Autumn WoodsEvery 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.







12 thoughts on “Ghosts

  1. You have stimulated a million thoughts, but all seem to end at the spot where some people are so arrogant or nearsighted that they don’t believe other groups have anything worthwhile to bring to the table. As a female, and as an old person, I have been marginalized and discounted enough times that I understand the anger. And then I begin to wonder about when I have been guilty of this arrogance. If you ever hear it in a comment of mine on your post, please call me on it.

    1. Pat, thank you. I have come to greatly appreciate your writing and photos. Can’t imagine you being arrogant, although I guess we all are on occasion. Your experience of marginalization comes shining through as compassion and honesty rather than anger.

      1. Thanks for the reassurance. Maybe that is the blessing of living for 70 years – and also a life-long desire to be honest and kind (okay with a little anger for spice).I was humbled by an internet test developed by Yale and the I think Washington State University to measure institutional racism, sexism, and ageism. I, who would hate to have to admit to any of these, showed a preference for males, youth, and whites. Ouch! 🙂 But as I told my students, we need to be aware of our biases and then make conscious decisions to act with justice and embrace inclusion.

      2. Pat, I absolutely know I can be as prejudiced as the next person. I hope I allow myself to be hold accountable for that. It seems to be the human condition, or at least the norm for us who grew up in an earlier time. Still, we work to make things better, eh?

  2. Wow, I can hardly believe he spoke to you like that…so arrogant.
    I suppose the white people who settled America were expansionist and aggressive because they wanted to grab the land for themselves….but back where they came from an age old war between those who want to exploit the earth and her resources for money, and those who see our role as care taking might not agree with him!

    1. Green, He wasn’t intentionally being disrespectful. He’s a great, passionate young man. I’m afraid his ideas are those he learned in school, and reflect a larger cultural problem. It is difficult for folks to own up to the harm we do. I imagine he does not have a very good grasp of the conditions that drove so many to immigrate to North America, and the desperation that and hunger that made them susceptible to Greed. That said, he also may not understand the growing coalition of folks who care about the Earth and future generations. I do not know how all this will play out for us and our children; things do not look good. Yet I have faith things will be OK in the very long term. There are many, like yourself, who will keep hope alive.

  3. I had a conflicted Thanksgiving myself – having had significant exposure this year to Navajo culture and ongoing connection with an extended Navajo family. I had a telephone conversation with one of the young people in the family and asked whether they celebrate Thanksgiving (in the context of him being able to go home during the holiday). He replied: “Nah…” (meaning his family didn’t celebrate the holiday). Of course, I thought, what is there to celebrate for Native Americans – both Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are holidays for those who dislocated and disowned Natives of their own country and resources.
    I was wondering whether Thanksgiving could become a holiday that connects Native Americans with the rest of the US population in a meaningful manner and how that could come about. Any thoughts on this, Michael?

    1. Annette, I thank you for wanting to be inclusive. I believe the decision to celebrate Thanksgiving, or not, is an individual decision. There are many Native people who celebrate, including Navajo. The big problem, as I see it, is that Native America is largely left out of the holiday. Re-imaging the day to better reflect the Native experience, in all its complexity, including the ongoing seizure of Indigenous lands and desecration of sacred sites, would be a huge step forward. (Columbus day is even more problematic.) The issues facing Native America are both historical and ongoing. Having said this, I am very aware that I am only one person. If we are to take the challenge of making meaningful holidays seriously, we must include a wide range of Native people in the discussion. We are such a complex group of persons and cultures; no one can speak for all.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience Michael. I can only imagine how shocking and disappointing it must have been to hear these alternate beliefs expressed. I honor you for sharing no judgment or blame in your tale. I believe that the energy, wisdom, and sacred connection that each Native soul carries upon this earth plane…at this time…is VITAL to our spiritual evolution!! ♥ You each carry that sacred connection to LIFE in a way that we have long forgotten. I so deeply honor you and your earth path. Because another can not recognize the POWER that you hold….please do not believe that you are not Power-filled in all moments!! You are a Wisdom Keeper…and that Truth can never be altered.

    Many blessings to you!!

    1. Thank you, Alania, Indigenous people really have no monopoly on connection to the sacred. We are like every other group, some are spiritual and others not. Yet we are also different than some, as our spirituality is often land based. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say has traditionally been land based. Because of that we are often asked to speak for the Earth. Yet there are people of all cultures who walk closely with Her, and who have dreamed dreams of/from Her. They also carry her message. Perhaps you are one of these people. It is good when many speak up for the Earth, and for all who are oppressed. Without allies, Indigenous people surely would struggle even harder to survive. Blessings

      1. What a radiant and open heart you have Michael!! Thank YOU!! It’s so true that we each carry codes to support Mother’s journey…and to awaken greater waves of Light in this earth frequency. Because of the guides I work with…and the visions that have been shared with me…I have great respect for all Indigenous people and energies. And….I have great respect for you!!! Many blessings to you my friend!! May you know only LOVE!!!

  5. Much perspective, philosophy and facts are lost when complex processes of dominating and vanishing cultures are brought back to a narrow minded sum of who wins. There is so much in between: assimilation, conservation, and shaping our collective history and future. We can’t deny the fall of Rome or the lost of the Epicureans and many more beautiful cultures, but to see them as lost or losers, no. There is much more to it. By meeting other cultures we learn and we shape our history and future. Culture isn’t a noun only, it is a verb too.

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