Every now and again I meet a ghost, a spirit that has, for whatever reason, not moved on after death. Maybe sometimes I can be helpful to them. Natives are perceived as have a long relationship to the spirits, as being engaged on a day-to-day basis with family and Ancestors who have passed on. (This is lived experience, trope in Indigenous lit, and stereotype.) Sometimes we are connected to the spirits, although we have no monopoly on it; often enough this contact is comforting. The other night my dad came in a dream; he just hung out, seemingly interested in whatever I am doing, and wanting me to know he is engaged and well.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day, a fine day filled with family, conversation, laughter, and great food! We are a complex group: descendents of the Mayflower; refugees and settlers from Europe, Jewish and non; and Natives. Before we ate we acknowledged those we have loved have gone before us into the spirit world. Then we gave thanks for our lives. After dinner, as it so often does when this side of our family gathers, the conversation turned towards education, and history.
Over pie, I found myself in deep discussion with my nephew-in-law, a very bright, likeable young man who was a historian in college and now teaches math to severely disadvantaged eighth graders. He was speaking about the plight of the people of Ferguson, voter apathy and suppression, and the North American turn to the right. He spoke eloquently about his fear that governmental indifference to the poor and marginalized, and gridlock, would remain in place in the US throughout his life.
Eventually he asked for my thoughts about all this. I replied that as a Native person I shared his concerns with racism and economic and social inequality, but that I was also deeply worried about climate change and the fate of Indigenous people and the land. I was taken aback when he stated, unequivocally, that due to our small population, Native people would never have an impact on the larger political discussion; he suggested we were essentially “gone”.
As he elaborated on his thesis, a clear picture of his thought emerged. He described the historical interaction between Europeans and Natives as a clash of cultures in which Indians were bound to lose. He spoke to the overwhelming technological superiority of the invaders and their well honed ruthlessness, citing firearms and smallpox inoculated blankets as powerful technologies of war. He elaborated on the basic ideological differences between the two sides, and mapped out the English colonists’ use of British common law to overwhelm the “primitive”common usage doctrines of most Native tribes.
Upon hearing “primitive” I suggested it might be useful to see Native people as purposefully living long, well-connected lives in relatively stable ecosystems, lives in which there was ample free time for socializing and creating culture. He responded that recent academic research had, in some quarters, begun to see at least a few tribes as fiercely expansionist, then switching directions abruptly, cited the Six Nations as a stable, non-aggressive coalition of diverse tribes. By then it was late and everyone was tired, so we didn’t get to the part where Native adoption of new technologies and monetary exchange led to the near collapse of well established social and ecological systems. Still, I had much to ponder on the drive home.
We live in New England so Thanksgiving is a large event and people tend to pull out all the stops for a few days. This morning Jennie and I went out to breakfast. Sure enough, near us was seated a lively young family. The dad, in keeping with the season, was wearing a hoodie that featured an older Native male in headdress; the headdress flowed into lettering that read “Theory”. Jennie and I imagined what the sweatshirt logo might mean; she was convinced that it could mean nothing good, while I offered the hope he might have been a Native Studies major. Finally, and with more than a little trepidation, Jennie approached the young man and asked about the hoodie. The hoodie it turns out, is manufactured by a Massachusetts skateboard company by the name of “Theory”; the image was taken from a high school athletic logo, and the hoodie was part of a project that encouraged high schoolers to think! It was odd to imagine the long gone ancient one of the logo actively theorizing about his experience for the benefit of high school students.
I’m not surprised to hear we Natives are dead, or at the very most, irrelevant. It’s an old story. I grew up thinking the only live Indians lived in tepees on reservations out West. The only remnants left from the Indigenous population of my Midwestern home were a few mounds and some museum artifacts. Even the Indians who rode horses in the Thanksgiving parades were from out West. My extended family and I were clearly ghosts.
In my various roles I see quite a few people who wrestle with the perception they don’t exist. All sorts of “anomalous” experiences can cause this experience of ghostliness: life threatening illness or events, warfare, child abuse, and, of course, being Indigenous, to name a few. (J.D. Salinger was brilliant at giving voice to the experience.) Now I want to add Thanksgiving to that list. I am surely not the first person to do so.
All this left me thanking that, while I at some point I will cross over into spirit, will make the move from virtual ghost to real spirit, I’d rather be seen as alive till that happens. Just saying.