N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winning author, is a Kiowa Indian. He wrote an essay in which he reflected on a life-changing moment he experienced as a youth. He was taken early one morning by his father to the cottage of an old woman. His father dropped him off and left. Of all the places in the world Momaday might have wanted to be that day, this cottage was not on the list … alone for a day with this woman he did not know.

Gene Nelson column

Gene Nelson 

She sat him down and began to tell him the story of the Kiowa. She told of the tribe’s beginning near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, and of their movement south into what is now Nebraska and Kansas. She told of wars with other tribes, of the great buffalo hunts and of the coming of the white man. There were stories of terrible winters of hunger and fear as the tribe was constantly on the move, pursued by soldiers. There was the final, bitter defeat and the forced move to a reservation in southern Oklahoma, where he was born. She told the stories and sang the songs of her — of his — people.

Said Momaday, “When I left her house, I was a Kiowa!” He had forgotten, didn’t really know, didn’t even care about his people, his heritage, the stories and traditions and relationships that had shaped and defined those who had gone before him. But she helped him to remember. He insists that that one day of songs and stories forever changed his life, indeed continues to shape and define him to this day.   

Ah, the power, even the necessity, of memory. Thinking back to the Kiowa people, when Indians were forced onto a reservation, they were often forbidden by the army to sing their songs or dance their dances.  The army basically encouraged amnesia because people without their stories, their memories, were much easier to control. They gradually forgot who they were and then accepted the white man’s definition of reality as the only reality; that the way things were, were the way they would always be.

It seems to me that this is pretty much what has been happening in our country in recent years. As traditions, institutions, codes of conduct and even historical fact and truth have been trashed and denied, we have seen nothing less than an effort to convince us that there is only one reality, one truth: “Don’t think for yourself; we will tell you who you are, what you should believe, what is possible and what is not.  The truth is what we say it is…no exceptions!” Amnesia is encouraged; ignorance celebrated. The powers that be are terrified of any suggestion – any memory – that there might be another way, that the future is not a closed book, that the way things are is not the way they must always be.

Again, empire always encourages amnesia, because then the empire’s truth becomes the only truth.  But memory — the memory of other stories, other truths, other ways of being — leads to possibility. In these challenging days it has been easy, when we look around us and within us, to find only chaos and despair. But if we stop and remember, if we listen to other voices, we begin to discover new perspectives, perspectives that shatter the structure of our hopelessness and despair, that loosen the grip of present day realities with the promise of something new, that  point to possibilities which the empires of the world  insist cannot happen.

A colleague recalls that every morning as he and his sister were leaving for school, their mother would call out after them, “Don’t forget who you are.” Is a new day dawning for our nation? We can hope. But whatever the days ahead may bring, don’t forget who you — who we — are!    

(1) comment


Way to go , Gene. Your column reminds me why once a year we go to the Welsh Association of Northern California gathering on Saint David's Day to sing Welsh hymns and drink tea. It also reminds me of grammar school days when we marched around the schoolyard singing patriotic songs. I would think it's all but impossible for oppressors to keep people from singing their songs of heritage and identity for very long, but those who try do a terrible thing. ,

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