Thomas Cole: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

A Day of Mourning

A search for true gratitude sometimes requires connecting with grief and consequence.

Thomas Cole: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Yesterday was a different sort of a day. I kept trying to post something to social media in the spirit of #givethanks, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because I wasn’t feeling grateful. For WHATEVER reason—I truly don’t understand this—I’ve long felt drawn to the indigenous experience, even though I know very few people who are actually native or belong to any particular community. I hope you’ll forgive me for this moment of reflection. I feel fairly vulnerable posting this. To a certain degree, it’s all mythological, not based in anything real, per se. Yet, I somehow feel connected to something. I’m inclined to believe it’s just that we’re all connected (mitakuye oyasin), but I also just feel called somehow, in some small way. In any case, it’s just there, and I let it be a part of me, and try to let it be what it is.

The first time I watched Smoke Signals, I thought it was an interesting, if not cheesy, film. The acting was a bit awkward, and I also thought the “indigenous problem” was maybe a little bit of a caricature of the real thing. I mean, they touched on real stuff, but then, telling stories even about one’s own people is hard (I know this as a Mormon storyteller), and so I felt there was something off in it all but I still enjoyed it.

Then the very end of the film hit. The waterfall, the poem, the ashes, the main character’s cry of grief, the drums and song…and something ripped me apart inside. I probably rewound the film (DVD? VHS? Can’t remember) on that scene 20 times and watched it over and over and over and…sobbed like a baby. I still don’t fully understand my reaction, but something touched me deeply. Beyond deep. It pierced through me like a sword.

Adam Beach in Smoke Signals.
Adam Beach in Smoke Signals.

“How do we forgive our Fathers?” The poem asks. The story of the movie is about Victor Thomas forgiving his father for leaving him, but the question is clearly asking something much deeper, more nuanced, more pointed.

The burial of Arnold Thomas at Spokane Falls.
The burial of Arnold Thomas at Spokane Falls.

2020 has been a year of awakening for so many of us. I did some serious soul searching and discovered racial biases I didn’t know existed within. I had not, for example, sympathized with certain plights of the black community, nor had I considered my own prejudices about how people might live in dangerous circumstances because of ignored or hidden American histories. The irony is that I’ve long been focused with scrutiny on what has happened to many native communities, even though I don’t directly understand the pain or have experienced any of the psychological or real repercussions of genocide or repression. (I mean, sure, there’s all that stuff that happened to Mormons early on, but I tend to think white Mormons more often than not come from a place of privilege today and focus very oddly on our past, with a very misplaced sense of victimization…but that’s really another story.)

I am not grateful for what has happened to the first communities of the land we live on. I did not feel grateful yesterday. I just didn’t. My heart was, rightly, focused elsewhere.

I feel awkward trying to voice something so delicate, so (unfortunately, to some) controversial, so…disconnected. Something that doesn’t even “concern me,” so to speak. But that’s just it. It does concern me. It concerns us all. Because we are all connected, through the land, through the skies, the rocks, the trees. Through a collective conscience and spirit, through something cosmologically larger than any of us understands. And we deny it at our own peril.

And so I awoke yestermorn feeling enormously conflicted about the holiday. This 2020, I couldn’t bring myself to be grateful for a holiday that forgets the truth, or at least places myopic focus on one version of history, and forgets the people who still suffer. Who have walked the great trails of tears or the long walks of suffering, to “reserved” lands, to lands forsaken of water or opportunity or livelihood and freedom. These people continue to be ignored, trampled upon, displaced, imprisoned.

Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire: Desolation
Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire: Desolation

I have so much more I could say. Some will think this is uncalled for. But I just had to speak to a truth.

I do not feel grateful for what has happened to my distant brothers and sisters. It’s not right. America can and never will be great until we actually, rightly deal with our sins. _Our sins_. Not someone else’s predicament. As James Baldwin so famously framed it (allow me some slight reframing…I changed one word; see if you can spot it),

“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have an Indian in the first place, because I’m not an Indian. I’m a man. But if you think I’m an Indian, it means you need it.”

There actually is so much that I am grateful for, and I hope for many good things to come. But yesterday was not a day of Thanksgiving. I think this was the first time in my life that I, perhaps, appropriately, felt something deeply painful. I couldn’t shake it the whole day. Something that we all need to focus on a bit more than just cursorily giving thanks. Something that if we did focus on just a bit more, we might actually be able to bring greater, more substantive gratitude to.

A Day of Mourning.