The woods are increasingly silent. Now and then a blue jay or a nuthatch calls, or a squirrel scolds. The wind in the trees is low-pitched as it moves through the bare upper branches of the golden-yellow birches and beech trees.
As the world grows quiet, our voices fill the evenings with story; it is a holy time. Soon the first snows will fall and the ancient stories will be told. Some of those stories will be about the First Beings who created and organized the world as we know it; others will be stories from our histories. In the end, for Native people, these are inseparable. Cultural, family, and individual stories and histories are interconnected, and fluid in time; when we approach a medicine person in search of healing, they remind us that we are the First Beings as well as their progeny.
I’ve been reading Marc Shell’s Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture. At the core of the book is silence. Growing up a Polio I know that silence well. My parents essentially refused to speak with me about my illness or the residual paralysis that plagued me. The doctors I saw were no different, always silent about the aftermath of the illness; teachers, too, refused to address my challenges. My family was just as silent about being Native, my parents refusing to acknowledge or refute our heritage.
Polio in pre-vaccine, post World War Two, North American culture was both omnipresent and unspeakable. Those who contracted the disease, and often their families, faced months (and occasionally years) of actual or social quarantine. Misinformation ruled, and resulted in survivors and their families being shunned for fear of contagion. One learned not to talk about the experience of Polio, and all too often attempts to speak of it were met with blunt silence; even my psychiatrist refused to discuss the subject. As a result our family was immensely isolated, save for our church, a community that was of very little consolation to me, and relatives who lived far away. The effect of that isolation was to continue the quarantine long after contagion had passed.
The dominant cultural responses to Polio, after silence, were fear and pity. Oddly, my mother, who was rumored to be of Cherokee descent, spoke of the Trail of Tears in particular, and Native Americans in general, as “those poor people”, clearly separating herself (and us) from those Others. The paradox was that we, as a family, were both Native, and Polio, thus doubly “poor” and pitied (as well as feared). Just as one is Native through genetic and/or cultural inheritance, the presence of one Polio victim, especially a survivor, painted the entire family in the patina of the disease.
My father’s mother, a “pure-blood” Indian (Shawnee) was silent. I do not think she said more than a handful of words to me over the ten years or more I knew her. Her silent presence was simultaneously marginal and commanding; she controlled the decision-making process within the extended family without uttering a word. (A true elder!) Her disapproval of my mother’s violence towards us children was well-known, a source of considerable tension between my parents I imagine.
Today is Columbus Day, known in Indian circles as several versions of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It remains, in the larger culture, along with Thanksgiving, a day that celebrates silence. Columbus was hardly the first European to visit the Americas, but his appearance ushered in more than five hundred years of genocide, a history that is well documented but hardly known, hidden under a veil of official silence. Today, the true history of the European presence in the Americas is seldom taught outside colleges and universities, and, of course, Native American communities.
For my family, as for other Native families, Polio was just the latest in a seemingly endless series of pandemics: measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, alcoholism, cholera, and typhus to name a few. (My mother spent time in a tuberculosis sanitarium as a young adult.) Polio met my family at the intersection of History and Culture, and the collision, while enormous, was silent. The silence of that collision has echoed through our family for decades.
Story breaks through silence. Healing and story walk together, a fact well known by psychotherapists, medicine people, and shamans. Words are important, for they shape consciousness and history, and under the right circumstances, enable us to come to terms with the unspeakable. Now, as I approach the sixtieth anniversary of my illness, I, along with millions of others, live with the late, persistent effects of the disease. I’m not certain the social stigma of visible disability has eased over the years; rather I imagine it has not. I do know that I can now speak about it, and in doing so find some way forward that holds meaning, and the possibility of community. The same is true of being Native.
As the silence of the season settles over the land, I find myself wanting to talk. Perhaps there are things you would like to speak of. It is good to find a voice and a witness. Blessings.