The Circle — A Story from the Heart of Red Lake

Dear Friends,

This is a rare and strange opportunity for me to do something of value in a time of crisis. As most of you know, Red Lake is the reservation where I have spent my time. That school was where I worked with my students. The teacher who is being quoted about getting her children on the floor took my old job. That might be my old classroom. This tragedy strikes right to my heart.

I am very concerned about how it will be put forth in the media –“reservation poverty breeds culture of despair,” “Alienated goth student runs amok,” “tragedy in the heartland,” and so forth. The journalists can’t be faulted; they aren’t close enough to the event in time and culture to do any more. But maybe I can, because I know the people and the place.

So what I am offering you is something that I wrote several years ago when one of my students died. It will bring you closer to that reservation — both its poverty and its spirituality — than anything else you are likely to read. I have always wondered how it would see the light of day. Perhaps it was written just for this moment.

I don’t usually ask people to do this. But in this instance I’d like you to pass this on to others. For this brief moment people are looking at Indian reality. This entry will allow them the glimpse they need to see.

The Circle

Dark woods, far from any city, on the day of the first snowfall of the year.

The wind lashes cold and heartless through branches that reach skyward like broken fingers. November is not a good time to be buried. There is no feeling of redemption or resurrection anywhere.

I am gathered with a group of people in a Quonset hut on the Red Lake Indian reservation. There are probably sixty of us; I am the only white person here. We sit in folding chairs on a cold, concrete floor. The casket stands open in front of us, veiled with blue lace.

The man who is being buried has just turned thirty. He was once a student of mine. He had been a lonely and troubled boy, seldom in class. I remember him most for the time I got him out of jail. He had no family, or, if he did, they no longer claimed him. He had been staying with aunts and friends and other people’s grandmothers, and in abandoned houses and on roadsides. He was a hustler and a con man with a grin as big as the world. But on the day I had bailed him out of jail, he had been a small and frightened boy, though by the time I dropped him off in front of a house where he thought he could stay, he was full of his old bluster and swagger; a bravado and braggadocio as hollow as an echo.

I last saw him only several weeks ago. Years had passed, and he was now a man with two children and a wife. He still had the con man smile, but there was a new gratefulness in his eyes. He had known the sorrows of an abandoned childhood, and he took his parenthood seriously.

“I’m working for Red Lake builders,” he said. “Three years now,” as if holding a job was a day-by-day accomplishment, like an alcoholic staying sober. “I just made foreman.”

I clapped him on the shoulder. “Good work,” I said. “You’ve done okay for yourself.”

He smiled. I was still the teacher, and my approval made him proud.

But I was the one who had felt most proud. I had seen a boy become a man; a lost child gather a family around him and claim his place upon the earth. Perhaps my touch had played a part in this. And even if it hadn’t, the wound I had carried in my heart for him was healed.

But now the wound is open again as I sit in this cold Quonset hut, so full of cigarette smoke that my eyes burn, watching as one more of my students – – my children — is buried before his time.

It is a strange and alien setting, and, despite my friendship with a few of the people, I feel out of place. The great arcing building is hollow and empty. It has the feel of a converted repair garage for heavy equipment. The walls are chipped fiberboard, rising white above the cold concrete floor. Dim fluorescent lights flicker from the ceiling.

There are no windows, no warmth, just the high cold illumination of these spectral lights, and below it, against one of the curved walls, the casket, with the body shielded from clear view by that veil of blue lace.

Beside the casket, brown Masonite folding tables are set along the wall. A few sympathy cards are spread out across the surface, along with a sparse scattering of flowers purchased at a grocery store and placed in makeshift vases. In the corner near the door, wooden boxes and packing crates and a rolled up tumbling mat are shoved against a foosball table, making a haphazard pile of objects that will be pulled out again as soon as the funeral is over.

On the far end, against the flat back wall, stands another line of Masonite tables covered with plastic food containers and cooking pots and battered aluminium cake pans wrapped with tinfoil.

