A Subaltern Narrative

When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience. ” At age ten I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.

The above paragraph appears on the very second page of Mary Crow Dog’s memoir, Lakota Woman. In a sense, it encapsulates the whole tale.

I do not know when I came across the term ‘subaltern’: most probably it was in the eighties, in a book dealing with Dalit issues in India. This term, popularised by the Subaltern Studies Group of South Asian scholars, is derived from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Wikipedia says “In critical theory and postcolonialism, subaltern refers the populations that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.” In simple terms, they are people on the margins of the book which describes great colonial epic of civilisation.

We have many such people scattered all over the world: people who have been choked by a much more powerful occupier, pushed along to the fringes of society, and forced to eke out a meagre existence. The American Indians (or Native Americans, as they are called now) are such a people. Until fairly recently, the world as a whole did not know much about them, other than as bloodthirsty savages who rode about with painted faces, let out bloodcurdling shrieks, kidnapped and raped women and tortured men to death – a fiction perpetrated by Western movies and novels. They were the demons – the ‘Injuns’ – whom the ‘brave’ cowboys killed.

I awoke from this myth engendered by the Spaghetti Westerns once I started reading history, and learnt reality was the opposite of what was shown in the movies – the red man was brave, honourable and peaceful; the white man was cowardly, cunning and rapacious. The creation of America was actually a tragedy of gargantuan proportions for the original inhabitants of the continent. For them, the so-called ‘American Dream’ is a never-ending nightmare.

***

Mary Crow Dog was born piss-poor on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As with many Indian families, her father was a wastrel who did not take care of his family: she was raised by her grandparents. Mary grew up experiencing racism in its every form. The Indians were openly despised by the white people, and in those days, they did not need to hide it. Their traditional style of living destroyed, their men caught in the vicious circle of drink and despondency, and their women open to exploitation of all forms, the original inhabitants of the land were on a fast downward spiral to oblivion.

The ‘civilising’ forces were at work on all fronts. Denied land and justice, Indians were supplied with the one thing that the white man had in abundance – religion. The traditional religions were all but outlawed, and Christianity was being forced down the throats of the natives. Mary too was born a Catholic; she had the ‘fortune’ to attend a boarding school run by nuns, whose motto was “civilise them with a stick”.

It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like…

…The kids were taken away from their villages and pueblos, in their blankets and moccasins, kept completely isolated from their families-sometimes for as long as ten years-suddenly coming back, their short hair slick with pomade, their necks raw from stiff, high collars, their thick jackets always short in the sleeves and pinching under the arms, their tight patent leather shoes giving them corns, the girls in starched white blouses and clumsy, high-buttoned boots-caricatures of white people. When they found out-and they found out quickly-that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives.

In the school, the Indian children were submerged into a world dominated by guilt and sin. They were made to feel guilty about their bodies and bodily cravings – everything was viewed through the red lens of sin (maybe because the sisters were so steeped in it, to hear it the way Mary tells it) and even the smallest digressions invited severe chastisements.

The kids tried to run away, frequently: they were almost always immediately caught and brought back to the school, and subjected to corporeal punishment. The nuns thought nothing of bending teenaged girls over chairs, lifting their skirts, and whipping them mercilessly with straps – the same treatment was meted out to boys by the male teachers.

Spirited Mary (and many others like her, including her sister Barbara) rebelled. Mary left without completing her course, after punching a priest in the face. Like countless times in history, the desire of the authorities to enforce discipline without justice had created a revolutionary.

***

People talk about the “Indian drinking problem, ” but we say that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and sell it to us. They make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink in the first place.

A dropout from school with no aim in life, Mary started drinking and hanging out with similar shiftless youths. A lot of her time was spent in fighting: because, according to her, drinking does not help one forget; rather one remembers “all the old insults and hatreds, real and imagined”. So the next thing to do is pick a fight – and there are always white rednecks who oblige. And the fights are often violent.

I have often thought that given an extreme situation, I’d have it in me to kill, if that was the only way. I think if one gets into an “either me or you” situation, that feeling is instinctive. The average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not.

Mary recounts various crimes against Indians, often repeatedly, in her memoir. Her aunt, the powerful ‘turtle woman’, who was found beaten to death in her home, face down with weeds in her hair; Annie Mae Aquash, an activist who was raped and murdered and whose death was reported as natural, from exposure; Indian men were killed and women were raped by white men with impunity, while even the smallest protest by an Indian resulted in arrest and incarceration. The system thus succeeded in criminalising a peaceful people; then prosecuting them for their criminal activities.

The thing to keep in mind is that laws are framed by those who happen to be in power and for the purpose of keeping them in power. That goes for the U. S. A. as well as for Russia or any other country in the world .

