Minding the Indigenous Mind
Greetings Mindful Friends and Relatives,
Ecclesiastes 11:9 says “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes.” This passage about celebrating one’s youth reminds me of the boyhood days that I shared with several young friends and relatives when I was growing up in White Shield, ND. In this column I share a two-part short story about how I and a number of other young boys rejoiced in our youth and became warriors on a hot July afternoon in 1964.
As young boys in our reservation community in White Shield, ND, we spent much of our summers searching for ways to initiate ourselves into warriorhood. We knew that becoming a warrior was a very difficult undertaking, especially since our role models were our “old Indian” warrior ancestors, whom we had heard were the toughest, bravest, and most daring guys in the world. As far as we knew, there were no people on earth as courageous and daring as these Indians.
In our secret boy circles we gathered together to discuss how the old Indians could go for days without food and water; how they could run for hundreds of miles over the roughest terrain without stopping – sometimes barefoot. We spoke of how they didn’t need a saddle or bridle when they rode their horses, and how some of them could run faster and further than any horse. We talked about how they could swim across the widest part of the Missouri river and back again and then do victory dances all night, without getting tired; We talked of how when an enemy cut them with a knife or shot them with an arrow they could tough it out and keep on fighting while singing their death song. Man, they were they tough.
We admired the old warriors because they got to camp out wherever they wanted to, and as far as we knew, they didn’t have to eat slimy canned USDA commodity spinach or other nasty canned vegetables that we were forced to eat in school. Instead, they lived off “the fat of the land.” They drank fresh river water whenever they were thirsty, and dined on wild berries, turnips, and onions, and ate huge chunks of fire-roasted buffalo or deer meat. They sat around a fire under the sacred stars recounting the origins of our people, and as far as we knew, they didn’t have to clean up after themselves or be in bed by nine o’ clock. And because they were so brave and respected, they didn’t get yelled at by their mothers to fix their beds, clean up their mess, or take out the garbage.
In all honesty we didn’t know much about our warrior ancestors since many of our parents would only occasionally mention a few things to us about them, while the books we read at the BIA government school we attended never mentioned them at all. But it didn’t matter to us what they said or didn’t say since most any group of prepubescent boys is the same: what they believe is what matters. And, what was fact to us was that our warriors were the toughest, bravest humans on earth and it was our responsibility to carry on their legacy.
The night before several of my friends, an older and younger brother, and I became warriors, my mother said I had to take out and burn the trash. This duty turned into a special time because many of the neighborhood boys would come to our house in the evening and gather around to watch the fire and trade stories about how the old warriors had lived. That evening was particularly meaningful because we decided that the next morning we would gather together and go out to face the enemy. We had made new bows and arrows, tested them, and decided they were ready for battle.
The trash was reduced to ashes in a large, fifty gallon steel drum barrel that was given to us by the Bureau of Indian Affairs; all the families in our community had one of the containers for burning their garbage. Every week, the green BIA truck would come by and pick up everyone’s burned garbage and haul it to the local dump grounds where it would be deposited into the trash pit. This place was a boy’s dream come true since it was patrolled by strange rez dogs that could be brought home and made into pets, and filled with rats that could be either captured or used to perfect one’s practice of counting coup.
Amongst the burned remains lay broken toys, bikes, wine and beer bottles, old washing machines, and tattered clothes. The earth in the pit was blackened and scorched by the fires that continually burned the waste. Sprinkled about like snow was white, USDA commodity powdered milk that seeped out of broken box containers; millions of flies buzzed in and out of the shiny empty cans of USDA chopped meat as they glistened in the sun. Every once in a while a rez dog would get its nose stuck in a can of opened chopped meat and we would have to chase it down to remove the can.
This evening of trash burning was special, because for the first time I was allowed to light and burn the garbage without supervision from one of my older siblings or parents. I had planned most of the day what I would do to make sure the fire burned a long time since I knew more tales could be told if the fire had a long life. I had quietly and secretly collected and added several medium and large pieces of wood to the garbage to make sure the fire would last longer than usual. As the fire burned down, and it got later, my friends said goodnight and headed home. I remained alone at the fire watching until the last of it had smoldered out and then went inside to bed.
When I got up in the morning I could smell the odor of smoke and burned trash on my skin and in my clothes. I went downstairs and could hear my older brother saying to our mother that when he was sleeping he was dreaming that our house was on fire. My mother answered, “Well, your brother Michael built a big fire last night when was burning the trash. I don’t know what he was burning.” I smiled to myself as I went downstairs and sat down at the kitchen table to have a bowl of hot oatmeal and fresh baked bread. As I quietly ate, I remembered most of my dreams had been about me running side by side with all kinds of animals who trying to escape a huge never-ending prairie fire that I had started when I was burning the trash. Some of them had chopped meat cans stuck on their noses. I think these were the holy ones.
I stepped outside and was greeted by a hot, windless July morning. The heat waves were shimmering in the distance to the east as the boys begin arriving at our house for our sacred mission to find our bravery and manhood. Our band of brothers were a ragged bunch of earthy, brown boys with lean bodies and crew cut hair styles. We wore no war paint on this day because there were no veteran’s in the community to paint us and send us off. Most of us wore dusty, worn out Levi jeans and white tee shirts that we pulled over our heads like hoods to protect us from the summer sun.
We begin heading to the east towards several groves of trees, streams, and high grasses. As the sun rose and we begin to swelter, wanting the feeling of coolness upon our heads, we dipped our shirts into stagnate pools of water that has collected for weeks in the ditches along the roads we were traveling. Even though the water smelled of decaying vegetation and was filled with all kinds of water beetles and snakes, we dove in for a swim and didn’t let it bother us, because we believed it wouldn’t bother the old Indian warriors.
Footgear is one of the most important items for a warrior since it helps him move without delay to the field of battle. Some of the members of our war party wore old basketball shoes, sometimes mismatched in size and color, and laced up with twine from an old white farmer’s hay bale. It didn’t bother us that we had to take twine from the hay bale for our shoes and the bales fell apart and became useless to the farmer. Because, in our minds, we reasoned that our warrior ancestors would have counted coup on the white man’s hay bales in the same way if they were wearing basketball shoes. Others in our squad wore the cowboy boots of an older brother or father that were too large and gave them blisters. But still, they looked cool and the person wearing them could always be put on point whenever we suspected that we were in rattlesnake territory.
Despite our ragtag look, we were well armed with straight, long, strong bows we had made from carefully selected branches of willow trees that we had found near small bodies of water and springs that flowed near the community. Our arrows were made from last year’s tall, straight hollowed weeds or from perfectly round, small, long branches that we had hardened over the trash fires. Each was tipped with metal pop bottle cap that was bent in half and pounded together to make a very sharp, sturdy point. When we shot them from our bows we could flatten a tire or neutralize a fearless, charging warrior rat at the dump grounds. (To be continued…)
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, decolonizing social work, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org