In the center, beneath the cold fluorescent lights, rows of folding chairs sit facing the casket, on which the mourners sit quietly, talking among themselves, smoking cigarettes, and drinking Styrofoam cups of coffee and cans of Coke and Mountain Dew.

A slow, low-dirgelike prayer is being chanted by the head man who is seated in the front row. It is almost inaudible — part recitation, part song. Occasionally, low laughter rises up from somewhere among the folding chairs. Children run across the floor, their footsteps echoing in the hollow emptiness of the Quonset space.

Except for my red jacket, it is all jeans and grey hooded sweatshirts and black nylon baseball jackets with logos of powwow groups and alcohol rehab programs. Men wear baseball caps with insignias from logging companies and auto repair shops. Women wear jeans and sweatpants and heavy, shapeless jackets.

A few of the teenage girls have on floor length out-of-style velveteen dresses bought at second hands stores or left over from some long forgotten school dance. They walk around in heavy shoes, whispering to each other and chasing after their toddling children.

At intervals I don’t understand, the dirge stops, the shaking of a rattle begins, and we all stand. The chant takes on a singsong edge, moving from high to low, before returning to its inaudible murmur as the rattle stops and we all take our seats again.

Every few minutes the door to the Quonset opens and the cold winter light shafts in as someone enters or leaves. Smoke curls to the ceiling and floats like captured fog around the humming lights.

The dirge continues, as does the standing and the sitting and the rattling. At a certain signal, the chanting stops, and an old woman who is assisting the head man stands up. She walks with a hobble, like someone who has one leg shorter than the other. Her pale hooded sweat shirt is covered with coffee stains.

She gestures us to the food tables, and we all line up to fill our plastic plates from wild rice and macaroni casseroles, pieces of venison, gum drops and hard candies, fry bread, white bread baloney sandwiches, potato chips, rice crispie bars, and Oreo cookies.

At the end of the serving table each person stops and scrapes a bit of food from their plate into a green garbage bag propped up inside a cardboard box, in order that the spirit of the deceased may have food to accompany him on his journey to the afterlife. I tear off a chunk of fry bread, and push a bit of baked beans in with my fork. An old man across from me drops pinches of tobacco in the bag; young children pour in offerings of Mountain Dew and Pepsi, then look up at their mothers to seek their approval.

We mill and gather. I see some of my other students, now grown to men and women, with their families, or alone. We talk a bit, then return to our seats where we each eat quietly. There is a heavy silence to the gathering, punctuated by an undercurrent of casual joking and laughter. It is the solemnity among close friends. You cannot suppress the sense of community that lies at its core.

When the eating is over, the old woman stands up. ‘I want you to come up now,’ she says. “The friends and relatives first. If you got glasses, you got to take them off so he can recognize you. If you got a little kid, or if you’re pregnant, you don’t come up, because we don’t want their little spirits to get scared. Then the family, I want you to come up last. You put some charcoal on your forehead. The rest of us will be up here to support you.”

My student’s mother, who I had never met, is weaving in her chair. Some people put their arms around her. A young girl goes up behind her and begins to braid her hair.

One by one, we file up. A circle of ferns marks the floor around the casket. The old woman pulls back the blue lace veil. The body is clothed in a leather jacket and a baseball cap. People stand over the corpse, touch the hands, kiss the cold lips. When it’s my turn, I place my hands on my student’s gloved hands and try to bring a memory of his smile into my mind. I can hardly recognize him through the embalming. He died in a car accident, and his face is a grotesque, inflated caricature; skin stretched flaccidly over balls of wadded cotton. On his cheeks are perfect circles of bright red rouge, as if painted by a clown or an old lady with a dime store makeup kit. I pay my respects and move off to stand near the boxes and the foosball table and the tumbling mat.

