Silence, Story, and Healing

Autumn_PathThe 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.

21 thoughts on “Silence, Story, and Healing

  1. I am so grateful and joyed that you have chosen not to be silent. Maybe this coming season of silence will give you time to reflect on all that you need to give voice to – and you can find your story-line within the long line of generations of which you are a part. I find it hard to find and tell my story to my children – it takes a lot of courage. I, too, am slowly working on finding what needs to be told.

    1. Pat, I think children often find our stories painful; I want to protect them of course. Others are also offended or pained. Very challenging.Yet, ultimately, our stories help our children make sense of their lives.

      1. I really like the idea of blogging because they can read them if they are ready – and (barring an implosion of the web) they can read them in the future when they have questions. It is comforting to know that you also find it a challenge, Michael.

    1. Thanks, Gretchen. The odd thing is there are so many stories similar to mine. Many never find an audience. I hope I am growing into a lovely human being, and would like to believe that even warts can be beautiful.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience with the isolation of haveing Polio and being Native, Michael. I am in awe of your humble strength and courage. I am glad you have spoken here and I wish you many more opportunities to share your story. This takes courage and I pray your story, no matter what part you are talking about, will always be received with love and grace! Much Love and Light to you! Laara WilliamSen

    1. Hi Laara, It is good, as always, to hear from you. One of the reasons I speak is that real stories are often uncomfortable stories – yet they are important and need to be heard. They are not always warmly received, especially these days. Still we know that when uncomfortable stories are silenced, disaster looms for everyone.There is a moral imperative to speak.I am grateful to have witnesses for my story, and company in this walk through life. Blessings.

  3. Michael: Thank you so much for this moving piece on the various faces of “silence”– those that hold us shame and silent sadness, and those that remind us of traditions of wonder and awe that lift us out of that shame and sadness. Your life is a wonderful testamony of the strength and grace that is shared by those who have the courage and wisdom to let stories lift us out histories of shame and silence that still the human sprit.

  4. I can empathize with your experience of silence and its terrible pain. I suffered for over 20 years with undiagnosed abdominal TB. TB is still an unmentionable disease in Ireland. But I told my story (I Heard the Curlew Cry – available from Amazon and Friesen Press). Like you I am a firm believer in the healing power of story. Thank you once again Michael for a beautiful and inspiring post. Go well.

    1. My mom had TB when a young woman. Now I carry the antigens sop test positive for TB. I think the happiest time of her life was in the sanitarium, but then her case was, I gather straightforward and did not cause her suffering for so terribly many years as yours has brought you. I am so saddened as I think about your long, long journey and all the suffering that must have imposed.

      I shall secure a copy of your book!

      I often wonder why illness and disability is so terrifying to those not affected. But of course the answer is most likely that revulsion is an innate response, and out task is to learn to care, love, and aid anyway.

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