I am currently in Juneau, Alaska, watching four days of intense basketball competition between teams from small, isolated communities in the Alaskan panhandle. This event, known locally as the Gold Medal tournament has been happening annually since 1946, the year I was born. My friends, who are Tlingit and Athabascan, say that to them this is as big as the Superbowl and is a surrogate for what was once more deadly competition between communities. Many things strike me here — the feeling of community both within and among the little communities like Angoon, Yakutat, and Hoonah; the almost unbelievable combination of tough, violent play and mutual respect (no “trash talking” or booing or garbage being shouted from the stands), and, most of all, the kind, universal respect accorded the elders.
This is something that is impossible to express. It is a context, an ambience. I was introduced to one man who I was told was a bearer of the community stories as well as a “hell of a basketball player in his day.” He shook my hand from his seat in his wheelchair and said, “If you ever want to hear the stories, you come down and see me.” I was with a young friend who is in his early thirties and had gone over to pay his respect. “That’s an incredible honor,” he told me. In the true Native way, he had assayed my heart in meeting me and determined that it was good. I was proud and humbled.
Meanwhile in Washington D.C. and around the country, young people were standing up and saying, “Enough is enough of this insane gun culture.” They were blowing right past all the tired, shopworn “guns don’t kill people” claptrap, saying, “Guns are killing us and our classmates. If you won’t do something about it, we will.”
All I could think of — and this has been on my mind for a long time — is that it is time for those of us who are elders, even if only by virtue of age, to not only support these young people, but to mentor them as they make their way into positions of authority and power in this country. Old men with bleached orange hair or hairplugs, old women with dye jobs and eyelid tucks should not be leading us. They should be teaching, mentoring, leading not the country, but the young people who will be leading the country.
“To every time there is a season,” “The marching band refused to yield.” Find it where you will, but the time has come to raise up these young voices and to not only let them be heard, but to give them the power to shape the world that they are going to inherit.
We have a strange national dynamic, and this won’t be easy. So long as the position of young people is, “Shut up, old man, and get out of the way,” and the position of older folks is, “You kids are still too wet behind the ears; wait your turn,” we will not get anywhere. Sadly, our culture fosters these positions because we do not look upon life as seasons with their individual strengths and talents so much as a straight line from birth to death. The young people don’t see the elders as the bearers of a heritage and the older folks hold onto power too tenaciously. It is a fight for the short period of influence and dominance that we accord to the center of life.
I was heartened by the young people around the country saying, “Our time has come,” because they see with fresh eyes not clouded by politics and influence and power. Now if we can see the leaders say, “Yes, we will use the influence we have gained to help shape the world you want,” we will be making progress. But until we reach a point where the young people go up to the elders and shake their hands for what they have bequeathed the following generations, and the elders raise up the young people and assist them in taking charge of the world they are going to lead and pass on, we will continue to be a clumsy culture where we all jockey for power and value dominance over humility and respect.
It is not a good way to live.
On April 17th, my latest work, The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows won the 2010 Minnesota Book Award in the category of memoir and creative non-fiction. Next September, The Wolf at Twilight will be featured at the South Dakota Festival of the Book in the category of fiction. Clearly there is some confusion and misunderstanding.
Or is there?
Can a work be at once a work of fiction and non-fiction, or are the categories so ill-fitting that The Wolf at Twilight belongs in neither one – a veritable situation of being “neither wolf nor dog?”
These are questions that bear some discussion, because they underpin the dilemma that has confronted my two creative works about Native America, Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight, from the moment they first came out.
Let me tell you where I stand on the issue.
It is my personal conviction that we human beings are “believing” creatures. Until we take something into our hearts and embrace it with conviction, we are seeing through a gossamer (and distancing) veil of analysis. It’s true that the information we gather during analysis guides us toward belief — and one would hope that our information gathering is informed and educated – but it is not belief. Belief is saying, “Yes, this is the way it is, and I will stand by it and defend it.” It is a commitment of the heart.
I come from a long background in the study of religion. One of the ongoing arguments in the intellectual field of religious studies was whether or not one must be a believer to understand a faith or a belief system. After participating in this discussion for years, I came to the conclusion that the knowledge you gain is different based on whether you are a believer or an observer. Each has its role: sometimes it is better to stand on the outside for perspective; but to the extent that you can enter into a belief system and inhabit it, you come closer to the heartbeat of the spiritual experience that it expresses.
I came to believe – and I believe to this day – that the goal of any work of art that addresses spiritual issues should be to bring those who see or hear or read it as close to the experience of real belief as possible. When I worked as a sculptor I sought to embody spiritual states rather than describe them. When I turned to writing I sought to recreate moments of spiritual encounter rather than discuss them from the outside, and to walk my readers into them so they could participate in those encounters.
When I came to the unlikely calling of giving voice to the deep and complex spirituality of Native American people – a spirituality that has, I believe, much to teach us all — the challenge became more complex: how could I help you, the reader, enter into a complex spiritual experience not my own in a way that your hearts could be touched and your spirits informed by the richness of their belief?