When all the guests have filed by, the family gathers around the body. It is the same as all funerals, when those closest to the dead are faced with the closing of the casket. I look away, trying to give them the privacy of their grief.

But many of the mourners have stayed close by. They gather around the family, in a tightening circle, literally holding them up. They lift the wailing mother by her arms and move her back to her chair. Quiet hugs and whispered words are shared.

The old woman gestures to some of the younger men. They pick up their chairs and move to the front of the room. One of them brings in the powwow drum. It is about three feet in diameter, made of a wooden frame with animal skins stretched taut over each surface, and held to each other by zigzag patterns of hide and sinew.

“They’re gonna play four songs,” she says, “for the four directions.”

The drum is placed in a two by four frame, protected on the bottom by a piece of old carpet. The twelve men — one for each moon of the year — pull their folding chairs into a circle around the drum.

The old woman faces us. “The drum is a circle, and the circle is strong,” she says, “strong in all four directions. Any of you who have lost someone, you come up and stand in a circle around the drum. It is okay to cry. The drum is strong. It can take your grief. ”

Slowly, everybody in the room begins to file up. We have all lost someone.

We gather behind the drummers, expanding the circle, until it is five or six people deep.

The lead drummer starts a low beat, like rhythmic distant thunder. The others join in, first almost inaudibly, then gaining in strength. The lead singer holds his throat, as if pulling on his Adam’s apple, and begins a high pitched ululation. It is a wordless ancient song, one he has learned from the elders or heard from the birds or remembered one morning when he awakened from a dream.

The other drummers pick up the melody, following it, mimicking it, accentuating it, but keeping their voices always in unison. One takes the lead, then another, lifting their voices high above the others. But always, they return to the common voice. It is a young voice, a strong voice, for they are young men, strong men, in their twenties and early thirties, doing what their ancestors have done before them, what they themselves were taught as young boys. The small children crowd around, hoping to learn what they, too, will someday be called upon to do.

The singing increases in power and pitch. The black animal skin mallets hit the drumhead in hypnotic unison, each coming in from a different angle, reaching not quite to the center, rising and falling, almost in a blur. Like the voices, one will rise up, go higher, hit harder, then the others follow.

Soon they are all hitting harder. The rhythm is stronger. The drummers’ faces become contorted and strained. The drum begins to bounce wildly in its two by four frame. In the circle, women are moving, bobbing, in an echo of an ancient dance. The men put their arms on their wives’ shoulders. The little children cling tightly to their mother’s legs.

The singing rises almost to a wail. The drumming takes on a dark and frantic edge, full of anguish and brutality.

And, soon, without warning, the grief begins to pour forth from all of us, one by one — our private grief, for mothers and fathers now dead, for friends lost, for children buried in tiny graves, for this young man, dead too soon, and his young children left fatherless, for four hundred years of the heartbreak of a people, for pets lost, dreams forgotten, lives poorly spent. It is not one grief, it is all griefs, come together, and none can resist its common pull.

Tears flow. Muffled sobs come from the chests of the old men. The young men stiffen and wipe the corners of their eyes. The women weep and hold each other, the children cry and stare up at their mothers. None of us can escape, and none of us wishes to. Amid the coke cans and the cigarette butts and the half claimed rituals reduced to gum drops and potato chips in green garbage bags, and the casseroles made with commodity foods, and the people come in cars with broken windows and doors held shut with bungee cords, we stand as one in the stark dim illumination of this Quonset hut, pouring our grief onto that drum.

The drummers are almost frenzied now. They attack the drum as if it were alive. It bounces in its frame like an animal trying to escape. I fear it will shatter under the rain of their frantic rhythmic blows, just as I fear we will all collapse under the weight of our common grief. But it endures. We all endure.

Then, slowly, one by one, the drumstrokes soften. The lead singer keeps up his haunted ululation, but the others withdraw their voices, one at a time. The drumming continues, but with ever diminished intensity, like thunder retreating, until it is distant and gentle, almost like an infant’s heartbeat. The voices still, and the song becomes as soft as a lullaby.

