Life Dances Inside a Circle Made By Living, They Say
That is a repetitive line in many of the old Apache prayers. For most of my life I figured it was one of those nice sounding, but essentially meaningless things that they put into prayers. Like the poetic devices Homer would use. It was never simply "Hector" or "Achilles," it would be "Hector of the shining helm" and "Achilles, the swiftfooted mankiller." The device allowed the person reciting the poem to conjure up the next line or scene. It buys time for somebody in performance.
My daughter has begun her internship. Despite the grueling march of 72 hour shifts, the endless parade of mind numbing sameness that gets punctuated by something wild and critical, she is loving it.
Her only complaint is that the King of the Docs took a look at her name tag with the Apache name Ga'age Biitsahkesh, tried a couple of times to pronounce it and has dubbed her "Gidget." To her dismay the name has stuck. To the other interns, the residents, and the attendings, she is now "Dr. Gidget." I suggested that she start dubbing her collegues "Moondoggy" and "Ratfink" which provided a tired chuckle but little consolation.
To tell you the rest of the story, I have to tell you this one.
The winter of 1958 on the White Mountain Apache Reservation was hard. Unusually heavy snowfalls, very low temperatures and a sudden freeze all contributed to the dangerous misery there. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was not responding to the pleading of the people for help and aid. They ignored the missionaries who were trying to keep our tiny school going. It was a Mormon year that time. One of the "teachers" was from a Mormon Ward in Mesa.
Their Bishop, his family has asked that I not name him, because they are old school Mormons who believe that doing good, and caring for your fellow human beings is something that should be expected, it is not something to be celebrated, so I'll just call him The Bishop, hearing of the plight on the rez, opened his Bishop's stores. This is something that the Mormons take very seriously. They encourage their members to keep a year's supply of canned and preserved foods, and each Ward's Bishop has control of an even larger storage.
The Bishop opened his stores. He directed the members of his Ward to gather at the storehouse, bringing their trucks and vans. They loaded them down with food, blankets, and warm clothes. They drove 350 miles from Mesa to the rez. They began to distribute those badly needed items. They did this without preaching or doing anything but try to find out where what the greatest needs were. When they had finished, they drove back to their home, loaded up again, and drove back.
Countless times during that bitter winter, they would load up their vehicles and drive the long bad roads to us. The Bishop contacted other Bishops and the Church President and even the Prophet in Salt Lake City. The efforts of those people saved our people. Washington would have let us starve. The government was still crying poor from fighting WWII and Korea. All of our cries for help fell on ears that were turned deaf by lack of funds and the ability to do anything.
The Mormons, but especially the Bishop refused to let that happen. I have my own differences with the LDS church. Even as offshoot sects of Christianity go, they have some really bizarre ass tenets of faith. I dislike the theocracy they have forged in Utah, I object to their meddling in politics.
With all of that though, I must say, the majority of Mormons that I have met were plain old good human beings. They are capable of great compassion, and limitless generosity. They spent an entire winter driving up to our rez to share their bounty and their food with us for the simple reason that we were hungry and they knew it.
Another program that the Mormons had was the "Indian Placement" program. They would take promising kids off of the reservations and house them with Mormon families so that we could attend high schools that had little luxuries, like teachers, and books.
The Bishop, when my cousin, the brilliant attorney, and I were at high school age, made it possible for us to enroll in placement. He went so far as to pull strings which made it possible for us to attend the same high school and be housed in the same neighborhood. He was kind enough to look the other way when my cousin and I would openly defy one of their most sacred rules by speaking to each other in Apache. We lied a little bit, we told him that he had been given an Apache name by the people and that the name was "Inago'it Ditah Tazhii." We told him that the name meant "Give Away Food Eagle," it really meant "Generous Turkey." White people like Indian names that say Eagle. It makes them feel all special and stuff.
No matter what measure of disapproval or even anger I might work up for the Mormons, I know that I owe them, and especially The Bishop, a debt that can never be truly reconciled. I owe not only the measure of the help they gave me and my people. I owe them my life. I owe them for allowing me to get a decent education, which they did after they made sure I didn't starve to death.
I will oppose them when they meddle in politics, but I will never do so without curbing any anger. I owe them that.
So, here we are with Dr. Gidget in one of her 72 hour runs. She goes in to see a patient, it's a 70ish year old man. She recognises the name, and the city he's from. She asks him straight out if he is any relation to The Bishop. The old man tells her "That was my father."
Dr. Gidget says "Your father saved my father's life."
They spent a long time talking about old times. The old man, as a boy, had made that long trip up to the rez many times. He says that he remembers our family from those trips and from when my cousin and I were living with members of his Ward while we went to high school.
My cousin and I sent flowers to his room the very next day. Our card wished him a full and a speedy recovery.
The life that I have lived has been danced truly within a circle made by living that life. Most of the cycles and spirals don't have such a tidy arc. There's a lot more jazz than Bach in my soundtrack.
Even with the reputation that the Apache have as fierce warriors from a ferocious warrior's culture, something that most folks don't know is that to go to war, with neighboring tribes, with other Apache, with anybody, the warrior's first had to get the approval of a council of grandmothers. The grandmothers try, in their council, to consider the impact of present decisions down through five to seven generations.
The rough, tough, badass of the world Apache warriors, wouldn't go to war unless their grammies said it was OK. It worked well for us.
I'm not sure what the meanings of all this are, maybe you can offer some meanings in the comments. I know that I am trying to take more care in the things I do today.
Yexaaiidela, go deyah, tc'iindii.
(having been prepared, he walks, they say)
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Life Dances Inside a Circle Made By Living, They Say
The Minstrel Boy 3:10 PM