A Matter of Perspective – The Overton Window, Reservation Life and a Chain of Sorrow

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I’m not a Native American. I did not grow up on a Reservation. For the longest time, I had only been dimly aware of the extent and level to which Native Americans have been exploited, abused, repressed & discriminated against.

Even now, my awareness likely only begins to scratch the surface, and yet what I’ve learned over the past few years has brought anger, grief & frustration as my awareness of both past and present bureaucratic b.s. and institutionalized standards of cultural genocide has grown.

Recently, NPR put out a 3 part series called Native Survivors of Foster Care Return Home. (You can watch all three which are linked in the title.) Not too long ago, Metro Times posted a story called Chain of Sorrow that also speaks of the impact and legacy of Indian Boarding Schools.It’s a legacy of pain and sorrow that our nation should be ashamed of.

While reading the latter piece, a paragraph jumped out at me which can be read more than one way. The first way it occurred to me is likely due to my less-informed perspective – but, because of that, it may also be a reflection of a more wide-spread misunderstanding.

Here’s the paragraph, with the emphasis on the phrase that stuck out for me:

“It wasn’t just the boarding schools that brought this about. From the time Columbus landed in the New World, the assault on Indians, their culture and their religious ways has been relentless. Their sacred lands taken, the people murdered, the women raped and, at times, subjected to forced sterilizations, the deprivation of reservation life, the scourge of alcohol – all these had combined to cause his people to lose so much.”

[More below]

When I first read the paragraph, it didn’t sit right – I couldn’t understand what was meant by “the deprivation of reservation life” – it first processed in my mind as “children removed from the rez would be deprived of the quality of life on the rez”…which, in the article, was cited as being the reason ~why~ some parents let their children be taken in first place. So, my initial reaction/interpretation was – I hope – incorrect. It wasn’t that a child was being deprived of life among their people on the reservation – it was the fact that conditions on the reservation itself were usually harsh and oppressive, becoming yet another aspect of the type of harm done to Native Americans as part of an ongoing (if not always externally recognized) way to continue the same cultural genocide that had begun so many years before.

In either interpretation, however, the paragraph itself was both damning and dismal.

What dismayed me and prompted me to write this article was the thought that immediately followed: what if my first reading of the phrase was the intended interpretation?

That would be pretty sad – for it would present an unchallenged view of the reservation as false equivalent of a way to preserve cultures and traditions.

Sure, there is some of that in reservation life – but, for peoples who were forcibly relocated to unwanted expanses of real estate and who previously harbored little concept of “personal property” the way the settlers conceived of it – how much of their cultural heritage was already compromised? And how much was destroyed in the process of “re-settling” them, or in the subsequent efforts to get them to conform & integrate?

It may be the only current place where the traditions are able to be upheld, but if the belief that it’s “good” (versus a way to avoid total cultural extinction) is prevalent, then efforts to improve any relations or conditions are doomed…if not to failure, then to any sort of substantial reform without an awful lot of effort.

Efforts to undo (and prevent further) the whitewashing of our national history with regard to the treatment of Native Americans already have a tough row to hoe. If perspectives – and the associated Overton Window that helps frame them – are still predominantly akin to what my first reading of that paragraph came away with, then there’s a very long way to go before beneficial change (for Native Americans, in their perspective) can occur.

A parting thought, also from the Metro Times piece:

“The realization of just how much was stolen from these people begins to set in. It wasn’t just their land, or even their way of life. What was taken was their sense of self, leaving them spiritually wounded.

And it was done, in no small part, by taking their children.”

Help spread the word & increase awareness: share the links to the Metro Times & NPR pieces. And share a link to Native American Netroots, too: there, people can find a great deal of information – both historical and current – about cultures, customs and ongoing issues.

Thank you.

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Crow

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This was originally posted on Daily Kos in 2006, and crossposted to multiple other venues. I have added the Native American banner for republication to NAN and to the dKos NAN group. Thank you for the opportunity to further honor my friend. – GH

He was nicknamed “Crow” in high school for the famous footballer John David Crow[1], yet the name fit and lingered on for other reasons. He was Comanche; born and raised in Oklahoma as the second oldest of four children, he was also the son of a white woman and red man.  There was no mistaking the fact that he was, however, one hundred percent unique.

At 61 years old, he died, surrounded by family and friends in a place he loathed — the hospital.  Throughout his life, he made it obvious to everyone that he loved teachers (he married one) and nurses (he married two), but hated doctors.  When he passed from this life, he left a single child — a daughter — and many friends.

I met him about twenty years ago, not long after his daughter and I became friends at the college we attended together.  He became a good friend — at times a mentor, at times a student, sometimes a fatherly figure and sometimes filling the role of a (younger) brother.  He was quick with a smile, an anecdote or a silly story; he could also become deadly serious in a heartbeat, especially if he thought a friend was in trouble.


In short, he was a good man who cared about those around him, and he is sorely missed.


For a brief period, during what would turn out to be the last years of his life, we were roommates.  We split the rent on a small two-bedroom house in Oklahoma, and often took trips to Texas to visit his daughter — my best friend.  In that time, I finally began to write again.  I am grateful for that.

