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New Visions for New Times: Find Out Why You Were Born

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

When I recently came across these words attributed to Mark Twain more than a century ago, they provoked some thoughts about our nations as we straddle the known past and the uncertain future into which we are cast.

While we are each born into this world as autonomous and self­determined individuals, none lives as an isolated being because we are intimately connected, at least for a time, to our close and distant kin, clan relatives, friends and community. We travel through time as child, adult, and elder, and during each life-season contribute to our nations in different ways.

Twain’s comment set me to ponder upon how our personal identities as native individuals are interlocked with our national, indigenous identities.

What if we used the lens of our creation stories that have been passed down to speak of the two most important days in the life of the Lumbee, or the Catawba, or the Swinomish nation? We know about our shared origins—knowledge of our creation has been gifted down to us over the centuries. But when will come the second day: the day when we understand the reason for our collective existence, our shared purpose as sovereign nations?

I was put in mind of how Vine Deloria, Jr. questioned our self­definitions and where our paths were leading. He said the day was upon us and we needed to decide between remaining political entities or becoming a primarily corporate, economic structure. Ultimately, he concluded that to have a positive future Native nations should draw from the past and, whatever their decisions, act as religious/spiritual communities.

Of course, we all know that every one of our nations was hammered hard by the merciles and unrelenting forces of invasive colonial powers, intent on claiming dominion over our lands, lives, and liberties. But we have to recall not just how our peoples persevered, but how they did it. It is obvious that when we focus solely on the negative actions of the colonizers instead of our own positive strengths that our vast oral history archive is not being tapped and we lose knowledge, power, and moral integrity.

I’m reading Jonathan Lear’s outstanding book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006), in which he analyzed a statement by the Crow chief, Plenty Coups, who shortly before he died in 1932, said this: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

Lear, a philosopher, was fascinated by Plenty Coup’s blunt comment and knew that the Crow and many other Great Plains tribes endured cultural devastation in the wake of profound losses they suffered after the demise of the buffalo and confinement on reservations. He decided to try to understand what the Crow leader meant by the words “after this nothing happened.”

Obviously, Plenty Coups and the Crow people continued to live, but the way of life they had engaged for generations had indeed ended. They now had to prepare for a future for which they lacked even the concepts with which to experience it. How did they cope? And, what lessons can we glean from the decisions they made in the wake of those traumatic events?

For the Crow, like many Native nations, vision quests and the dreams that sometimes accompany them were essential to better understand their roles in society and in the cosmos. As the time of trouble was upon the Crow people, the nine year-old Plenty Coups undertook a vision quest. He was visited by a powerful dream in which a voice told him about the unique qualities of the chickadee.

The messenger described the small bird to Plenty Coups, noting that while lacking in size and physical strength, it had a strong, industrious mind. An excellent listener, it paid close attention to all that it saw and heard without being intrusive. Plenty Coups was instructed to emulate these skills by exercising his body, but above all he was to train and expand his mind.

It was mental, not physical power, the messenger said, that would be of the greatest benefit to both him and the Crow people.

Upon his return to camp, an exhausted Plenty Coups described his dream to the community elders who then were responsible for interpreting his experience. In Lear’s words, this reciprocal relationship was one way the young and elder generations remained in tune with one another. “The tribe,” he said, “relied on what it took to be the young men’s capacity to receive the world’s imaginative messages; it relied on the old men to say what those messages meant.”

Plenty Coup’s prophetic dream and the elders’ interpretation helped the Crow nation make necessary cultural adjustments to their radically altered lifestyle. They used the strength, audacity and bravery of a tiny bird to navigate in a world that had turned cruel and chaotic. The vision provided the Crow with the ability to not merely survive, but to devise genuine, constructive, even honorable ways to move forward. Although subject to vacillating and debilitating federal policies like land allotment, forced assimilation, inconsistent treaty enforcement, and BIA paternalism, the Crow are still very much alive and remain within their original territory.

The manner in which Plenty Coups and his people imaginatively and strategically coped with their conflicts provides lessons we might draw upon as we move ever deeper into the 21st century. We must trust and use our deep knowledge if we are to successfully deal with issues such as disenrollment, historical trauma, violence against Native women, and youth suicide that rend the very flesh of virtually all of our communities and weaken us all as a consequence.

I am not Oneida, but I grieve when we lose a child of that nation to suicide, drugs, or abuse. That child might have been the next Plenty Coups, the one with the vision needed for the Chukchansi people to deal with an uncertain future.

I am not Nooksack or Chukchansi, but I grieve when some of their elders are legally terminated through disenrollment proceedings. Those elders might have been called to interpret the vision of a young woman or man, the very vision meant to provide the guidance needed for the people to move forward with pride and confidence.

Every Native nation fought in its own way to live beyond the grasp of oppressive colonizers. We have endured that oppression and must now arrive at more appropriate understandings of what it means to be indigenous and what our purposes as Native nations and Native individuals are today. Our children and elders are essential to maintaining close ties to those historic institutions like dreams and visions that are our direct link to our ancestors.

While most of us are focusing on present day concerns of putting food on the table and bringing jobs and health care to our communities, we cannot neglect our values and our visions. When we lose our young people and our elders, we lose our links to the past and the future.

When we reach the point of living in an eternal present, where we only know the day we were born, we have become truly colonized. There will be no one left to hear the chickadee on that second day when she tells us why we were born. After that, nothing happens.

David E. Wilkins is a citizen of the Lumbee Nation and holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Hollow Justice: A History of Indigenous Claims in the US (2013), The Hank Adams Reader (2011), and The Legal Universe (with Vine Deloria, Jr., 2011).