Then I woke up and dutifully recorded the dream in my journal. The date was 31 August 2001.
I am the unlikely interlacing of two families who never thought their histories would braid together. My father’s family arrived in North America from England in the 1600’s and its members became early educators, politicians and ministers of a new nation that aggressively trampled the thousand ancient nations preceding it. On the other side, my mother’s family are Yanktonai Dakota, whose territory ranged from the Minnesota border in the east to the Missouri River in the west, including a large swathe of what would later become North and South Dakota. I was born, appropriately, between these different worlds, in the brash city of Chicago.
My father had left the East Coast in pursuit of my mother and he wanted me to be raised as a native Dakota, so what I learned about his side of the family came only after his death, when I was eleven. I was American Indian first and foremost (what we called ourselves back then), and it was my mother who taught me that everything was a story. Spirits were everywhere and she could see them, unlike me. At least as a child I was open to waking visions, presentiments of coming events, some significant, many banal. They popped into my head, unbidden. During years of higher education I squashed these instincts so efficiently they had nowhere to go but my dreams, where they restlessly accumulated until each night became an exhaustion. I behaved as if all knowledge is stuffed in the mind rather than issuing forth from the heart and that secret place we call ‘spirit’. But I know better now.
Recently, The Oklahoma History Center ran an exhibit: a buffalo-skin lodge covered in pictographs that belonged to my great-great-grandfather, Chief Mahto Nunpa, or Two Bear. The piece contains a story of how this lodge made its way from the Dakotas to Oklahoma, ostensibly a gift from the old Chief to a soldier in 1864. My mother and I were, however, skeptical. The lodge could have been taken as spoils of war.
On the morning of 3 September 1863, Civil War general Alfred Sully led a regiment of troops into the peaceful village of my ancestors, camped at White Stone Hill. Mahto Nunpa’s band had killed about a thousand buffalo and were drying the meat which would help them survive the coming winter. When soldiers were reported in the distance, Mahto Nunpa was informed and he quickly donned his ceremonial clothes so he would make a fine impression as he strode forward to meet them. One of his grown sons went with him. They asked what the general wanted, and when he told them the entire village would have to surrender, lay down their weapons, every one of the thousands gathered there on the prairie. Mahto Nunpa couldn’t make him understand that no Chief had the authority to demand this of his people. They made up their own minds as to what was right for them to do. The old Chief offered himself and his son as hostages.
‘Take us, but leave the people in peace,’ he said through interpreters. He must have known how grave the situation was: having heard of an uprising the year before of starving Dakota, distant relatives in another territory, denied payments owed them by treaty. He surely realized the army was using this uprising as an excuse to hunt Dakota everywhere, whether they were involved in the insurrection or not. When he could not meet the general’s terms, and his offer to go with them and negotiate further was refused, he returned to the village and many of his people took flight. Or tried to. A great number of them would be trapped in a ravine, surrounded by troops ranged above them on the crest of a hill, rifles pointed down. The order was given to fire and hundreds were killed. Parents strapped babies to the small travois dragged by dogs and urged them to run from the slaughter. As night fell survivors crept away with their dead and what few possessions were still at hand. Most of their belongings had to be left behind – hundreds of tipi lodges, parfleche containers filled with tools and supplies, and the meat, all the meat that would have fed them during the winter. Soldiers burned the meat and everything else that would succumb to fire, and what had once been an orderly camp of six hundred lodges or more was now a scene of devastation.
In the confusion, Mahto Nunpa’s Winter Count was left behind, though he and his family survived the massacre. The Winter Count was very old, a record through pictographs of the history of his people, each year depicted by an image that represented the most memorable event. So many lodges were abandoned and destroyed, although soldiers surely grabbed what they could carry, artifacts to serve as a reminder of their terrible work that day. Perhaps Two Bear’s lodge was among these souvenirs?