In Native American lore, the Crow is an omen of change.  It is often be paired with the wolf, another powerful symbol — represented in both my life and the life of his daughter by our Alaskan Malamutes. (Malamutes are one of the breeds of dog most closely tied to the original wolf ancestor of the canine species.)  Crow’s lifelong friends — those who he grew up with, who’d originally given him his nickname — cringed whenever his daughter or I referred to the Native American symbolism associated with it.  They would point out — sometimes pointedly — that he was “Crow” and that it had nothing to do with “that Native American crap.”  Their use of the word “crap” wasn’t meant to be derogatory toward Native Americans — it was meant to be derisive of the “fluffy sparkle spirituality” attitude that they perceived in the attachment of symbolism of any sort.  They were “real world” folks, and Crow’s name had to do with their favorite past time — football — as well as their young adulthood together.  But, like it or not, Crow’s daughter and I still see some interesting ties back to that symbol, and make reference to it anyway.  (In my case, sometimes just to tweak ’em.)  


Crow knew this, and while he sided with his friends, he tried to keep an open mind whenever he’d hear his daughter or I talk about symbols, happenings or circumstances.  We all had a love for strange coincidences, and the apparent capacity to attract them.


When I moved out of state, feeling like I’d abandoned my friend and knowing he’d be forced to move shortly due to the increased rent (I paid out two extra months to ensure him time to find a spot), I commented how I always knew he would be calling because of the very large, loud crow that would alight in the tallest tree right across from my desk.  He thought that was odd, but he seemed to be inwardly pleased (most of the time) by the thought of it.  He knew — and had witnessed — that I often encounter a Hawk whenever I’m making a journey of any significance or have to make a major decision.  He’s seen the Hawk show up, watched it follow me around, and marked the departure when I had done whatever it was that had apparently summoned it.  It was something that I didn’t question, and something that I’ve still not figured out how to explain when people ask me if it’s “my Hawk” or a trained pet.

I think Crow would have appreciated a picture of his totem-made-manifest; I should’ve thought of it while he was still alive.  Given some of the interesting manifestations of crows that have occurred since his passing, I am fairly confident that his spirit has no need of such things, and that he has played a role in stirring up several of the more memorable encounters.


Why, at this time, do I think of Crow?


Truth be told, he’s a friend who I think of often, regardless of the circumstance.  He was one of those people who makes such a strong, gentle impact upon one’s soul that it is virtually impossible not to sense some aspect of his effect and presence while going through the normal daily tasks of living.  However, there’s a reason for thinking of him even more, now.


Shortly before I’d made the decision to leave the state and move back closer to my family, I’d been working in the computer department of a manufacturer.  I walked out into the machine shop one day to an eerie quiet — there was a lunchtime company-wide meeting for all the manufacturing folks, and nary a soul was left in that portion of the building.  In the stillness, I heard the soft strains of the opening whistle for the song “Winds of Change” by the Scorpions.  The acoustics of the machine shop lent a spooky quality to the sonorous tones, otherworldly and appearing to come from all over.  I wondered for a moment — before dismissing it with a shake of my head — if that was one of those “coincidental happenings” that people often leaped at as signs of major change or upheaval coming.  After shaking it off, I went back about my business.


On the way home, my Hawk was sitting atop a lamppost, silently watching me approach and drive by.

When I got home, I headed off to see Crow, unable to shake the feeling that change was in the air.


Change happened.


I moved a few short months later, and Crow died a couple years after that.


Over the past few weeks, I’ve been encountering crows everywhere — if not through physical presence, then in word written or spoken, “Crow” jumps out at me.  And I’ve been hearing the song “Winds of Change” quite a bit, too, in addition to hearing the phrase or simply seeing it in print.


Does this mean it should signify something for everyone else? No, of course not.  I’m not sure whether it signifies anything.  But I do feel that, as our world rapidly approaches escalating hostilities with a nation divided and a leadership of liars, that something big is in the offing.


Really big.

Major change is afoot on several levels, evidenced by what we see in the blogosphere and some of the less unreliable traditional media — political winds are blowing, mixing it up with winds generated by global warfare and warming.  I wonder if we’re ready for it, or spending too much time looking for where the wind is originating to watch where it’s going and perhaps attempt to gauge it.


These are the times where I’d normally arise in the early morning hours, finding Crow — likely as not — either rising from his room to share morning coffee or already in the kitchen with a fresh pot.  We would start our day just chatting, and sometimes exchanging news items or discussing current events.  I regret losing that when I left Oklahoma.  I regret more the fact that it is one aspect of life I won’t get back; an ideal time of peace before the start of a day, just talking with a good friend over coffee.


The events of the past few years are ones that I would like to discuss with my departed friend.


I’ve a lot more reflections to share on and about Crow, which I’ll likely weave into future diaries.  For now, let me close by simply saying that I think we all need to find quiet moments to have a cup of coffee, tea or water with a friend, to ease the soul and gently prepare the mind for each of the coming days ahead.  It gives a sense of peace and a solid start to the day, which I hope and pray everyone reading this can secure for his or her self.


Namaste. Peace.


—————-

Footnote 1:

JOHN DAVID CROW – RB (1957)


    Crow was a consensus All-American selection as a senior in 1957 and was awarded the Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player after rushing for 562 yards and grabbing five interceptions on defense. Crow helped the 1957 Aggies to an 8-0 start and a No. 1 national ranking before losing the last three games. Crow was a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Cardinals in 1958 and was selected for the Pro Bowl four times. He was named to the all-pro team of the 1960s.


Crossposted at ePluribus Media and StreetProphets.


Note: I’ll likely update the age at which Crow died as well as validating that I picked the right person that he was nicknamed after — it was the closest “Crow” I found, but I’m not 100% certain I got the right one.

UPDATE: I adjusted his age, which I’d ballparked a little high, and I completely forgot that he’d had an older sister; the John David Crow reference is the correct Crow reference.