Ultimately, the alleged criminality of Indians became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mistreated by a monstrous system whom they could not confront head on, Native American youth became spit-and-run warriors: a spot of vandalism here, an incident of shoplifting there… Mary says that they did not consider pilferage from shops as theft, because they were only re-appropriating what is theirs by right. And so it would have gone on, unless she had discovered AIM (the American Indian Movement) and literally found an aim in life.

***

The major part of this memoir is structured around a specific event in the history of Native American awakening – the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee town by a group of AIM members, and their subsequent standoff with the FBI and US Marshalls. This is significant to Mary for two reasons, one political and the other personal – this was the first Indian movement which received massive media coverage and broadcast the condition of the Native American population to the world: and this was where Mary met her husband, Leonard Crow Dog, and gave birth to her first child among the flying bullets.

Wounded Knee, to the American Indian, is a sacred place. It holds the same place of awed reverence that Jallianwala Bagh holds in the mind of Indians. It was here that the U. S. Cavalry massacred over 200 people including children, Lakota Indians who had gathered there to perform the “Ghost Dance” that the government had outlawed. Here’s one telling image from the massacre, as told to Mary by her grandfather:

It was only two miles or so from where Grandfather Fool Bull stood that almost three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered. Later grandpa saw the bodies of the slain, all frozen in ghostly attitudes , thrown into a ditch like dogs. And he saw a tiny baby sucking at his dead mother’s breast.

Woundedknee1891
The second time around, however, the activists who occupied Wounded Knee were not so many lambs to the slaughter – they were a people who were slowly awakening to their essential mythic roots.

“Our most sacred altar is this hemisphere, this earth we’re standing on, this land we’re defending. It is our holy place, our green carpet. Our night light is the moon and our director, our Great Spirit, is the sun.”

The words above are from a prayer by Leonard Crow Dog, and pretty much sums up what motivated the Indians.

The Wounded Knee incident had its beginnings during the “Trail of Broken Treaties protests in the autumn of 1972, when Native Americans from all over the U.S. A converged on Washington to protest against injustices done to their community. But President Nixon refused to talk; as Mary says sarcastically, maybe he had more important things to do like planning Watergate. So what in effect was planned as a peaceful protest became a full-fledged uprising, and the Indians occupied the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). There was standoff with government forces, forcing a negotiated settlement which was subsequently ignored – predictably. But it was huge moral victory for the Indians. And it indirectly led to the more acrimonious one at Wounded Knee.

Since 1934, Native Americans were governed by titular “tribal” governments – who were virtual lackeys of the bureaucrats at the BIA. This system lead to the creation of tribal presidents who were corrupt and tyrannical, and who staffed their governments with friends and lackeys. According to Mary, President Dicky Wilson of Pine Ridge was one of the worst.

Following the explosive situation created after the killing of an Indian by a white man in Rapid City, AIM teamed up with OSCRO (Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization). One of the AIM leaders, Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, was the political enemy of President Wilson, who once had him severely beaten up. AIM members from all over America travelled to Pine Ridge to help OSCRO against Wilson’s goons, and after a time, all of them wound up at Wounded Knee. It was time for the Great Symbolic Act.

“Finally, on February 27 , 1973 , we stood on the hill where the fate of the old Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s nation, had been decided, and where we, ourselves, came face to face with our fate. We stood silently, some of uswrapped in our blankets, separated by our personal thoughts and feelings, and yet united, shivering a little with excitement and the chill of a fading winter. You could almost hear our heartbeats.

…Altogether we had twenty-six firearms-not much compared to what the other side would bring up against us. None of us had any illusions that we could take over Wounded Knee unopposed. Our message to the government was: “Come and discuss our demands or kill us!” Somebody called someone on the outside from a telephone inside the trading post. I could hear him yelling proudly again and again, “We hold the Knee!”

The siege went on for seventy-one days, and left behind two dead Indians. Nothing much again was achieved in concrete terms: but what it achieved in metaphorical terms was enormous. The wide media coverage turned the spotlight on Native American issues; more importantly, it allowed the Indian to look inside, and see himself for what he really was.

Mary says, “I was then white outside and red inside, just the opposite of an apple.” This was the case with most Indians. The Wounded Knee incident brought the redness out. Leonard Crow Dog was not a political leader, but a spiritual one: for this reason, he was feared more by the authorities, and persecuted.

He could not understand why the government was after him. He did not consider himself a radical. He was not interested in politics. He never carried a gun. He thought himself strictly a religious leader, a medicine man. But that was exactly why he was dangerous. The young city Indians talking about revolution and waving guns find no echo among the full-bloods in the back country. But they will listen to a medicine man, telling them in their own language: “Don’t sell your land, don’t sell Grandmother Earth to the strip-mining outfits and the uranium companies. Don’t sell your water.” That kind of advice is a threat to the system and gets you into the penitentiary.

