Somebodies’ Somewhere

We were on a short dirt road between nowhere and nowhere else. At least that is what it seemed like to us. We enjoy exploring these back roads, especially when we are far from home and everyday life seems so different. We are beginning the Circle Tour of Lake Superior and are on the east end above Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. We have only been here once before – a long time ago and that was just a quick drive through. This time we have no urgent reason to get home on a specific day so we are staying more nights at each stop.

The paved road we turned on, off highway 17, ended a short distance away at the water’s edge, at a boat launch. We lingered a while taking in the quiet. Going back we turned down a dirt road with a sign pointing toward a lake shore resort. It was a small resort that bills itself as “A slice of Austria on Lake Superior.”

On this dirt road, going to the slice of Austria, I had noticed a small cemetery, on a cliff between the water and the road. On our way back I told JB to turn in and we drove down a short bumpy lane to where the markers were.

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I had said that this was a road between nowhere and nowhere else. This isn’t true. This has been, and is a place of significance for many people for a long time. This is home to the Batchawana First Nation people. There were several homes along the paved road and some evidence that people had established small businesses. But there isn’t much opportunity for employment close by so we could tell it is a poor community, at least from our capitalistic, consumer perspective. Maybe they don’t value “things” so their perspective of “rich” is entirely different. Maybe they value family, community, nature and only feel poor when they come in contact with the dominate values. I would love to move in and get to know them better.

We do know their grief because we lingered in their cemetery. I worried about violating their spiritual space, but I think it may have been okay because I felt a lot of reverence as I walked around and both JB and I felt their grief. JB noticed that most of those buried here were children and young adults – there were only two who were older than 60.

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Most of the grave markers were wooden crosses, although there were some that were white stone. There was one that was made of cement. We had just visited the graves of JB’s ancestors in Owen Sound and both of us were struck by the difference between the expensive stone markers to honor the dead and the humble ways the dead were honored here. Could there be a “richer” statement of grief in burying a beloved child than this. It leads me to question the purpose of our very expensive burial system.

Pancake Bay 066 I have never lost a child that I had held and nurtured, and I can’t comprehend the pain. But these parents lost five young children over a series of years in the late 1800’s. It was almost a yearly occurrence to bury a child. How do you think they coped with it?

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Yes, this is a community that grieves the loss of their own, together – and listens to the spirits of their ancestors in this sacred place. Don’t we all know who we are by remembering who has touched us and left?

Can This Photo Speak the Native American Story?

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This building pulled us off US 12 as we were traveling though South Dakota. It was in a small town of 68 residents (obtained from the town’s web site) in the middle of nowhere. At least it felt like that to me because this was new scenery. For the 68 people who live here it is somewhere – the somewhere they live in.

Since I was there last summer, this building has haunted me. I have wondered what the story is. I’m sure that the residents know the story, but we didn’t ask, and this made it possible for me to wonder and think and come to my own conclusions. Conclusions that were wrong – but still stimulated me to hear new voices telling old stories..

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge this week invites us to post a photo of an object – one that might tell a story. Storytelling is a powerful potential of photography. In photojournalism it is important to make sure the photos are an accurate portrayal of the reality of the story being told. In artistic photography there is a lot more latitude to leave the story untold so the viewer’s mind can be stimulated to create a story and to explore divergent paths of discovery.

Here is the reality behind this object. It is in Morristown, South Dakota, a community that celebrated its centennial in 2008. A small sign on the building’s front says Community Building. It drew me off the highway because it has the look of an old school house that is much bigger than the community would seem to need. How quickly I diverge from the known facts.

Here is where this object took me in the 6 or so months since I photographed it. Here is the story I have been exploring – the story that diverged from this building’s untold story. I believe it was once a school, because of its shape, having two doors in the front (at my schoolhouse I lined up at the girl’s door) and the bell tower. I wondered if it was one of the many schools that were established to educate Native Americans but it isn’t on the “official” list of where these schools were located. Many of these schools were set up by religious organizations, some by the government. All of them were designed to help Native Americans change their ways, their culture, so they could better assimilate into the European culture of the US. This “education” has the hallmarks of cultural and ethnic cleansing, no matter how noble the intentions were. This is hard for us (of the white culture) to hear – especially since it didn’t happen all that long ago. Within my lifetime.

My daughter suggested I read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. It isn’t an easy read because the plot was foreign to my “white” ears. It took me about two-thirds of the way through before I could hear the story, feel the tempo, discern why I couldn’t pick up the plot. Silko lived this story and she tells it from her oral history heritage. It helped me emotionally understand, for the first time, the spiritual tie and power Native Americans experience within the natural world. I have heard about it for a very long time, but never in this way. Now I can come closer to experiencing that connection – although I never will completely because I wasn’t raised within this culture. The cultural patterns and stories and intelligence aren’t a part of my DNA. It could have been, but how and where and when I was raised gave me a different cultural pattern and stories and intelligence. Maybe with diligent effort I can nurture some of this “natural world” intelligence back.

Some Native Americans are appreciative of the efforts to educate for assimilation – it helped them be successful in the dominate European culture of the US. Some believe it was a dismal failure. I tend to think it is bad politics to take away the best environments from a group of people, so they have no means to maintain their cultural customs and ways of supporting themselves, and to then tell them that their culture is bad and they need to believe like the defeating culture. It doesn’t fit my standards of justice, fairness, and respect. It makes me angry and my anger usually is a sign that something has been taken from me or someone I love.

I know it is possible to care about people I don’t know and be angered about injustices towards them. This is a part of my anger. I suspect the anger also boils up because of a personal loss, the loss of something I never had. Is there a longing in me for this sense of oneness with creation? I know it doesn’t threaten my Christian value system because God calls me to respect and be at peace with His creation. If I allow myself to think about it, I feel the frustration of my desire for this spiritual connection with nature, while experiencing this desire being in conflict with the “developed” lifestyle I live. The one that treasures things more than life. Silko’s story of Creation is the story of this conflict.

The story lives on, even if the story isn’t accurate to this photograph of this building. To hear an example of how this story is living on for assimilated Native Americans, I urge you to read Michael Watson’s post “In a Sacred Manner.” It is powerful because Michael is very articulate in explaining the current experience of him and his friends. Here is the link.