16 September 2008

Where Is Here?

llll ) llllllllllllll Where Is Here?

When I was eleven years old, growing up in suburbia, my assumption was that I had a pretty good grasp of who and where I was. That kind of knowledge wasn’t really what I’d consider to be a thought, or a belief. It was something more deeply embedded - the only world I had ever been exposed to, the only one I was conscious of at all. And if I would have been asked the question “where is here?” back then, I surely would have had all the answers, no problem. I would have said, “This is Oregon, part of the United States. We’re by the Pacific Ocean, just under the State of Washington, just above California”. But that year would have been the last time I could have answered with so much confidence….

Because when I was twelve years old, I took a walk. And it wasn’t a very long walk, but it took me beyond both suburbia and America all the same. I left my neighborhood, crossed a creek, and was just plodding through an onion field on my way to explore the forest that was on the other side, when I found an arrowhead. It was tear-drop shaped, made from red and white speckled jasper. I picked it up, looked at it… looked at the old growth forest in front of me… turned… looked back at the creek and suburbia on the other side. Something happened to me in that moment. It’s hard to explain, but just like that my entire sense of place and identity shifted. Suddenly, I recognized the foreign presence of both suburbia and agriculture in that region, and the way they functioned to conceal stories I’d never been told. Stories that were in one sense exceedingly ancient, and yet in another still very present….

They were timeless stories. And not in the way that people speak of Shakespeare and Mark Twain, all those classics of the literary tradition. No. These stories were timeless in that they were, in fact, outside of time altogether….

I’m glad this happened to me when I was twelve years old, and I’m glad my parents chose to keep me completely away from Christianity. Because if I would have had this experience later in life, or if I had been sold on the idea that we were really in the year 1984 (because that was how long it had been since Jesus died), I’m sure that finding that arrowhead would have either messed me up psychologically, or that I would have just taken it as a curiosity, something meaningless….

But at twelve years old, and having never set foot in a church, I didn’t have that kind of baggage. For me, the possibility that something could be outside of time made perfect sense. Because time is not reality. Place is reality. And in that place, as in all others, human life is supported by the non-human life that exists there. The Calapooia man who used that arrowhead I held in my hand, his life would have been supported by the deer, and the fish, and the acorns, and the camas. And that arrowhead itself was one of the mediums that connected him to these others….

I looked back at suburbia, across the creek. I thought, How are THEY connected to non-human life? How are THEY connected to reality?

I thought THEY because I was already, in just that instant, aware of a transformation within myself that made me somehow different from my family, my neighbors, my school-mates, my teachers, everyone I’d ever known….

I also thought THEY because, for some years afterward, no matter how hard I tried, I could never get any of them to perceive the stories that exist outside of time….

And so, who was I in that moment and afterward? That was the big question. Because I already knew where I was, at least in the sense that I was now aware of where I wasn’t. The big dilemma was who. Who was I?

I couldn’t be American anymore, because those people weren’t aware of the stories that exist outside of time. I couldn’t be an Oregonian, because they were American. I couldn’t be a Christian, because I still had all my faculties – my eyes, and ears, and nose, and all that. And so I could readily see, and hear, and smell the reality of this world, which my Christian friends told me was only an illusion….

I couldn’t identify with any of these groups, or even so much with my own family. All I could be, it seemed, was me….

And so I began to return to the creek, and the field, and the forest, again and again. And beyond that, to other forests, and to the river. I walked, sometimes all day. I slept overnight, alone, in trees, on rocks, at the river bank. I began talking to some of the ones who still know the stories that exist outside of time. They were my first spiritual teachers. The trees, the hawks….

When I was old enough, I left home, still trying to sort out who I was. I thought maybe I could be a soldier in the Army. Soldiers were supposed to go around the world delivering freedom, defending the oppressed. Maybe, I thought, the oppressed were people who knew about reality, who could still live in stories outside of time. Maybe, I thought, soldiers were the people in my society who understood them, and helped them destroy the political systems attempting to conceal reality….

But I was wrong. At least about the latter part. I was really wrong….

So I ended up fighting instead for my own freedom, so that I could live the stories myself. I fought for three years. I fought against the Army. And eventually, they spit me out, or let me go. I couldn’t be a soldier. They weren’t who had I assumed them to be. So who was I going to be now?

I remembered, growing up, my mom and dad telling me that I was Blackfoot, that my mother’s grandmother was named Sadie Curtis, and that she was a half-breed who grew up in a residential school, and later became a teacher there, before relocating with her husband to Chicago. I remember my parents suggesting that one day we might even move to the reservation. This alleged Blackfoot-ness was the only identity I hadn’t yet explored. Maybe, I thought, I can be Blackfoot. Maybe they’re the people who still live in stories outside of time….

From that point, it took me two years to travel to “the reservation” and meet “the Blackfoot”. Then it took me another few years before I reached kitawahsinnoon and niitsitapi, which I feel speaks to something different all together. And what I found when I got here was the kind of storied place I could finally identify with, and people who knew something about the timeless reality I’d become aware of at twelve years of age. People who were equally frustrated by how that reality was being hidden, rendered virtually invisible by technologies and sensibilities not at all concerned with our need to connect directly to the sources of our life….

So where is here?

To me, here is kitawahsinnoon. That which nourishes us, niitsitapi. That which feeds the ones who can see and smell and hear the reality outside of time, but not outside of cycles. Kitawahsinnoon is the top. The peak. The place where the radiance of the Sun and the power of Thunder dance with the waters of the Moon and the wind of Crows, back and forth, day and the night, summer and winter. Releasing life, and gathering it together once more. Like a heart, of sorts, with the headwaters of all our rivers as veins. A heart that we the living are inseparable from, not as nursing infants to a mother, but more as appendages of the body that this pulse feeds….

To me, kitawahsinnoon is not just – or even primarily – the land. And it is not really territory, at least not in the sense that “territory” can be something political, attached to time instead of reality. Rather, to me, kitawhasinnoon is almost more of a rhythm. A frequency that moves along a downward slope through our ecology. A resonance that flows into the living, eventually manifesting as songs in our bodies, and as co-existent, respectful relationships between ourselves and the non-human life that supports us.