I did not want you to be able to move to the distance of analysis. I did not want anyone to leave my writing saying, “That’s interesting. I’ll have to give it some serious thought.” Yet I did not want you to think you (or I) could appropriate Native belief – a complex, multiple, language- and culture based-spirituality – for ourselves. To encourage that would be to continue the long tradition of cultural appropriation that has been our way of dealing with the Native peoples since our arrival on this land, and I wanted no part of it.
What I needed was a way to bring you, the reader, into the presence of Native belief, just as I had been brought into its presence, without allowing you the distance of the observer or the false identification with it as if you were donning its mantle as your own.
This was no easy task. But I believed that Native experience contained truths we needed to know, and I knew that I had to make readers believe what I told them in order for them to take it into their hearts. I had to write in a way that would grab you at the level of belief; I had to bring you into the presence of Native experience so that you would participate in it, be inhabited by it, and leave a changed person.
A tall order, yes? But that’s how important I thought the truths of Native American experience were to the shaping of an authentic American spirituality. We as a people have gotten lost somewhere between dogma and agnosticism, yet we are a spiritual people who hunger for belief. The Native way, with its tradition of granting each person the right to his or her own spiritual journey, while finding truth and meaning in the land, seemed to me to feed that hunger with an authority and authenticity that nothing else possessed. I needed to find a way to lead you into its presence in a way that would invest your experience with the authority of belief.
And so I set upon the task of searching for a literary vehicle that would serve that end. Neither Wolf nor Dog, and, now, The Wolf at Twilight, are the results of that search. Though done as traditional narratives, they use aspects of the novel, oral history, mythology, parable, and spiritual homily, to bring readers into the presence of Native experience as participants and not as observers.
How I came to create that narrative form is a story in itself. It involved learning from Native storytellers, the fortuitous accident of becoming involved with collecting Native oral histories, and long personal and scholarly experience with the methods and purposes of sacred texts. It also involved exploring ways of using language to describe, evoke, engage, and transport readers to the physical and emotional places I wanted them to go.
The end result, as reflected in Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight, was a genre-blending, category-blurring literary vehicle that placed you, the reader, by my side as I walked into another world and handed you off to people whose spiritual reality was so integrated into their daily life that it could not be separated from it or reduced to homily, lecture, or teaching. What I experienced, you experienced. What I felt, you felt. And by making myself and my responses as emotionally authentic as I could (readers can sniff disingenuousness a mile away) I convinced you to follow me, participate with me, and take my experiences into your heart as your own.
To do this, I used first person narrative – that magical, distance-destroying literary point of view — to bring you along as fellow travelers into a world that is populated by actual people (though often well-disguised), actual settings (rendered with as much physical and emotional accuracy as I could muster), real events (though often not experienced in exactly the sequence or the manner in which they are presented), all developed along time-honored, almost archetypal, plot lines and universal stories of the human heart.
But none of this would have mattered if the works had not been absolutely authentic at the places where they touched against Native belief, practice, and understanding. The words spoken had to be captured and shaped with the fidelity of the best oral history, the conversations and sense of humor had to be pitch-perfect, the experiences of such places as sweat lodges and boarding schools had to be as carefully rendered and factually precise as if this were an historical documentation. I could take liberties with the characters and their narrative, but not with the world through which they walked. You and the other readers, both Native and non-Native, had to give total assent to the possibility of what I presented. Factually, culturally, and interpersonally, there could be no false notes.
And so Dan and Grover and Wenonah and Jumbo and I and everyone else – real people all, but well-disguised where necessary – set off to lead you to a place of absolute emotional, cultural, and, to the extent possible, spiritual authenticity. We went into Native reality and made you part of it. There were no lies in that world; no falsifications of cultural circumstance, emotional response, or historical event. You met real people, heard real stories, experienced real emotions, and participated in real events. To the extent that I was able, I took you beyond understanding into participation.
So, what was I creating — fiction or non-fiction? I truly don’t know, and, for my part, I truly don’t care. My job was to bring you into the presence of a people and way of life, not to pass a litmus test of factual accuracy. For me, the question of “is it fiction or non-fiction?” was as irrelevant as asking if Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows is fiction or non-fiction, or if Bach’s Mass in B Minor is fiction or non-fiction. My goal was to create something authentic, and to the extent that I was able to do so, I was not bothered that it did not fit neatly into standard literary categories.
To put it another way, I was creating works of spiritual encounter, not literary or historical documents, and the liberties I took were directed toward that end. In so doing, I was working in a long and honored tradition of spiritual writing. The Gospel writers employed contradictory narratives to communicate the spiritual richness of Jesus’ mission; Taoist teachers placed stories from many sources into the mouth of Chuang Tzu to help people apprehend the Tao; Kahlil Gibran created the character of Al Mustapha to give proper voice to his spiritual teachings. Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight were my journeyman efforts to use the skills at my command to open people to the interwoven cultural and spiritual reality of Native America.
In the last analysis, I was following the guidance of the man who served as the primary model for Dan: “People learn best by stories,” he told me, “Because stories lodge deep in the heart.” Neither Wolf nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight were created as teaching stories meant to bring you into the presence of the rich, human, and deeply integrated spirituality of contemporary and historical Native life. If they did so, they have served their purpose. How they should be categorized, I leave up to you.