Two Bear was an elder statesman by the time of the attack at White Stone Hill, and in his final years spent on a reservation in North Dakota, he would walk every day with a post he used to pry stones from the path. He pushed them to either side with the point of the stick and the people understood he was still looking after them, trying to smooth the way so their walk would be easier. For decades his buffalo skin lodge was stored in basements and attics, until eventually it was donated to the History Center’s collection. By this time the pictographs covering the hide had faded to near invisibility, mere outlines and sketches that were difficult to perceive with the naked eye. When the History Center moved to a facility with a controlled environment and the lodge was once again mounted on tipi poles and exposed to the light, there was an unexpected development – the pictographs began to emerge again, colour returning as if newly painted, as if the original artist’s hand was telling the stories again for a new generation.
I have visited the sacred ground where so many of my ancestors died, restored now to peace, interrupted by nothing more than wind that parts the long grass. I collected sage while I was there, which I use sparingly and reverently, nourished as it is by old blood and terrible stories. I talked with the ones who were killed and the ones who carried them away at nightfall, reassured them that the Yanktonai are still here despite the best efforts of a mighty nation to remove us from the earth. I told them their ordeal was not forgotten, though it’s only a small group that remembers. I didn’t speak to Mahto Nunpa specifically because I was younger then, intimidated by his dignity. He was a greatly respected Council Chief, admired for his eloquence and calm – that imperturbable grace the Buddhists call ‘equanimity’. As I write these words, his photograph gazes back at me from its frame on the table. I am older now and can finally see beyond the stern scrim as he stares into the camera lens. There is pain in the eyes, such pain, and his gaze penetrates time, that single sitting where he held himself still for the portrait. I don’t think he notices the contraption before him, distracted by a larger vision that roves backward and forward, takes stock of all that has been lost, searches ahead for what will remain.
He will not return to us, of course, not move past the picture frame that shines between us like a window. But his story is emerging in recent years – tattered pieces and anecdotes coming forward in books and journals, like splinters of bone pushed up from the ground. Even the pictographs drawn on his lodge are talking again, the colour bleeding back into the stories.
As I lock eyes with the picture I begin to perceive a turning in his gaze, like a wheel moving forwards. But it isn’t the graceful wheel of seasons or time, rather the foolish circles a dog makes as it chases its tail in a desperate thrall. Around and around. Two Bear underscores the point by twirling the stem of his pipe. And I see us trapped like that mesmerized dog, declaring we’ve learned something, we’re changed by the hard lessons of each generation, only to forget and spin back on ourselves.
Mahto Nunpa’s symbol is a pair of grizzlies risen on hind legs to stand tall in the air. What would he make of our lodges that climb into unimaginable sky, so splendid we believe they must be planted there forever? I can imagine Two Bear shaking his head at that presumption. Forever is for children, I can almost hear him saying. Life is change. There were tears my eyes when I watched with the horrified world on another September morning, much like the one that unraveled his tribe. A Chief cannot cry for himself but he is obligated to grieve for the people. So he does. The unsikas, he calls them, pitiful ones, and their suffering pains him though it waits in the distant future, because a Chief feels compassion.
Ten years ago my vision was smaller; even my dream neglected to show me the horror of what was to come in a handful of days. Economic collapse meant nothing more to me than money, so I alerted friends to sell stock I felt would soon plunge in value. Then the full story washed over me, like everyone else, and I was mortified by the tiny splinter I was shown and believed to be the entire piece.
A Chief’s vision is long, he must see in every direction to spot danger and bounty, fresh trails and those that end badly. Perhaps one day I will learn Mahto Nunpa’s double vision. His way of seeing the up and down, inside and outside of things, the speck and the whole egg, the grit and the dream. How we spin like the planet, each dervish claiming our sacred ground as if it had never been claimed before.
Two Bear allows me to grieve the terror in New York but he catches my eye and twirls the stem of his pipe. Around and around. Yes, I can see now. Around and around.
Photograph by Jonathan Miske