We all stand, shaken, in the circle. Our breathing stills, our hearts quiet. One by one, we file back to our chairs. We sit with eyes down, lost in our private thoughts. We are once again separate beings.

The service goes on, filled with rituals to which I have no entry.

The casket is wheeled in circles; the head man offers Ojibwe prayers. The old woman says, “The spirit is still with us until we let him out that door. Then he will be gone.” The head man chants. The people stand in silent vigil while the pipe is smoked so the spirit can be set free. Then the casket is carried out and placed in the pickup truck that will carry it to the grave that the men dug this morning.

I follow slowly behind as we make our way to the burial ground. Up ahead, I can see the pall bearers huddled in the back of the pickup, accompanying the casket. The sleet is blinding; the wind off the great lake is cutting and vicious.

At the grave site the head man takes charge. He begins his prayers in earnest. People gather around the grave in a circle, while the young men shout instructions to each other and lower the casket into the hole with ropes.

The head man points to one of the children. “Now you kids put the flowers in.” The children file up one by one. Some stare into the grave as they drop their flowers. Others throw them from a distance, as if they are afraid to get too close.

“That’s good, you little ones,” he says when they are finished. Then he nods to the rest of us. “You fill it in now,” he says. “You all put some dirt in. Even a handful.”

There are four shovels. My student’s friends grab them and begin shovelling with the same frenzy with which they beat the drum. It is as if they have to get the casket covered before their grief escapes. Some jump in the hole and begin tamping the dirt around the edges. Others get down on their hands and knees and push the wet, muddy clay in with their hands. One by one we all take our turn, throwing the cold, wet earth into the rapidly filling hole.

Someone gives me a shovel. I toss in dirt until another man takes the shovel from me, then I get down on my knees and begin pushing the mud in with my hands.

The wet earth seeps through the knees of my pants, up the cuffs of my jacket. It soaks my gloves and freezes my fingers. We work together, the old men, the young men, the mothers and daughters, the tiny children and the grandmothers. Some throw just a handful, others shovel with a fury. We get the casket covered, then stand with the moist rich earth, covering our hands and clothes and knees and faces.

We have buried him. We have placed him in the earth.

The head man directs a few young men to cover the grave with a sheet. The ends are held down with dirt, then the whole surface is covered with plastic flowers.

The sleet has turned to snow. People pull their jackets tight around them. The head man smokes the pipe, sends the smoke in the four directions, down to mother earth, up to father sky.

“Well, that’s it,” he says. “Miigwech. Thanks for coming.”

I wander back to my car, with the earth caking on my hands. There has been no meaningful ending, but somehow it all seems right.

A little boy, no more than six, is standing by my car. I recognize him as one of the children who had crowded around the drum.

“Hi,” I say. He looks away.

You going to be a drummer, too?” I ask.

He brightens and nods his head.

It is thirty dark miles back to my home. The roads are icy, and the forests deep. I look at my hands, and the common clay that covers them, the clay of my student’s grave, the clay of those people’s ancestors, the clay that will one day take their bodies and the bodies of their children and their children’s children. The old woman’s words keep running through my mind. “The drum is a circle. The circle is strong. It can take your grief.”

I cross the reservation line, back into familiar country. Back into America. Something passes from me, something I cannot understand. But it slips away as surely as the spirit of my student slipped away when they carried his casket through that Quonset door. It is an understanding, deeper than my memory, as deep as the grave we filled, as deep as the land on which we have been standing. For a moment, in a cultural setting as alien and inaccessible to me as the stars, I had been part of the drum, where what strikes in one place reverberates through us all. I had been part of the circle, and in our private sufferings, we had found a common peace.

I hope I can remember. “The circle is strong. It can take your grief.”

I stare once more at the earth on my hands.

What more do any of us ever need to know of healing, and of love?

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