from essential parts of themselves, makes people controllable, weakened, disconnected oftentimes from the deeper well of sense and intelligence and soul within them. My grandpa and grandma both went to boarding school. I don’t know what happened while they were there. I never heard them speak of their experiences, never heard them ever mention it. My family is full of ruin, abuse, alcoholism, drug problems, brokenness, horror, and shame. The campaign, to a degree, was a success. How can anyone with any feeling heart not feel tremendous anger and grief and disbelief over this campaign of the government’s to eliminate the Indian presence in America when the success of their programs looks like that, looks like the mass variety of family sicknesses that it has produced in Native peoples all over America? How can anyone not shake their head and want to figure out how to be a part of undoing that, of addressing that, of, at the very least, becoming a home to a more truthful understanding of who this country’s Native people are and becoming an ally willing to carry in their heart some of the true history of what happened, even speaking it when needed to, even speaking up when needed to? How can anyone learn this stuff and not feel this way and want to do something? How? Knowing your history is a spiritual act.
One time, before I went to a ceremony, the spirits told me, “Face your shame and become a doctor for the shame of others.” In that ceremony I was taken into my deepest wound, the wound that has caused me the most suffering in my life, the wound that has always held me back from getting what I really wanted out of life. I’d never really thought about shame that much before. But then I was taken into this whole network of shame inside myself, and I was shown how shame is like a structure installed in the psyche of people where negative controlling influences from the culture outside of us at large can then get their hold on us, potently influence us, prevent us from discovering the soul-treasures that lie buried and calling to us within. Now I’m imagining those shame structures being installed into our entire people over generations, over hundreds of years of programs and massacres and horrific treatment: be ashamed of the inhumans you are and do away with yourselves, become less until you are no more, become less until you go away and we can have everything that is yours for ourselves. This is not a fiction. This is what was happening. This is American history. Knowing your history is a spiritual act.
I went to a Black Lives Matter event at UNL a couple of years ago and a poet-professor, Kwami Dawes, said something I’ll never forget: “Racism is an invention for the management of power. They created a narrative that we began to believe about ourselves and then we began to do the work for them by believing their story about us and we began to give them all the power and lose all the greatness that we had, that is intrinsically, ancestrally ours.” History is written by the victors in a way that keeps the story under their control and that keeps the power flowing to them by celebrating their ideas which route the power in their direction. It was not always cool to be Indian, our elders tell us. It was not always a good day to be Indigenous. The shame we have in us today is essentially all of that genocide work they have been doing on us over the last 500 years solidified into a heavy, inhibiting, sickness-making bad medicine that has been shot into us, that is nailing us down, that we have been tricked into getting on board with almost, letting them manage the power, and stopping us from picking up our own, older powers, our own, older gifts, our own, older medicines. This shame inside our Indian people is the hand of oppression grabbing us by the braids and stopping us from running back to our grandparents, from playing and being free, from going off to Bear Butte to pray where Crazy Horse prayed. Shame is dissolved when we realize our inherent dignity as Native people and all the bullshit and pain that is really behind those feelings of shame, all the great UNTRUTHS behind those feelings of shame, all the untruth behind it that it is rooted in. Really knowing our history can begin to alchemically break down those shame structures inside of us, to loosen their grip, to bring out the tears that are the medicine for beginning to wash all that shame away. Knowing your history is a spiritual act.
When we do good things as Indian people let’s honor each other, praise each other in a good way. Let’s change the way we do things publicly, continue to work down the shame energies and generate up the honoring, praising energies. Let’s speak, tell our stories, share what wants to come out of us when those medicinal tears begin to come up from our hearts. We are capable of unimaginable things that our ancestors are busy powerfully imagining right now in this very moment. We don’t have to be secret about who we really are, not anymore; the health of the world is asking us to share, to not keep quiet, to be the beautiful Indigenous people that we truly are. Let’s not be the transitory people who most barely know; let’s be the inspiring, storytelling, praying, just, legacy-carrying, medicine-equipped-just-by-virtue-of-being-alive people that we all really are. Let’s be the generation that changes the entire story for all the future generations, as far-seeing and deep-feeling and prayerful and strong as all those forebears who gave their all so that we could have all the abundant culture and spirituality that we have today. Let’s face our shame, our history, and become doctors for the shame and history of others, of each other, of this country, this culture, of everyone. Knowing your history is a spiritual act.
Shame cannot live where dignity is present. Know your history, your people, where you come from. Learn about your ancestors and realize the source of dignity that they are inside of you. Our heritage is not a shameful secret; our heritage is a dignity-giving gift. Let’s learn this and live it. Knowing your history is a spiritual act.
By Cliff Taylor
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