This was the reason why the British Raj feared Gandhi and the South African apartheid establishment feared Mandela.

***

In the memoir, the most effective part is where Mary describes her awakening into her religion. The smoking of the peyote, a hallucinogenic plant which is an integral part of Native American Rituals; the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce themselves but feel no pain; the music which is derived from nature, which the Indian is almost part of… these are described in words which are almost poetry.

The words we put into our songs are an echo of the sacred root, the voices of the little pebbles inside the gourd rattle, the voices of the magpie and scissortail feathers which make up the peyote fan, the voice from inside the water drum, the cry of the water bird. Peyote will give you a voice, a song of understanding, a prayer for good health or for your people’s survival.

The peyote staff is a man. It is alive. It is, as my husband says, a “hot line” to the Great Spirit. Thoughts travel up the staff, and messages travel down. The gourd is a brain, a skull, a spirit voice. The water drum is the water of life. It is the Indians’ heartbeat. Its skin is our skin. It talks in two voices-one high and clear, the other deep and reverberating. The drum is round like the sacred hoop which has no beginning and no end. The cedar’s smoke is the breath of all green, living things, and it purifies, making everything it touches holy. The fire, too, is alive and eternal. It is the flame passed from one generation to the next. The feather fan is a war bonnet. It catches songs out of the air.

And it is in a Peyote dream that the past comes alive for Mary.

In my dream I had been going back into another life. I saw tipis and Indians camping, huddling around a fire, smiling and cooking buffalo meat, and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real, much more real than a movie sights and sounds and smells: sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear, but had to all the same. And the only thing I could do was cry. There was an old woman in my dream. She had a pack on her back-I could see that it was heavy. She was singing an ancient song. It sounded so sad, it seemed to have another dimension to it, beautiful but not of this earth, and she was moaning while she was singing it. And the soldiers came up and killed her. Her blood was soaked up by the grass which was turning red. All the Indians lay dead on the ground and the soldiers left. I could hear the wind and the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ horses, and the voices of the spirits of the dead trying to tell me something. I must have dreamed for hours. I do not know why I dreamed this but I think that the knowledge will come to me some day. I truly believe that this dream came to me through the spiritual power of peyote.

This awakening is dangerous: because it cannot be lulled back to sleep with the promise of material comforts. No intoxication provided by alcohol will match the intoxication of the spirit connected to its origin across space and time. For the Native American religion is live: its myth is forever being re-enacted on the temporal as well as spiritual plane.

The hostility of the Christian churches to the Sun Dance was not very logical. After all, they worship Christ because he suffered for the people, and a similar religious concept lies behind the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce their flesh with skewers to help someone dear to them. The main difference, as Lame Deer used to say, is that Christians are content to let Jesus do all the suffering for them whereas Indians give of their own flesh, year after year, to help others. The missionaries never saw this side of the picture, or maybe they saw it only too well and fought the Sun Dance because it competed with their own Sun Dance pole-the Cross.

The Church is afraid with good reason, it seems.

Mary Crow Dog, who symbolically gave birth on the battlefield of Wounded Knee and married the medicine man behind that uprising is no longer with us here on earth. However, I do not think people like her will ever die, as long as the magpie cries in the forest or the brook runs, with her gentle laughter, over the plains.

Ghost_Dance_at_Pine_Ridge

I pierced too, together with many other women. One of Leonard’s sisters pierced from two spots above her collarbone. Leonard and Rod Skenandore pierced me with two pins through my arms. I did not feel any pain because I was in the power. I was looking into the clouds, into the sun. Brightness filled my mind. The sun seemed to speak: “I am the Eye of Life. I am the Soul of the Eye. I am the Life Giver! ” In the almost unbearable brightness, in the clouds, I saw people. I could see those who had died. I could see Pedro Bissonette standing by the arbor and, above me, the face of Buddy Lamont, killed at Wounded Knee, looking at me with ghostly eyes. I saw the face of my friend Annie Mae Aquash, smiling at me. I could hear the spirits speaking to me through the eagle-bone whistles. I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white educated half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness. I heard a cry coming from my lips:

Ho Uway Tinkte.
A Voice I will send .
Throughout the Universe,
Maka Sitomniye,
My Voice you shall hear:
I will live!

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2 comments on “A Subaltern Narrative

  1. Great review!
    They are a very wronged people indeed- and the whole world, like us, believed them to be pure barbarians, when they were anything but.
    For a long time I thought Seattle was just a US city- and never knew it was named after Chief Seattle.
    “Whatever befalls the earth
    befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
    We did not weave the web of life;
    we are merely a strand in it.
    Whatever we do to the web
    we do to ourselves.”
    A statement of great truth and understanding of ecology!

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